Seconds or Courses? – Figuring out Portion Control

I once ate at a restaurant that changed the way I thought about food, and ultimately changed my life.  I am going to write more about this restaurant in upcoming posts, but in this one I just want to talk about what they taught me about portion control.

You can’t read an article on dieting without encountering tips on how to eat less – everything from weighing your food, counting calories, dividing up your plate by food group, eating from a smaller plate, waiting 20 minutes before having seconds.  It goes on and on.  All great advice, some of which works for me and some does not.  When it comes to appetite regulation I will try anything once, and keep doing anything that helps.  These are the “Hunger Games” and I need any possible advantage to tip the odds in my favor!  Of course if the hormones that regulate appetite are working correctly, you know intuitively how much to eat.  But with our western, fast food life style, this precise and beautiful control mechanism has been disrupted for many of us.

I just read an article this morning about how parents still try to coerce their kids into eating all the food on their plate.  In a world where portions size is out of control, this may not be the best life skill. Depending on who is dishing up for you, the food on your plate is not the best guide to how much you should eat!

My whole strategy is about eating more in order to eat (and weigh) less:

  1. Eat more vegetables and fruit.
  2. Eat more for breakfast.
  3. Eat more delicious real food.
  4. Eat more proper meals.
  5. Eat more nutrient dense foods with a high fiber and water content.
  6. Eat a greater variety of food.
  7. Eat more healthy fats and proteins.

Without trying too hard this results in eating less.  You will find that you:

  1. Eat fewer calories overall.
  2. Eat little to no junk or processed food.
  3. Eat no “empty calories”
  4. Don’t succumb to out-of-control binge eating.
  5. Eat fewer snacks.
  6. Eat less carbohydrates in favor of a more balanced ratio of fat, carbohydrate and protein.

This post is about how my favorite restaurant taught me about eating more courses in order to eat less!  I have eaten many multi-course meals at restaurants in my life, some excellent, some not so good.  I once paid a fortune for a meal at a fancy restaurant where each course was one or two tablespoons of food at the most.  It was utterly delicious but I came away famished and feeling very ripped off! I have had a lot more 3 course meals where each individual course is enough for 2 and I stumble out in a food coma with a rather sore tummy vowing “never again!”

And then there was that life changing meal at Tokara after which food would never be the same again.  I know they teach chefs about portion control in culinary school.  But like all students, some apply what they learn in real life and some do not.  Richard Carstens, the Tokara chef, gets it exactly right in my opinion.  His plates are designed so that you can eat a starter, a main course and a dessert and come away comfortably full but not stuffed.  Dinner even includes an amuse-bouche and intermezzo, which add to the experience without adding to the calorie count 🙂 This is my experience every time and I have checked in with friends and family who have gone there on my recommendation and they report the same.  I know that there are many excellent chefs and good restaurants around the world that are getting this aspect of food preparation right, but this was the first time I experienced it quite so magnificently.

Here we come to that “small plate” dieting advice and why I don’t care for it.  The theory is that you will fill your plate regardless of size, so by using a smaller plate you end up eating less.  However, like most fine dining restaurants, at Tokara you get what a friend of mine calls “a lot of plate:”  A big plate, with a modest amount of food.  This can be taken as a symbol of pretentious, over-priced food, but it doesn’t have to be.   I would describe the Tokara portions as generous, without being ridiculous.  The food is as visually appealing as it is delicious and the big plate is the canvas upon which a work of art is created.  It is not a “feeding trough” to binge over.

Reflecting on this approach to eating, I began to compare it with how I eat at home.  The meals I grew up with were buffet-style.  There would be a number of dishes on the table, each person would dish up for themselves and then decide whether or not to have seconds (or thirds!).  If you arrive at the meal as a hungry fat person you tend to pile your plate and eat too fast.  You have already eaten more than enough but fail to realize this, and reach for “seconds”.  Seconds usually consist of cherry picking the foods on the table you find the most appetizing, and for me this usually meant the starch (potatoes, omg, potatoes!).  You then sit back and debate whether you have “room for dessert.”  I will give you a clue – I always had room!  Ice cream slides in beautifully to all the little spaces in your tummy left by the other food.

While eating multiple courses in a restaurant is normal, I would never have thought to eat this way at home.  Unless I was hosting a dinner party.  And I never host dinner parties.  But then I thought why not?  Cooking really opens your mind to changing your eating behavior.  It turns out it is no more effort than cooking buffet-style and a lot more satisfying!  Eating this way has portion control built right in.  As often as possible I have lunch or dinner that involves a starter, a main course and a dessert.  Yes dessert.  I am good at desserts and have a fruit-based, sugar-free, high-fiber dessert about 3 or 4 times a week.  People who think I am “on diet” are horrified and think I have lost the plot.  If the dessert is highly nutritious, doesn’t have sugar, refined flour or excessive fat, what’s the problem?  I guess you may ask – does a dessert that meets all those criteria qualify as dessert?  Come to my house and we can discuss over chocolate raspberry cupcakes 🙂

What I like about this approach is that it primes you to move from one stage of the meal to the next, and end when the meal is over.  Start with soup or salad, progress to a main course consisting of a protein and plenty of fresh vegetables, and end with a dessert as described above.  You can even indulge in a coffee and block of dark chocolate at the end to really finish on a high note.  Notice how vegetable-heavy this meal is?  There is always a single, appropriately sized portion of protein and the fat content comes along as part of the food preparation (eg: coconut oil for sautéing veggies or in the dessert) or adds flavor in the form of a few nuts, a sprinkling of grated cheese or a dab of good butter.  I make the starch component optional.  Some of my meals include a slice of homemade bread, a small portion of quinoa or some buckwheat pasta.  The starch no longer dominates the meal if it even shows up at all.

The part of my brain that runs my appetite goes along with this approach beautifully.  As much as I adore the soup, I don’t go for seconds, because the main course awaits. Because I know what’s for dessert, cause “I dun made it myself,” I am happy to move on from mains without “seconds.”  And then the magic happens. The meal is over and I am full.  The courses force me to pace myself and by the time the dessert is done, the starter has made its way through my digestive track to whatever bit it needs to get to trigger the “satiety signal.”  I have a little moment of panic because it all seems so indulgent and over the top and so I do a little mental review of what I ate, realize it was mostly vegetables and that I am probably ok.  I am done with food until the next meal.

Using this approach I don’t have to throw out my nice big dinner plates and buy new tiny plates.  But I don’t pile my plates either.  I like to see a lot of white space and pretty garnishes on my plate along with a sensible portion of food.  As a cook I find the experience very satisfying because I get to experiment with different styles of cooking and baking.  I also comfort myself with the thought that if one thing flops we can just turn it into a 2 course meal and no one will feel too deprived!

So that’s my tip for the day for learning portion control:  Eat at a great restaurant with an amazing chef if and when you can afford it, or experiment with making multi-course meals at home.  Go heavy on the vegetables and light on everything else and enjoy!

Advertisements

“Checkout Wars” – A survivor’s tale

Yesterday was what has become a typical Sunday for us – early trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh produce, stop in on the way home at a supermarket to top up with key ingredients not available from the market. After getting most of my groceries at the market, I still needed chiles, cilantro, basil and greek yoghurt.  Whenever I brave a supermarket these days I make sure I go in with a plan and come out only with the items on my shopping list and nothing else.  I have come to understand that “impulse buys” are not a quirk of character on my part, they are very carefully orchestrated by the store’s strategy to prompt me to buy items I neither want nor need.  I now know that if I didn’t want it when I arrived, I am not going to miss it after I leave, no matter how much I may feel I want it in the moment.

The supermarket we use is a major chain in South Africa, with some similarities to Whole Foods in the USA.  One of these being that they sell what Michael Pollan calls “Storied food.”   Storied food is delightful – you can pick it up and read a little adventure yarn about where the food was grown, by who and how it came to be in your hands.  For example, the logo on the milk was a heart with a cow inside.  I was charmed to read that the milk had been produced by “happy cows.”  Not a word on whether those cows were grass or grain fed, and given the omission it is safe to assume that it is the latter.  However, at least the cows were happy about it!  Presumably the farmer took a survey and got a high satisfaction rating from the herd.

But the story telling is not confined to the labels on the products. The store had a massive advertisement at the entrance and again at the exit about their “Organic range” claiming that you could buy organic in everything “from t-shirts to tea bags.”  Given the size of the billboards, I wondered if I would suddenly find a vast array of new organic products on the shelves.  Looking into the history of this store’s relationship with organics, I found this fascinating press release from 2004 that explained their insight that organic was going mainstream and how they had updated their marketing to address this rapidly growing customer base.  How exciting!  Not so fast though, for a store that has understood the appeal of organics for such a long time, I was disappointed at how few items I could locate with the organic label in the fresh produce section.  I found some broccoli and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps the massive signs at the entrance and exit are meant to draw an organic “halo” around everything in the store, even if only a handful of products are actually certified organic?  Surely the marketing team would not be that cynical or have such a low opinion of consumer intelligence?

What is interesting is that there are at least 4 active, well supported farmers’ markets within a few kilometers of this particular store.  The one near my home a little further away does not advertise organics nearly as prominently.  Perhaps because they don’t face the same level of competition from the local food movement?  Least you think I am over-stating my case, the competition is real.  The markets were absolutely packed but there were only a handful of people in the supermarket.  Of course trade will pick up when the markets close, but for a few hours a week at least, this store is losing significant patronage to the nearby markets.

I was standing in the checkout line, looking at the massive “organics” advert overhead and reviewing my purchases to ensure that I everything on my shopping list and nothing else, when another reality thrust itself upon my consciousness.  The store has set up their checkout line so that everyone stands in the same queue and is routed to the next available cashier when they reach the front.  A very equitable and efficient system of queuing, which I greatly appreciate.  What I do not appreciate is the blatant attempt to manipulate my buying behavior in the form of the mouth-watering array of sweets and chocolates that flank the line of shoppers on either side.  What is more, once you enter the queue there is no escape.  There are people in front of you and behind you and your only option is to stand there and look at the goodies screaming “buy me!” for as long as it takes to get to the front of the queue.  Or you can shut your eyes and go to your happy place if you prefer. Those eye-catching candies used to be a source of significant temptation to me.  I would almost invariably succumb, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband, who seems immune to advertising of any kind for reasons I do not quite understand. These days I am able to run the gauntlet of the checkout line and emerge unscathed, which is a great relief to me. I now entertain myself by watching the other shoppers to see how many browse the items on display and end up adding a sweet or chocolate to their basket.  I would say it is at least one in 3, although if a young child is involved that likelihood increases dramatically.

It is because of tactics such as this, that I take massive offense at anyone who wants to reduce the diet of children to parental responsibility.  I have witnessed children simply lose it in that situation and have an all-out screaming tantrum.  Glass shatters and eardrums burst and other patrons look on in irritation and disapproval.  I have seen parents just grab a bag of sweets, rip it open and hand it to their hysterical offspring right there in the checkout line! Presumably they plan to pay for it later – in more ways than one!  When this occurs all the onlookers are simultaneously thinking two things: “You are a bad parent for giving in to your child like that – you aren’t teaching them anything!” and “Thank God you just did that and made the yelling stop!” I suspect that the parent is doing their level best and is a pretty good parent in most situations, but they are only human and just want the yelling and the social disapproval to stop.  The kid is freaking out, their head is about to explode, the enemy has them surrounded and all escape routes have been blocked off. Can you blame them?

At least when the harassed parent gets to the checkout they will be asked if they have a “My School” card and if they do a percentage of their purchases will go to support a school of their choice.  Next time you give in and buy that chocolate you had intended to resist, just remember that you are “doing it for the children!”

Would a store that really cares about their customers, the environment, the community and the education of children, deliberately put parents in this untenable situation every time they buy at the store with a child in tow?  If it is all about “consumer choice” and “making healthy choices that are part of a balanced diet” then why is it not good enough to give the sweeties their own aisle just like all the other products? Why do they need to flank the checkout line? Why not place the vegetables there instead?  If someone buys a bunch of carrots on impulse, no harm done, right? I do know that whenever I bought sweets, I would end up not only buying more and more sweets, but more food overall.  Is it possible that the store knows this as well?  As a grown adult I have to make a conscious effort to counteract the store’s strategy and come out with my health and budget in tact. Just watch this marshmallow experiment and you will get an idea of how tough this is on a kid, and the parent responsible for them.

If this video doesn’t tug at your heart-strings you are just dead inside!  Seriously, who would do this to a little kid?  Your local supermarket, that’s who!  Of course the point of the experiment is that ability to resist the marshmallow correlates to greater academic achievement later in life, so perhaps the supermarket exposes kids to an overwhelming selection of sweets in the checkout line to build character and contribute to their education 😛

If you have been paying attention you would know that I was in the supermarket in the first place because I couldn’t get everything I needed at the farmers’ market.  Doesn’t this prove that we still need supermarkets and shouldn’t we be grateful for the array of choices they offer us?  Sort of. I, for one, still need them, but my relationship with them is changing rapidly.  I am hardly ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of health and nutrition.  If I were, I wouldn’t be an obese, diabetic 38 year old!  I used to find people who only ate organic, or shopped at farmers’ markets annoying and thought of them as “alarmist” or “faddish.”  I am now one of those people.  The 2004 press release of my favorite supermarket was prophetic.  In 2013 I finally caught on to a trend they identified almost 10 years ago!  Although I still need the supermarket, I am needing them less and less, because they sell very little of what makes up my daily diet.  At the same time more and more farmers’ markets and co-ops are popping up, they are highly responsive to customer feedback, and every time I visit they seem to supply more of the ingredients I stock up on to ensure that I can continue to offer the menu of my new “home restaurant.”  For the time being I am glad that the supermarket is there although my friendship with them is somewhat strained.  For years I was a willing victim cheerfully guzzling down sodas and salt and vinegar crisps.  Now I only get what I came for, I see through all the marketing and “story telling” and I know not to look directly at the sweets in the checkout line for too long, least they blind me!

I have plans to plant a herb and vegetable garden in the Spring (we are now heading into Autumn) and increase my food independence even more. How long before I am able to end my troubled relationship with the supermarket altogether?  How many more people like me are out there?  Is our food economy changing or is this just a passing trend that will fade  when we return to shopping in the manner to which we have become accustomed?  Time will tell.  However, if the size of the food movement has any correlation to the size of the “Organics” signs in my supermarket then this thing is HUGE, people!

Sugar and Spice – Confessions of a Sugar Addict

A big part of eating a healthy, delicious diet has been figuring out what to do about my “sweet tooth.”  I might as well face it, I love sweet stuff and I am always going to.  However, since the dentist has yet to pinpoint and extract the exact tooth responsible, I am going to have to figure out another plan!

smoothie and cupcake

The sweet life: Smoothie and cupcake

Confession time:  I used to consume a terrifying amount of sugar on a daily basis.  If you looked at how much food I ate overall you might have a hard time understanding why I had such a weight problem.  But if you looked at my sugar in-take it would all become clear.

I am convinced that Lustig is correct that a common feature of all successful diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber.  I say this both because I find his arguments persuasive but, more importantly, because I find the results of such a diet breathtakingly impressive. See the list of benefits I have experienced here.

Here’s the summary of my current understanding:  Sugar is a problem and needs to be greatly restricted if not eliminated.  Alternative sweeteners aren’t necessarily the answer and caution is needed until further research is done.

In The Skinny Rules, Bob Harper forbids all added sweeteners, including artificial ones (Rule 10).  His reasoning is that the sweet taste is so addictive that any added sweetener exposes us to the risk of relapse.  His goal is to break people of their desire for “hyper-sweetness.”  He might be right, but of all his rules, this is the one I break just a little.  However, I very much agree that we need to dramatically decrease the “sweet” component of our diets, and one of the reasons I think I have done this successfully is that I can no longer stomach any commercially sweetened beverage or food product.  Foods I used to consume in large amounts are now so sweet to me I simply can’t eat them.

But how can I live as a real, sweet-toothed human in a sugar-filled world?  If I’m honest I must admit that I have more “sweet” in my diet than either Bob Harper or Robert Lustig would think prudent.  They are probably right, and maybe I am in dangerous territory, but for what it’s worth here’s my strategy:

 1) No sweetened beverages, either sugar sweetened, or artificially sweetened.  This means soda, diet soda, fruit juice, energy drinks or sweetened iced tea. I am convinced by the arguments that a) there is no fiber in these drinks to buffer the sugar b) our brains seem unable to detect that we have taken in calories in liquid form and therefore don’t compensate by reducing overall consumption following the intake of a caloric beverage c) when our brains taste sweet they expect calories and if no calories are present this sets us up for problems with appetite regulation.  Also, I want to use my “sweet allowance” on more satisfying options, so sweetened beverages are an easy target for total abstinence.

2) Cane sugar: severely restricted.  My only source of cane sugar is my block or two of dark chocolate a day, and because I go for 70% or higher of cocoa, this works out to very little.

3) Coconut palm sugar:  It has some nutritional merit and I love the taste.  Although it is reported to have a low GI (35), I am skeptical as it is mostly sucrose.  I therefore treat it as a sugar and only use it occasionally in baking that contains a substantial amount of fiber.

4) Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin): No thanks – can’t stand the taste and not comfortable with the possibility that they may increase my risk of cancer.

5) Honey, maple syrup, dates, agave:  Again, some nutritional value but all high in sugar and if I use them at all it is in baking with a high fiber content.  They basically belong in the same category as coconut palm sugar.

6) Fruit:  A favorite source of sweetness in my diet, but I am very careful about preserving the fiber by eating the whole fruit.  Berries deserve special mention as an “added sweetener”:  They easily release some of their juice and can be used to sweeten food without damaging the fiber in the fruit (eg: over cereal or in plain yoghurt).  As an added advantage they are low GI and full of anti-oxidants.  Berries are therefore my most “guilt-free” and liberally used “sweetener.”

7) Berry smoothies.  Related to the above but they deserve special mention because they are a bit complicated  Let me begin by saying that my smoothies are so good they should be illegal.  However, smoothies are controversial among those concerned about sugar.  Some say they are fine, others say that the blades of the blender destroy the insoluble fiber in the fruit and they are therefore no different to fruit juice. They are also wary of smoothies as “liquid calories.”  Here’s how I approach it: a) my smoothies are very thick and I find them super filling.  I therefore don’t believe that they suffer from the same “liquid calorie” danger as juice and soda.  They are either barely drinkable or have to be eaten with a spoon. b) The fruit content of my smoothies are from berries, therefore low GI c) I add in additional fiber in the form of Chia seeds and coconut flour so I have both soluble and insoluble fiber covered d) I believe that the protein and fat from the whey, yoghurt and coconut milk also help to buffer the sugars from the fruit.  e) As an added precaution I first blend up the other ingredients (greek yoghurt, whey powder, coconut milk, chia seeds) and then gently muddle and fold in the berries so that some of their juice is released but the whole fruit is still in there without the fiber being obliterated by heavy processing.  Phew, all that effort for a smoothie!  I wonder if Lustig or Harper would give me permission to enjoy it under these conditions.  Maybe not, but I am taking my chances for the time being because they are such a delicious and easy way to get a nutritious breakfast on the run.

8) Whey powder: I use a sweet vanilla whey powder with no added sugar.  However, it is really delicious and sweetens whatever I add it to very effectively, and I can only conclude that the sweetness comes from the lactose, which has none of the dangers of fructose.  I started using whey for protein, and the sweetness came as an added bonus.

9) Lacuma or Maca powder:  Nutritious and tasty in smoothies or homemade chocolate or ice cream.  I use these for their health benefits, or as a variation on other sweeteners.

10) Xylitol:  I love using it because it tastes just like sugar and can be used with a 1:1 conversion in baking.  Having said that I always reduce the sweetener on a recipe just because I don’t like things too sweet anymore.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables and also made by the human body.  Dentists love it because it protects against tooth decay.  You have probably already encountered it in sugar-free gum. But is it ok to use as a sweetener?  The worst thing I have read about Xylitol is that it can cause stomach upsets if you overdo it.  This is because it is not fully broken down during digestion.  The funny thing is, if I buy commercial sweets with Xylitol, Maltitol or Sorbitol I get a violent stomach upset after eating just two or three.  However, if I use Xylitol in my own baking or cooking I have no ill effects whatsoever.  My theories are that either I am using it in sufficient moderation or there is something else that’s nasty about those sweets and causing the mischief.  Xylitol is slowly absorbed and metabolized and has a negligible effect on insulin.  I am not about to go out and eat it by the sack load, but I think it’s ok to use in cooking and baking as I am doing.  I am prepared to take my chances with this one for the time being.

Warning:  If you have dogs, don’t ever let them eat anything containing Xylitol as it is highly toxic to them!

11) Stevia: It has mixed reviews.  I have some in the house and use a little in my herbal teas if I want them slightly sweetened.  Because it is so intensely sweet a little goes a long way.

To sum up, here are my own “sweet” rules:

1) No sweetened beverages.

2) The body expects calories when it tastes sweetness, so give it some.  In other words use sweeteners in cooking or baking of real food, not as a way to “cut calories” .  This approach will actually help you consume fewer calories overall because you aren’t playing tricks with appetite regulation.

3) No artificial sweeteners or “diet” food products – highly processed and bad for you on so many levels, besides just tasting lousy.

4) Require any caloric sweetener to have some nutritional value, not just be empty calories.  However, don’t use their nutritional merit as a way of conveniently forgetting that they are still to be treated with caution, especially if they consist primarily of sucrose and/or fructose.

5) Eat any caloric sweetener with plenty of fiber to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate.

6) Diversify:  Don’t consume large quantities of any one sweetener, at least until further research is done into its safety.

7) If it’s sweet, make it yourself.  You can then ensure that you use the minimum sweetener and that you buffer it with fiber, protein and/or fat.

8) If you find that you are naturally choosing to eat less rather than more, you’re doing it right.  If you are just swapping one sweet addiction for another, you might need to reassess your approach.

This might seem like an overly complex strategy but it works for me.  I wish I could just go “cold turkey” and cut out the sweet stuff, and I have certainly tried.  It usually lasts for a while and then I regress back into my old ways.  This approach is sustainable, therefore better in my opinion.  I have been doing it for 6 months and I know I can do it forever.  It may work for you or it may not, so find your own way of navigating the sweet stuff in your life.  Whatever works to keep you eating “low sugar, high fiber” is an excellent start!

Back to the Kitchen – My declaration of food independence!

This week-end I spent a number of happy hours barefoot and in the kitchen!  My inner feminist was only slightly comforted by the thought that at least I am not pregnant. Yikes!  I am one small mishap away from being a stereotype!

In all seriousness though, I spent years determined not to have my identity reduced to any pre-ordained gender role, and I am still very much of this mindset, but that is a subject for a whole other blog.  When asked if I liked to cook, I would jokingly respond:  “I have a great interest in eating food but none in preparing it.”  Little did I know that I had succinctly summarized the chief cause of my weight problem! The “Don’t Cook, Just Eat” series of adverts are targeted directly at people like me. However, my recent food adventures have led me to realize how much we give up when we give up cooking.  I have reached the conclusion that every household needs a chef.  If you are too wealthy for your own good, you can hire one.  If you are like the rest of us, someone in the home is just going to have to step up!  If you live with others the role can be negotiated and hopefully shared. If you live alone, it looks like you’re it!

When we turn over the task of food preparation to the food industry, we think we are simply exchanging our hard-earned cash for convenience and tasty food.  Not a bad deal. But we are really giving up a lot more along with our money:

  1. Control over what we put in our bodies.
  2. Variety – ever notice how all fast and processed food starts tasting the same after a while?
  3. Health and proper nutrition.
  4. The pleasure of the creative process that precedes and greatly increases the pleasure of eating.
  5. The opportunity to at least expend a few calories in the process of procuring a meal!  We might not be hunter-gatherers anymore, but at least we can graft a little in the kitchen and restore some of the energy balance that is so absent in the way we consume food today!

Let’s face it – the task of cooking is one that many of us would rather outsource, if at all possible. A troubled relationship with food may, in fact, have begun with a troubled relationship with our kitchens!  My early kitchen memories are mixed: on the one hand I get nostalgic when I remember all the peanut butter cookies and crunchies my long-suffering mother allowed me to bake.  On the other I remember being made to do the washing up and vowing that when I grew up I would never wash a dish again. My plan at the time was to have a child of my own who I could instruct to do this for me – clearly I did not think this through!  However, I would still rather have a root canal than wash a sink full of dirty dishes, and one way to avoid this task is to get take aways that come in convenient throw-away containers 🙂

It has been said that people only make significant life changes when the perceived pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.  If I am honest, it is only because my fast food lifestyle ultimately came with sufficiently negative and damaging consequences that I tentatively took my first steps back into the kitchen.  The kitchen used to be the place where I made tea and toast and got stuff out of the fridge.  It is now the place where all my meals are produced.  Yes, it’s messy.  Yes, there are mountains of dirty dishes left in my wake.  All I can say is thank the good Lord for dishwashers.  But it is also way more fun than I would ever have imagined!

Confession time:  I have a thing for celebrity chefs.  I used to treat cooking shows like a spectator sport.  I know, I know, but as easy as our fetish with the celebrity chef craze is to satirize, it has helped make cooking glamorous again and break down any gender stereotypes about who may occupy this role in the home or the work place!  I am currently indulging in Gordon Ramsay’s “The Ultimate Cookery Course”.  The one where he actually stands in his kitchen and shows you how to cook, instead of being a potty mouth and haranguing hapless restaurant owners!  I picked up some really useful techniques and managed to turn out a couple of really decent meals as a result.  Here is photographic evidence of my latest efforts:

Quinoa pancakes with apple and berry toppings.

Quinoa pancakes with apple and berry toppings.

A lovely Sunday breakfast treat.  Got the quinoa pancake recipe online and the berry topping was inspired by Gordon Ramsay.  I used strawberries and blueberries which I cooked in a pan on the stove with the zest and juice of one lemon, a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.  Ramsay starts by caramelizing sugar in the pan, but I skipped that and they still came out absolutely delicious.  Simmer until the liquids reduce down to form a nice syrup and you have an ideal pancake topping!

For lunch we had a vegetable frittata, garden salad and some amaranth crackers with organic tomato sauce and cheese.  It was one of those “use all the veggies in your fridge” meals that worked out rather well:

Sunday lunch

Sunday lunch: Vegetable frittata with garden salad and cheese platter featuring amaranth crackers

It is looking worse and worse for me!  I have just confessed to watching celebrity chefs and I am now forced to admit that I am one of those annoying people who photographs their food.  I couldn’t resist this one because I was so proud that the frittata released from the pan and I was able to present it at the table in one piece!  Again, this is thanks to a technique I learned on Ramsay’s show: loosen the sides with a knife and then bang the pan a few times on the counter before tipping it over onto a cutting board, put a plate on top and flip.  These are the small victories helping to build my confidence and inspire my cooking Renaissance!

Although there is so much about The Biggest Loser that depresses me and represents the exact opposite of my approach to weight loss,  I was impressed to note that the contestants have to prepare their own meals while on the show.  Even better, they are given challenges where they need to make this work in real life.  This is encouraging as they are learning a skill that gives them a shot at sustainable weight management when they are no longer being held accountable by television cameras and public “weigh ins.”  If you are going to take any pointers from the show, that is one of the ones I would recommend.

So where do you stand on the whole kitchen thing?  Are you an occasional visitor, or regular fixture?  Does it take days to fill up your dishwasher, or does the poor thing struggle to keep up with your capacity to dirty every dish and utensil that you own?  If you are concerned with your weight or your health, I suggest you make friends with your kitchen.  Or at least make friends with someone else who knows their way around and doesn’t mind sharing!

Let’s say Grace . . .

The tradition of saying grace before eating is in danger of dying out along with the shared family meal.  If your household is like mine, where we grab food out of the fridge and eat standing in the kitchen, eat on the run or eat in front of the computer or TV, then it has probably been awhile since you have sat down with a beautiful plate of food in front of you and took a moment to express gratitude for the gift you are about to enjoy.

How about for a change we begin our meals, as well as our discussions on health and nutrition by “saying grace “? Doing so, in the way that I envisage, might mean a great deal more than a simple prayer mumbled mindlessly before tucking in to the bounty before us.

After months of reading everything I could find on the subject of nutrition, in an effort to cure myself of chronic hunger and the resulting problem with my weight, it suddenly struck me that I needed to pause for a moment and remember to “say grace”  like my mother taught me as a young child. The spiritual discipline of expressing thanks for food before thoughtlessly devouring it has more merit than we might imagine.  “Mindful Eating” is being taught to the generation who has forgotten how to feed themselves in an effort to curb overeating.  Saying grace is one way to eat “mindfully” and might have more to do with health and weight management than you may have realized! Because by saying grace we give thanks for one miracle and request another.

The first miracle is that we have food to enjoy and to nourish ourselves.  The miracle that Mother Earth, as much as we have abused her and taken her for granted, still graciously produces food for us to eat.   That the farmer still plants his seed, the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we still have the health and strength to work to earn a living and obtain food for ourselves and our family.  When our food arrives already highly processed and pre-packaged we become disconnected from the process by which it comes to our table and lose all sense of appreciation and awe for the fact that we have it at all.  A return to local, traditional, whole food goes a long way to bringing back this sense of wonder.

The second miracle is one that we ask for in faith:  That the food we are about to eat will nourish us and bless us with health and strength for the day ahead.  We ask that the food we eat will be good for us. The prayer we used to pray as children was: “Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” This ritual is a simple acknowledgement that we eat in order to care for our bodies, that it requires a moment of grace for this to be possible at all and that it is fitting to honor those whose labor, love and creativity went into preparing the food. However, as much as we may do everything within our power to prepare a healthy meal, given the current state of our planet and our food supply, it is more appropriate than ever to appreciate that whatever benefit we may gain from our food is a blessing not to be taken for granted.  In many cases this requires nothing short of a miracle!

Most cultures and religions have festivals and traditions around the harvest, food preparation and the sharing and enjoyment of the meal.  Although these have been largely lost in our fast-paced, deadline driven western life style, recovering them can be enormously beneficial.  Yoga therapist Brandt Passalacqua, teaches eating as a practice of self-care.  He recommends beginning meals with a meditation.  See “Make Peace with Your Plate.”  I particularly like this part:

Say to yourself, “Today I will nourish myself in the best way I know how. In this moment I am nourished. I have all that I need.”

How about saying grace, not just at the dinner table, but wherever food is an issue?  Discussions on the subject of diet can be remarkably ungracious.  They can become zones of conflict and fierce disagreement, or like-minded individuals can subtly use their particular diet as a way to create a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction at the expense of those that don’t happen to buy into their approach to food.  This is particularly true of  judgmental, condescending attitude made socially acceptable by “the cult of beauty” so revered in western culture.  One of my favorite Joey scenes from Friends illustrates the ungraciousness of it all really well:

My mother was a gracious lady who not only taught me to say grace before eating, but to behave graciously when sharing food with others.  Once incident from my childhood is especially vivid in my memory.  Having been raised a vegetarian, I had a hard time understanding and accepting that meat is food.  We were at a meal with friends and family where meat was served, and I must have said something childish and inappropriate, expressing distaste at the meat dishes on the table.  I was sharply pulled aside by my mother and informed that I had just behaved very rudely and that one never criticizes the food on someone else’s plate because by doing so you are criticizing and rejecting them and hurting their feelings.  I learned a valuable lesson that day, not only in social graces, but about the sacredness of food.  Just because it isn’t something you happen to eat because of personal or dietary preference, it is still food and still worthy of the proper respect*

In addition to often being quite unkind, diets are usually reductionist.  Food is deconstructed down to almost atomic level and the concern is almost exclusively with macro and micronutrients and calories.  What if eating “whole food” means more than not overly processing it physically, but also not over-processing it intellectually?  A big part of eating whole food is appreciating the “whole food.”  Not just what is in the food, but the food in it’s completeness and fullness: It’s taste, texture, color and smell.  The intricate natural process by which it was grown.  The physical labor and skill of the farmer. The effort, planning and creativity of the chef.  The family ties and social bonds that it reinforces.  The celebration that it invites us to join.  The beauty of enjoying it, not only as fuel but as food in which we delight and take great pleasure.

Michael Pollan discusses the problem of “nutritionism” and the resulting reductionism in “In Defense of Food”  in which we regard food as a “delivery vehicle for nutrients.” Since nutrients are invisible you need experts to tell you how to eat.  Experts that can help us look past the food itself to the nutrients it contains and use this a basis to dictate what to eat and what to avoid.  As Pollan puts it:

“As soon as you accept the nutrient view of science, you accept the expert driven food culture. It’s sort of like a religion . . . We need a priesthood to navigate the relationship for us.”

He goes on to say that food gets divided up into “evil” nutrients that we try to drive from the food supply, and “blessed” nutrients, that if we can just get enough of will cure all our ills and possibly allow us to live forever!  With nutritionism the whole point of eating is about health and what we eat ranges on a spectrum from destroying your health on one end to redeeming it on the other.  However, Pollan tries to remind us that throughout history people have eaten for a great number of other, equally legitimate reasons: Pleasure, Community and Identity.  He warns that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of food to a very narrow set of “nutritionist” beliefs, which wouldn’t be so bad if it worked.  However, he points out that reducing food to a question of health hasn’t actually made us any healthier!  Ain’t that the truth!

The nutritionist approach to food doesn’t work for my fledgling attempts to learn how to feed myself again, nor is it helpful in the Bold Experiment.  I can’t afford to leave what I eat up to “the experts” because so far they haven’t been able to help me.  Nor can I reduce food purely to a question of health via the demonization and deification of a list of macro and micronutrients.  Among other things I would like what I eat to nourish me and improve my health, but in so doing I don’t want to give up eating for pleasure, put strain on my relationship with others or lose my identity.  For me “nutritionism” is a recipe for disaster because it creates disordered eating – in my case yo-yo dieting and mindless binge eating when it all gets too overwhelming.  I am trying to avoid replacing my junk food addiction with “orthorexia” – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating! (Pollan)

I am learning to feed myself again.  Learning to say grace again.  It’s helping me and maybe it can help you too.  Before you open your mouth to put food in it, or say something about what the person next to you is eating, don’t forget to say grace!

* I believe that the respect for food should be extended to all whole foods.  The same is not necessarily true for processed food and junk food specifically when it functions as a drug.  This “food” should be named for what it is and put where it belongs.  However, the person consuming it should always be treated with the utmost grace and kindness.  If junk food calories are really the only ones available, one should still say grace over them, and hope they will do some good, but this is never ideal and the aim should always be to restore whole food to your own food supply and that of others.

“Open Wide” – Who’s feeding you?

I was reading some articles on nutrition and obesity yesterday and I had one of my “depressed and confused” moments that I get from time to time.  Ever since I have started seriously trying to figure out a good diet for myself, I have times where I get overwhelmed by how much contradictory information is out there.  When it comes to nutrition you can find an “expert” who will take a contrary view on just about anything.  Some will tell you that saturated fats are the devil, and others will say eggs and butter are perfectly healthy and should be back on the menu.  Some advise you to restrict fruit and eliminate all grains. If you read enough for long enough you won’t feel safe eating anything! If someone starts trying to prove that drinking fresh water and breathing clean air is bad for you I won’t be surprised. So what is an ordinary, struggling person to make of all this? I am not a dietician, doctor or personal trainer, but I have been to many of them, and have tried their advice with limited success.  I have no wish to become an “expert” on any of this, but I do feel compelled to learn enough to navigate my own way through the maze of nutritional advice in an effort to recover my health and well-being. After all, if my weight is my “personal responsibility” then I need enough reliable information to behave responsibly, don’t I? Yet when I see how even the experts can’t agree at the most basic level, I think I must be naive in the extreme to think that I can work this all out for myself.

The only way I can stop myself from going stark raving bonkers is to think about what has been going on in my own body in the last few months. I can’t help but conclude that something is working.  My diet is a success by every possible metric of success that means anything to me:

  1. My diabetes is controlled without medication.
  2. I am no longer hypertensive.
  3. I have lost 26 kgs and 5 dress sizes in 4 months.
  4. I sleep like a baby, have plenty of energy and get restless if I sit still for too long whereas I was barely able to move off the couch before.
  5. I have no cravings, never get ravenously hungry and love my food enough to eat this way forever.
  6. My skin and hair look noticeably better and healthier.
  7. People are starting to comment.
  8. I am no longer plagued by headaches, diarrhea, constipation, excessive thirst or getting up multiple times a night to use the loo.
  9. I get on the scale every morning and every morning I weigh a little less.  The weight loss will stop for a few weeks from time to time, and then resume on it’s own. This stop/start progress seems unrelated to my food intake or activity level in that I am eating and exercising fairly consistently whether I am losing or not.  But there is a definite, steady downward trend and as long as that continues I can just keep doing what I am doing for as long as it takes.

I should be over the moon, so why do I still have crushing moments of self-doubt? I’ll tell you:

  1. My diet is not low-fat enough for the low-fat people. Even though I have a pair of old pants so big that they simply drop off me (they fit a year ago!), I worry that I may be clogging my arteries with coconut oil or raising my bad cholesterol by eating too many eggs.
  2. My diet is not low-carb enough for the low-carb people.  Sure, I have cut out all refined grains, haven’t touched a white potato in months and have greatly reduced my sugar intake.  But I still eat any fruit I damn well please, pretty much whenever I feel like it and I flatly refuse to cut out whole grains and legumes.
  3. My diet is not low-calorie enough for the low-calorie diet police.  Without really trying I am eating far more human-sized portions and not having seconds, but I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and that means more calories than a committed calorie counter would think prudent and certainly far too many to explain my rate of weight loss under the “calories in/calories out” model.
  4. I cook too much of my food for the raw foodists and refuse to juice my veggies and throw away the precious fiber.
  5. The amount of eggs and dairy I eat would make a vegan cry.  (Raw milk btw, which is illegal in some countries!  Not mine apparently.)
  6. I eat no meat or fish at all and any self-respecting cave man would laugh me to scorn. (In my defense I supplement with fish oil, but that’s as far as it goes!)

By just about any diet theory out there I should be getting fatter, not thinner.  Sicker, not healthier. Robert Lustig argues that the common features of all successful, healthy diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber and that is about the only thing that makes a modicum of sense to me.  I think his argument at least partly explains it, because I get fiber every which way I can think of and watch sugar like a hawk (although I probably eat more than he would like me to and I do use alternative sweeteners like xylitol and stevia, which I understand is risky until there is more research on these).  However, I would suggest that there is a third feature of a successful diet that is just as important:  you have to love it enough to marry it and live happily ever after!  You can’t be fantasizing about when it will all be over and you can eat chips again!

My recent diet blues have given me a shocking insight.  I think the problem with the Western diet is that people no longer know how to feed themselves!  Food is a veritable battle ground and the struggle for control begins from the moment someone “plays aeroplane” with a spoonful of pureed carrots and tells you to “open wide.”  A critical part of early development is to move a child from breast milk to solid food, teach them the child to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and ultimately to procure and prepare food for themselves. But something has gone horribly wrong and grown adults have reverted to an infant state where we let a variety of “experts” play aeroplane with us while we “open wide” and swallow the whole thing!  Most of us have given up on feeding ourselves and alternate between letting the food industry or the diet industry feed us.  Or both at once, because the food industry has a product line for every recommendation the diet industry ever came up with!

Until very recently I believed that my weight problem was 100% my personal responsibility, just like the food industry told me it was.  Nothing anyone else could say or think of me for being fat was anything close to the hateful things I said to myself when I looked in the mirror. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my only emotion was shame.  The voice in my head said “You did this to yourself, you know!”  The problem was I thought taking “personal responsibility” meant “making healthy choices” in a supermarket, based on the information they saw fit to provide.  Once I realized that this “information” is concocted by their marketing department and the only motive is profit, I started to realize how heavily the deck was stacked against me all along.  The aisles in the supermarket are as gaudy and colorful as the Vegas Strip, and just as much of a gamble.  No matter how much you are tempted to roll the dice, just remember that the house always wins!

I just finished watching “The Men Who Made Us Fat.”  The inescapable conclusion is that taking “personal responsibility” doesn’t mean “making healthy choices” and going for a brisk walk after lunch.  It means telling the whole food industry to go to hell and take their “food products” and “labels” with them!  They never have and never will have our best interests at heart, so let’s be done with them as much as we possibly can!  I realize this may be well near impossible, but at least we can try to send a bit of a message. They can’t be trusted to put 2 ingredients together without jeopardizing our health so if you do buy anything from them it better not need a label or if it does, it should have as few ingredients as possible and you should be able to pronounce all of them.

I had a very different shopping experience the other day buying some fruit and veg from a local farmer.  She was remarkably unassuming, just standing behind a table filled with her fresh produce and a scale.  Not a price or a label in sight. There was nothing eye-catching, no “specials” no advertising, no “health claims” of any kind and I don’t think anyone was standing around to study my buying behavior!  She had grown it all, she hadn’t messed with it and now she was selling it.  Since she was there in person she could answer any questions I wanted to put to her:

“Hi, lovely tomatoes you have today.  Where do you grow them?”

She pointed, indicating just up the road – “Over there ma’am.”

“When did you pick them?

“This morning ma’am.”

“Are they organic?”

Sounding vaguely offended: “Of course ma’am, we only sell organic here.”  (I should have known better than to ask, she wouldn’t have been allowed to sell at this market if it wasn’t, no labeling required!)

Sure the small farmer also has a profit motive. She needs to make a living just like the rest of us.  But it’s a profit motive I can work with.  She just has a little to sell and, judging by the queues of people who, like me, have come looking for a bit of real food, she is going to sell out before the day is over.  And then she packs up and goes home.  She has no incentive to employ any special tactics to get anyone to buy more than they need.  She has some seasonal fruit and veg. If it’s not in season, you’re out of luck, if you want it you can buy it, when it’s sold out, that’s the end.  I leave this shopping trip, well pleased with the day’s purchases and start thinking about what I will make for dinner.

So why is my diet working?  I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with who is feeding me these days.  It’s not about personal responsibility but shared responsibility.  My part was finding a few reasonably honest people committed to producing real food, taking it home and making something decent with it.  Their part was not trying to push more and more food down my throat until I explode! 🙂

I am far from smug about this.  I realize that it is an unbelievable privilege to live within easy travelling distance of so much fertile farm land, and that some of that land is still in the hands of small farmers.  I am incredibly lucky that I have money to buy food and that the food I want and need is cheap enough to fit my budget.  I am one of a tiny percentage of people left in the world who can do this.  I shudder to think about people in inner cities with too little money and too many cheap calories and not a vegetable in sight.  Or people who have been alienated from their land, struggling with poverty, drought and famine who haven’t got enough to eat at all. Maybe it’s time to stop sitting in a corner feeling ashamed of our personal failings and time to start asking some hard questions about who is feeding us.  Time to learn to eat our veggies without parental or government supervision, prepare our own food and stop “opening wide” for the guy with a large fork and an even larger profit motive!  Maybe it’s time to share and make sure that everyone has enough and no one has too much.  Time for more real food, no more drive-throughs and definitely no more diets!  How’s that for a radical idea?

“No thanks, I’ve had enough” – What’s that about?!

The herb flatbread was delicious.  I made it myself.  I revelled in the earthy feel as I kneaded the fresh oregano, olives and rosemary into the dough.  I enjoyed seeing it take shape under my rolling pin. By the time I rubbed olive oil, sea salt and more fresh herbs on top of the unbaked bread I thought to myself “wow, I am practically a chef!”  The smell as it baked in the oven was intoxicating. By the time lunch was served the stage was set for a bit of bready over-indulgence.

Herb bread

Herb bread: one plain, one with caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese

Bread is a rare treat for me these days.  I have it once or twice a week at the most and only one slice when I do.  Even then it is homemade, slow rising, with stone ground whole grain flour that I get from Eureka Mills.  Let me save you the trouble: no bread that you can buy in a supermarket can be trusted.  Don’t kid yourself with “Low GI”, “High Fiber,” “Seed Loaf” etc.  They are all made with white flour with a bit of bran added back in.  As much as I love good bread, I try to eat more of my grains completely whole (not ground at all) such as whole oats, quinoa, amaranth etc.

But where there is soup, there must be bread and we were having mushroom soup for lunch.  Hence the herb bread experiment.  I dished up 2 slices to go with my soup whereas these days I normally try to stick to one (in the bad old days I could have eaten the entire flatbread without thinking anything of it)  However, the smell of the bread had messed with my head, and hence 2 slices made their way to my plate.

Let me tell you something a bit embarrassing about myself.  On occasion I might manage to resist going for seconds.  But I have a strict “leave no carb behind” policy for whatever is already on my plate! Once the food is dished up, I have claimed it in the name of my kingdom. It will be mine, oh yes, it will be mine!  When it is in front of me I am not one to worry my pretty little head with the annoying thought that maybe I shouldn’t eat the whole thing.

As good as the bread was, the mushroom soup was pretty darned incredible as well, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s easy recipe.  He had this brilliant suggestion of topping the soup with a bit of lemon juice and lemon zest, which made for a fascinating flavor combination.  I was having my fill of surprising and complimentary tastes and textures, which always raises my level of satisfaction with the meal.

There I was cheerfully eating my bread and soup, well pleased with myself for having produced this meal in my very own kitchen, when I reached for that second piece.  Suddenly I had a very strong, but very unfamiliar message from my brain.  Translated into English the message said: “No thanks, I’ve had enough.”  Whaaaat???  This was a piece of freshly baked, fragrant herb bread we were talking about!  I had already decided to eat it.  I hadn’t exactly gorged myself either.  Just one bowl of soup and one slice of bread. What nonsense was this of having had enough?  I regarded the piece of bread.  It looked utterly delicious as before, but suddenly the thought of eating it seemed completely illogical to me.  It ended up in the fridge in a Ziploc bag for future consumption.

I am sure normal people have no idea what I am talking about.  I bet they have this impulse every day and can’t see how it can possibly merit a blog post.  But maybe there is someone else out there who gets it. Sure, I do stop eating when I am full.  It’s just that this usually well past the point of what I should be eating.  Especially when it comes to “cravable” foods like bread.   The reason that this is remarkable to me is that I stopped eating, not because I was over-full, nor was it because I was exercising restraint or “will power.”  I had already decided to have that second slice.  But some other, here-to-fore unfamiliar intelligence, decided otherwise.

Is it possible that my brain is starting to “see” leptin?  That magical hormone that tells normal people when they have had enough, making them behave, well, like normal people.  The one that many overweight people appear to be resistant to.  If so this is a great relief!  For the past few months I have been free of hunger pangs and cravings, but feeling full enough to stop before finishing what is on my plate is a new experience to me.  My mission is to eat food so delicious that I never crave junk food, so satisfying that I never get hungry, so nutritious that my body gets everything it needs and low enough in calories to steadily and naturally lose weight.  If this bread incident is anything to go by, then score one for The Bold Experiment!