If I said that it was possible to eat less and simultaneously feel less deprived, would that make me sound crazy? Or maybe opportunistic? Well, I assure you I have no book or magic pill to peddle. Last winter I decided that for both mental and physical health I needed to take off some weight. Over the next few months I dropped 20+ pounds and have kept the weight off for over a year now, even though I feel like I’m enjoying food more than ever and even indulging with some frequency. Since many of us in the U.S.A. now find ourselves smack in the middle of the biggest period of food-excess of the year (even bigger for me, with a birthday that falls between Thanksgiving and the December holidays, plus our big pizza experiment), it seemed like a good time to discuss the insights that have allowed me to pull this off. If you’re not interested in the process but want the tips, skip to the very end.
Let’s get one thing straight first off: I freakin’ love food! I know people who have lukewarm feelings about food, and thus are equally content to eat pizza or salad or not eat at all. I like to eat for enjoyment of food, I like to eat for comfort, I like to eat for the sake of feeling full. I don’t know how much of this is nature vs. nurture, but I do find it to be a curious trait, given that I’ve never actually found myself having to “go hungry” for any significant period of time. You know those lab experiments where you give a guinea pig access to a dose of cocaine at the push of a button and it keeps pushing it until it dies? That’s me at a buffet if I’m not exercising any self-control. It doesn’t matter that I’m full, it doesn’t matter if the food is mediocre, it doesn’t matter that I rationally know that this is not likely the last opportunity I’ll ever have to eat mashed potatoes. Put me in that environment and remove my inhibitions and it’s as if I’m hoarding up calories in preparation for months of hibernation.
As such any “diet” built on a model of self-denial would be unsustainable and/or make my life miserable enough to be only debatably worth prolonging. Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic, but it’s important to note that in this process I have never perceived myself to be a “diet.” It does help that I enjoy certain healthy foods quite a bit (I generally prefer whole-grain to white, I like vegetables) but most of these principles apply equally well regardless.
Ironically, it was after years of dealing with body image issues and finally convincing myself that my body was okay that my weight crept up to the point where I actually did need to do something – I still wasn’t technically overweight according to doctors and BMI indexes, but my fragile joints do better the less they have to carry. The deal-breaker, though, was that I realized that I was seldom eating mindfully. I was often eating when I wasn’t hungry, or going back for seconds because I had been thinking about something else while I chowed on the first portion. Body image notwithstanding, I needed to repair a relationship with food that had gotten further and further away from basic principles of eating when hungry and eating only until no longer hungry.
There were a few authors who I found particularly helpful along the way, from food writers Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Food Rules”) and Mark Bittman (“Food Matters”) to others like tennis player Monica Seles (“Getting A Grip” – not a great book, but an inspiring story) and Buddhist Jack Kornfield (“A Path With Heart”). Mostly, though, what I came up with relied less on information about science or nutrition and more on tuning into basic intuition. So for me, there are some “ingredient-based” principles that are fairly important – whole grains are better than white flour, sugar and fats should be limited, plant foods are better than animal foods, whole and homemade foods are better than processed ones and so on. More importantly, though, the science basically comes down to Every Calorie Counts – I try to look at this not from a woman-magazine-readin’-diet-nut perspective, but rather from a mindfulness perspective.
So f I grab a handful of chips or chow on the fried noodles at the Chinese restaurant while waiting to order or a waitress/caterer hands me a spinach pie while I’m chatting at a reception, my stomach doesn’t distinguish that from (or make it calorically less significant than) the food I sit down and savor later on. This also applies to “condiment calories” – salad dressing counts too, for example, as does that extra quarter inch of sour cream on the potato.
A variation on this is recognizing things that are not as healthy as they seem or are genuinely healthy but still not calorically zero-impact. Examples of the former include candy disguised as health food (I have a weakness, for example, for Clif “Mojo” bars, but eventually reconciled that, while better than a Snickers bar, these are treats and not zero-impact snacks) and things that purport to fulfill certain catch-phrases like “whole-grain” (even if only 40% whole grain) or “low-fat” (which doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie or low-sugar or otherwise low-impact). It’s amazing how many things SOUND healthy but only are if you compare them to other, less healthy things (for example, the bakery muffin that may be better than a donut but is essentially a large cupcake without frosting). Another variation is the snack that somehow doesn’t seem like it should count. Anyone who has ever nibbled on appetizers at a party and then wondered why you weren’t hungry at dinnertime knows what I’m talking about there.
So that’s all fine and good, but my goal was not to become rigid about food intake, either in terms of what or how much I eat. I still wanted to experience treats, to enjoy ice cream cone even if it was large and unhealthy, to eat pizza when in New Haven and so on. What I began to realize was that there were a huge number of emotional factors pushing me to overeat. What follows is a partial list of questionable reasons I might find myself eating:
* Because it’s there. It’s a lot harder to resist something staring at you. Willpower is useful, for sure, but with particularly tempting treats, I generally manage this by having it NOT be there – so I don’t keep cakes or ice cream around; if there’s a birthday and we wind up with cake, I struggle more and try to avoid winding up with the leftovers (though, as with all these things, if it happens only occasionally it’s okay).
* It’s mealtime. This is generally fine, but does not take into account actual hunger, which is especially problematic after overeating in another recent meal. So if I eat too much for lunch but eat a “normal” portion at each subsequent meal, I can actually go days where I eat at mealtime and am never genuinely hungry.
* I’m bored (especially at something like a lame party with lots of snacks).
* I’m restless (often occurring when alone and with a chunk of unstructured time too short to get involved in something else)
* I’m over-stimulated (and therefore don’t even notice what or how much I’m eating)
* I’m stressed.
* I “earned” it (through some action other than days of sensible eating).
* There’s cause for celebrating/I deserve a treat (see above).
* I need to wind down (a double whammy, because this usually means the end of the day, the worst time to be packing in calories).
* It’s so good that I want to have more.
* It’s so mediocre that that I want to have more (because I’m not satisfied after 1 portion).
* It’s free (historically a particularly tough one for me on a gig, where it feels like part of my “earnings”)
* It’ll spoil if I don’t eat it, and that would be wasteful (a variation on the age-old “There are kids starving in China”).
* There’s not enough for a leftover (I’ve historically been great at that one, pacing the size of portion 1 to ensure that what’s left is “not enough for another meal”).
* I’m still hungry (sometimes legit, obviously, but also tempting to cite without first taking the requisite time of about 20 minutes to digest . . . so I eat until I feel full, and then the digestion kicks in and hoobaby am I full)
* I already “blew it” (by eating junk/sweets, for example) so I might as well live it up (which almost seems sane, except that the body doesn’t have a threshold where after 5 brownies it stops keeping track).
* It would be rude/socially awkward to say no (occasionally true, but probably true a lot less often than I used to think, PLUS I’d typically then eat a lot rather than having a little and saying WOW this is GREAT). Worth noting that if there’s someone who consistently DOES pressure you to overeat or eat unwisely, then it’s probably worth having fewer meals with that person.
* It’s healthy (generally better than overeating cheese fries, but if you’re full, even celery is probably overkill).
I could go on, but you get the idea. Sometimes 3 or 4 of these factors might be acting simultaneously. As I started to focus my awareness, though, a crazy thing happened – I began to enjoy food more. As Michael Pollan says, “food is expensive therapy,” and he’s right most of the time. A variation on this, though, is that food is usually ineffective therapy, insofar as it doesn’t address what’s really going on. So as I began eating less, I began savoring my meals and snacks more, enjoying being hungry and eating satisfying amounts of good food and enjoying being attuned to my body. And sometimes the best therapy I can get IS a big ol’ ice cream cone, and I “budget” several substantial treats into a given week. Only now I am more conscious of what constitutes a treat and I am more aware of how hungry I am. As a result, I am enjoying those treats more than ever – there’s nothing like having ice cream every day to make it cease to be special.
I go back often to some advice I got from Dr. Ric Liva, my first naturopath. He gave me a lot of sensible rules about food intake, but also pointed out that what matters is not what you do occasionally but rather what you do most of the time. So whether you have that indulgent pile of sweets occasionally matters a lot less than the daily donut breakfast (fortunately, I like oatmeal better than donuts in the morning anyway – phew!). As such, the opportunity for frequently breaking rules is kind of built into my approach. I aim to be totally mindful and sensible all the time about what I eat and why I’m eating it . . . and one of the factors above comes around to bite me in the butt with some frequency. Sometimes I catch it and sometimes I succumb. And when I succumb I take note (without shame) and move on from there.
It seems on one level like I should have gained all the weight back by now given the frequency with which I stumble, but I haven’t. What that says to me is that the core habits I have established as my default are strong enough and sufficiently healthy to give me that “wiggle room” to falter some of the time and still wind up ahead of the game. It also says that I’m enjoying this way of eating enough that it simply feels preferable to the alternative – I can’t say I miss going days on end without actually ever being hungry.
So here is my baker’s dozen of “rules” for keeping overeating in check. I’m no expert, and I acknowledge that all of them won’t work for everyone, but if you love food the way I do (and struggle to be moderate with it), I suspect you’ll find something useful in here.
1 ) Establish level of hunger before deciding what and how much to eat.
2 ) If necessary, predict future eating opportunities (whether eating less to “save room” for a forthcoming large meal or eating more because you will have to wait a long time to eat again).
3 ) Be observant about your appetite and eating habits. Learn how much food it takes to quell hunger, how often you get hungry, how different foods impact you, how external factors (exercise, sleep, time of day, etc.) impact your appetite and so on. It can be extremely helpful to simply know these things and to factor them into your planning.
4 ) Whenever possible, sit down and pay attention to what you’re eating. And if you must “multi-task” and eat while driving, working, etc., try to stick to simple and unprocessed foods (e.g. carrot or celery sticks).
5 ) Have a moderate helping and then stop to digest before deciding whether to eat more. This can double as an opportunity to bask in what was just eaten. If there’s no time to bask, then just stop eating and get on with your life.
6 ) Shop and plan in such a way that healthy options are easily available and of high enough quality to be desirable. For me this includes making sure there are carrots and celery around at all times and that when I’m on the road (even for a few hours) I have something like a bag of home-made trail mix with me. And don’t use poor planning as a passive-aggressive way to enable yourself (oops, no carrots, guess I have to eat chips; oops, didn’t bring trail mix, guess I have to stop at Burger King for some fries). Yes, this takes a little more time and money, but it’s a lot cheaper and more convenient than the alternative consequences!
7 ) Be cautious about stocking unhealthy things in your home that you don’t rationally think you should be eating (see “because it’s there” above). For each of us this is different (whether snack foods, sweets, etc.), but it’s a lot harder to avoid something that’s right there. On one level, getting a large single serving of ice cream at an ice cream parlor may actually be MORE calorically high-impact (and is certainly less cost-effective) than having a gallon in the freezer and eating a little every day. For me, though, it’s more of a big-picture thing – keeping dessert as a treat that needs to be planned and savored, as opposed to a daily struggle with the “eat me” voice coming from the freezer.
8 ) Try to minimize exposure to environments (such as buffets) that encourage gluttony. If in those environments (e.g. big holiday meals/parties), try to set guidelines (e.g. fill one plate, not heaping, then wait and/or stop) and remember that you don’t have to eat everything that’s there, certainly not in large amounts.
9 ) If tempted to eat for emotional reasons, take a few minutes to look at the emotions and see if the food still feels necessary. And remember that being hungry is not generally cause for panic
10 ) When you do indulge, GO FOR IT. This doesn’t mean to let go of all common sense, but if occasional indulging is helpful (or pleasurable or whatever) then excessive compromise ultimately defeats the purpose. If what you love is to go to your favorite steakhouse and get a 16 oz porterhouse, then do that once in a while – going to the same place and only eating salad is obviously more nutritionally sensible, but if it leaves your cravings unaddressed, those cravings will be more likely to express themselves the rest of the time and interfere with your otherwise sensible eating. A corollary to this (10a, if you will) is that the surrounding meals provide a great opportunity to compensate. If you take this trip to the steakhouse, some of the “impact” can be mitigated by having salad for lunch that day and a simple breakfast of fruit the next morning.
11 ) Since the idea with treats is to enjoy them, it’s a shame to waste the “indulgence quota” on something that isn’t even satisfying or good. For me it’s surprisingly effective when I think this way (“That bag of chips may look tempting, but wouldn’t I rather skip it now and treat myself to something even better later? Yum, something even better later . . .”).
12 ) If you slip up a little, just shake it off and get back on track. Eat less until your appetite comes back legitimately and then resume your sensible habits.
13 ) If you slip up significantly (a large unintended indulgence or several consecutive days of lower-grade “issues”), don’t judge yourself, but do take a moment for some sober observation. Why did temptation get the better of me in this case? Were there precautions I could have taken that I neglected or that didn’t even occur to me? How bad do I feel physically? Is there something I could do differently next time, and how important is it that I do so? In addition to helping you to make positive changes, it also shifts the overall perspective. Modifying eating habits becomes less of a battle of wills and more of an ongoing journey of self-discovery and growth.