My weight has always been a struggle for me.  I was overweight during my childhood despite being very physically active, less heavy during high school and college, and then about 45 pounds overweight in my late 20s.  I was, for the most part, mentally absent from my eating. It seemed to serve mainly as a way to overindulge in sugar, salt, and fat. And I wasn’t even a completely horrible eater.  I didn’t eat much fast food, and I’ve always liked vegetables (not ALL of them when I was younger, but a lot of them).  I just fell into the average American way of eating.  Eating a lot, not paying attention to when I was full, not eating for the taste of the components of the food and the unique harmony created by the combinations of foods – just eating to eat.

Then a friend told me she had joined Weight Watchers, and asked if I wanted to come along.  I said, sure, why not. Within a year I had lost 46 pounds.  What changed?  Did I starve myself?  Did I eat according to a rigidly prescribed meal plan?  Not at all.  I became keenly aware of what and how I was eating, and had a sense of responsibility for what I ate, because I had to log it and weight in each week. After some time, the responsibility became habit.  There are key points of the Weight Watchers plan that I will follow for the rest of my life (I still think in terms of points that I am allowed each day).  As I have read about food, diet and nutrition, I have seen these same elements in books and articles about successful weight maintenance:

1. Drink water – it helps your control appetite, makes your skin clearer, and does a wealth of other things.

2. Fruits and vegetables are ‘cheap’ or even free in terms of dietary cost.  Six days a week I still follow a slightly modified version of the Weight Watchers points system that was in place when I started in 1999.  (One night a week, I let myself eat what I want when we go out to eat.  But I still follow #3 and #7 on this list, even on that night.)  One of the things that kept me on track as I lost the weight that year was knowing that even when I used up all my points for the day, I could still eat carrots at the end of the day.  As many as I wanted.  Of course you can overdo it even on carrots, so I’m not suggesting eating a pound bag in a day.  But this one fact was like a life raft for me.  I never had to feel like I was starving, because there were always free vegetables.  Note: Potatoes and corn do not count as vegetables in this classification – they are starches, and as such, not free.

3. Lean meats are better for keeping your points total down.  Fish, chicken and turkey are what I eat most of the time, when I eat meat.  I also have a lot of meals with just tofu, beans, or lentils for protein.  In fact, I only recently re-introduced meat from mammals back in my diet, because I found it was too restrictive when dining out at events or at people’s houses.  I don’t cook with beef or pork or game, but I do have some maybe once a month, when I’m eating out .

4. Whole grains are preferable to processed ones.  I buy flax pasta, and breads and cereals made of whole wheat or other whole grains.  They are more filling, better for you, and actually taste more interesting, in my opinion.

5. Regular exercise allows you to eat a bit more.  It doesn’t mean you can eat anything or overdo it, but if you burn a couple hundred calories working out, that means that you can eat a couple hundred more calories, and not cause a surplus of calories in your body.  Just don’t overestimate how many calories you’re burning – that ad on tv saying you’ll burn 800 calories in half an hour probably isn’t quite right, and the data on health club machines isn’t completely accurate, especially if they don’t even ask for your weight.

6. Portion control – 3 oz of meat is the recommended serving size.  About the size of your palm, or a deck of cards. Most American restaurants serve something more along the lines of 6 oz, or even more for their entrees. Once a week, my husband and I split two entrees at a restaurant, and eat the whole serving of protein.  But the rest of the week we either eat no meat for dinner, or eat 3-4 oz of lean meat. And the starchy sides in restaurants are always too big as well.  Two cups of mashed potatoes or pasta, or a gigantic side of fries are a pretty common accompaniment. They’re usually not going to be the highlight of the meal, so you can try some, and then save yourself for the other items.

7. Split a dessert. This means you can still have something decadently sinful, but you’re only having half the amount.

8. Measure or weight what you eat.  Granted, this is extra effort, and can be annoying if you’re not into weighing and measuring food, but it works so well, I will always do it for my meals at home.  I’ve got a great kitchen scale, and plenty of measuring cups.  I don’t bother to measure or weigh vegetables at all though – they’re free.

To this, I have added some other guidelines that I have discovered to be quite helpful:

1. You can cut down on the oil in almost all recipes to a quarter or even less than what is called for.  If a recipe calls for sauteing onions and peppers in 2 Tbsp oil, I do it in 1 tsp of oil in a non-stick pan.  You know what?  It still tastes good.  We also do lowfat baking, using yogurt and applesauce in place of oil or butter.  Yes, you have to make adjustments, but there ARE excellent lowfat recipes on the internet.

2. Stay away from cream and butter sauces, excess cheese, and fried food unless you are really splurging.

3. Always start with a salad, and get dressing on the side or ask for it to be lighty dressed.  Dip the tines of your fork in the dressing before stabbing the lettuce if you go the on-the-side route.  At home, I use full-fat dressing, but only between 2 tsp and 1 Tbsp per salad, instead of the 2 Tbsp serving size on the label, or the 1/4 cup that seems to come on salads in many restaurants.

4. Add some extra steamed or grilled vegetables.  A table mate on a cruise asked the waiter for an extra plate of the side vegetable at dinner.  The cook made a gorgeous arrangement of vegetables for him – we started asking for that ourselves.  At many restaurants, I ask for an extra serving of vegetables instead of rice or potato chips or fries.

5.  Weightlifting is a great way to kick up your metabolism.  I don’t even lift heavy weights.  I just got a full-body weight lifting book from Costco for $12, had a couple of sessions with trainers at my local rec center, and do strength training with dumbbells and Pilates exercises two to three times a week.  But it has made a world of difference.

6. Walking on vacation helps make up for culinary debauchery.  We love to eat out while on vacation, and we really take advantage of local eateries.  But we also get in at least a couple of hours of walking most days on vacation, sometimes up to five hours if you count walking in museums.  We try to take subways when they are available instead of renting a car, and the extra walking (which has proven to keep city people slimmer) makes a huge difference.  We also try to walk between destinations that are within a mile or so of each other.

7. Don’t waste your food allowance on unplanned high calorie or high fat meals or snacks.  I almost never eat food brought in to work, samples at the grocery store, or snacks at gatherings if the purpose of the gathering is not the food.  The exceptions are unadulterated vegetables, things that I know are lower in calories and fat (like boiled shrimp or raw fruit), or things that are discrete and which I know I can stick to one of – like a bite sized, individually wrapped piece of dark chocolate.

8. When you’re starting to feel full, STOP EATING.  This is another one that still takes conscious effort when I am dining out, and sure, I still fail to do this rather often.  But by only going out and eating ‘unknown’ foods once a week, I can limit this.  The other days I am in control of what I am eating, can make it healthier, and can control the portions even more easily.  If you fail at this one, then see #9

9. Don’t give up.  You can have bad food days where you feel like you were gluttonous, and are ashamed of how much you ate.  So what?  You can start all over tomorrow.  It’s never too late. You can just keep going on the path of eating healthier with more control going forward.  And if you have a bad day again a little while later, big deal – just make the next day better.  If you want to eat healthier, you can.

10. Change your relationship with food.  This was the hardest one.  It took, and still takes, conscious thought as to what I am eating, and why.  Where the food came from, and what it can do for me.  What it will do to my body if I eat too much.  I have heard many food critics, when asked about how they keep from blowing up after eating all that food, state that they prefer to eat for quality, not quantity. You can taste something, and not finish all of it. And I have read, and have actually come to believe, that if you have fresh ingredients, they are more taste-dense.  You aren’t just eating for salt and fat and sugar.  You are eating for the taste of the produce.  And the more recently it has been picked, and the shorter distance it has been transported, the more taste it has.  Freshly ground spices, and fresh herbs make all dishes taste better, and therefore, more satisfying.  A smaller piece of high quality fish or meat, cooked or grilled well, allows you enjoy the taste of the protein, instead of eating too much of something that isn’t that tasty.  Eat more slowly, think about the how the food looks, how it tastes, what texture it has.  Talk about it with your table mates.  Tell your children about what the vitamins in the fruit and vegetables do for their bodies, and how eating a balanced diet can make them stronger, fitter, and happier.

It is work.  It does take being conscious about eating.  But being conscious about what you are eating actually makes eating much more fun.  It goes along with local, healthy, gourmet food.  It goes along with Farmers’ Markets, restaurants who serve locally grown and raised foods, and trying new foods.  It can be a life interest that you are able to experience and experiment with every day.

Here are some great resources that served to get me thinking about what I eat, and helped me to reach the truce between food and my appetite:

Movies:
Super Size Me
The Future of Food
Food, Inc

Books:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David Kessler

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Gourmet Rhapsody
(translation of Une Gourmandise) by Muriel Barbery

This was a beautiful book, once I knew how to treat it. I started reading it for plot, which was a mistake. There is one, but it’s only a skeleton to hold together a series of reminiscences related by a dying food critic. The critic is a horrible person (which we find out through the chapters in the words of his family and associates), but his love of food is very real, and the descriptions he gives are lyrically beautiful. It’s a strange juxtaposition of the of narratives of others which make you hate the man, and the beautiful memories he has of his favorite food experiences as he struggles to remember a forgotten taste that he wants to experience just one more time.

Once I started reading more slowly, and for the descriptions rather than the action, I loved this book. There are wonderful stories about his food memories — childhood summer days at the beach, culminating in his father’s passion of fresh grilled sardines, a chance meal at a farm house after he gets lost on the way to a restaurant, the satisfaction he finds, without eating a bite, from watching a man prepare a simple lunch with unhurried, loving care as if he were preparing a five star meal.

This is truly eating with attention, appreciation, and love, the way the French do. Despite the man being such a jerk, he has a lot to teach about what food should mean.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver

A fascinating and impressive biographical story about when the author and her family moved back to a family farm in Virginia, and pledged to live on only local, in-season food. Kingsolver discusses the economic and environmental costs of shipping out of season foods from distant places, as compared to eating local food when it is in season, and preserving food for leaner times. She describes the difficulties her family had adjusting to doing without tropical fruit in the middle of winter, and waiting for the first spring crops to begin eating green vegetables. There is an abundance of interesting detail on what it takes to run a small farm. She discusses a plethora of vegetables, heritage chickens and turkeys, harvesting and canning, and interacting with other local farmers.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl

Written by famous food critic Ruth Reichl about her work as a critic in New York city, this book not only has some great descriptions about food, but also much interesting information about what is involved with being a food critic. Reichl wore different disguises each time she went out to review, since she was already well known from her work on the West Coast, and the New York restaurants were on the lookout for her. Her description of a hidden, off the beaten path sushi restaurant run by a master chef made me want to try sushi again after 24 years. I was never a fan, despite having tried it a few times, but her description was so vivid, I could taste the sushi, and found that I had a craving for it. (Luckily the place I went to with some friends was divine, so I found that I am indeed, now a sushi fan).

Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris

Primarily a mystery/human relationship story set in occupied France during World War II, the entire book is interwoven with a passion for food. The narrator’s mother, while troubled and unhappy in many ways, is passionate about food, and creates a diary with descriptions of the enchanting dishes she makes. Years later, the narrator returns to her childhood home, and carries on her mother’s tradition of cooking, while slowly revealing answers to secrets she has lived with her entire life. Many of Harris’s books are rich with food descriptions, and she has a wonderful way of weaving a mysterious tale.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain

A bold, sometimes raunchy, always amusing autobiography of life in the culinary industry. Bourdain tells stories about cooking school, coming up through the ranks, and the exhausting demands on people working in a restaurant. There are many hilarious anecdotes that you want to share with everyone while you are reading the book, as well as some excellent tips on how to ensure you order the best, freshest food on the menu (the seafood tips are the best).  A warning to vegetarians: go in with a sense of humor, and ignore his comments on the subject – the rest of the book is worth it.

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