Saturday, May 12, 2007

Enjoying Food on a Diet

I remember standing in line in Subway soon after the Jared craze. Two of the three women in line in front of me had come in from their office together for lunch. They had run into the third woman, whom they both knew. All were overweight, though not obese by much, if at all; they were about the same size as me. One of the two women who were together was explaining how their lunches worked.

"We eat a 6" on white or wheat every day for lunch--no cheese or mayonnaise or oil. On Fridays we celebrate by adding a bag of baked chips." They proceeded to discuss how many WW points the meals were.

I was in Weight Watchers, too. I was struck by how depressing I found their meal plan. Can that really be what it takes? I wondered. Boring sandwiches on only wheat or white, meat and vegetables and vinegar--nothing else? And a bag of cardboard-tasting chips to celebrate once a week?

I was thinking about those women's conversation this morning as I walked home from my run. The answer is clear in my mind these days. No, that is not what it takes. It might work, but it's not the only way or, in my mind, the best way to do this weight loss thing.

I don't eat sweets incredibly often anymore. If I do, it's usually just 2-3 bites. I've realized that when I eat sweets, I'm usually nearly full from a meal beforehand. And I hate feeling stuffed these days, so I eat enough to get a taste and stop there. But if I go somewhere and get a really incredible dessert--like the banana-hazelnut-chocolate tart I had recently from Chocolate Pink--if I want the whole thing and am not full by the time I eat a couple of bites, I eat the whole thing. (With the pastry from Chocolate Pink, it actually happened to take me two sittings to eat it all.) When I eat it, I feel no guilt or remorse, just genuine pleasure and appreciation.

I used to not understand that concept at all. I thought people who talked about enjoyment in moderation were crazy. If someone lets me have a go at ice cream, I'll eat the whole tub, I thought. My days were filled with the diet substitutions that I thought would provide external controls to keep me from expanding. Baked chips, low-calorie bread, non-fat ice cream, Cool Whip, diet soda--you get the idea. After I had cancer and started researching what I could do to change my chance of getting it again and/or dying from it, I realized I was ingesting a whole lot of really messed-up chemicals. Later, I realized that the artificial ingredients in, and the acidity of, most of those foods made me feel ill with stomach aches and bladder pains anyway.

Then I realized, too, that eating those foods often drew me in to eating twice as many of each kind in my desperate attempt to get some satisfaction from the crap I was ingesting.

Do you not find 1 tablespoon of real whipped cream far more satisfying than a quarter cup of fat-free Cool Whip? I do. (And what is Cool Whip made of, anyway?)

I changed my life.

I don't drink sodas anymore--period. I've had maybe two in two years, and both of those were special kinds (no corn syrup!) on special occasions where I really wanted them. Do you realize how irrational it is for people to drink such sweet drinks as a staple of our diets? It's crazy. I was as 'addicted' as anyone, and I just quit. Feeling ill, feeling like you're on a constant sugar feed, isn't worth it. I cut out almost all corn syrup. I cut out all artificial sweeteners. I started eating only sugar/honey/molasses as sweetener . . . eating sugar in delicious forms like real maple syrup on homemade waffles, petit fors from a local bakery, a small scoop of chocolate-java-chip icream, etc. Not crappy Little Debbie cakes--even the full-fat kind of that dessert is not fulfilling. If I want dessert, I want something incredible. Something I make myself, or something that comes from a store or restaurant that specializes in good desserts.

At first I just went nuts, really. I ate lots of sugar, and I gained weight. But over time, I've gotten my cravings under control, as I've discussed previously, and these days, I eat real food (homemade food) that is good for me 80-90 percent of the time, and the other 10-20 percent of the time, I revel in what I am eating instead of feeling any guilt about it.

Even that 80-90 percent of the time isn't about deprivation, either--I think that's important to note. My healthy meals are about balancing things out--lots of vegetables, some healthy fats, some healthy proteins, some great grains, and always (always always always) wonderful seasonings and sauces. If I eat a higher calorie lunch, I have a lower calorie dinner. Breakfast stays pretty much standard to keep me from accidentally sneaking in calories I don't mean to eat. I try not to let myself get ravenous, which is when I make bad food decisions.

Do I spend more on food than some people do? Yes, absolutely. And I know that I'm 100% worth it. I don't believe in living in debt, so my husband and I make sacrifices elsewhere, but we eat well. What will happen in your life is what you make a priority, and a long, healthy, satisfying life is a huge priority for me.

If I think I want dessert, I remind myself of everywhere in Atlanta (and in my house) I can find all sorts of amazing desserts, and I ask myself if what I have in mind is actually what I want, or whether I am feeling something else emotionally that I'm putting off on food. I craved a cupcake intermittently for two weeks a couple of months ago and finally went and got one. I got a cupcake from the top-rated cupcake spot in Atlanta, and it was perfect. It was incredible and just hit the spot--partly because I knew I could thoroughly enjoy it with the knowledge it was exactly what I wanted.

I'm all for people realizing that we can do this, we can all do this--really, we can. We don't actually need diet gurus to restrict our lives in painful ways. We just need to get back in touch with what it feels like to make healthy foods that also taste good, to eat reasonable portions, to let ourselves enjoy things in moderation. You, too, do have the ability to enjoy things in moderation, just as I do even though I once didn't realize I could.

Of course, we also have to deal with the psychological and biological issues related to cravings, weight gain, etc. I have definitely learned a great deal from reading articles and books that go into the psychology and biology of dieting, eating, etc. Bob Greene's recent Best Life Diet and the book Mindless Eating, along with many O Magazine articles, come to mind first. My husband and I eat off of salad plates for every meal; there are no wide open spaces on our plates that we will feel we need to fill with food. We serve ourselves out of the kitchen instead of off the table, and we don't go back for seconds until we have finished our plates. (Usually, we don't go back for seconds at all. Having a plate that's usually 2/3 of veggies helps keep us full from early on in the meal.) When I see a high-fat food, I know that my body will kick in the desire to eat it because of humans' ingrained biological tendency to think that we must eat high-fat foods whenever we can to fend off the seasons of famine that have been so common throughout human biological history. I can deal with these things much more calmly when I understand what's going on behind the curtains of my mind when I'm faced with food issues.

Additionally, it's been helpful to learn--starting with my anti-cancer research--that there is an imperative for our bodies and for this planet for us to take better care of ourselves and refuse to eat food that has been produced in really awful, wasteful, polluting manners. I had a professor who also owned a cattle farm tell me that I would, like she, no longer eat fast food burgers if I went to a cattle auction and saw the diseased cattle fast food restaurants chose to use for their meat. Reading Fast Food Nation was a great nudge in that direction for me as well, and I recently finished and highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma, which was a very in-depth look at our various eating habits in the US. (Did you know that, indirectly, we eat more corn than Latin American countries that rely on corn for 60-80 percent of their diets? That's crazy!) These books are fascinating, very engaging--not dry at all--and they take you behind the scenes of America's food production to make you think about what you really should and should not be supporting with your consumption.

I was thinking about those women at Subway because I was thinking about WW no-point soup versus the soup I made a couple of nights ago. That's a different post for later, though.


WeightWatchnWoman said...

This was a very good and informational post. It had me thinking very much. Thanks for sharing.

crankybee said...

I love this post - as soon as I have time to post ANYTHING on my blog, I'm putting a link to this (if that's OK!)

Thanks, veg paps!

the veggie paparazzo said...

Thanks, WWW.

Cranky, glad you found it helpful. Please link--I'd love that. :)