Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Having Your Cake and Eating Half of It

I'm sure you've heard this pithy maxim before: You can change your diet but a diet won't work.

And, having read a zillion books and websites, watched a bunch of Oprahs, done some ad hoc interviews of healthy, trim peeps and lived a yogic lifestyle, I can tell you that IMO it's gospel.

I didn't need a naturopath to advise me I was eating hundreds of empty calories each day. But I did need her to remind me that a food diary - something I'd maintained on and off for 10 years - was the key to my rediscovered attention. Remember my goal was multifaceted. I wasn't switching up the diet to get skinny. Rather, I was desperate not to succumb to the next bug my child brought home from daycare, optimistic that my pallid skin might show some underlying pinkness - the sign of improved health. (Mind you, if skinny was the side-effect, I sure as hell wasn't going to knock it.)

To reiterate: If you change everything about the way you eat restrictively and with a sole aim of weight loss, you are setting yourself up to fail. Reason: You're not going to be able to live on bean sprouts forever. Just ask Oprah.

On the topic of modifying my personal eating habits, here's what I did for the first 6 months:
  • Cut out sugar - only moderate amounts of fruit sugar*
  • Cut out all refined foods
  • Moderated carb intake (though not in a crazy way)
  • Ate various amounts of fat and protein to determine what combination of food building blocks suits my body chemistry best (energy levels / over all good feeling)**
  • Reduced the number of calories I ate per day (I set a reasonable upper limit and did not exceed it.) The goal was to make all the calories I did eat nutritionally dense.
  • Bought a scale and stepped on it once a week
  • Determined how certain foods made me feel (physically, mentally) and increased or decreased them
  • Ate lots of veggies (I always had and still do), nuts and seeds
  • Didn't drink more than one coffee and one 5 oz glass of wine per day
  • Recorded everything in a food diary***
And you know what I do now? Everything I did for the first 6 months with the slightest smidge of leniency: I'll admit that these days I do eat sugar in moderation (though I really try to stay away from refined food) and I've been known to have 1.5 or 2 glasses of wine with dinner instead of one. And, when I go out to eat and there's beautiful dessert, I'm going to order it delightedly, relishing its delicious texture and taste. This means that I may forego something else later on (not spinach, natch), but the tradeoff is more than worth it. And it's sustainable.

At this point I feel it's obligatory to say that I'm not writing this to suggest you go out and try my methodology. I did a lot of research and made decisions based on my own informed perspective. It seems to have worked well for me. But we are all different and bring different bodies and health concerns and experiences to the table. If you're a person who's struggled with an eating disorder, keeping a food diary may not be the best idea. If you've got certain circulatory challenges, a diet high in fat (even good fat) may be contraindicated.

Not to mention that, in subtext, we all eat for different reasons and with unique appetite. I'll disclose that I do not go hungry but, given how much I exercise - and how much I'd consume unchecked, I rarely eat unconsciously or with abandon. Mind you, I've made it a mantra to enjoy every morsel of food that I do ingest.

A while ago I read a fascinating book (The Secrets of Skinny Chicks by Karen Bridson). In it, the author interviewed a bunch of women (none "thin by body-type") of various ages, careers, lifestyles, heights and weights, and relates (in detail) what each of them does to stay "on the thin end of healthy". And let me tell you, it's a trip. They all exercise upwards of 1-2 hours a day and eat, almost to a one, under 1800 calories. And they know exactly how to support their end goals within the parameters of their own body chemistries. Now, they do all eat healthfully and their diets are nutritionally balanced (though I question whether the book promotes over-exercise). But each one takes pains to clarify that thinness takes constant vigilance for her, and it's a choice. Much like eating a piece of cake is a choice.

For a trashy read, it really reframed a lot of my opinions. We're used to hearing hypnotically thin women in popular media decry food restriction. Apparently, they all hike in canyons and do Pilates 3x a week. And while we've long - and openly - suspected it isn't true, it's strangely empowering to read about this overclass exposed.

But never mind that book, if you're only gonna read one. Because, if that's the case, I strongly advise you make it Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. This tome, authored by an award-winning science journalist, who merely presents findings of FDA studies done over the past hundred years or so, makes a scary compelling case about the dearth in value in the modern North American diet. And about the evilness of the FDA. And about the relevancy of controlling your consumption of sugar for some pretty good reasons. He doesn't suggest you live any particular way - this is not a diet book - but he does want to throw out substantiate facts and explain why your current views about nutrition may not be accurate. Oh, keep your first year bio text handy. This is not a light read.

*If the thought of doing this makes you want to poke at your eye with a stick, chances are you are an addict. And abusing sugar for the long term can bring on some pretty nasty results from tooth decay to weight gain to lowered immune response to insulin resistance to diabetes. OK, lecture over and out.

**Note: For me - and this is not an endorsement of any particular style of eating - I am much calmer and more sated on a diet that is higher in fat and protein than the AMA suggests. I average 40% fat and 30% protein but these are from high quality and healthy food sources - except the gelato :-).

*** I can't say enough about my love of the food diary. In truth, I'm a list-maker by nature, so it's a fun activity as far as I'm concerned. But it's so edifying! You'd be amazed by how much of something you actually eat (once you start paying attention) or how often you go after a certain food. Or what time of day you tend to eat crap. Or how much you aren't drinking water. I particularly recommend Diet Detective, an online food diary which provides a huge database of foods and forms of exercise, and many other features to assist you in being conscious about food consumption.


  1. Fantastic, thoughtful post. After reading about Sal's committment, combined with the realization that our metabolisms just traitorously slow down with age, to exercising more, I realized it was something I *have* to do as well if I want to see the results I just haven't been enjoying with twice a wk trips to the gym. The food part is still a struggle but even just owning up to the fact that more time at the gym is going to be part of the difference I want was a big milestone.

    Which is to say, I love hearing about the 'secrets' book. It's something I've suspected for a while.

  2. I love you for providing the simple reminder that changing eating habits is different from dieting. And that sustainability is key. I lost 40 pounds on South Beach, and although it took 3 years, gained about 10 of it back. Went to my doctor in tears and she told me I had likely fucked up my metabolism permanently through such drastic, unsustainable changes to my diet and body mass. I knew it was unnatural when I was doing it, but damn if fast, visible results aren't a powerful reinforcer.

    Also love you for emphasizing that changes in diet should be personal and personalized. You went such a smart route by slowly experimenting with levels of intake, and seeing how it went. You KNOW your body and metabolism now, better than most of the rest of us. You're a team. And that'll keep working for you.

    Did I mention yet how awesome you are? Just checking.

  3. Great post!
    I'm experimenting with diet and exercise at the moment and found Gary Taubes' book very compelling too. He really makes a case for the elimination of refined foods and most carbs. If only it were easier for a total sugar addict like me.

  4. I try to eat no more than 1800 calories of chocolate every day.

  5. Ambika: The book is very appealing on that level - shocking and eye-opening all at the same time. I mean, so few of us have mega-fast metabolisms (esp. by the mid thirties) and here are women working with the same challenges managing to construct the shape they want to see. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.

    Sal: I don't believe you've fucked up anything permanently. I have faith that all our crazy actions can be reversed with application of the appropriate antidote. Sometimes, that's eating more (amazingly) and ingesting the good fats that help us to rev the metabolism i.e. EFAs. Not that I"m suggesting I know what you should do on the basis of your comment.

    BTW, maintaining 30 lbs weight loss is nothing to scoff at, even if it's not the 40 you were hoping for. I bet, through slow and deliberate measures, you could lose that last 10 lbs (let it take a year, what's the rush?) and if you don't shock your metabolism it will stay off. I have so many theories about this. Just email me if you want to chat about it offline...

    Thanks also, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate your positive feedback.

    IHeart: I remember you mentioning it a while back (in another context). I can't say how perspective-changing that book was, especially because I intuited so much of the diet stuff. It just resonates, non? And I hear you on the sugar addict front. PS Hope the move is going well...

    Wendy: Once again your genius shines through :-) You get your requisite calories and all the chocolate you desire. You New Yorkers have all the answers!

  6. SPOT ON K.Line! I did exactly these things after having my first baby, (but I also added drinking about 2 litres of water a day) as I had a lot of weight to loose. And you know what, it all disappeared, and I have never had a problem ever since. So go ahead; Testify Sister!

  7. Food diaries are crucial. I informally followed WeightWatchers after babies 2 and 3 and the food diary/points system have stayed with me . . . I took a break over vacation and am ready to detox!!!

  8. This post is funny, reasonable and fantastic!
    You are certainly very disciplined and educated about living in a healthy way.
    I started slashing carbs from my diet a few years ago and lost about 10 pounds and I have kept it off. But pasta and bread are pretty much the only things that I don't/won't eat. Other carbs like cake, candy, etc. I allow myself, so I don't feel deprived.

    Thanks for your really sweet remarks on my picture post :)


  9. SKM: So thrilled to hear that another woman (and mother) has tried this general method and it's worked! I should have mentioned that I try to drink a lot of water each day too. I don't think I get in as much as you, but I do my best and I eat lots of water-dense foods. The matter of personal homeostasis is so complicated, really. There isn't any one solution but I think paying careful attention and trying lots of different permutations is critical.

    Miss C: Isn't it amazing, after weeks of indulgence, how exciting moderation and nutrition can be? The WW points is, of course, just another version of "paying attention to everything you eat". thanks for mentioning it.

    CC: Whatever you're doing it's working! Happily, I've never loved the carbs as much as the fat :-) Point is, it would be much more miserable for me to give up butter than bread. Though both of them together can be tasty! And I hear you about leaving room for the desirable carbs...

  10. What an interesting approach. I like how you experimented with what felt good emotionally AND physically. I find that foods affect my emotions. Isn't that weird?

    Keeping a food diary has been an eye-opener, but it's also an emotional drain on me. I haven't reconciled it yet.

  11. Food so effect emotion, E! I agree. I mean, I had this awesome dessert at lunch today. Won't get into it too much right now (it could take a few paras) but it was homemade profiteroles, made in a traditional fashion. The chocolate "pudding" (for want of better word) was completely unsweetened. So totally bitter but with amazing mouthfeel. The also unsweetened choux pastry dumplings, inside the chocolate mixture, were filled with chantilly cream that was just slightly sweet. It was an amazing food experience that has left me on cloud 9! (And it barely registered on the sweet scale, but was about the bitterness of chocolate and texture of fat.) OK, I did go on a bit :-)

    That's one I'll happily record in the food diary as the memory of a great meal...