Dr. Kim Foster

When I was a new mom—sleep-deprived and struggling under the overwhelm of first-time motherhood—I would go on a daily walk, pushing my stroller to the closest Starbucks. After a short, numb stroll that I barely remembered I would shuffle up to the counter and order a venti macchiato with caramel drizzle and lots of foam. I’d then point to an overlarge muffin with chocolate chunks or streusel topping or whatever looked good that day. At home, later in the afternoon when my son was napping, I’d bake cookies and brownies galore.

This was something I’d never done before. At the time I said to my own mother: if I have to be stuck at home, I’m going to be the best damn stay-at-home mom there ever was. This included competitive baking, apparently. (I was not in a good emotional place.) To make matters worse, my son was barely on solid food at this stage, and my husband has never had much of a baked-goods tooth, so the only person eating all those cookies? Me.

After many months like this, I noticed my weight pushing north as I slowly regained everything I’d lost after childbirth. But I didn’t change my eating habits. Didn’t stop indulging in my daily Starbucks fix, didn’t stop gobbling down the treats. I had these thoughts: I deserve it. I need this. Life is hard enough; the least I can do is treat myself to one little comfort.

And the truth is, those treats did make me feel a little better—temporarily. I wasn’t actually dealing with my issues, but I had a sense I was doing something positive by pampering myself.

I was wrong.

THE TROUBLE WITH EMOTIONAL EATING

Julia was a patient of mine at my previous family practice in Vancouver. She was a 32-year-old single woman in a stressful job, struggling her way through a challenging dating market. Every disappointing date or rough day at work found her ordering a pizza, grabbing takeout, or eating a pan of brownies.
Of course, every time she did that, she wasn’t really dealing with the deeper issues, and she ended up in a downward spiral of guilt, shame, and self-blame.

Emotional eating can sabotage the best-laid plans for healthy lifestyle change and weight loss. It’s commonly defined as the act of turning to food for stress relief, comfort, or as a reward—not as a means to satisfy hunger.

The occasional use of food as celebration or comfort isn’t a problem. But when we use food as our main coping strategy it can lead to trouble. For some people, the immediate reaction to any negative emotion (anger, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, boredom, fatigue) is to go to fridge. Not only is this an unhealthy way of eating and using food—and can lead to significant weight issues—it also means that the underlying problem and negative feelings aren’t actually being addressed. When we eat to fill an emotional need, rather than to fuel our bodies, we often end up feeling worse—both in the short term (immediate guilt) and by compounding the real problem through avoidance.

With my patient, Julia, we started to talk about strategies around eating, but also about the deeper issues. We discussed her dissatisfaction at work, and she began looking into career change opportunities. We also explored her frustration in the dating market. Ultimately, she decided to spend some time focusing on herself instead of investing so much energy in finding a mate—for the time being. Which meant signing up for belly dancing classes she’d always wanted to take, and pursuing her interest in interior design. She found these changes empowering, and her self-esteem climbed as a result.

Moreover, I worked with Julia to help her develop a strategy for dealing with emotional cravings. She started tracking her eating habits and how they connected with her emotions by using a Food & Mood Journal (click here for a free downloadable version). She began studying mindfulness, took a 6-week course on mindfulness meditation, and became much more self-aware as a result. She began cultivating the ability to pause when her emotional hunger hit, to recognize the cravings for what they were, and to substitute a much better activity, like going out for a brisk walk or calling a friend.

Do you tend to fall prey to emotional eating? Do you eat to numb the pain, to avoid bad feelings, or as a reward?

Let’s examine some common traps and triggers for emotional eating:

EMOTIONAL EATING TRIGGERS

Boredom

There’s a void. You have a vague feeling of restlessness or purposelessness…so you fill up that void with food. Sound familiar?

Procrastination

You know you have to do something, you’re not looking forward to it, or not sure where to start…so instead you go to the kitchen to fix yourself a snack.

Social influence

Family dinners often mean being surrounded by well-meaning people who love you but insist you have another helping, finish off the last bite, take a little more. Or maybe it’s a social setting, you’re feeling uncomfortable…so you head straight for the food table and busy your hands with food.

Habits from childhood

When you were a child, you were rewarded with food. Ice cream for a good report card, perhaps? Or you were soothed with food—remember those brownies after a bad day at school?

Stress

You’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed…so you head straight to the freezer and grab the first pint of ice cream you see. Sound familiar? High levels of stress triggers cortisol release—one of our stress hormones–and cortisol triggers a desire for sweet, fatty, salty food.

Uncomfortable emotion

You’re feeling lonely, or sad, or angry at something that happened. But rather than truly feel those feelings, which are uncomfortable, you dive into a bag of chips and numb yourself with food.

Reflex, habit, or association

Do you have dessert because you think it’s supposed to happen? Is it hard for you to enjoy your afternoon tea without some kind of sweet treat? Do you believe you enjoy a movie more with a giant tub of popcorn on your lap?

Fatigue

You’re feeling tired and sluggish, so you reach for a sweet treat or a sugar-laden caffeine drink with whip cream on top to give you that boost or hit of sugar and calories. Sound familiar?

So tell me: did any of those resonate with you? If they did, you may have an emotional eating issue to tackle. It was something I realized about myself during those early months of motherhood.

So what did I do about my budding emotional eating problem?

I saw a counselor and started talking about my postpartum struggles. Instead of feeding my emotions with brownies, I started taking an honest look at what I wanted to be doing in life. Together with my therapist, I began tackling the bigger issues. It wasn’t easy, but it was the process that helped me realize I needed new direction. That direction took me toward writing, back into a part-time medical practice, and ultimately toward a career that blended my passions in the most wonderful, authentic way.

I found other ways to embrace my season as a stay at home mom—besides baking muffins like I was running a bakery—and I started exercising again, doing more yoga, and finding other ways to relax and cope with the trials of new motherhood.

The good news: my weight stabilized and I started feeling much healthier. I found I didn’t have quite so much need for all those goodies. Now, I actually see my brief stint with emotional eating as a positive, because it helped illuminate the things that weren’t working in my life. It started me on a journey toward the life I truly wanted.

That baby whose stroller I used to push to Starbucks? He’s now 12 years old. His brother is about to turn 7. And they have a much happier, more balanced mother who—while she certainly loves her morning coffee—doesn’t need heaps of unhealthy goodies to feel complete.

FREE BONUS: If you struggle with emotional eating (or you’re a health coach who works with clients on this), one of the best ways of tuning into your habits is by keeping a food & mood journal. I’ve created a free, downloadable PDF to help you do just that! Click the button below to grab your copy.

Download my printable Food & Mood Journal PDF

I know it’s been quiet around here lately, but there are some changes afoot.

Behind the scenes over the past several months I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching, dreaming, and planning…and I’ve finally got some things figured out. When I started writing this blog back in 2011 I was simply doing it for fun, and because it seemed the perfect marriage of two things I love: health and writing.

In the beginning I didn’t have a lot of direction, however. I had no real goals. But over the years, and especially recently, I’ve become clearer on a few things. I have a much better understanding of myself, my interests, and my role in the wellness space at large. So I’m ready to pivot. I’m ready to dust off this website and get a fresh start. Very soon, I’ll be ready to re-launch this blog *plus* some new, exciting things I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time.

If you’re as passionate about wellness as I am (and, so you know, some of my favorite things to talk about are: nutrition, happiness, yoga, running, sleep, clean eating, health coaching, meditation, achieving a healthy weight, mindfulness…and so much more!), then you may be interested in what’s coming down the pipeline. Watch this space for some good, juicy stuff–just around the corner.

(And if you’re curious and don’t want to miss out, I’d be happy to add you to my list of people who will be the first to hear about everything I’m cooking up!)

Keep Me In The Loop

radioJust a quick note to say that I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here on Savvy Health…because my time is soon going to be all gobbled up with book promotions and blog tours!

My first novel, A Beautiful Heist, is due to be released by Kensington Books in six weeks (official release date: June 6, 2013). So while I won’t be posting on Savvy Health for a little while, I will be blogging on my author site, here.

Hope to see you over there…

I am not a dermatologist. BUT…I did spend a lot of time doing dermatology electives in medical school & residency. In the daily presence of dermatologists, I gleaned a couple of tips that I frequently recommend (and use myself) to this day. And I’m always surprised that many people don’t know about these products, given how often I heard dermatologists recommend them. And they’re not prescription! You just find them at the drugstore. A caveat: they’re nothing flashy. They’re not exotic. But they just. Flat. Work.

First: Prevex cream. In my job, I wash my hands a lot. I basically have the occupational equivalent of OCD. And regular hand cream is useless–it just comes off each time I wash my hands! The answer: Prevex. It forms a barrier and protects your skin. It’s thick and a little sticky when it first goes in, but it absorbs quickly and keeps your hands moisturized all day, no matter how many times you lather up. If you’ve got dry hands, this will save your life.

Next up: LacHydrin lotion. In the winter, many of us are familiar with that dull, dry layer of dead skin. And don’t even get me started about cracked, dry heels. Enter Lachydrin. Especially if we’re talking knees and heels and elbows, regular moisturizer doesn’t even touch those thickened strata. It just can’t penetrate. Lachydrin contains lactic acid which breaks down and sloughs off those dead skin cells. It’s a miracle. Again, the package is boring and there’s no lovely smell (some people even find the smell unpleasant). But it does the job.

So…now my turn: do you have any secret skin remedies?

Not only does stress make life unpleasant, it makes you grumpy, fat , and it interferes with sleep . And that’s before we get into the really serious stuff (like: increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, diabetes…)

There’s no doubt stress affects us on the inside. Did you know it also can affect your outer appearance? Yep, stress affects our skin, too.

Here are just some of the ways stress shows up on the outside:

Cold sores. The virus that causes cold sores is an opportunistic little thing. And it will take advantage of a stressed & impaired immune system to remind you of its presence.

Acne. Stress causes your body to secrete cortisol that (among other things) stimulates your sebaceous glands to increase their production of sebum. In other words: hello, breakout.

Existing skin conditions. Stress has the potential to worsen existing skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema and rosacea.

Another, perhaps more subtle effect of stress on your skin: when you’re busy, you’re less likely to take proper care of your skin. Too tired to bother washing & moisturizing your face? Yep, been there myself.

Not only does stress cause skin trouble, the reverse can be true, too. The embarrassment and self-consciousness brought on by visible skin conditions can be a bona fide source of stress. The term “vicious cycle” comes to mind.

Is all this making you feel, um, stressed? Ready to break that cycle and cope with all that stress?

Here are some places to start:

Many people have no idea whether a multivitamin is essential or a total waste of money. Or something in between.

So what’s the truth? As with many things, it’s controversial. And not even the “experts” can agree.

Some studies have shown benefit. Others have been equivocal, or downright discouraging.

For example, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study of more than 88,000 women (the Nurses’ Health Study, at Harvard). Those who took multivitamins for 15 years or more significantly reduced the risk of colon cancer as compared to those who took multivitamins for less time.

Another study demonstrated that taking a multivitamin reduced the risk of a first-time heart attack in a group of Swedish men and women aged 45 to 70.

However, a different Swedish study showed an increase in breast cancer risk among women who took multivitamins.

Confused yet?  

Welcome to the thorny world of medical research.

In 2002 a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine had pored over 35 years’ worth of research on vitamins. Their conclusions? Every adult should take a daily multivitamin as a safe and inexpensive way to improve health.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 showed that multivitamin use was associated with longer telomere length in women. (Telomeres–the tips of your chromosomes–are a biological marker of aging. Essentially, the longer your telomeres, the younger/healthier your cells are.) 

There are more studies, of course, but I can see your eyes glossing over so I’m going to stop there.

My opinion? I think multivitamins are a good thing. Maybe not a cure-all, but I think there’s some benefit nonetheless.Think of your multivitamin as an insurance policy. Possibly unneccessary, but generally low-risk. And perhaps there to bridge your various nutritional gaps. I wouldn’t count on a multivitamin to significantly boost your health, but it’s not a bad idea.

Don’t fool yourself, however, that all you need to do to stay healthy is take a multivite. Vitamins are not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle and a nourishing diet.

So what should you look for in a multivitamin?

Most multivitamins have a label filled with a dizzying array of ingredients, doses, and RDA. For the most part, any standard/reputable brand, or drugstore generic, will provide a pretty comparable list of ingredients. If you’re in doubt, ask the pharmacist for a little guidance. (I love pharmacists, they’re an awesome resource)

To get you started, here are some things to keep in mind as you’re shopping for a multivitamin:

  • Folic Acid: Women in their childbearing years need 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid daily to help prevent neural tube defects in a pregnancy. 
  • Vitamin D: Most multivitamins supply 400 International Units of vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium absorption and appears to play a role in the prevention of many chronic diseases. Vitamin D research is emerging, but in my opinion, most of us should be taking more than 400 IU.
  • Vitamin E: Recently, a few studies have shown concerns regarding the safety of “high doses” of vitamin E (over 600-800 IU daily). Tread carefully here.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is safe, and you need plenty of it. Choose a multivitamin with approximately 250mg of C per day.
  • Vitamin A:  Excessive vitamin A as retinol (the preformed variety called acetate or palmitate on labels) is detrimental to bone and liver health. So you don’t want a multivitamin with tons of Vitamin A. Instead, look for a multivitamin with beta-carotene and mixed carotenoids (the building blocks your body converts, safely, to vitamin A).
  • Iron: If you’re a premenopausal woman, pregnant, or a vegetarian/vegan you likely need extra iron. Other people? Not so much. Excess iron may accumulate in the body and cause organ damage.

I’ve been reading a lot about happiness lately, and it turns out there’s a whole lot of science behind what makes us happy. And more research being done all the time.

There is an excellent argument to be made that happiness is the one true goal. The one thing we all crave–the deep meaning underneath all the layers of everything we strive for, and everything we think we want. It’s an interesting thought.

Question is, are you happy? Hard to answer, isn’t it? After all, how do you measure happiness? Well, how about this then: could you be happier? If we’re honest, I think most of us could say yes to this.

So if that’s true…how does one go about becoming happier?

Well, I just so happen to have a few strategies for you. Each of these have emerged from recent research, and have been shown to improve happiness:

1. Practice gratitude. Make a habit of reminding yourself (keep a journal!) of the things you’re thankful for.

2. Be an optimist: Replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

3. Enrich your life with supportive, loving friends and family.

4. Forget about the Jonses. Concern yourself with your own life–avoid the trap of constantly comparing yourself to others.

5. Be mindful: live in the present.

6. Actively cultivate & practice stress management.

7. Fill your life with meaningful pursuits; work toward something that’s bigger than yourself.

8. Don’t rage against the machine: learn to accept what you can’t change.

9. Help other people.

Looking for some easy, non-diet-ish ways to lose a little weight? Read on.

Eat mints right after a meal. The powerful flavor will cut your appetite, sending a message to your brain that the meal is done. The sweetness will curb an urge for dessert.

Deal with cravings. Most cravings will pass in 15 minutes. When you get blindsided by an irresistible need for a Skor bar or All-Dressed Ruffles, set a clock and distract yourself through it. Take a shower, go for a walk outside, read a deliciously trashy book, paint your nails, whatever it takes.

Leave the lasagne dish in the kitchen. People will eat 30% more when the serving bowl/platter is on the dining table.

Drink green tea. Studies suggest that it can temporarily boost your metabolism, perhaps through the action of phytochemicals called catechins.

Eat soup. Starting your meal with a bowl of broth-based soup will fill you up (with relatively few calories), and slow your eating. Minestrone or French Onion are good examples. Beware fat and calorie-laden cream soups.

Trick yourselfThink of your urge to eat junk food as an enemy (get specific: the bitch from 10th grade will work perfectly)…she’s trying to make you unhealthy, trying to make you fat. Show her who’s boss.

Get hot. Capsaicin–the stuff that gives hot peppers their kick–has been shown recently to help curb appetite and give a little boost to metabolism. Temporarily anyway.

Shrink your plate. Recent research has shown that people eat more when using larger plates and dishes. At supper, use a lunch-size plate instead of a dinner plate, and you’ll automatically eat less. A study at Cornell found that this little eye/mind trick cut 200 calories from subjects’ daily intake–without feelings of hunger.