tom trevino headshot

I have this theory that everyone has food issues, that it’s all just a matter of degree.

That’s apart and aside from the estimated eight million Americans who suffer from clinically diagnosed eating disorders, according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

But if you look at the definition of the topic as described by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you’re likely to find elements that perhaps you, and many people you know can relate to. According to the NIH, an eating disorder is:

“…an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. A person with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food, but at some point, the urge to eat less or more spiraled out of control. Severe distress or concern about body weight or shape may also signal an eating disorder…”

Food issues can take various forms and morph into eating disorders at the extreme end.
Food issues can take various forms and morph into eating disorders at the extreme end.

That’s something to which I can completely understand and relate. Many people I know can do the same, whether they’ve officially been diagnosed, or are operating somewhere just off axis at the far end of the perimeter.

If we really look at the definition, and broaden it just a little, it may not be too far off to include the overweight and obese (that’s two-thirds of us already), anyone who has followed a diet of severe caloric restriction, or people who have developed a disdain or aversion toward certain macronutrients, foods or food groups. That would be a whole heck of a lot of people with food issues. And that’s sad, and chronic and surprising all at the same time.

How did so many of us lose control, and the ability to simply feed ourselves?

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recently released these data sheets highlighting obesity statistics for Bexar County.
The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recently released these data sheets highlighting obesity statistics for Bexar County. Click image to enlarge.

It started for me in middle school.

Unbeknownst to my family, I ordered diet pills through the mail from the back of a magazine. I tried other supplements and techniques throughout middle school and high school, all with varying degrees of temporary success. Then I hit college and got obese before finally getting a handle on things. But to this day, sometimes things still don’t go as smoothly as I’d like; my obsessive/compulsive nature sometimes pulling me to the far ends of each extreme.

The funny thing is, during my teenage struggles, I never looked to food as the answer. It was the problem.

More specifically, eating large volumes of processed and packaged foods was the problem. So not too surprisingly I looked to pills, protein powders and appetite suppressants for the solution. Everything but real food.

Thank goodness things have changed. Not only for me, but for the food culture as a whole.

We still have issues, but at least we’re collectively recognizing food as, well, food and seem to be moving away from fabricated versions thereof.

A few of the people helping in that cause are James and Amy Brand, whose lives kind of revolve around food. James is an executive chef with a fondness for fresh, natural ingredients, and Amy is a nutritionist with a focus on nutrient value. Together they run Grateful Gatherings, which does everything from catering to cooking classes.

Nutritionist Amy Brand.
Nutritionist Amy Brand.

I spoke with Amy about some of the issues people have with food, and the most common questions some of her clients have.

So, why do most people come to see you?

Most people want to know how to lose weight, some people just want to be healthier and feel better. I also get lots of questions about what to feed kids, and that’s one of my favorite things to talk about and help with. I like to get the whole family involved when I can.

Considering we have such a large overweight/obese population, where do you think things went wrong?

I think it’s our food system which has been particularly devastated over the last 30 or 40 years. So now we have all these processed foods in our stores. They’re fast and easy and quick, so people grab them. And for people who haven’t been eating well and nourishing themselves, it’s harder for them to make the right decisions when shopping because they haven’t been eating well to begin with.

What can we do make better choices?

I tell people this: food should come from nature, not a manufacturer. That’s one way to keep it easy. Some of the other general rules are helpful too: shop the perimeter in stores, if it has a label it’s probably processed so you should read those labels and think twice – and not just the nutrition info, but the ingredients list as well. I also tell clients to really focus on nutrients when you look at food. When you pick something up, you have to ask yourself: what are you going to get from it?

Cooking at home and using fresh, natural ingredients is one way to ensure food quality.
Cooking at home and using fresh, natural ingredients is one way to ensure food quality.

What about going out to dinner?

When it comes to dining out, I tell people to look for the kinds of (healthy, nutritious) things you might make at home. Try to find something that’s natural, uses quality ingredients, and has plenty of vegetables and meat. Incorporate a salad if possible or a warm vegetable dish. Think about the ingredient and stick with items that are as natural as possible … One of the things that’s been happening in our city lately is that restaurants are beginning to recognize this, so now we have lots of great establishments here that use fresh, local ingredients, and that’s really great to see.

Why do so many people seem to have phobias and misconceptions about common foods?

A lot of that comes from the media, and sometimes that drives people to be afraid of the wrong things, like fats – they’re a really important part of our diet, but some people are still afraid to consume them. Different elements get vilified at different times, so lots of people have these minor disorders. But it comes from misinformation, not good information.

Is there any general advice you can offer to help us eat better?

I like to treat each person individually, but I do try to steer people toward fresh, real food, and to go organic when they can. I ask them to be thoughtful of what they eat and think of nutrient intake as opposed to caloric intake (and that includes beverages). It’s also good to plan ahead and cook as many things as you can at home so you have control over the quantity and quality of what you’re consuming.

With the weather about to take a turn for the fall, do you have any favorite items or recipes you like to cook up this time of year?

I think lentils are great. You can put them in a crock pot and they’ll be ready for you at the end of the day. They’ve versatile and can be used lots of ways in lots of different dishes, are a good source of fiber, have some protein, and will even last a while in the fridge.

What about the future and the health of our community at large?

With three kids at home, I have a mother’s perspective on this, and feel we really need to empower our kids and young teens to make good choices. They’re the ones that are going to turn our food system around and turn it back the way it should be. If we can do that, then we’re doing a really great thing for our future, and the health of our country.

Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His weekly column covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.

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