Like many adults, my weight has slowly increased with age. Over the last three decades, I have lost and regained the same 10 to 20 pounds. And while I have never been significantly overweight, I have tried a few of the more popular diet and eating regimes, which I can sum up in relatively few words:
Slim-Fast: the bars and shakes lose their appeal fast, they are nowhere near as enjoyable as real food, and the “sensible dinner” soon turns into a pigout followed by endless second helpings and sinful desserts as you brace for the next round of starving through your day.
The Paleo Diet: if you were raised in a culture where rice, pasta, or bread is a staple (which pretty much covers all of them), you will eventually miss these foods desperately. In a pathetic attempt to recreate those delicious and satisfying foods, you will learn complex recipes using previously unheard of ingredients such as coconut oil and almond flour that contain twice the calories and cost five times as much, while being only a tragic substitute for the real thing. I love cauliflower, but making pizza crust out of it will never be as satisfying as sinking your teeth into a soft, chewy, gluten-y pizza pie. And if you should ever be interested in running a 10k or cycling over reasonable distances, you will soon discover, perhaps painfully, that “carb loading” really is a thing.
Calorie-Counting: perhaps the simplest of the weight-loss programs, this allows you to eat anything you want, with no forbidden foods, provided you log every single calorie you eat. Today’s calorie counting apps make this process fairly quick and easy, so long as you eat packaged foods and dine out at chain restaurants. If you like to cook or bake, be prepared to weigh every portion and recipe ingredient, and to do a lot of math. If you like to dine out at somewhere other than Boston Pizza or McDonalds, if you frequently attend potlucks, buffets, or have meals at a friend’s house, you will find this more difficult. On days when I run, I found it easy to meet my calorie goals, but on non-exercise days I frequently went hungry.
I haven’t been crazy enough to do the Slim-Fast diet since I was an undergrad at university, but I did do the Paleo diet a few years ago, and up until about a week ago I was still on the calorie-counting plan. The results of both were the same: Initially I had no trouble sticking to the plan, I easily lost weight, and figured I was set for life only to slowly regain the weight and fail the second (and third, and fourth) time around.
I understood missing bread and pasta, so I wasn’t too hard on myself when the Paleo Diet proved a bust for me.
But my failure at calorie-counting was really frustrating. I couldn’t understand what was going on for me that I continually ate past my calorie goals, sometimes eating when I didn’t even feel hungry, or eating high-calorie foods that I didn’t even like all that much. Was I stressed? Was I unhappy? Was there some other psychological issue causing me to overeat? I couldn’t find any such reason. Day after day I would wake up thinking “this is the day I stick to it”, and within a couple of days I’d blown my count.
The solution, as solutions often do, came to me from a completely unexpected source. An appointment with a clinical nutritionist for my overweight son turned me on to an approach to eating that I’d never considered. As I read through the articles and books, I realized that so much of what the author was saying fit with my experience and explained my repeated failures at reproducing my previous weight-loss results. I’ll go into the book and the approach in much more detail in a subsequent post about Feeding the Family, but here I’ll talk about the issues that really hit home for me personally.
The problem with ANY kind of restrictive diet, whether it is not eating certain foods or controlling the portions of those foods, is that it leads to a cycle the author calls “restraint and disinhibition”. After controlling your food for so long, your body eventually rebels and drives you to seek out high-calorie, high-fat foods. Nothing less seems to suffice, and you are led to believe that you actually hate vegetables and will never be satisfied without a steady intake of potato chips and cookies. This cycle, which is described in great detail by the author and backed up with references to numerous studies, described my experiences perfectly. I saw myself in that pattern, and it explained my experiences with every diet I’d tried.
I began to recognize the tragic consequences of continuous attempts to “eat healthy”. I had stopped baking because I could never stop myself from eating more cookies than my count-for-the-day allowed, nor could I turn down a second or third slice of homemade bread fresh out of the oven. I stopped making homemade meals because they were more difficult to count, and many of the meals I used to enjoy cooking were not low-calorie enough for me to enjoy them on days other than my longest running days (leaving me to deal with leftovers that I wasn’t allowed to eat). I even began eating frozen low-calorie dinners, something I had never done in my life, and I somehow convinced myself that these foods were tasty. I even sometimes turned down visits with my mother because that usually meant either eating out, or being served delicious homemade cakes and pies that I was not supposed to eat!
It really hit home to me when the author asked us to perform a simple thought experiment. She asked us to make a list of the meals we would make if we had NO restrictions at all on our eating. As I dug through the cobwebs of my mind, I began to remember all the meals I had loved as a child, and the ones I had later learned to cook for myself. I was raised on stir-fries and rice (my mother was born in Hong Kong and lived there for many years) and roast beef and yorkshire pudding (my father is English), and fried rice was one of my go-to comfort foods. I recalled wonderful homemade soup recipes, pasta sauces, a fantastic tortiere made using my mum’s pastry recipe, sausages with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and risotto to die for. I’d been raised on food like this, and was never overweight until I left home. Why? The book explained it to me.
The approach is two-part. The first relates to the what of eating, and the prescription is delightful: eat delicious, tasty meals. Discover (or rediscover) the joy of making yummy food. Eat until you are satisfied, and don’t bother with portion control or calorie counting. Make eating a pleasure, something enjoyable that satisfies our deepest cravings for variety, flavour, and satisfaction. Cook with fat, because it makes food taste delicious. Enjoy your vegetables by roasting (without holding back on the olive oil), by coating steamed veggies in melted butter and salt, by braising carrots in butter and brown sugar, by dipping celery sticks and raw pepper slices into ranch dressing, by doing whatever you do to make your favourite vegetable dishes shine. Don’t use substitutes (unless you have a medical condition that requires you to do so). Love the food you eat! Look forward to your next meal because it will taste delicious, not because you are starving and want food…any food.
The second part relates to the where and when of eating. Don’t graze, don’t eat mindlessly in front of your computer, the TV, or a book. Don’t wait until you are starving and then seek out whatever food will satisfy that urge quickly and deeply – such habits lead us to dispense with cooking (must…eat…now!) and to reach for high fat and high calorie foods that satiate without providing much in the way of nutrition. Trying to reach for a bowl of carrot sticks when you have made it through your whole day on a dry English muffin and a cup of coffee is fighting Mother Nature, and you know the old saying about doing that.
Instead, have regular snack and meal times throughout the day – and eat only then – so that you approach eating hungry, but not famished. When you are hungry, all sorts of delicious foods look appealing – from vegetables to succulent roast chicken – and you can take the time to enjoy the food rather than desperately shovelling it into your mouth. Pay attention to the food, savour it, have as much as you need to feel satisfied without stuffing yourself. Prepare a variety of foods so that you have a well-balanced table of delights from which to choose: fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Make each of these dishes mouth-wateringly tasty, and you will ensure that you don’t fill up on the starch and fat while neglecting the veggies and protein (veggies help fill you up so you don’t overeat on the fats and carbs, and protein keeps you feeling full longer, but you won’t want either of these if they don’t taste delicious). Enjoy dessert, even go back for seconds if you like, but wait until you are done with your meal, and eat until you are full, knowing you can always have more at the next meal or snack if you want.
This is not a prescription for weight loss. Instead, it is a program designed to have you reconnect with your body’s natural drive to eat what it needs and stop eating when it is done. This instinct is something I taught as a breastfeeding counsellor – all babies are born with this ability – but we mess with it as we get older. We become adults who no longer pay attention to our body’s cues, and instead seek out intense flavour to make up for a bland diet of low-fat, low-flavour, low-enjoyment foods. We seek out quick, high-fat foods to halt the gnawing hunger that pushes us beyond caring about variety and nutritional composition. We eat on the run and pay little attention to the process of eating. We eat convenience foods because spending time to cook meals that aren’t awesome could be better spent elsewhere.
As I read through the materials given to me by my son’s nutritionist, I realized that I had been sabotaging my own attempts at maintaining a healthy weight by falling into the cycle of restraint and disinhibition (and the guilt that follows).
Determined to follow this new plan, I made a list of meals I loved and began to make them.
I bought perogies for the first time in years, fried them up with onions, and ate them with sour cream. But I also made one of my favourite vegetable dishes: kale sauteed in coconut milk. I truly love this dish and ate so much of it that I didn’t need to pile up my plate with perogies, although I had given myself permission to eat as many perogies as I wanted (and I did).
I went to the grocery store and stocked up on staples I haven’t bought in way too long: chicken stock for homemade soups, tomato sauce for pasta sauces, rice of all kinds (wild, arborio, basmati). I dusted off recipe books and planned for curried vegetables, and beef and broccoli stir fry, with as much rice as I want.
I started baking again, and was reminded of how much I love baking! I made banana chocolate chip muffins, and toll house chocolate chip cookies. Now the leftover halloween candy holds no appeal for me, because the stuff tastes awful compared to my homemade treats. And since I eat them after a meal, when I’m already pretty full, I don’t eat very many of them. Then when I crave more of them, I make myself wait – because it won’t be for long – and by the time I’ve finished that meal or snack, I only want one or two because I’m full and satisfied again. I’m not going hungry, and I’m not depriving myself, and I’m not restricting myself so that cycle of restraint and disinhibition is halted in its tracks.
In my next post, I will present this program in full and discuss how it relates to the problem of my overweight son and the severe food restrictions and lack of variety in both my children’s diets.