Monday, January 11, 2010

No More Broken Promises

Happy New Year! And happy new decade. With the start of a new year, many of us view this time as a new beginning for a fresh start, a time to reflect on ourselves and to make some big positive change in our lives. Some popular resolutions include finding a better job, to quit smoking, to make more time for family and friends. The number one new year's resolution is to achieve weight loss. It all sounds good, doesn't it? What could be so bad about wanting to improve oneself? Well, wanting and doing are two different things. The truth is, when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve and the flashing ball in Times Square makes its mark, everyone who has imbibed alcohol to excess makes these lofty goals for themselves; goals which turn out to be empty promises. Part of the problem is people make such proclamations without any thought or plan as to how they intend to achieve such goals. Since this is a blog space that delves into food and cooking, I'm going to address that ever-popular new year's resolution of "I'm going to lose weight." How many of you have uttered those words, followed by a few days or even weeks of embarking on some faddish deprivation diet which typically shuns a whole food group, only to crash and burn when you could no longer endure this self-torture which you imposed on yourself as you ultimately binge on a whole quart of Ben & Jerry's in one sitting? Perhaps a more successful resolution would be "I'm going to eat healthier and enjoy doing so." This alone will steer you away from those broken promises you've made to yourself time and time again, and excess weight will come off naturally. However, you first need to acknowledge that the task lies in your hands alone, you need to take responsibility for reaching your own goals. Everyone wants a quick and easy fix to simply fall into their laps, an unrealistic expectation. The goal itself needs to be realistic as well. A woman in her 40s is wasting effort in desperately trying to achieve the weight she was at on her wedding day 15-20 years earlier. Metabolism changes, our bodies change, our activity levels change, our caloric needs change. Instead of fighting a losing battle with some new fad diet to achieve an unattainable goal, by making a few simple changes with the goal of eating healthier, the truly excess pounds will dissolve in a process which will be better for you and sustainable in the long run.

In order for anyone to lose weight, one has to make some alterations in their eating habits and in their attitudes toward their perception of food. Traditionally, Americans are the top candidates for the fat-farm. No niceties here, Americans are F-A-T. - fat! Asians are not overweight. Europeans generally are not either. Even at the innocent age of eight, on a trip to Paris I was observant enough to inform my mother "Mom, there are no fat people here!" This is because Americans have absolutely no clue what the act of consuming food should be about. Americans view dining as simply fueling up as quickly as possible for the unreasonably overburdened day which they have inflicted upon themselves, pumping their bodies with quickie salt and sugar-laden processed foods as they run from one errand to the next. Fast food eateries are the ultimate 'truck stops' in eating to fuel up. Even on the occasion that they do actually assume the position of sitting down to a table, they shovel their meal in the way one would feed coal into a furnace, often mentally engrossed solely on whatever is on their television set whose switch seems to be perpetually in the on position. They have little idea what they have just consumed, nor do they really care. Conversely, Europeans observe the act of dining as a ritual to be savored, appreciated and enjoyed with family and friends. It is a culture and a social rite that is embraced and looked forward to every meal of every day.

The first step in eating healthier is to change your viewpoint toward food and dining. Focus on what you are eating, think about the flavors as you chew and take the time to actually communicate with your dining companion(s). Turn the television off, let the answering machine do its job, and make dining a daily ritual in which you concentrate your senses on food and drink, and your mental faculties on stimulating conversation. This will slow down the eating process, allowing your system to find the opportunity to signal to your brain that you are now full. It will also make your mealtime a time to relax and socialize with your family.

The second step to eating healthier is to change your overall eating plan. What diets have you tried and ultimately failed at in the past? Low carb? Your body needs carbs, particularly whole grains. No sugar? Guess what, your body needs sugar too. No, not that whole pie you picked up this morning! Perhaps you tried some sort of purge diet, such as consuming exclusively cabbage soup for three months. The reason that all of these diets fail is simple: your body is a complex machine in need of a large number of balanced dietary components in order to function properly. Depriving that system of any one nutrient leads to uncontrollable cravings, possible illnesses resulting from nutritional deficiencies, and a body which is not functioning at maximum efficiency; in other words, one which in the long run remains overweight. No more fad diets which boast promises of excessive weight loss - if it sounds too good or too easy to be true, that means that it is. Now think about how you ate when you were not on one of these unreasonable dietary quests. Take out fast food for dinner four to six nights a week? A can of Coke whenever you felt thirsty? A whole tub of ice cream late at night because you felt stressed about something? Declared a dislike for an entire food group, such as fruit or vegetable? Here lies the problem. There is only one diet that everyone should be following, and it should not be perceived as a diet at all. It is an eating plan, based upon the government food pyramid. This guide is actually not unlike the daily eating habits in which people in Europe normally partake. It is high in daily intake of fruits and vegetables, low in meats, higher in carbs made from whole grains; high fat dishes and sugary treats should be treated exactly as such: occasional treats.

The third step is to use that food pyramid as a guide to reallocate where your caloric intake comes from and reduce your portions. The best way to achieve this is to dine at home. It is time to reacquaint yourself with your kitchen, where the power is in your hands to control portions. Many restaurants in this country have gone completely out of control with portion sizes; an individual diner is being fed double and even triple the amounts of what they need. The food pyramid states that one serving of meat should fit on the palm of your hand, or be similar in size to a deck of cards. Go to a restaurant in France and see what size of steak your waiter presents you with. You will be handed a plate with a single filet mignon of exceptional quality. Here in the states, you are often presented with a cut of beef that nearly exceeds the size of the entire dinner plate- in fact it is often presented in a platter, not a plate - piled with at least two servings of fries, and vegetables, if offered, are meagerly served in a little side bowl no bigger than the bowl your child feeds his hamster in. Some steakhouses in this country now have their staff circulate the dining room showing off a 76-ounce steak, offering a free dinner to anyone who can consume the entire piece of meat which, by the way, is about 70 ounces more than a single serving size. Just think about how disgusting and unreasonable that whole concept really is. Americans love excess and gluttony, and that includes in their diets. Instead of filling up on meat, the food pyramid suggests filling up on vegetables. Considering that we should consume a minimum of four servings of vegetables per day, that means at least two servings of vegetables with dinner and two with lunch. Restaurants often overcook the vegetables and do not put much effort in making them very flavorful or appealing, simply because it is not accepted practice in our culture to embrace pure fresh foods or seasonings other than salt. Canned vegetables are even worse. For those who claim not to like vegetables, I would be willing to bet that if they just tried purchasing something fresh from the farm stand or supermarket, bringing it home, looking up a simple recipe for preparing it, and cooking it themselves, it would prove to be a revelation. Make two different vegetables, not merely a double-helping of one, as it will make your meal more visually appealing and more satisfying as you take in two different tastes and textures each prepared with different seasonings. We should consume an equal number of fruit servings per day, whether for desserts or for breakfast and snacks. During the summer when fruits are abundant and at their peak for flavor, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. When it comes to carbs, despite what the no-carb cultists are trying to tell us, your body does need them. However there are 'good' carbs which offer nutritional benefits, such as whole grain breads, cereals and pastas; and there are empty carbs, such as white bread and white rice, which offer little to no benefit. For those who make such proclamations as 'I don't like whole grain pasta,' I have one thing to say to you: pasta has little flavor, the flavor of a pasta dish comes from what you put on the pasta. Pasta soaks up the flavor of the sauce used, the cheese sprinkled on, etc. It is almost forgivable when a four-year-old complains and gets picky about foods; it gets pathetic when an adult whines in the exact same closed-minded manner. A four-year-old doesn't know any better, a parent has to take the responsibility of coaxing their child to eat properly. An adult should possess the mental capacity to buck up and take responsibility for himself or herself if he or she really does care about health.

The fourth step to eating healthier is to feel content with your new meal plan, do not deprive yourself entirely of the things you love. To tell yourself that you are going to abandon all cake and ice cream for six months so that you look like a toothpick in your bathing suit come summer is not a reasonable goal. Allow yourself that piece of cake, but keep it limited. Have one single serving - not half of the cake - not more than once a week, and let that be the only sugary treat you enjoy that week. Enjoy it as the treat that it should be, such as on a Friday night to kick off your weekend, or for dessert for a special weekend family meal that you create. Go ahead and cook that pasta dinner one night with the creamy carbonara sauce, but keep the serving size reasonable and instead of reaching for seconds, round out the meal with a cooked vegetable and a salad. Try and keep the sugary sweet to once a week and also a higher-fat entree to once a week as well. Plan ahead for holidays. If you know that Christmas is next week, know that you can eat whatever is on the menu that day, no holds barred; but that is your free ticket for the week. The rest of that week you do need to avoid the little extra treats altogether. Finally, one dinner a week should be composed of anything you like, the only rule still to be applied is portion control. By allowing yourself these limited and controlled indulgences, your new eating plan will be something you can sustain for life. Once you have reached a comfortable and reasonable weight on your bathroom scale, you can then gradually tailor how many of those treats you can typically allow yourself in a regular week of dining without resulting in the weight creeping back up again. Everybody is different, everybody has different caloric requirements to maintain weight. This is how people in Italy and France manage to revel in such decadent delicacies as fettuccine alfredo, fine cheeses, rich desserts and high-fat meats. They keep portions reasonable, and they are not eating these particular foods constantly at every meal of every day.

The last step to eating healthy is to embrace quality, variety and flavor in your foods. Turn your back on the low-quality corporate mass-produced food products, just walk away. Make better choices, especially when you do allow yourself a treat. Pass the Hostess or Entennmans cakes in the supermarket and make a detour instead to a bakery or, better yet, bake a cake or a batch of decadent cookies yourself using only the finest ingredients. These higher quality foods usually have more flavor, and are therefore more satisfying. When food is more satisfying and offers more flavors and textures to appreciate, you'll need to eat smaller portions to feel satiated. Leave the processed "convenience" foods in the store, get into the habit of cooking your own meals using the best ingredients. Foods that are less processed and not mass-produced tend to be made with more attention to quality, therefore yielding an eating experience that rewards your palate with more flavors, more textures, more substance, all in all more 'oomph' to every mouthful. With cooking becoming en vogue again, thanks to the media-provided cooking magazines, celebrity chefs and Food Network, it is now easier than ever to embark on cooking up some original dishes to satisfy every taste. It is also more exciting than ever to embrace new cuisines as more and more ethnic ingredients from around the globe make their appearance in our gourmet shops and specialty food markets.

By making these changes in how you approach food and dining, and adding a sensible exercise routine that is convenient enough to stick to long term, you will be able to keep your resolution to eat and be healthier and the excess pounds will melt away. No, it will not be so easy for one who has been conditioned lifelong to subsist on quick fixes for meals and to consume exorbitant volumes of anything one craves with reckless abandon. There will be a lesson to embark on first; but once you perfect the art of eating healthier, you'll find yourself eating very well indeed, appreciating better foods, and knowing that you are now living to eat, not eating just to live. Mentally as well as physically, that's a pretty rewarding promise that you're not likely to break any time soon.


  1. And don't forget - Light beer will lead to an early death!

  2. Grinning as I recall us having a friend over, someone who thinks nothing of going through a six pack or more in one night of light beer or even regular low-quality factory produced beer. When we had no such thing in the house and offered him a real craft beer instead, that slowed him down, didn't it?! The point, folks, is that by ingesting higher-quality food and beverages which typically have a lot more substance to them (compare a malty dark craft beer to a watery Bud light), you will be satiated a lot sooner and therefore will end up taking in smaller amounts.