Ed. note: This entry is about working toward lifelong dietary goals by eating real food in moderation. The list of techniques will change over time, but this is where I’m starting from. Your constructive feedback is always appreciated. If this is your first time here and you enjoy this article, please consider subscribing via RSS. Thanks.
In case you haven’t noticed, for most of us the low fat diet “lifestyle” doesn’t seem to be working. There has to be a better way. Luckily, I’m not the only one who has figured this out.
For me, dieting has always led to failure in one way or another. Whether it was failing to stick to the diet over the short or long term, failing to keep the weight off after all of the suffering to lose it, or failing to improve my overall health as part of my diet plan. Any way you look at it, in the end I did not achieve my ultimate goal: To leave behind the burden of being forced to constantly think about what I’m eating for the sole purpose of weight control. I’d like to, by nature, make good choices, and maintain a weight and level of health that will ensure that I’m around for a while.
As a result of multiple factors including age, injury, and continuous on-again, off-again dieting, I am now finding that diets and extreme exercise regimens simply do not work as well as they used to for my short term weight loss goals, and certainly not for my lifelong health goals.
My philosophy on this has changed over time. A few years ago, this sort of thinking was the precursor to either yet another failed attempt to lose weight, or simply giving up before I got started with the latest diet craze. It became a defeatist mantra that plagued me, and ultimately began to erode my confidence. All of this turned into a cyclical pattern that has led me to where I am now – or at least, where I was a couple of months ago.
That cycle, however, seems to be drawing to a close. I’ve discovered that for me, I can actually lose weight without giving up flavor, bread, fat, or chocolate. I have had to sacrifice a few major staples in my suburban life; I am striving to no longer eat fast food for example, or drink soda. If this sounds impossible to you, before you click away from this page, realize that when it comes to these foods, I was in exactly the same mental space as you 6 months ago. I was frustrated by people who said things like, “just give them up and you’ll lose weight,” and felt that my life could not accommodate the removal of such important elements as a can of soda or those delicious banzai burgers at Red Robin.
So what has changed?
First, I now have two children. My health is no longer important to me alone; it is of chief importance (even if they don’t know it) to these little faces that look at me with wonder. Of course, my health has always been important to my wife and extended family, but having kids is a different story.
Second, if I don’t get a handle on this now, I know that I am doomed to things like insulin shots, heart surgery, and eventually being forced by my own dying body into giving up the foods I enjoy anyway. In my case, I have a history of diabetes on both sides of my family; I have a history of heart disease and cancer on both sides as well; and I have the genetics and the habits that are pointing me straight down the path to a short, frustrating life. So far, my sugar levels are fine and my cholesterol is OK, but I don’t want to risk it with either one.
These factors, plus incredible support from my wife, mean one thing: Its time for a change.
In light of all of my previous failed attempts including low fat, low carb, calorie counting, chemical/supplement-driven weight loss, grape-only diet, starve and binge, extreme exercise, and all points between, I am trying something different. The key to this effort, this time, is this:
Moderation in all things – with one very basic caveat: Eat real food.
I don’t believe that moderation in itself is the answer; eating moderate amounts of garbage still means you’re eating garbage. If I eat real food, in moderation, I am convinced that the weight will come off naturally. Changing my diet to focus on vegetables first, and then moderate amounts of high quality meat, grains, and dairy, makes sense to me. And so far, its working with little or no negative side effects including the emotional struggle that I associate with every diet I’ve ever tried, and I haven’t had to buy a single pre-packaged plan or frozen low fat dinner to do it.
The following list describes a handful of principles and techniques on how to eat in moderation, how to build good habits, and what to avoid in the pursuit of overall health. This list focuses primarily on dietary suggestions for weight loss, but I also believe that weight loss is only part of my overall health picture. I’ll address the other aspects in posts in the near future. For now, these tips include a bunch of overall strategic principles, as well as some specific tactical moves that help the day-to-day struggle. In future articles, I’ll elaborate on how each of these is working for me, as I will be trying them all.
Here’s the list.
1. Eat real food. Or as Dr. Will Clower says, “if it’s not food, don’t eat it.” This one is truly a mantra. I have it written on our chalkboard wall in the kitchen in 4-inch letters to remind me every day to strive for this. That means basically that if a product contains an ingredients list with things I don’t recognize, odds are those things are not real food. Fruits and vegetables do not have warning labels or ingredients lists; they are what they are. The trick of course, is to eat the good things, but eat less of them.
2. Eat smaller portions of real food. As we are becoming more and more aware through popular media, the portion sizes we have come to expect are simply out of control. A bucket of soda and a breadbox full of fries is too much unless you are leading an expedition across the Antarctic (those folks often burn 7-9000 calories a day!). Eating smaller portions focuses on savoring the quality of food rather than deriving satiation through quantity. If you require a drink to shove the food down your overstuffed throat, you’re eating too much, too fast. Eating smaller portions involves being aware of how much you’re taking in, and how fast we’re eating.
3. Eat slower. Take at least 20 minutes for every meal. One of the best tips I’ve read on this is to divide the amount of food on your plate into fourths, and then eat only 1/4 of it each 5 minutes that passes. After a while I’ve found that you do this by nature once you get used to it.
4. Technique: put your fork down between bites. Chew each bite thoroughly and don’t pick your fork up until your mouth is empty. Not only does this slow you down and help you to focus on the process of eating, but it feels like you are paying more attention to your dinner companions than you are to the shovel in your hand.
5. Use smaller plates, cups, and utensils. It’s interesting – if you look at the size of eating utensils like our standard dinner fork, you’ll find that over the last 40 years, they have gotten bigger and bigger. We now use the SUVs of utensils. My personal favorite example of this is the spoon. Spoons at restaurants are often so large now that I can’t physically fit some of them in my adult mouth – and you can imagine what this is like for my toddler who picks up the paddle-like spoon with two hands. The same goes for just about everything else when it comes to our utensils and dishes.
We’re now using larger utensils as a standard than we ever have, and there is emerging evidence that shows that its having an impact on helping us to overeat.The solution? User smaller utensils, plates, and cups. I know for me, if I have a 36 oz glass of beer in front of me, that glass is going to be empty before long. But the same also applies for that 8 oz. glass – I’ll just appreciate the 8oz glass more, and I might have another. Even if I splurged and had two, its still only half of what I would have consumed in that larger glass.
The same applies to utensils like spoons. If you eat with a ladle, you’ll eat more.
6. Cut between meal snacking – using some smart techniques. The snack food industry in this country has done a staggeringly good job in convincing us that a packaged snack is more help than harm. Unfortunately, snack foods generally add in hundreds of calories that you don’t need, chemicals that you don’t want, and sodium content that makes your ears buzz. In some cases, a snack is necessary. But more often than not, when you feel the pangs of hunger coming at 3PM, it is less likely that you are hungry and more likely that you’re in need of a break.
I’ll be writing more on this subject later, but the first hack is this: When you feel the pang of hunger for a snack, wait 10 minutes. In many cases, once that initial hunger chime passes, you may find that you’re not as hungry as you thought you were. This is an oversimplification of the greater principle of training yourself to read your true signs of hunger, but its a start.
Reality check: Sometimes, you simply need an in between meal snack. And that’s fine. But remember, if you do have to have a little something between meals, make sure its real food, and don’t overdo it. Fruit and nuts are ideal; a bag of salt and vinegar chips is not.
7. When you’re eating out, skip the appetizer. Appetizers at restaurants are a good example of where quantity has been equated with value, and is one of the most powerful “upsells” that restaurateurs use (Alcohol being number one). Appetizers can sometimes add up to a couple thousand “extra” calories – and that is just the precursor to the main course, and possibly dessert.
Somewhere along the line the mainstream concept has become “dinner number 1″ rather than a teaser to start the digestive juices. The concept of the appetizer has been mixed in with the volume = value fallacy.An appetizer should simply whet your appetite; but at most common restaurants these days, the volume of food in an appetizer is almost always enough for at least one, if not two meals, calorically. And in fact, if an appetizer is a “reasonable” size, we have now been trained to feel cheated, as if the volume (not the quality) is what we’re paying for.
For me, the way this usually works in a restaurant is as follows: I’m “starving” when I arrive, and feel like I could eat the dashboard. Once inside I have to wait a few minutes to be seated. Then I have to wait again for the server’s first pass – at which point I order something quick, like that blossoming onion or the pile of hotwings with that soda. Then, before the appetizer comes out, I am asked to order again, brought a refill of soda, and since I’m still starving, I order big. The timing here of asking for my order before I get any food is obviously no coincidence – its a great technique to get me to order a hearty main course, and one that I respect in a sense because it works – you order even more! Once the appetizer arrives, I consume it ravenously, realizing that I’m filling up on the appetizer, but that thought is overshadowed by my hunger and enjoyment of the calories I’m swallowing. Then the main course comes, I stuff myself with that so that I feel I’m “getting my money’s worth,” and then take home a small portion of what’s left.
I’ ve just overeaten, like I have a thousand times before. So here’s a super simple hack: Don’t order the appetizer – just order the main course. Try to enjoy the process of dining out, even if you feel like you’re starving – the truth is, you won’t starve. Your brain is messing with you, and the restaurant is capitalizing on that fact.
8. Limit certain types of foods to a few times a month. And I’m not talking about fruits and vegetables here. We tend to think about the immediate meal – the next one we’re going to partake of – more than we think about the longer term. If you think in terms of a month, for example, it makes it much easier to see how you’ll be able to avoid certain foods with the knowledge that you will be getting that food later in the month. A couple of examples of foods you should limit to a few times a month include meats like beef and pork.
I am not advocating becoming a vegetarian; rather it makes sense to limit your intake of those meats to less frequently, and measuring this on a monthly basis can help to avoid feelings of deprivation. Just remember the slogan: Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. 3 times a month.
Using beef as an example, despite the messaging that we are inundated with, its become increasingly clear that eating as much beef as we typically do will lead to all sorts of health problems down the line. Do your own research on this, but in essence, you can still eat beef – high quality, lean cuts preferably – but limit it to a few times a month if possible. The trick here is when you do eat beef, make it count – not with quantity, but with quality. Save up your “beef budget” for the best cut you can afford – my favorite is Filet Mignon – and treat that meal as something special.
9. Be aware of how much you are putting in your mouth, and keep it small. At some point growing up, I somehow got the idea that when you eat, you’re supposed to stuff your mouth full, preferably like a chipmunk storing winter reserves in my cheeks. It turns out that I was wrong about that. Eating smaller portions starts with less on the plate, and then goes to less on the fork, which in turn leads to less in the mouth. Essentially this slows you down a bit, which is the desired effect.
10. Understand what it means to be not quite full, and be OK with that. I think this is a cultural thing in some ways; possibly a result of hard times (thinking the Depression Era and such) in previous generations? I’m not sure. What I do know is that we have conditioned ourselves to think that we must feel full at all times; that feeling a little hungry is a sign that something is wrong, or that poverty and disaster are just inches away. I think this conditioning has gotten us into a lot of trouble.Regardless, cultures such as those in Crete and Okinawa (Hari Hachi Bu) practice the concept of eating until you’re not quite full, and deriving a sense of satisfaction out of that. This one is a little harder to master, but intrigues me. And it works. More on this in a coming article.
11. Don’t eat in front of the television. If you’re like me, you may have grown up alongside the rest of your family eating in the company of Klinger, Hawkeye Pierce, and Radar. Unfortunately, taking meals while watching television has been solidly linked to overeating, as you often will continue to eat even if you’ve reached the full mark because you’re focused on the television, not the process of eating. I know this is true for me; when I’m watching TV, any food I have seems to mysteriously disappear – a whole bag of chips for example.This change is a tough one, as I’m actually much more comfortable hearing the sounds of Alex Trebek than I am the sound of food being chewed, but I’m trying on it, and its working.
12. Don’t eat in front of the computer. See the previous tip – the same applies. If you’re eating while you’re surfing the Web, odds are you’ll eat more than you would have had you been paying attention to the food. I must admit, this is probably my biggest weakness. I do this a lot – eat at the computer – and I think the physical condition of 90% of those of us with primarily sedentary jobs speaks for itself on this one.
13. Whenever possible, eat together as a family. My family did reasonably well at this during dinnertime, albeit in front of the TV. Its a well-documented hypothesis that in general, families talk to each other more when they eat meals together. It doesn’t mean that you don’t communicate well at other times too; its simply a good habit to gather together as a a family and break bread together. And ultimately, if you are conversing, you eat slower. There are lots of nuances however (like the fact that when I was growing up, when we tried this, I couldn’t wait to leave the table), so there will be more to come on this in a future article.
14. Whenever possible, in addition to your family, take your meals with friends and coworkers. Again, this one is a bit against what I do by nature at times (my office seems to me to be perfectly comfortable for swallowing sustenance), but ultimately the goal is to try to slow down, enjoy your food more, and enjoy the company of others. This used to be a social norm; but in our modern, fast-paced world we tend to let it slip in favor of expedience. It can be a double-edged sword if the folks you are eating with are also inclined to overeat, but in those cases trying to focus more on the conversation can help. (This is one of those suggestions that will evolve over time I am sure, as I try it out and find tactics that help. As always, suggestions are welcome.)
15. Read the ingredients list of anything in a package, but pay less attention to the statistics. The general rule should be to strive to eat things that don’t require ingredients lists, like fruits and vegetables. But in real life, this is not always practical. That being said, the key is to focus on the contents, not the scientific descriptions. You should try to eat only things that are easily identifiable as real food, not chemically processed substitutes. If you focus on eating only real food, and in moderation, the other elements become less important (unless you suffer with food allergies of course). The emphasis should be on real food and less of it, not counting milligrams of any one element.
16. Use real sugar, preferably raw, even if only trace amounts of it. Don’t use chemical substitutes. (Ed.:Note that that this does not apply to folks who are already dealing with diabetes and other blood sugar related conditions.) Simply put, what I am saying here is if you are going to sweeten your coffee or tea, don’t use chemical sugar substitutes. A teaspoon of sugar has only 15 calories! According to this site, at my current weight if I talk on the phone for 8 minutes, I have burned those calories. 15 calories is trivial, and sugar is real food. Well, some sugar. Just don’t overdo it.
17. Eat fat – but only eat real, high quality fats. There is a lot of mounting evidence that shows that our bodies crave fat for a reason – and until your body gets a portion of the fat its craving, it will continue to seek it out – meaning, you’ll continue to feel hungry. The better strategy is to partake of fat, but in limited quantities. High quality cheese is one of the best sources. Don’t go for the low fat processed cheese so that you can eat more of it. Refine your choices so that you seek out high quality, flavor-rich cheeses, and eat them in moderation. And that doesn’t mean high quality deep fryer fat.Portions of healthful fats, like avocados, help to control hunger, and provide vital nutrients. That said, the key is moderation – if you eat a pound of Brie, you’ve gone to the dark side. Fat in potato chips? Doesn’t fall in this category.
18. Don’t rely on supplements – eat the real thing first, and supplement what you need. Some argue that there’s a lot of recent evidence that shows little if any positive impact from taking diet supplements, other than supporting the supplement industry. On the other hand, there are a lot of folks who feel strongly that those studies are flawed. What’s the truth? I don’t know. But this statement by Dr. Andrew Weil makes a lot of sense to me:
“Vitamins, minerals and other supplements don’t compensate for a bad diet, but they can fill nutritional gaps in a good one. […] The value of antioxidant vitamins has, in my view, been scientifically demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. Everyone should take a high-quality multivitamin daily.” – http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02709/vitamin-facts
As your baseline, you are much better off seeking out the real nutrients in real food. Of course, some minerals and vitamins may be pretty hard to come by without a supplement, so use common sense, and supplement what you can’t get through good diet. However, if you start doing some reading about the benefits of raw vegetables in particular, or legumes, or things like avocado, you rapidly discover that most of the commonly supplemented nutrients can be had through natural food sources.
19. Focus on the reasons you are overeating, and address those first. This message is not very common among weight loss products, because the reasons we overeat are often elusive (meaning, not easily solved with a packaged, expensive product). Its much easier to create a product that addresses the symptoms rather than the cause. But that doesn’t mean it works for you in the long run – all it really means is if you want their solution to keep solving your symptoms, you will be a lifelong customer of the company selling the product.
A better strategy is to start gaining a better understanding of why you overeat. Although I don’t know whether science in general endorses root cause analysis (RCA), it is one of the most effective means of resolving problems in many scientific disciplines. Read more about it here.In essence, if you get a handle on the source of the problem, the odds are the solution will be easier to identify.
20. Don’t eat fast food if at all possible – its not real food. This one, for me, is easier said than done. When you’ve eaten fast food all of your life, as I have, it is a hard emotional habit to break. And believe it or not, there are certain fast food products that I actually like taste-wise – So this one’s a challenge. However, fast food is almost never “real food”. It is almost always processed, packaged, chemically treated or produced. You can almost never identify the source of the food. It rarely comes from a local source, so it is generally chemically preserved. There are lots of exceptions to this, but by and large, fast food is not real food.
Think of it as “fast”, as in, “speeding yourself to an early grave,” food (and I use the term, food, loosely here).
21. Avoid vending machines. I grew up in the era where the multi-billion dollar snack industry invaded schools with some of the worst fake foods that were marketed for children. With that as my conditioning, I know that if there’s a bag of chips in the vending machine, or a bar of chemically produced milk chocolate food product, I’m gonna eat it. The best plan? Stay away from the machine.
In my last two years in high school, the staff replaced the junk food vending machines with fruit vending machines. Of course, they were gone by the end of the second year, as the revenue generated didn’t pay the lease. The defense rests.
22. Don’t believe the “no pain no gain” philosophy. Regardless of what your gym coach told you, or what that aggressive personal trainer says, unless your goal is to be a body builder or a professional athlete, if you are practicing moderation, this philosophy is simply not true. In order to maintain health, eating should not be difficult. Exercise should be a pleasure, not a struggle. For those of us who simply want good health, if its painful, you’re not doing it right.
23. Don’t apply the “if its not hard its not worth doing” philosophy to eating. Again, this phrase for me has always been a precursor to failure. Many things in life require hard work, with corresponding rewards. In the case of eating, it does not have to be hard. The goal is to make it effortless. Getting there may require some hard adjustments at first, but it will get much easier over time as you learn to enjoy what you’re doing. Part of the benefit of eating real food in moderation is you learn to retrain your senses to appreciate the nuances of the things that cross your palate. It becomes a pleasurable experience to eat good food, and to seek out new experiences in culinary delight.
24. Learn to cook. Cooking can be one of the great pleasures in life, and regardless of what some may think, it is not a gift that you either have or you don’t – it can be learned. Preparing your own meals with foods that you know are real is the best way to get acquainted with what you are putting into your body.
25. Educate yourself on the diets of cultures that live longer and are generally in better health. My favorite examples currently are Okinawans and residents of the Island of Crete. Learn the things that they eat, and model your choices accordingly. More on this in a coming article.
26. Reduce your coffee size to enjoy real cream – not “creamer”. Other than marketing, I’m not entirely sure why we’ve convinced ourselves that we need a 20 oz. coffee to be satisfied. If you’re drinking an oversized coffee and you are inclined to add cream, you will be taking in too much if you have to turn that large coffee a nice beige. Start by downsizing one size, and get used to that. Then do it again. Pretty soon you will discover that an 8 oz. coffee may be just as satisfying as a 20 oz mega size. I’m currently between grande and tall, but working toward tall. Unless its espresso, which is the next tip:
27. If you are a coffee drinker, develop an appreciation for espresso. Espresso provides an intense shot of flavor and all of the caffeine you need (a double is about a cup of regular coffee). If you can’t quite handle the strength, try diluting it with water (an Americano). Also realize that for a small drink like espresso, you can experiment with flavorful additions such as cream, and not worry too terribly about the caloric or fat intake. Within reason of course – if you’re drinking 8 espressos a day over half and half, it may not work out in your favor. Currently espresso con panna (espresso over whipped cream) is my favorite.
28. Avoid packaged juices. In the late 90’s One of my previous employers generously soda and juice for free, with no limit (mostly because we were working 18 hour days trying to get the software finished). In an effort to make the right choice, I was choosing the juice over the soda. In a lot of ways, that was certainly the better choice of the two – it was 100% juice; however, the juice came in those little 5.5 oz. cans, which meant to me that 1 was never enough. In fact, over the span of an 18 hour day, I was sometimes drinking as many as 10 of those cans of grapefruit juice a day (a break every couple of hours times two cans each trip)! Turns out those little cans had roughly 70 calories each…which means I was taking in an extra 700 calories a day just in juice. Not to mention the snacks in the vending machine, the meals that were provided, and the fast food on the way to work.
When I put it all in one sentence, it shocks me! The point is, avoid packaged juices if at all possible, because in general you can do without them with little or no side effects emotionally. The sugars in them (even the naturally occurring fruit sugars) will turn on your sweet tooth and have you craving sugar all day. At least that’s how it worked for me.Making your own juice is another story however. More on that in a later article.
29. Buy the best food you can afford. This principle is a French philosophy that is predominantly lost in our culture, which says that you should not necessary buy the best – you should buy the most. If one is good, two is better, right? This thought of volume equals value is getting us in all sorts of health trouble. When you buy food, buy for quality, not quantity. Increase your food budget if you have to, but you find that you may not have to once the habits of moderation are established.
30. Retrain yourself away from the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” mindset. In many cultures, breakfast is not the primary meal of the day, and people are not keeling over from lack of bloodsugar – they’re just smarter about it. They eat a little protein, a little fat, a little vegetable-based food, and a little grain, and voila – they are satisfied, not lethargic, and stable until lunch. In our culture, eating a large breakfast can become the precursor to overeating at every meal. We eat too much at breakfast, generally, thinking that we’ll eat lighter, later. But I know for myself, in reality 4 hours later I’m hungry again, and breakfast size has little bearing on what I’m about to eat for lunch or dinner.
31. Eat at regular times. Eating at regular times helps you to build a routine of healthful eating. Eating real foods requires planning ahead, since they may not always be readily available. If you are “winging it”, it can make it difficult to avoid the conveniences that are put in front of you constantly, like vending machines and fast food. Planning on eating at a regular time helps to put you in the mindset that eating is important, and requires forethought.
32. Keep junk food out of the house. Some folks do not have this problem, but for me, if junk food is in the house I want to eat it. I generally work at home, so if a bag of deep fried goodness is available, I’ll pretty much eat the whole thing by nibbling here and there all day. If its not in the house, I can’t eat it. Simple as that.
33. Don’t be in a big rush to lose the weight. Weight loss should only be part of your overall health. If you lose it fast, you’ll gain it back fast. That is one of the reasons that the idea of moderation of real food makes sense. You should not expect to lose 20 lbs. a month. You should strive for 1 to 2 lbs a week, which is doable because you’re really not giving up a whole lot if you’ve started training yourself to eat real food.
Example: I still eat small portions of high quality ice cream, chocolate, and partake of the occasional beer. Not bad considering I’m still losing weight and not driving myself emotionally crazy.
Ed. Note: There are many, many more tips coming. This is just a start – its not an inclusive list. I haven’t even addressed things like sodium intake, or exercise, or mental health…you get the idea. All of those subjects are coming soon. Thanks.