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!

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“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!

Happy Easter!

Let’s face it: Easter is a chocolate holiday.  You can run from it or you can embace it.  Being the chocolate lover that I am, I chose the latter.

I consider chocolate to be one of life’s great pleasures.  I once owned a fridge magnet that read: “Chocolate isn’t only for breakfast.”  Indeed, I am quite capable of eating chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snacks in between!  Obviously this is far from ideal.  When I began my most recent weight loss attempt, chocolate got banned along with my other favorite snack foods.  However, chocolate is making a comeback in my diet in a very interesting way.

When figuring out how to eat, I came to the conclusion that foods need to be divided into 3 categories:

  1. Total abstinence:  These are not really foods at all, they are drugs and they have to go.  They are the foods that promote addiction and are toxic when consumed at high doses over a prolonged period of time. Foods that you should just have one of at the very most, but you can’t. Soda, french fries and donuts are at the top of my list.  I am sure you have your own.
  2. Regular inclusion:  These, for want of a better word, are “whole foods” or “real foods.”  Vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, eggs,dairy and whole grains all make the cut for me.  Of course, you might choose to restrict or eliminate certain whole foods because of allergies or intolerance (gluten, nuts, dairy) or dietary preferences (meat, animal products).  However, they are still real food with health benefits, they just don’t happen to work for you, but can form a healthy part of a balanced diet for someone else.  I would argue that if you decide to restrict one of these real foods, please have a logical, practical and personal reason for doing so.  Don’t do it just because it is the current diet fad, or food phobia that someone has inflicted on you!
  3. Moderation and appreciation:  This category is reserved for “the finer things in life.”  Whatever it is that having a little of just makes life worth living for you.  Foods that are relatively harmless, or even mildly beneficial when consumed in moderation, but where over-consumption is problematic.  This is where chocolate fits into my diet.

The secret to moderation in category number 3 is appreciation. You need to be able to have just a little, enjoy it thoroughly and then stop because you have had enough.  How does this work in practice?  Chocolate is a great example for me.  Most commercial chocolate is all about quantity over quality.  If you can consume 100 grams of your favorite chocolate without even blinking, you are doing it wrong!  If you are going to have chocolate at all, I propose that it should be the finest, most expensive chocolate that money can buy.  Chocolate that melts in your mouth, overwhelms you with a burst of complex flavors and leaves you completely satisfied after one or two blocks.  To begin with, this means dark chocolate.  For me milk and white chocolate have been consigned to category #1 because they are high in sugar and hydrogenated fat.  One of the reasons why dark chocolate is often praised for it’s health benefits is that it is consists of 70% (or more) of cacoa and cacoa butter and  only 30% sugar.  Note that the fat in your chocolate must be real cacoa butter, and not cheap and unhealthy vegetable oil.  Sugar should never be the first ingredient as this indicates that the manufacturer has replaced healthy cacao with unhealthy sugar to save on cost. Cacao is considered a “superfood” because of it’s high anti-oxidant and magnesium content, among other things.  It also makes you feel good because of certain brain altering compounds that can ease depression or produce euphoria.  And therein may lie the problem – too much of a good thing is not such a good thing anymore.

I am of the opinion that any “treat” food should have an inbuilt mechanism to limit consumption.  Like my cake experiment.  With the cake the limit is imposed by the high fiber content that makes you feel really full and unable to reach for another.  I have also discovered that the same can be true for chocolate, although for a different reason.  By only eating really good dark chocolate, I naturally only desire an appropriate amount.  I am happy to pay whatever it costs for high quality dark chocolate, because I know it isn’t going to suck me in to addictive eating.  I can no longer stomach commercial milk chocolate which I find ridiculously sweet and devoid of real chocolate flavor.

Producing high quality, self-limiting treat foods is not in the interests of a food industry that wants to sell a high volume of products.  For this you need to seek out artisanal producers who respect the food they are working with and are passionate about quality and taste. Expect to pay handsomely and do so gladly, because you are getting something truly special. My current favorite chocolate in the whole wide world is from DV Chocolates.  (I also love Cacoa Bella in San Francisco, but I don’t live there so need to rely on my most awesomest brother to bring me some occasionally.)  DV Chocolates is an artisanal producer located in the Cape Winelands.  They make 6 varieties of single-origin chocolate and offer tastings and chocolate appreciation workshops.  I love the concept of single-origin chocolate because it allows you to approach chocolate tasting as you would wine tasting.  Instead of eating large quantities for the sugar rush, you eat just a little for the flavor and see if you can identify the different flavor compounds and learn to distinguish one from the other.  DV Chocolates also kindly provides a detailed explanation of the health benefits of chocolate so you can enjoy the experience guilt free 🙂 My husband and I now have a daily ritual where we enjoy one or two blocks of this exquisite chocolate.  This serves a two-fold purpose: satisfies our chocolate craving and kills our desire for all other chocolate. Be warned: when you eat really good chocolate, all other chocolate you eat forever after is bound to disappoint.  If this means eating just a little healthy chocolate and none of the unhealthy commercial kind then this is a very good thing!

Single origin dark chocolate

DV Chocolates single-origin dark chocolate. One of each!

One of the most interesting benefits of chocolate, currently under investigation, is it’s ability to stimulate the same muscle response as vigorous exercise as a result of a compound called epicatechin.  See “Chocolate as good for you as exercise.”  What is even more exciting than the mouse study referenced in that post is a study done on human patients with advanced heart failure and type 2 diabetes.  After 3 months of supplementing with chocolate, the researchers looked at the abundance and volume of cristae, the compartments necessary for the efficient function of mitochondria:

“The cristae had been severely damaged and decreased in quantity in these patients,” said one of the senior investigators, Francisco J. Villarreal, MD, PhD of UC San Diego’s Department of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology. “After three months, we saw recovery — cristae numbers back toward normal levels, and increases in several molecular indicators involved in new mitochondria production.”  From Science Daily

This study was sufficiently promising that a larger study on the effects of dark chocolate on the exercise capacity in sedentary individuals is currently underway.  Unfortunately I am not one of the lucky participants, so I am conducting my own study at home.  Purely in the interests of science, you understand. I will let you know how it turns out!

I have one other way I sometimes like to enjoy chocolate – making it myself.  In this panel discussion Michael Pollan suggests that one way to limit overconsumption of foods that should be enjoyed as occasional treats is to make them yourself.  The idea is that the effort involved will act as a deterrent against indulging too frequently. His example is french fries, but I find them too easy to make and would cheerfully make them every day, so in my case that is a terrible idea.  I do like the principle, however. Chocolate is challenging enough to qualify. I find making my own lots of fun, but a totally exhausting all-day affair so I can only see myself doing it once in a blue moon. An added advantage of making my own is that I can use xylitol instead of sugar as the sweetener.  I found organic, raw cacao and cacao butter from Soaring Free Superfoods.  I then treated myself to a wonderful recipe book by raw food dessert chef, Heather Pace: Raw Chocolate Dream. (Heather, here’s some free advertising for you: “You must buy it, you must buy it now!”)  I replace the agave syrup (which is essentially the same thing as High Fructose Corn Syrup) with a xylitol syrup that I make by melting xylitol in a little water on the stove.  I also reduce the amount as I find it too sweet otherwise.

Since it is Easter I thought it was the perfect time to try out my budding chocolatier skills.  I did pecan and cranberry squares, puffed amaranth blocks and filled chocolates using the Moonie Mint Pie recipe from “Raw Chocolate Dream.”  I currently have a thing for puffed amaranth and I read that it is made into chocolate candy as a traditional treat in South America, so I just had to give that a try! The amaranth blocks were my favorites from my latest chocolate adventure because the crunch inside the chocolate is like a party in your mouth.  As you can see, my chocolate bunnies need practice as their minty insides are coming out a bit along the sides.  Did I mention that making your own chocolates is incredibly difficult?  However, for better or worse, here is my Easter basket:

Homemade Easter Chocolates

Homemade Easter chocolates

Whatever the celebrations of your culture and religion, if they involve food, this is meant to be enjoyed heartily with family and friends.  We had some good friends over for a wholesome meal involving Jamie Oliver’s mushroom soup, come crusty whole wheat herb bread and loads of delicious fresh veggies. For dessert we brought out some homemade Easter chocolate.  Because if you can’t enjoy chocolate for Easter, then what’s the point?

Coconuts – A love story

2013 is the Year of the Coconut for me.  We met one sultry summer evening over cocktails, fell in love, and now I harbor dreams of moving to a tropical paradise where I can have a little coconut tree of my own some day!

Coconut Drink

Coconut Drink. Image courtesy of Stockvault

The smell of coconuts conjures up images of summer, the beach and holidays.  The taste is like nothing else on earth.  But not only are they exotic and delicious, I had no idea that the humble coconut had so many uses!  I now can’t imagine cooking without:

  1. Coconut oil
  2. Coconut milk
  3. Coconut cream
  4. Coconut butter
  5. Coconut flour
  6. Coconut palm sugar

If someone sends you out for milk, bread, butter, flour, oil and sugar, just get a coconut and tell them to make their own! 🙂

For years I was afraid of coconuts and regarded them more as a “guilty pleasure” than a health food, because of the saturated fat content, so when I read that coconut oil was a good oil to use in cooking I was highly skeptical.  However, I was reassured by the explanation that they contain medium chain fatty acids, (MCT) which have actually been shown to assist in weight management, and can lower overall food intake by promoting a feeling of satiety!  According to this article one study showed that coconut oil has a thermogenic effect and can significantly raise the metabolism for up to 24 hours after intake.  I am a sucker for anything that sounds like it might give me the edge in The Hunger Games.  Once I heard that coconut oil could assist with insulin resistance and slow the digestive process, so that glucose is released more slowly into the blood stream,  I just had to give it a try.

Result: It is the most beautiful oil I have ever cooked with, stable at high temperatures, it locks in the flavor of whatever seasoning I am using and lends a wonderfully exotic aroma and taste to my dish.

I am still cautious, especially because some of the literature suggests that over consumption of MCT can lead to a build up of fat in the liver.  However, this may only be the case if the oil is hydrogenated, so I am taking my chances with virgin coconut oil used in moderation for the time being.  After all, island populations have been consuming diets high in coconut oil for centuries with no ill effects. (See this article for an excellent discussion of the benefits of coconut oil)

I have been using coconut oil and coconut milk for the past 2 months and the biggest difference to me is that it has absolutely killed my craving for junk food items such as donuts and french fries. Finally I can walk through a supermarket and be completely unmoved by the smells from the bakery or the sweets in the check out line! I had already improved my diet and lost weight, but I date the end of cravings almost precisely to the day I added coconut oil and milk to my diet! It also helps me stay full for hours, so that makes me very happy indeed!  However, I only recently discovered coconut palm sugar and coconut flour.  First the sugar:  It is an unrefined sugar with a measurable nutrient content. However, even though coconut palm sugar is reported to have a low GI (35) I am using it very rarely and only in baking with a very high fiber content to mitigate the effects of the sucrose. Although it is a sugar, with all the hazards that sugar entails, once again coconut palm sugar is an absolute winner on taste!  It has a complex, rich, caramel/butterscotch taste  that is just gorgeous. The thing is, coconut palm sugar is mostly sucrose (50% glucose – 50% fructose) so use with extreme caution if at all.  Personally, I confess that it is part of my coconut love affair, but only under one condition . . .

. . .to be used in baking with coconut flour.  Coconut flour is the last of my coconut discoveries and potentially one of the most exciting.  I have been making coconut milk for awhile now, because I want to get away from the BPA in canned food as well as the additives in commercial coconut milk.  I always felt wasteful when I threw away the pulp but didn’t know what to do with it.  To my delight I recently learned that I can use this to make coconut flour!  I immediately popped some coconut pulp in the oven, ground it in the food processor and shortly thereafter the perfect cake was born!

Imagine if you could eat a cake that contained an inbuilt limitation on consumption, not only of the cake itself but on everything else you might consider eating thereafter?  Such a cake would be worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, in my opinion! As Ricky Gervais points out, fat people f’ing love cake.  It’s true, we do.  It’s not why we’re fat, but that’s a whole other story . . .Ricky’s novel solution is to put cake behind a door too small for fat people to fit through.  Not a bad suggestion, but I think I have a better one!  You know the problem with cakes and cookies is that you can’t only have one?  Well I just made a batch of absolutely delicious ginger-pear muffins , and the best thing about them is you can only have one!

Sound too good to be true?  The secret ingredient is the coconut flour, which is extremely high in insoluble fiber (a whopping 6 grams per serving).  They also have oat flour, which provides the soluble fiber. You only use a third of coconut flour to replace any regular flour the recipe calls for because it is highly absorbent. The muffins are light and fluffy and give you all the warm fuzzy cake feelings in your mouth, but when they hit your stomach it is feels like the opposite of cake !  After just one you feel as if you have just overdone it at an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet!   End the meal with one of these babies and then just try going for seconds, I dare you!

Ginger-Pear muffins

Ginger-Pear muffins with coconut flour

So that’s it, I love coconuts in all their forms.  If you hear that I have eloped with a coconut, never to be heard from again, don’t be surprised! 🙂 I hope they are healthy as the current hype claims.  If not it is going to be a painful divorce.  But in the meantime they have added a wonderful dimension to my cooking and they are helping me feel full and satisfied like never before!  That has to be a good thing, right?

Diet and Children – Is it all up to the parents?

I recently heard someone who opposes the regulation of sugary food argue for “personal responsibility” and when asked “what about children?” the response was “well, that’s parental responsibility.”    Articles such as this one argue much along the same lines: Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility. Really?!

When I hear stuff like this I am grateful that I don’t have kids, because I know that getting them to eat right would be a challenge that I would not be equal to!  However, it has lead me to reflect on my own childhood, the diet I was raised on and the diet I ended up with.

I can’t say enough about my late mother and her understanding of nutrition and the immense skill and patience with which she tried to raise my brother and myself to eat a healthy diet.  I often smile when I think about how much of the “eat real food” advice I am embracing now is exactly the principle that governed cooking and meals in our home.  So much so that I am even digging up her old recipes, and going through boxes in the garage to find old appliances that I used when I learned to cook as a child and later inherited for my own kitchen.  (I have her electric mixer that is older than I am and still works like a dream.) Never was there a mother more committed to giving her kids “the best start in life.”  Although I wasn’t exactly paying conscious attention at the time, I am told that she ate the best possible diet while she was pregnant with me.  She was lean and healthy at the start of her pregnancy and remained that way until shortly before her death.  I was, it goes without saying, breast-fed.

Once I started on solid food my mother tried, with the force of a thousand angels, to keep 2 things out of my diet: sugar and meat.  We’ll get to the meat bit in a moment, but she was up against it from the start when it came to sugar.  I am told that a nurse fed me sweetened condensed milk while I was in the neonatal unit, unbeknown to my starry-eyed 22 year old mom.  When she found out about this she was near hysterical with outrage, and she got to take home her first baby with streaming diarrhea, most likely as a result of the ministrations of this nurse.  I am not sure who told her, but my mother seemed well aware that sugar at high doses is toxic, especially to newborn infants!  However, she got a hard early lesson in just how much “parental control” she would get to exert over the diet of her first born daughter.

Once she had me safely at home, I am told that there was no more sugar for the first few years of my life.  Until a certain someone named granny arrived on the scene!  You know how grandparents are.  The dote on their grandkids and want nothing more than to make them happy.  So granny dearest snuck me my first chocolate and it was love at first bite.  Again, I was later to learn that this was the cause of considerable tension between my mom and my gran.  My gran, however, did not cease and desist from supplying the choccies, she would just slip them to me with the admonition “Don’t tell your mom.”  I was only about 3 years old, but I was eager to play along because I understood that secrecy was key to my continued chocolate supply, and to this day I can’t help but feel that we would have got away with it, had she not made the fatal error of giving me Smarties (candy coated chocolates like M&Ms).  As I clutched the precious treasures in my 3 year old fists, the food coloring came off in my hands, and was later transferred all over my cherubic visage, so when my mom arrived to take me home, gran and I were literally caught red handed!  I will confess that when asked by my mom who had given me the Smarties, I ratted out granny without a moment’s hesitation!

So my theory is that despite my mom’s best efforts, between the nurse and my grandmother the damage was done, and I have been engaging in drug seeking . . . uhm . . I mean sugar seeking behaviors ever since.  My mother began allowing occasional treats at home in the hope that she could prevent my rebellion by not depriving me completely, but alas, these treats were merely in addition to the ones I was obtaining elsewhere, not my total intake. There were the kids at school who I would do lunch trades with, the other kid’s parents who would ply me with candy when I played at their house, and of course, the school tuck shop where I could just blow my pocket money on the cheapest sweets available.  What’s more, when it came to anything containing sugar I was highly susceptible to advertising.  If a new chocolate came onto the market, I simply had to try it.  And then try it again a few more times to confirm that I really liked it as much as I thought I did 🙂  I remember thinking that eternal bliss and happiness would be mine, if my mother would only succumb and buy me Froot Loops instead of that 7 grain porridge she would lovingly prepare at home and cajole me into eating.

So you get the picture: Mom doing everything right, offering whole foods and occasional treats, encouraging healthy eating every which way she could think of.  Me, the addict, sourcing my own supply through skilled manipulation of well-meaning relatives, an illicit sweet trade with friends, and, when I entered the free market as the proud owner of a monthly allowance, through my own buying behavior. I therefore put it to the journalist who argues that “junk food studies ignore parent responsibility” that he has failed to consider a child’s resourcefulness!  Radford writes:

But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can’t say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that’s not McDonald’s fault; that’s poor parenting.

He can argue this only because he asserts that the parent is the only person who feeds a child and that children are only able to obtain food from parents.  From this I can only conclude that he is either not a parent, or his kids are remarkably maleable and compliant! I, on the other hand, employed my resourcefulness, not only as an older child, but from the moment I could bat my eyes and look cute.  Family legend has it that as a toddler I would wander around restaurants taking french fries off the plates of other patrons, much to my parents’ horror.  When they tried to intervene and teach me some manners, the other patrons kept reinforcing my bad behavior by offering me more, because I was a cute kid.  You can imagine how easy it was to get me to eat my vegetables with so many more appealing options available to me!

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to a low sugar diet, I was also raised a vegetarian.  Now given my track record on sugar consumption, what do you think my level of compliance was for avoiding meat? Was I scoring cheese burgers on the side? Was I taking a bite out of grandpa’s steak or spending my lunch money on hot dogs?  Given the lengths to which I would go to obtain a food item I craved, would it surprise you to learn that my compliance on the meat issue was 100% and has been to this day?  This notwithstanding a huge amount of social pressure to eat meat, ample opportunity to do so behind my mother’s back and just as many willing accomplices eager to slip me a chicken wing as there were pushing candy my way.  I was having none of it.  No way, no how, not interested, not now, not ever, take your meat as far away from me as possible thank you very much!  I could detect meat at 100 paces and would go to any lengths to avoid it, with or without parental supervision.

The purpose of this post is not to argue the merits or demerits of a vegetarian diet, but this story from my upbringing is fascinating to me and makes me think “parental responsibility” isn’t a simple answer to the problem of childhood obesity.  Here we have the same parents, the same kid, and the same set of circumstances.  And yet on the meat issue their parental authority achieves 100% sovereignty and success, but on the sugar issue they score exactly 0%?  Of course we know that babies come out of the womb craving sweet stuff, so in an environment where sweet stuff is readily available, who seriously rates parents as having a decent chance of keeping their children’s intake at acceptable levels? People who have never tried, that’s who! Especially in a world where not everyone in the child’s social circle is on the same page about what kids should eat, and a massive food industry actively markets sugary food to kids at every turn!

You need to consider when people other than my parents gave me the bad stuff, my parents were in a position of not only having to discipline me, but they had to navigate their relationship with the other adult, and this adult was often a person they respected and wanted a good relationship with, and also needed me to respect because that person was also a carer who had charge over me for at least some of the time (grandparent, teacher, friend’s parent).  An unenviable situation, I am sure you can understand!

I know there are many parents out there who are doing an amazing job, and I look on in awe!  Neither do I presume to offer any parenting advice, as I am not qualified to do so.  All I am saying is that, after reflecting on my own upbringing, given their best possible efforts, there was nothing more that my parents could have done to prevent me from becoming a sugar addict.  And even if there are other parents who are having greater success, it is way harder for them than it should be.

While I am not denying that parents have a pivotal role to play, the food industry, government, schools and society should not get to get a free pass and simply cry “leave it to the parents!”  They should not call for parental responsibility and then use this as a license to be grossly irresponsible themselves! No responsible adult would get away with giving a toddler alcohol, and any reasonably sane person would grab bleach out of a kid’s hand before they could chug it.  But not everyone will respect the wishes of a parent not to have their child fed cookies and flavored milk!  And let’s not be naive, the food industry actively, deliberately and expertly strives to undermine parental responsibility at every turn.  So yes all you, “parental responsibility” advocates out there, if a parent is willingly buying their kid large quantities of junk food, clearly that is a problem.  But it is a massive error of logic to assume that if the parent is not doing so the child will eat their vegetables, stay off the junk and grow up healthy!  For that to happen we need a paradigm shift in society, reform in our schools, regulation of the food industry and appropriate government legislation.  Because as my former self, the sugar-loving 3 year old, with candy smeared all over her pretty little face,  can tell you:  “It ain’t going to happen any other way!”

I took my money – and I left!

Local, organic produce

Fresh, organic produce from the Blaauklippen and Route 44 Markets in Stellenbosch

You know how it goes when two kids play together.  It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child.  Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry.  For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic.  There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left!  Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!

I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer.  Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.

Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues.  They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing!  But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”.  To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you.  But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.

The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate .  Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels!  The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body.  “Make healthy choices”  we are advised.  Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section.  But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!

These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood.  The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!”  Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it.  When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave.  No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”

For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area.  I then prepare everything from scratch at home.  I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety.  I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory.  Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!

I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject.  Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better!  It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013.  Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness?  If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time.  The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then.  Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals.  I am really playing catch up here.  It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.

The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry.  They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.”  Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public.  I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet.  I would choose taste and convenience over health every time.  Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option.  The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply.  This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people.  So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do.  For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!

In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.”  What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product.  I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products!  I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food.  Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.

Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now.  And that’s politics too.  That’s voting with your fork.  Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy.  People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan

That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep.  I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

“A Calorie is a Calorie” – and other dumbass diet dogma

If trying to lose weight weren’t hard enough, us fat people have to navigate through a maze of myths and misinformation.  Today I would like to examine 3 dieting myths that have served to confound my weight loss efforts.  And no, these are not “urban legends” that no sensible person would seriously believe, they are believed and taught by professionals to this very day!

Myth #1: A Calorie is a Calorie

I recently wrote about the research Dr Robert Lustig in “Fat People are Hungry – The Science“.  I am finding his insights particularly helpful at the moment.  Above all, I love how he debunks the myth that “a calorie is a calorie“.

As anyone trying to lose weight can tell you, it’s all about the calories!  As veteran dieters we spend our lives trying to figure out how many calories our food contains and many of us can list the calorie counts per serving for various foods by heart.  We might keep food journals or count every calorie, but still we fail to shift the extra flab around our middle. I sure got the message about calories when I went on my famous “energy bar and appetite suppressant diet”.  Being of above average intelligence, I understood that it really didn’t matter what I ate, even if it was donuts, as long as I created a nice big calorie deficit!  Because a “calorie is a calorie” I dealt my poor body a double insult – ate far too little to provide proper nutrition, and the calories I did eat were the worst possible kind: a nice little cocktail of hydrogenated fat, sugar and sodium!  But “a calorie is a calorie”, right? “So how’d that work for you?”  I can hear Dr Phil ask.  Not so well, to be honest.  Sure, I lost the weight but I felt like death warmed up and as soon as I started eating again the fat came back and brought some of it’s little friends along too!  I gained back exactly double what I had lost in no time flat!

In the strictest sense of the word it is, of course, true to say that “a calorie is a calorie.”  It’s just that this is a tautology and doesn’t really convey any useful information! It is the same as saying “a pound is a pound” – duh, thanks for the newsflash!   As we well know, a pound of iron weighs the same as a pound of feathers.  True, but I know which one I would rather let you drop on my head!

The problem is that when the diet industry, personal trainers and, more latterly, Coca Cola, say that “a calorie is a calorie” they are saying a lot more than that “a calorie is the unit of measure for energy contained in food.”  What they are actually saying is that total calorie consumption is the only factor in weight loss and weight gain, whether the calorie comes from broccoli or french fries!  In the Coca Cola add they spell it out so that we are left in no doubt:

“Calories count, no matter where they come from.  Including Coca Cola and everything else that contains calories.  And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

Nice one, Coca Cola!  You would have us believe that the calories from Coke are just as innocent as calories from brussel sprouts and that the only culprit is the idiot who ate and drank too much?

I would be extremely interested in a study in which 2 groups of people consumed an equal amount of calories in excess of their daily requirements.  Except in one group the calories came from sugar sweetened beverages and in the other they came from vegetables.  I am no scientist but I am willing to stick my neck and take a bet that not only will the ones who binge on veggies be a lot healthier, they probably won’t even gain weight from their excess consumption.  If you think I am wrong, do the study and get back to me, and if the results disprove my hypothesis I will be happy to post a retraction!

Myth #2: Calories in Calories Out

How about this one then?: “Its all about Calories In, Calories Out.”  Repeat this one enough times and eventually you will believe it.  It would be so convenient if this were true: eat more calories than you burn off and you will gain weight, eat the same number of calories as what you burn off and your weight will remain stable, eat less than you burn and you will lose.  Like everyone else, I believed that one with religious fervor and so when I started my weight loss efforts a few months ago I spent ages trying to calculate my basal metabolic rate, the calories I ate, the calories I burned through my workouts and therefore the rate at which my body would respond by simply melting off the fat.  I did this in an effort to calculate how long it would take me to reach my goal weight.  Because, as you know, when losing weight “we are on a deadline, people!”  Well that turned out to be a fool’s errand if ever there was one!  Not only did it require maths I can’t possibly do, it is based on a number of mistaken beliefs:

1) That the human body is a closed system.

2) When faced with a calorie deficit the human body will preferentially burn fat.

3)  All human bodies burn energy with the same efficiency.

4) Dieting myth #1 “A calorie is a calorie” and all calories have the same effect in the body regardless of their source.

To see all of the above debunked, please watch:

Myth #3  To lose a pound of fat you need a 3500 calorie deficit

To understand why this neat little calculation doesn’t work, see myths 2 and 3!  Again – tried this one, did all the calculations, charted every work out and calorie consumed and then got to hear my scale laugh maniacally at me every day as it showed me exactly what it thought of my efforts.

You’ve got to love those moments on The Biggest Loser when some hapless contestant gets on the scale and loses a “mere” 2 pounds for the week.  Camera pans to trainer, looking aghast who says: “I don’t get that.  That just doesn’t make sense!”  Or, if they really want to be dramatic, they accuse the contestant of “throwing the weigh in”  DUM DUM DUM. . .In all seriousness though, I can only conclude that the trainers a) are putting on an act for the sake of the show b) have such an ignorant and simplistic view of the human body that they should never be allowed within 100 meters of a fat person, let alone make a career out out of helping people to lose weight!  And since I own books by the trainers on Biggest Loser and I know that they have a lot of useful advice, I can only conclude that it is the former!

By the way, I am still waiting for the Biggest Loser to let us know that the woman getting on the scale happens to be premenstrual.  I once gained a whopping 4kgs in a single day shortly before my period.  That sucked, although it was fun when I lost it all a few days later!

If you watched the video on weight loss and thermodynamics like I asked, you should now understand that if you create a calorie deficit of 3500 calories it does not follow that you will lose a pound of fat. Damn!

So what should we do then? If all the maths and science does your head in, just remember this: Your body is a magnificent and complex system and you need to figure out how to work with it rather than against it if you hope to lose weight.  When you do your level best and your scale still gives the lie to all the diet myths you have been indoctrinated with, don’t beat up on yourself!  And when you decide what to eat, forget “a calorie is a calorie” and remember the “pound of metal vs a pound of feathers” analogy.  Some “calories” will drop on your body like a ton of bricks causing pain and injury.  And others will drift by gently like feathers, doing no harm and a lot of good!  If you eat 100 calories of refined sugar, expect zero nutrition, devastating sugar spikes, weight gain and a host of other problems.  Eat 100 calories of  almonds and you will get plenty of protein, fiber, vitamin E etc and none of the harmful effects of the refined sugar.  In other words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” (Michael Pollan), go for a brisk walk, and let your weight take care of itself!

Woman lying in bed of feathers

© Innershadows | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

A Bold Experiment

If you have read through my ramblings on food, addiction and hunger thus far, you deserve a medal!  This post is going to be short and to the point and strive to answer the burning question:  “So where do I go from here?”

The picture is pretty bleak, truth be told.  At the ripe old age of 38 I am spectacularly disillusioned with my ability to lose weight by dieting, much less keep it off!  What’s more I now understand that there is a biological reason for this.  In the words of Dr Lustig: “No one can exert cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”  So where does that leave me?  Am I destined to die young and die fat?  I really hope!  In an effort to avoid this fate, I am have devised a bold experiment that seeks to determine whether it is possible to eat a diet:

  1. So delicious that I never crave junk food.
  2. So satisfying that I never get hungry.
  3. So rich in nutrition that my body gets everything it needs for health, energy and well-being.
  4. Sufficiently low in calories that I am able to reach and maintain a healthy body weight.

I also want to achieve all of the above by:

  1. Avoiding extremes.  No deprivation and no bingeing. The “weight loss” phase of the plan needs to be as similar as possible to the “maintenance” phase.
  2. Not demonizing or deifying any of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
  3. Not using any means to artificially suppress my appetite  (no pills or potions!)
  4. The concept of a dieter’s “Cheat Day” must be rendered meaningless by every-day delicious and decadent eating!

As Dr Phil would say: “It’s a good deal if you can get it!” Of course I realize a deal this sweet will come at a cost.  In order to achieve the above, I will commit to:

  1. Continually educate myself on the subjects of health and nutrition.
  2. Learn to cook and prepare my own meals from scratch.
  3. Do everything within my power to source the healthiest versions of all the foods I consume on a regular basis.
  4. Engage in regular physical exercise and strive to lead a generally active life.

The experiment will be deemed a provisional success if and when I have achieved a healthy weight and maintained it for one year, on the understanding that I would then need to commit to the plan for the rest of my life.  This blog will chart my progress for the purpose of accountability and for my own interest and entertainment.

Anyone who chooses to follow my journey:  Welcome and thank you!  Feel free to comment, offer suggestions and encouragement and ask any questions you may have about what I am doing and why.  I will try to answer to the best of my ability.

Top 10 Tips for Winning at the Hunger Games!

Let me make myself 100% clear:

I think it is unhelpful to tell hungry fat people to eat less.  However, I am absolutely convinced that the desired behavior is for them to eat less, and by “less ” I mean fewer calories, especially from refined and processed foods.  Although we can argue about all the factors that contribute to weight gain, an excessive intake of calories is clearly at least one of them.  Interestingly, in the process of eating fewer calories one may end up eating a greater volume of food and a lot more nutrients, and that is a good thing and just goes to show that just saying “eat less” without explaining what you mean by that and how to achieve it is pointless.

I do not defend overeating, but I do seek to understand it.  My quest for understanding begins with myself.  It has lead me to the conclusion that although the desired outcome is that I eat fewer calories, this is unachievable without first addressing the problem of hunger.

Here’s what I know:  If you are hungry and you have access to food, sooner or later you are going to eat.  What is more, the hungrier you are by the time you give in to the urge to eat, the more you are likely to overeat and the less healthy and rational your food choices will be.  That’s the bad news.  On the flip side, the good news is that if you eat in such a way that you are nourished and satisfied and your hunger is well managed then you will be able to eat more appropriate amounts relatively easily.  Of course while it is quite possible to overeat when you are NOT hungry purely because food is there and it tastes good, it is not inevitable and it becomes relevant to talk about things like will power, self control and common sense.  However, if you are hungry all of that goes out of the window and you can no more prevent yourself from overeating than you can hold your breath indefinitely.

So here are the top 10 things that work for me.  As I write this I am grateful that I can afford to eat in this way and embarrassed that I squandered this privilege by eating badly when there are people in the world that genuinely have nothing to eat or are unable to afford healthy food.  My experience of hunger and obesity is very much a problem of affluence, and fortunately the solution is also within my grasp because of my privileged economic position.  In future posts I will write about how much more complicated the problem becomes when poverty is factored into the equation.

1) Eat a hearty breakfast as soon after waking as possible.  I know your mother already told you this, but this one really is non-negotiable! According to the National Weight Control Registry 78% of people who maintain their weight loss in the long term eat breakfast every day.  There are many reasons for eating breakfast including: kick starting your metabolism for the day, maintaining energy and blood sugar levels etc.  The main reason for me is that it is at breakfast where the battle against hunger for the day is won or lost.  I was one of the “not hungry for breakfast” people who then started bingeing on refined carbs from midmorning until bedtime.  The thought of food first thing in the morning made me nauseous.   Now my stomach screams for breakfast like an angry baby until it is fed, and then my appetite gradually tapers off throughout the day until by evening I am done with food and ready to close the kitchen.  I have gone from eating my main meal at night, followed by incessant mindless snacking in front of the TV to not even particularly needing to eat an evening meal and being perfectly comfortable with a salad or an apple.  I did NOT do this by deciding to eat less at night.  I did it by eating more for breakfast!

2) Drink Water!  Especially: First thing when you wake up (with some lemon juice if you like) and half an hour before meals.  Then drink as much throughout the day as possible. By drinking more water I have stopped drinking other beverages including fruit juice and diet soda (do I even need to bother to mention regular soda?).  I don’t talk a lot about “cutting out” anything from my diet except when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened drinks.  These simply have to go and a habit of water drinking is critical to success.

3) Eat at regular intervals throughout the day.  Don’t allow yourself to become hungry before you eat but don’t eat past the point of satiety either. End the meal when you feel comfortable, but not “stuffed.” Initially I found that three meals and two snacks worked well for me but now I struggle to manage more than two meals and one to two snacks.   My schedule is:  Breakfast first thing, mid morning snack, lunch, light supper.  I didn’t decide that I would eat fewer meals and snacks.  I ate more earlier in the day and ended up eating less by default because it’s all I can manage.

4) Include a lean protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and plenty of fiber with every meal.  Bulk out the meal as much as possible with non-starchy vegetables.  This combination works best because you get a sustained feeling of fullness, both from the quantity of food and the composition.  I measure proteins, fats and carbohydrates very carefully and throw caution to the wind when piling on the non starchy vegetables. I find that if I just eat a big plate of steamed vegetables I still get hungry, but if I include appropriate portions of protein and fat and occasionally some whole grains, I  am sated until my next meal.  I also make sure to include protein with every snack.

5) Limit your intake of grains and make sure they are really whole grains.  I say this because the more grains I eat the more I want to eat.  Basically they make me hungrier! They also push my blood sugar too high.  Now I know that there is a lot of talk about going gluten free or grain free these days, and if that works for you good and well.  I just don’t feel good on a completely grain free diet, both physically and in terms of satisfaction with my meals.  However, I do make sure that I buy my grains from good sources, and prepare them myself.  I have also tried to make sure I eat diverse grains and severely restrict my intake of wheat and corn.  Learning to cook with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth has been fun and enjoyable.  I do not eat any grain-based food product from a supermarket or convenience store because I just don’t trust it and  I try to eat no more than 2 measured portions of whole grains a day.

6) Smoothies, Soups and Salads are your best friends and can form the basis of your meal plan.  I love all three because they are satisfying, bulky and an easy way to introduce major nutritional variety.  If I am short of ideas on what to eat I will have a smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and a salad for supper.

7) While you are still trying to control hunger, there are some great low cal or no cal options to create a feeling of fullness in-between meals and snacks.  My favorites are: Green Tea – the warmth relaxes my stomach and takes away the stab-you-in-the-gut-and-laugh hunger pang! Soaked Chia seeds – full of Omega 3, soluble fiber and other goodies and great for filling up a belly for relatively few calories. Non-starchy vegetables for an eat as much as you like buffet!

8) Don’t cut out food from your diet, crowd it out! Once you have a good understanding of what you should be eating on a daily basis, the foods you shouldn’t be eating almost become a non-issue. Don’t obsess about what you will be missing out on, and rather think about all the delicious food you are going to stock up on and enjoy from day to day. Make sure there is no room in your budget, your trolley, your kitchen cupboards and, above all, your tummy for the wrong types of food! If you eat something on a regular basis, make it earn its place in your diet. Research its nutritional profile, understand what it does to your hormones, and make sure its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. If a food is not worthy of a regular place in your diet, don’t have it in your home. Make sure home is a “safe eating” zone. This ensures that foods that should only be eaten as occasional treats are not easily accessible and tempting. We all face enough temptations as we live in the real world and we certainly don’t need them in our own kitchens!

Before starting with this approach my relationship with food was troubled to say the least. I didn’t like to think about food. I never cooked, and seldom did grocery shopping. I could never tell you in advance what I was going to eat for my next meal, and when you asked me what I felt like eating I would struggle to tell you, although it definitely wasn’t “vegetables!”  I lived from meal to meal – ate at a restaurant, got take out and if I did prepare something it was usually a sandwich.  Worst of all, although I craved it constantly, I didn’t actually enjoy my food, even the so-called delicious junk food. Now I know exactly what I am going to eat, grocery shopping is done decisively and with military precision and I really look forward to every meal!

9) Every meal should be utterly delicious and fill you with pleasure and delight. I am finally beginning to figure it out – in addition to managing hunger and eliminating cravings, it is really important to me to love the food I eat! People who struggle with weight often develop a lot of emotional issues round food that involve shame, guilt and obsessive compulsive behaviors and erroneously conclude that they are “bad” for liking food so much and that they need to suppress their appetites and put food as far out of their mind as possible. Extreme dieting can just be another part of this dysfunctional dynamic. Sooner or later your body will rebel and force you do perform the basic functions you need to stay alive, be it breathing or eating. Learning that it is healthy and normal to openly love food and derive pleasure from enjoying it is a big part of adopting a sustainable, healthy eating plan. There are so many healthy foods that deserve a place in our diets, so if you aren’t enjoying your bill of fare, keep trying out different foods and experimenting. See “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Jonny Bowden for ideas.

10) Prepare your own food! The first thing I learned in the Hunger Games was that when it comes to feeding myself, I am the only person I can trust!  Until further notice everyone with an economic interest in my food supply is guilty until proven innocent.  I have also discovered that the manufactures of processed foods are horrible chefs!  They actually don’t know how to prepare food at all, they just know how to manipulate combinations of sugar, salt and fat to promote addictive eating behaviors.  They literally have this down to a science, but I bet if you gave them a basket of fruit and vegetables and told them to turn it into a meal a kid would eat they would be at a complete loss.  This is why the “healthy version” of any processed food tastes like cardboard – because you have restricted the only ingredients the processed food industry understands.  The flavors in processed and fast foods are simple, overpowering and boring.  Once you learn to enjoy complex, subtly flavored, balanced and artistically prepared dishes, the fast food alternatives quickly become disappointing at best and unpalatable at worst. Unfortunately many restaurants are not much better.  If you do eat out, go to a good restaurant with a great chef who is an artist with fresh local produce and understands portion control. You will have a more enjoyable meal and it won’t do your waistline any damage.

So there you have it.  This has turned out to me a much longer post than I intended.  In my defense, everything I have written has been enormously helpful to me and I hope that at least some of it will be to you too!

Figuring out Food – The joys of eating more to weigh less!

Yesterday I wrote about why it is a bad idea to tell a hungry fat person to eat less. I am still nervous about being arrested by the diet police, so I thought I should follow up quickly with a post about what I think should be done instead!

All joking aside though, anyone who is overweight or obese and experiencing excruciating hunger pangs is in serious crisis and is in dire need of intervention.  I know this from personal experience.  I have absolutely no doubt that such a person is in just as much physical, psychological and social trouble as an alcoholic, drug addict or a person with a serious eating disorder.  Although this is still a hotly contested topic, I do feel that the term “addict” is entirely appropriate for someone in this situation.

It is a very complex problem – if it wasn’t we would have solved it by now instead of holding crisis talks about how to address an “obesity epidemic!”  Hungry fat people are most likely dealing with some or all of the following:

1) They are malnourished from eating a calorie dense, nutrient poor diet.  Hunger signals that are really the body’s cry for nutrients are misinterpreted as a demand to take in more calories, and so a vicious cycle is set up.

2) They constantly ride a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows, always inevitably hurtling towards the next sugar fix.

3) The hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage (Leptin, Ghrelin and Insulin) are in disarray, and will work together to keep the person fat, come hell or high water.

4) They no longer understand the difference between “eating” and “substance abuse” so instead of nourishing their bodies they are abusing sugar, salt and fat to achieve hit after hit of pleasure (at the expense of health and sanity!)

5) They are overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and despair as they know they need to do something but have lost count of all the times they have tried and failed.

So when I say that fat people are hungry I am not merely referring to the fact that they get slightly peckish between snacks and after swinging by the drive through are no longer hungry.  I am referring to chronic, long term hunger that rages unabated for days, weeks, months and years.  A situation akin to starvation.  I have lost a lot of weight in my life and gained even more and, like many people, I always felt that my problem with food was particularly insidious because “an alcoholic can commit to never drinking again, but food addicts still have to eat.”  This thinking had me feeling like a victim, which of course is completely unproductive, until I had a life changing insight: there is a world of difference between food, and drugs pretending to be food! Once I understood this difference I realized that it was in fact possible to take a journey to recovery exactly like any addict trying to get sober.  One that involves taking responsibility for your health and eating more real food in order to get off fake food drugs.

As a veteran yo-yo dieter I kept making the same fatal mistake over and over again. Yes, you guessed it, exactly like a crazy person!  I would start a diet, no matter how extreme and unsustainable, in a bid to just get the weight off, and I would tell myself that once I had lost the weight I would figure out how to keep it off.  I once lost 30 kg by eating 1 energy bar and a handful of appetite suppressants a day. Everyone was super impressed and proud of me, when really they should have been dragging me off to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital! This was socially sanctioned madness because everyone and their mother likes to tell fat people to eat less! What I didn’t realize was that the decision to start a diet involving eating less was nothing more than a stage in the “try hard – give up” cycle of addiction!  Now I consider myself to be an intelligent person, so I can’t explain why it took me so long to realize that in order to get a different result I would need a different strategy.  But let’s let bygones be bygones – for whatever reason what I am doing now is different, dramatically successful and 100% sustainable.

The breakthrough came when I began to discuss my experience of hunger with my husband. He had no idea what I was talking about, and although he loves to eat as much as the next person, he says that he has never experienced “hunger” in the way that I described it.  This allowed me to figure out that what I felt on a daily basis was not the same thing that every human on the planet felt, but some were just able to ignore.  News flash: Skinny people do not have super powers, after all!  Winning the Hunger Games has absolutely NOTHING to do with will power! This lead me to give up on trying to lose weight and made me decide to just figure out how to stop being hungry.  It was the best decision I ever made!  I also decided that I would lose weight in exactly the same way that I hope to keep it off, and that I would never “go on diet” again.

I figured out a workable strategy through reading books, searching the Internet and experimenting to learn what worked and what did not.  I am happy to say that I have not felt “unnatural zombie hunger” in months.  For some specifics, see my next post: “Top 10 Tips to Win at the Hunger Games.”  Besides not being hungry anymore, I have painlessly lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds), my type II diabetes is controlled without medication and I have gone from being hypertensive to having blood pressure on the low end of normal.  The jury is still out because I know that I could still relapse. I also still have 36 kgs left that I need to lose, but all early indications are that something is finally working!