“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.

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.

Tick Tock Goes the Clock!

One of the most effective marketing strategies of the food industry has been to collectively convince us that “we don’t have time to cook.”  Basically none of us have enough time for anything these days, so if someone came along and said “hey, you don’t have enough time to breathe, let me do it for you” we would probably sign up, no questions asked! And so we let a bunch of drug pushers take over our food preparation and keep us addicted, sick and miserable. The “no time” belief has become so firmly entrenched in modern culture that we hardly even question it anymore.  I see it in action every time someone hears about the changes I have made to the way I eat.  Almost without exception they say: “Oh that is so great, but I just don’t have the time to do all that!”

I completely understand!  For most of my life I have believed the “no time” lie with as much conviction as anybody.  Preparing my own meal, let alone a meal for anyone else, was the absolute last thing on my agenda.  I lead an extremely busy, pressured life just like the rest of you.  I probably would have continued believing the lie until my dying day if it were not that the state of my health finally forced me to make time.  If you don’t have time to cook you better consider if you have time to manage a chronic disease like diabetes!  Trust me, a few minutes of food prep pale into insignificance compared to the stress, inconvenience and time wasted on managing a totally avoidable, lifestyle induced illness.  And then there are the insane number of hours of exercise I am going to need to do to get all this blasted weight off my body!  Exercise is great, but the amount I need to do to effectively lose half my body weight is daunting, to say the least. When a personal health crisis forced me to reconsider my time and how I spent it I suddenly realized how ridiculous the “no time to cook” deception really is.  It struck me that if I continued to buy into this myth, I better make time to be sick, exhausted and ultimately prematurely dead! A few minutes of cooking a day is a small price to pay for years added on to my life!

Here’s the thing: after a bit of initial reorganizing and re-education, preparing food from scratch at home is not nearly as time consuming as the food industry would have you believe.  In fact I am prepared to race you on the time it takes for just about any fast food option you can think of and a home cooked meal, and in many cases I believe I can not only equal your time but beat it.

Here’s an example.  Timed my last trip through a McDonald’s Drive through:

10 minutes to get in the car and drive there.

20 minutes to get to the front of the queue and place order.

10 minutes in the “waiting” bay for my veggie burger to be prepared.

10 minutes waiting for them redo part of the order they got wrong.

10 minutes to drive home.

Total time: 1 hour

Time taken to prepare lunch yesterday:

2 minutes: Get ingredients and cooking utensils together.

10 minutes: Cook Quinoa Pasta

While pasta is cooking: Chop artichoke hearts, pink oyster mushrooms and cherry tomatoes and sauté in a pan with Coconut Oil.  Season to taste with herbs and spices and a pinch of Maldon salt.  Grate an ounce of Mozzarella Cheese.

2 minutes: Strain pasta and plate up with veggies and cheese.  Sprinkle generously with Alfalfa sprouts for extra crunch and yummyness!

Total time: 14 minutes

So the pasta won hands down, not only on time, but also on flavor and even on cost!  And it goes without saying that it was much higher in nutrition and lower in calories than the burger and chips from MickyD’s!  It was so delicious in fact that I think I will have the same for lunch again today but I honestly don’t care if I never eat another meal from McDonalds in my life!

What about having your take aways delivered to your door, you may ask?  Certainly an option if you are willing to add on the delivery cost and tip.  But guess what, I also have my food delivered, and not only one meal at a time but enough for a whole week!  After a bit of googling I found this wonderful service that delivers in my area: The Ethical Co-op.  My last order included a family sized box of organic vegetables, kale chips, flax seed crackers, organic coconut palm sugar, raw chocolate, pink oyster mushrooms, spelt bread and amaranth.  More than a week’s worth of food for less than the cost of having pizza delivered for a family of 4.  (Luckily the price of healthy food in my country still compares favorably to that of fast food.) You might not be lucky enough to be able to conveniently buy healthy food online and have it delivered to your door, but then again maybe you can and you just don’t know it yet!  Certainly worth researching and you may be surprised to discover a wealth of local, alternative food vendors right in your neighborhood!

So you can make a great big ordeal out of cooking if you want to, but it really isn’t necessary.  After a day or so of cleaning the junk out of my kitchen and restocking with the good stuff, the rest has been surprisingly easy.  Here are some tips that have made it a breeze:

1) Maintain a shopping list of foods you use in your diet and restock as needed so that you have the right foods on hand and are too broke to buy any junk food!

2) Stock up on BPA free tupperware and Ziploc bags and save your glass jars for easy food storage.

3) Spend a little extra time on the week end preparing food for the week that will keep in the fridge or can be frozen.

4) Google for recipes and local food suppliers.

5) Try at least one new dish a week to grow your repertoire.

If you do all of the above I promise you that you can walk right over to your own kitchen and grab a fabulous meal in 5 to 10 minutes during your work week, or spend an hour on something fancy on the week end if you feel like it.

So there you have it, one ridiculous lie of the food industry debunked.  I am off to throw together the most fabulous berry smoothie you will ever taste.  Wish you were here – I might even consider sharing!

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!