I HATE the word “diet”; it points to thoughts of self-deprivation, and who wants that? I prefer to discuss “Eating Styles”. But before we get into that, let’s first get one thing out of the way. It all boils down to basic biology and body chemistry: energy in and energy out. Food is energy/fuel for our bodies. Put more fuel in than you burn and your body gets creative by building storage rooms for all that extra fuel in the form of fat. Put less fuel into your body than it needs to get through the day and your body automatically takes fuel out of storage which, in turn, causes you to lose weight. It really isn’t rocket science. If you’re gaining weight, it’s because you are eating too much and/or exercising too little.
One HUGE disclaimer here. I’m not a medical doctor, a nurse or a trained nutritionist. In fact, I managed to get through high school, college and graduate school without ever spending even one day in a science lab. What I write here simply comes from personal experience as a consumer of food. AND, over my lifetime, I’ve probably read more than a hundred books on various kinds of diets and owned close to a hundred cookbooks: from Vegan, to Vegetarian, to Betty Crocker. I even once owned a cookbook called “The Cake Bible”!
If you are reading this, you probably want to lose weight and are hoping I have some magic bullet for you. I’m sorry, but I don’t. There is no such thing. There are only two ways (other than liposuction and gastric bypass) to lose weight: eat less and/or exercise more. If you want to be healthy, you probably need to think in terms of both.
The rest of what I’m going to share with you comes from more than fifty years of both study and personal experience. From the time I was in my late teens through much of my adult life, I was either on some sort of diet and exercise plan, or I was in denial as I moved from one size to the next higher one…..to the next…..to the next. I’ve worn as high as a size 20, and as low as a size 5. (U.S. size) Typically, I’ve been somewhere in between these two extremes. I’m most healthy when I’m in a size 10. My height, age and bone structure make about 130 the perfect weight for me. I’m at a point in my life at which I’m content with anything under 140.
I stopped even entertaining the idea of a “pure” diet when I had a major heart attack a week after turning 70. At the time, my cardiologist told me that I had “about a year” left to live. That’s when I decided that deprivation was out! I now maintain my weight by eating whatever I want, but in moderation.
It’s NOT “You are what you eat” but “You eat what you are”.
If we are having problems with weight or maintaining good energy, we need look no further than our childhoods. Our parents passed on their eating style which had a lot to do with their ethnicity, where they lived, their education level, and their socio-economic status. My parents were products of The Great Depression, eighth grade graduate factory workers. My father was a first generation American born into a family with deep European roots. I was raised on lots of ethnic foods that his mother taught my mother how to make. It was a time in history when people like us ate lots of “filler” foods like white bread, potatoes and pasta. One large steak fed a family of five which, by today’s standards, would give each person about 4 ounces of meat….a healthy amount. But, back then, the more income you had to spend on food, the more meat your family got to eat. As my parent’s income rose, I saw the day when my father would grill one steak for each person eating. If anyone said: “Oh, that’s too much for me”, my father’s response would be “Don’t worry. Eat what you want. What’s left can go to the dog”. (Skipper ate very well!)
We only ate fresh vegetables in the summer, when they were cheap and in plentiful supply from farm stands. Our families Sunday afternoon entertainment was “going out in the country for a ride”. When we happened along a farm stand, my parents would stop and buy whatever was most plentiful. Summer Sunday suppers were often made of toasted BLT’s because the tomatoes at the stand were huge and red and juicy! Yum! Fresh sweet corn was often served with late summer and early fall suppers. Cantaloupe and watermelon were most welcomed treats. And my mouth still waters when I think of those times when we had fresh, steamed sweet peas. In the winter, my mother resorted to canned vegetables, and one can served all five of us. During the winter months, the only fresh fruit we saw at home were apples and oranges. My mother would buy a bag of each and never monitored who ate how many of each fruit. So, my brother dug in, having much more than the lion’s share of both and, by Tuesday, we had no fruit left in the refrigerator. Fridays was “shopping day”.
As children, my mother determined how much we had to eat each day, especially at “supper”. She filled our plates, and we couldn’t leave the table until we had eaten everything on them. I don’t remember being particularly thin. And I certainly don’t remember ever feeling like I didn’t have enough energy to play outside with my friends. But I do remember my father complaining that I was too thin and that extended family members, friends, and neighbors were going to think that they couldn’t afford to feed me. I was literally force-fed from a rather young age and can remember sitting at the kitchen table long after everyone else had left as I stared at a half-eaten plate of cold food. My mother even resorted to hitting me with a ruler in her attempt to get me to eat. I learned my lessons well. By the time I reached my early teens, I had become a rather chubby child….and so the lifetime battle with weight had begun.
Mine was also the generation introduced to cheap fast food at a fairly early age. I do remember the first time McDonald’s put “1 Million Sold” on their signs outside their stores! How many billions have been sold by now? And of course, all this food tasted so good and nobody was worried about its nutritional value. As a teen with a part time job, I now had the buying power to treat myself to lots of empty calories in for form of chocolate bars, ice cream sodas at a drugstore that actually had a soda fountain and, of course, those lovely hamburgers from McDonald’s. My parent’s way of treating the family to something special was to bring home Chinese take-out on Fridays (payday) that consisted of deliciously greasy egg rolls, equally greasy fried rice, and chop suey loaded down with gravy. And, going out for dinner as a family was a rare treat, even if it was just for pizza and coke.
But you get the point. The food that we loved growing up still draws us. I’ve spent years trying to convince myself that whole grain bread is better for me. I know it’s true in my head. I even have a bread machine to be sure I get good quality bread. But, truth be known, sometimes, I just have to buy a loaf of the cheap white stuff and make the sandwiches that I loved in my youth: tuna with lots of mayonnaise, bologna with mustard or (yes I confess) even the rare Spam sandwiches, again with lots of mayonnaise!
Our socio-economic status as kids has a lot to do with the food that calls to us as adults. I had one friend, Olga, who lived in the “middle-class” neighborhood near us. Her parents had both graduated from high school, and back then, that was enough to get you a “white collar” more professional job that paid well. I don’t know if I ever was curious enough to ask what Olga’s father’s job was; I just knew that he wore a suit to work. Her mother worked as well. She went off to a bank every day in heels and suits or nice dresses. She wore make-up and her hair was always done up beautifully. Olga was the only kid in my circle of friends who brought sandwiches to school made from whole wheat bread. She also had plastic containers with things like washed grapes, carrot sticks or rounds of cucumber to go with her lunch. She was always trying to trade sandwiches with those of us with white bread sandwiches. We probably each traded with her only once before we decided that we just didn’t like the density or texture of the whole wheat bread. Our taste buds were pretty much set for life by then.
Food as reward and punishment
We don’t have to be children to have food become a reward or punishment in our lives. If we grew up with parents who did it to us, we probably still gravitate toward doing it to ourselves as well. This is why I don’t like the word “diet”. To me, it means that certain foods are “bad” and off limits while I am trying to lose weight. But once that weight is off, no matter what my intention, I’ve always gradually drifted back into the forbidden areas of things like ice cream, Dunkin Donuts, chocolate bars, pizza and hamburgers with fries!
Let’s be honest, most of us grew up with food playing a central role in our lives. Even my dentist and the family physician gave me a lollypop if I was good during my check-up! What’s a birthday without cake and ice cream? We celebrate with food. We also use food to sooth ourselves and others. A neighbor dies and one of the first things we do is bring the bereaved partner a covered dish of comfort food. Your pet turtle died; “Here sweetheart, have some milk and a couple of cookies. It will help you to feel better.” Food is the easy response to any emotion; happy or sad. Those of us who have dieted know how hard it is to socialize when we are trying to lose weight. Family and friends want to socialize around food; meet up at a restaurant or pub; gather around the dining room table at one of their homes.
At this point in my life, I refuse to deprive myself of any one type of food I love. Yes, of course I say “no” to myself some of the time, but never again will anything be on a list of “never again” foods. I love McDonald’s Fish Fillet sandwiches and manage to get about one a month. That’s usually also the day when I have one Dunkin Donut for dessert. Yea, it’s only once a month, but I look forward to that day and savor every bite! I still enjoy drinking soda, but now pour the glass 1/3 full and fill it the rest of the way with water. It gives me just enough taste to satisfy my need, but cuts way back on the calories. I eat chocolate almost every day, but I choose to eat only 1 oz. of 70% dark chocolate. It’s heart-healthy and still gives me the sense of having had a treat. I also get an ice cream cone every one, two or three months, depending on when I’m at the mall. That’s when I treat myself to the expensive Italian gelato! Yum! I haven’t had potato chips in months, but if I really wanted some badly, I would just go out and by one single serving bag and, rather than munch mindlessly, I would sit and savor every last crumb. Upon occasion, I will buy a cake if I’m going to be having guests. My rule? We all get a piece and I send the rest of the cake to my neighbors next door. They love it, and I don’t have to keep looking at the box in the refrigerator being tempted to eat more.
Yes, these are just tricks I play on myself, but they work. I can eat the foods I crave; I just need to be mindful of how often I eat them and how much of them I consume. It feels good to know that there’s absolutely nothing that I will ever again put on a “no fly zone” in my pantry!
Your stomach is not a gas tank - No need to “fill her up”.
Over my lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of books on nutrition, diet and exercise. Much of what I read was conflicting: “eat egg whites only”, “don’t eat more than two eggs a week”, eat as many eggs as you want because they have ‘good’ cholesterol”. Then there were all the eating styles: vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, Deepak Chopra with his eating by your “dosha” type, those who advocated eating by your blood type. Who do you believe? I was in my early 30’s when my holistic doctor suggested I have a “base cholesterol” test taken. The results were that my cholesterol was dangerously high. She wanted me to go on a macrobiotic diet. I refused. She then asked if I was willing to go “Vegan”. I agreed. I got vegan cookbooks, basic books on what eating vegan looked like. I threw myself into this new eating style. After three months, I had lost 17 lbs and was sure that my cholesterol levels must have gone down considerably. Imagine my absolute shock to have my doctor tell me that my cholesterol levels had actually gone up! I burst into tears and lamented about how strictly I had kept to a vegan diet. My doctor said: “I believe you. You would not have lost weight if you had been cheating. There are just some people whose bodies create cholesterol, no matter what they eat. You are one of them.” And so, that was the beginning of my going on cholesterol lowering drugs.
When I look back at all I’ve read about the many eating plans that are out there, only one piece of advice from one of them keeps popping into my head. I don’t even remember what the name of the books was, or the author, but this advice still feels like the most sound I’ve ever read: “If you are gauging your hunger and ‘1’ is ravenous while ‘10’ is Thanksgiving stuffed, don’t allow yourself to go below a ‘3’ and never eat beyond a ‘7’. Don’t eat until you are uncomfortably full, just pay attention to how your stomach is feeling and stop eating as soon as you are no longer hungry.” I remember the first time I tried this. I was totally blown away by how little I had eaten before I had to admit that I was no longer hungry. I hadn’t even eaten half the food on my plate! I kept that rule for years, and it worked beautifully. I typically left a restaurant with a “doggy bag”, and if I was with another person, I would ask them to share a desert with me. The deal was that I got the first three fork or spoon’s worth and they got the rest. That very same book reminded its reader that most deserts are fantastic for the first two or three bits and the rest is just filler our tummy doesn’t need.
The hard part of eating this way is that our mouths want more, even if our stomachs do not. We may be eating something we really love and are enjoying so much that it’s just too hard to stop eating just because we have to admit that our tummies are no longer needing more food. I NEVER go to any “All You Can Eat” buffets! Most who frequent these kinds of restaurants are out to “get their money’s worth” and eat until they practically need to be rolled out of the place!
Eating to a ‘7’ means paying close attention to the messages your tummy is trying to send to you and having the courage to actually stop when you realize you are no longer hungry. It’s not easy to stop when your mouth is still savoring whatever it is you are eating and wants more. But, if you want to eat the kinds of foods you love, yet still keep your weight in check, this is something you must train yourself to do. The good news is that eating this way actually does become the new normal, and should you goof up and eat until you are stuffed, you won’t like how your body feels at all. You won’t be tempted to repeat that mistake any time soon.
The botom line
There are lots of good eating plans out there. What you choose will depend upon what appeals to you the most. Some people choose to be vegan, vegetarian or eat macrobiotic diets, not just because they feel the most healthy, but also for ethical reasons. Their belief is that these eating styles are the most responsible with regards to how we use our planet and its resources. Some choose a particular eating style out of necessity; they have been diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure and have been cautioned to stay away from certain foods. To ignore these warning signs is simply foolhardiness. Barring illness that limits what foods we should eat, our choice of eating styles is up to us. I’m not advocating any one over another. I suppose they all have their good points. I’ve simply decided upon an eating style that feels most balanced for me.
I had a heart attack two and a half years ago, followed by surgery. During our first post-operative outpatient visit, my cardiologist never mentioned anything about my diet. I suppose that she figured I must be doing something right. My blood pressure tends to run low, and I know that if it gets too low I literally shake some salt onto the palm of my hand and lick it off. She has adjusted one of my medications so that my blood pressure still stays on the low side of normal, but doesn’t fluxuate as much as it used to. I also tend to have low blood sugar and remedy that by having a cookie or piece of chocolate. I consider myself lucky to have these be my biggest diet issues. My weight is well within the “normal” range, and so my cardiologist has never talked to me about what I eat. I forced her to give me a prognosis during that first visit after I had left the hospital. I knew there had been a lot of damage to my heart. She blanched, straightened her shoulders and said: “I think you have about a year left to live.” It’s been over two and a half years since that date, so I do know that I’m living on borrowed time. Perhaps that’s why I have the attitude toward food that I do. But, there’s one last thing I want to share with you. In that first year after my surgery, I decided that I was going to eat as much as I please of whatever I pleased. I quickly gained 25 lbs. But then I noticed that it was harder to get around, that I got tired more easily, and that I was having to use the nitroglycerine more often. I decided to go back to the eating style that works best for me: eating whatever I want, but in moderation. The weight slowly came off again, and it’s been quite some time since I’ve had to use the nitroglycerine. That was all the proof I needed. Being overweight DOES TAX OUR HEARTS whether we want to admit it or not. Just imagine being given a bag with 25 lbs. of potatoes in it and having that bag strapped to your back. Now, carry that bag around with you 24/7. Not good, er? For me, that’s the biggest reason to keep my weight at a healthy place. I DO feel the difference in my body. My heart is quick to remind me and, thankfully, I’ve being smart enough to pay attention.
So….it’s your choice. You’re in the driver’s seat. You have both the right and the responsibility to decide how you want to handle eating. Nobody else has to tell you if you have a problem. You already know. It’s all about taking responsibility for ourselves, our lives and our choices. May your choices “be always in your favor”.