Thursday, May 31, 2012

Let's Get Chocolate Wasted!

Another celebrity dieter was in the news this week. This time it was Beyonce, speaking to an audience about her recent 60-pound weight loss after having a baby. She described how incredibly hard she worked to shed those excess pounds and said she’s now ready to get “chocolate wasted.”

Ah yes, the chocolate rebound. I know ye well.

Every person who has ever been overweight understands exactly what Beyonce is talking about. The story goes something like this: You deprive yourself of all the foods you love while you’re on a diet. You struggle mightily, flexing your willpower muscles to the max, and when you finally reach your goal weight after weeks/months/years of sacrifice, you reward yourself for your accomplishment by doing what? Indulging in, even gorging on, all the foods that made you heavy in the first place!

If this seems like a sad state of affairs, fear not! The women’s mags are on it! From Woman’s Day to Woman’s World, the same advice abounds for all those serial dieters out there: to keep the lost pounds lost for good, find a reward other than food. Feeling tempted to stuff your pie hole with, well, pie? No! Take a bubble bath instead! Now, I like bubble baths. They can be quite soothing. But let’s be brutally honest. In the face of a giant, crumbly, chocolate chip cookie, a bubble bath is the proverbial ninety-pound weakling. It’s not a fair contest. Not even close.

The other approach recommended by the magazines is this: don’t give up your favorite foods, just have a lower-fat, lower-calorie version. Yes, you can have a big gooey cheeseburger, IF you substitute healthy fare for all of the high-calorie ingredients. Say ground turkey or a Portobello mushroom instead of beef. Maybe salsa to replace the ketchup. A multi-grain sandwich thin instead of a big, sesame-seed-laden hamburger bun. This is sound advice, but only up to a point. It’s one thing to substitute something more healthful for a really calorie-dense ingredient, say mustard instead of mayo, but if you go really hog-wild with this concept, eventually the end result ceases to be a cheeseburger. And then you get to experience the most profound irony in diet hell, where you consume a poor facsimile of something you love only to find that it is so unsatisfying that it makes you crave the real thing even more.

The real challenge of the chocolate rebound is not one of willpower or calorie creativity, but of transcending our culture’s identification of food with reward. I believe this one concept is a key reason why so many of us regain after a large weight loss. If you lose weight and want to keep it off permanently, it’s been my experience that you have to completely disconnect food from the concept of reward. It’s not a task for the faint of heart, and to be honest, it’s also something I have yet to master.

While I don’t have the perfect solution to this dilemma, I have found some work-arounds. I’ve taught myself to crave salads and sometimes when I need a food reward, I make a salad “parfait” with layers of colorful vegetables. I’ve also found that sprinkling a little cinnamon on just about any food increases its satisfaction level significantly. And I really do love steamed green beans in a vinaigrette dressing. One step at a time, I guess. I hold onto the hope that perhaps someday, just being healthy and feeling good will be reward enough.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Food 101

If you had asked me, six or seven years ago, to describe what food meant to me, I’m not sure I would have been able to answer the question. It would have been like asking me what I thought of the air I breathed. Food was simply there. It was all around. I took it for granted. It was invisible.

All that changed when I lost weight. In the last five years, I’ve been forced to come to terms with what food means to me. It’s been a revelation to learn just how interwoven what I eat is with how I feel, how I relate to other people, how I see the world. I like to think of myself as a logical, rational person, but when it comes to eating, I am anything but. This could be why I was almost fifty years old before I could lose 100 pounds – and keep it off. My experiences in these last five years have lead me to believe that I’m not the only one who sees food as something other than mere sustenance.

Maybe that’s why we can’t relate to what doctors tell us about our diet. They just don’t seem to get it. They lecture us about dry scientific stuff, like the benefits of monounsaturated fat versus transfat, paying attention to cholesterol and sodium, practicing proper portion control. They talk as though the way we eat was about nutrition. Silly doctors.

Food is so much more than calories and carbohydrates. Whether you can articulate it or not, eating is not something you do just to stay alive. So now, as a public service, let me share with you my hard-earned understanding of the many meanings of food. I call it…

Food 101

Food is love. Anyone who has ever prepared a meal for a special someone knows this. Anyone who bakes knows it too. Not all foods are equal in this regard – broccoli will never say love the way brownies do. In fact, chocolate has become synonymous with Valentine’s Day, the celebration of all things lovely.

Food is comfort. Why else do we call it “comfort food”? It is what you crave on a cold night, when all you desire is to curl up under a blanket on the couch. It is warm, mushy, filling. The idea of comfort food is why grilled fish and veggies will never be more popular than meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Food is stress relief. Had a hard day? Have a cookie, you deserve it. Notice how you never hear anybody say, have some green beans, you deserve it? For immediate stress relief, a truckload of sugar is required. (Exercise will do the same thing over time, but we Americans are way too busy to wait for that.)

Food is sexy. Do you doubt this? See some of my previous thoughts on food advertising.

Food is satisfaction. Feeling burned out at work? Wondering how your life became an unending “to-do” list? Dreaming of retiring to a cabin in the woods where you can spend all day doing what you love? Don’t worry. Just tell your troubles to Ben & Jerry and there, there, everything will be all right.

It’s a wonder that any of us can overcome this emotional tsunami of gastronomy. Of course, you do know that none of it is actually true. What’s true is that food has no meaning other than the meaning you give it. You ask if I’m suggesting that you create your own food story? Well, yes, you do. If food is love, you eat the cake. If food is nourishment, you have a piece of fruit instead. What if you decide that food is both love and nourishment? Damn. I hate it when that happens.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Transform This

Americans sure love to diet. At least you might think that watching ads for diets on television. The granddaddy of them all is Weight Watchers, but popular programs like Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig and eDiets aren’t far behind. It’s not just the tube; at this time of year, magazine covers shout the seductive promise of easy eating to lose ten pounds by swimsuit season. Don’t forget all the convenience foods marketed to those who would weigh less. Lean Cuisine. Healthy Choice. Smart Ones. Plus the weight loss fads that move through the culture every few years (you can buy the book on Amazon!). Low fat. Low carb. The grapefruit diet. The cabbage soup diet. How does the average person looking to eject a few fat cells choose?

The research seems to say that it doesn’t really matter what kind of diet you go on to lose weight. Just about any eating plan that lowers calories will work for weight loss. But here’s the rub. Once you’ve lost the weight, how do you keep it off? That’s a bit trickier. Only about 3% of people who lose a large amount of weight maintain that loss for longer than a year. For all the glut of advertising trumpeting weight loss programs and products, replete with sexy shots of newly svelte – and jubilant – celebrities, there is a corresponding dearth of information about weight maintenance. Why is that?

What a minute! How could I forget? Whenever a person loses a lot of weight, what happens to them? Yes, you’ve got it! They’re transformed! They’re a new and improved version of their old, fat self and will magically stay slender for the rest of their lives, just by practicing a little “moderation”!


I hate to be a big soggy blanket, but there is no such thing as transformation when it comes to maintaining a large weight loss. In my experience, a diet is only the first step. If you want to maintain your new physique, a diet must be followed by a permanent and drastic change in how you eat and exercise. Not as exciting as watching Jennifer Hudson strut her new shape, is it? It’s grueling work. It can lead to frustration and angst and discomfort as you seek out new ways to live the very smallest details of your life. It can also be a lonely search for those few fellow losers who’ve been there and can relate to your struggle. The improvement in health and well-being makes the difficulty more than worthwhile, but don’t ever think it’s easy or automatic.

It’s understandable that those wrestling with weight would believe in a crazy idea like transformation, for it is a light at the end of the diet tunnel, the hope for the Promised Land. I can only speculate on why sellers of weight loss programs and products would encourage their customers to believe, but consider that when an overweight person has spent countless dollars on the latest wonder diet only to regain the weight all over again, what will they do? Why, spend countless more dollars on the next wonder diet.

The big fat truth is that a diet, no matter how celebrated, is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Unless you’re trying to slim down your wallet, that is.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

As Memorial Day approaches, I’ve started thinking about celebrations. For me, the summer always seems a time for making merry. It’s the season for high school and college graduations. Attending June weddings. Kicking back and taking well-deserved vacations. It’s a time for getting together with those people in our lives who are nearest and dearest to our hearts. To laugh. To cry. To play. To pay tribute. But most of all…

To eat.

Is it possible to celebrate anything without an excess of food? I think back to when I was a kid. Memorial Day meant the first cookout and – more importantly – the first macaroni salad of the season. It might also have been the first day when the water was warm enough to go for a swim, but that’s not what sticks in my memories. The Fourth of July was all about hot dogs and corn on the cob, slathered in butter and salt, and finished off with a slab of Neapolitan ice cream, mouth-watering with its layers of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. There were fireworks too, but in truth I looked forward to the ice cream more. My birthday is smack-dab in the middle of summer and what’s a birthday without birthday cake? Or a wedding without wedding cake, for that matter?

Summer is not the only season for celebratory eating. What would Christmas be without Christmas cookies? Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? Easter without peeps? Any time people decide to rejoice, it seems that food is center stage. Not just any kind of food, mind you, but “good food.” And you all know what that means.

This has been one of the toughest challenges of my post-fat existence. It is one thing to give up foods I loved, but that made me heavy, in my normal everyday life. I can take a salad to work for lunch. Make fish for dinner. But on my birthday, do I have to give up birthday cake? My family and friends react as though I’m being overly neurotic when I express my angst about birthday cake, or summer barbeque, or cookies. Don’t worry about it, they say. Even my doctor says that. Yet, I know that if I have “just a little piece,” I will gain a few pounds and those pounds won’t come off as easily as they went on. You might say, what’s a few pounds? But for someone who’s been more than 100 pounds overweight, “a few pounds” can be the beginning of the long slide back into hell.

That’s looking at it from one side of the mirror though, the side that expects formerly fat people to adapt to the world, learn to manage those celebratory foods so they don’t do too much damage, and struggle alone with the consequences. On the other side of that mirror is a question. Must celebration equal food? Could Memorial Day be special enough with a first swim of the season, sans macaroni salad? Instead of sharing birthday cake, could we share a birthday bike ride? Or if we must have food, could we have birthday broccoli?

To suggest such radical concepts is to run the risk of being considered a party pooper, one of those insufferable bores who ruins the fun for everyone. It can be perilous to suggest that such a fundamental truth – that food is an inseparable part of celebration – may be only one of several possible scenarios. Perhaps it is a crazy idea, but the possibility that I could lose 100 pounds was once a crazy idea too, and you know how that turned out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Eat

In my last post, I noted that, when confronted with evidence of the role of the environment in promoting obesity, the food industry’s response was to cast it as an assault on freedom. And there is nothing more American than freedom, with an obligatory side dish of apple pie, except of course for our national hard-core case of “you’re not the boss of me.”

I also suggested that perhaps the government had failed us in their inadequate response to the role that the environment plays in skyrocketing obesity rates. You might think I’m condoning a nanny state, but don’t most of us support sensible regulation to ensure a safer, healthier environment? Like, keeping the air we breathe and the water we drink free of toxins? Or making sure that the bridge we’re driving over doesn’t fall down? And the plane we’re boarding doesn’t crash? Who would oppose regulation to make sure that hospitals and prescription drugs don’t kill us? Why should food be any different?

But what about this idea of food freedom? That people should be able to eat whatever they darn well please without interference from the government, their doctor or any other well-meaning ninny. I have no quarrel with this concept, though I will note that when we get sick as a result of eating stuff that’s bad for us, most of us are perfectly OK with the government (or anyone else for that matter) helping us get the care we need to recover. But getting back to the idea of food freedom, here’s my question.

Are any of us really free when it comes to food?

When I was fat and indulging nightly on ice cream, cookies, chips and other high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt fare, I don’t remember it being an experience of freedom. I did not say to myself, “Gee, I choose to eat a half gallon of Cherry Garcia tonight.” What I remember is a sense of desperation. That I had to eat these things. These were foods I craved, longed for, dreamed about. The experience was more one of addiction, like a smoker yearning for their next cigarette or an alcoholic plotting their next drink. Some may scoff at the idea of food addiction, but all I can say is, don’t knock it if you haven’t been there.

As I struggled to resist the siren song for my next food hit, the food industry seemed more than glad to play the role of pimp, deluging my senses with seductive food advertising, plying my imagination with larger-than-life, color-enhanced images of succulence, glistening with butter, smooth and creamy, mouth-watering, artery-clogging ecstasy. It’s enough to make you wonder whether food manufacturers really want us to be free or if their real desire is that we buy their products at all cost, even if the cost is our health.

Don’t get me wrong. Each of us is responsible for what we put in our mouth. But when you look at obesity as a public health issue affecting all of us, thin and fat, is it so crazy to ask that we support each other in making the right choices? Is helping our fellow man such a radical concept?

In the end, true freedom of choice means being able to say yes or no to any food set in front of you. If you are eating something because you can’t resist it, you are not free. You could be the unwitting victim of a food industry jaded enough to use your deep desire for freedom as a means to enslave you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Who's to Blame for Obesity?

You may have read that The Institute of Medicine released a report earlier this week on the topic of obesity. I have not read the report – yet – but from what’s been recounted by the media, it seems that one of its major findings on why most people have such difficulty maintaining a healthy weight is that our culture is an obesity-promoting environment.

Well… duh.

In addition, the Institute has teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and HBO to produce a series of documentaries on the subject entitled The Weight of the Nation, to air next Monday and Tuesday nights. Fear not, food industry groups have responded, assailing the assault on our freedom to choose what we eat and the specter of the food nanny state. The folks responsible for all of those fatty, sugary, salty foods we can’t resist say that if people are obese, it’s solely due to a lack of personal responsibility. You can read more from the Center for Consumer Freedom here.

Could that be the sound of deflating profits I hear?

I think you know my position on the food industry and food marketing. But the question remains: who is responsible for obesity? I don’t need to do any research to answer the question because I have lived this question for my entire life. There is no doubt in my mind that the many nights I spent scarfing down massive quantities of Ben and Jerry’s while lounging on the couch had something to do with why I was fat. Yet once I decided to become responsible for my weight and take on the challenge of a new way of eating and exercising, it seemed that most everything around me opposed my efforts.

For example, I can choose to avoid certain restaurants notorious for high-calorie fare, but if I attend a business conference and the lunch I’m offered includes potato chips and cookies but no vegetables, what do I do? I can decide to keep only healthy foods in my house, but when I go to work, how do I deal with the endless parade of brownies, bagels, donuts and holiday goodies that my co-workers bring in? If I muster my resolve in these situations and say “no thank you,” people who claim to care for me get exasperated and say things like, “oh come on, one little piece won’t hurt.” I’m afraid to add up the calories contained in all of those “one little pieces.”

But it gets even more personal than that. My husband loves pasta and on a regular basis he suggests we go to a neighborhood restaurant that serves a plethora of pasta. I, on the other hand, have discovered that my body is highly sensitive to grains; when I eat more than a token serving of grains, which include bread, rice and – yes – pasta, I start to gain weight at an alarming rate. This man, who says he loves me more than life itself, gets very disgusted when I don’t want to go to his favorite restaurant. His logic is that, after all, it’s only “one little meal.”

Take my word for it. We live in an obesity-promoting environment. The two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese are not lacking in personal responsibility. The 97% of people who lose a large amount of weight and then gain it all back are not lacking in personal responsibility. They are struggling with a tricky beast called obesity. To tell people that they alone are responsible for the state of their weight, while simultaneously tempting them with fatty, sugary, salty foods, is disingenuous at best. One could say that to ignore the role of the environment in such a serious health crisis as this is itself a sign of a failure of responsibility. By our government. By the public health community. And by a food industry that reaps fat profits from keeping us fat.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Two Phat Ladies

I had some unkind words in my last post regarding television and cooking channels in particular. But I must come clean and make a confession: I’m addicted to The Two Fat Ladies.

If you’ve never heard of them, The Two Fat Ladies were Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, a pair of eccentric and portly English gals who had a popular cooking show in the UK in the late 1990s. The show became a cult classic in the United States and the Cooking Channel has lately been airing re-runs of the series. Jennifer died some years ago, but Clarissa is still in the public eye.

Jennifer and Clarissa’s claim to fame was the spectacular distain they showed for making any dish that wasn’t loaded with fat. Every recipe featured on the show included copious amounts of lard, butter, or heavy cream – sometimes all three! Bacon and bacon grease were recurring cast members. It was almost as though they were on a quest to make their food as unhealthy as possible; they even seemed to relish in that, in fact.

Why am I such a fan of this show, which is so diametrically opposed to my way of life now?

It’s hard to say. It could be the outrageous spectacle of it all. The Two Fat Ladies are not your lovable little grandma making a bit too many cookies; they are Culinary Kabuki Theater of the Absurd, going where few chefs would admit to going before. Perhaps it’s also the chutzpah. I can almost hear Jennifer’s upper-crust British accent, warning that one should avoid that “nasty yogurt” and use “real proper cream” in a recipe.  Or Clarissa’s stern admonition to make sure you use “good, streaky bacon.”

When you watch The Two Fat Ladies, you know you have left the real world and gone to an alien land, a place beyond gluttony and hyperbole. This is not Paula Deen, whose food is just as bad for you, but who seems so amiable, telling us in a sugary Southern drawl that “y’all are gonna love this.” Watching Paula, you might almost start to think that her food is just everyday eating, you know, food for regular folks. You would never make that mistake with Jennifer and Clarissa.

I suppose that The Two Fat Ladies are also a bit of an oasis for me, the one place where I can enjoy all that artery-clogging stuff I can’t eat anymore. A catharsis even. After all, the calories you consume with your eyes generally have a hard time making it to your hips!

So, let me leave you today with a tasty little tidbit, just a sampling of the gals, for your viewing – not eating – pleasure. Salut!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Betcha Can't Eat Just One

In my last post I touched on the topic of food marketing and I’d like to explore that a little further today.

It’s no news to any of you that we’re inundated with messages from the mass media about food. You don’t need to do exhaustive research to know that – you just have to live a normal life. In an average day I encounter billboards on my drive to work telling me it’s Mini-Vanilla Scones time, articles in newspapers and magazines that are really plugs for specific food brands (what a fluke that there’s an ad for Kraft on the page opposite the broccoli au gratin recipe!), and television commercials for everything from the Colonel’s Extra Crispy to Domino’s Stuffed Cheesy Bread. It’s almost impossible to avoid and because it’s so prevalent, it can be easy to get desensitized and become oblivious to its impact on our appetites. Surely the food industry must think it’s having an effect on us because they are willing to fork out billions of dollars every year to promote their products to a hungry public.

There’s also a remarkable similarity to the message. Be it Yoplait Light or a Big Mac, at some point you will be told how orgasmically good you will feel when you eat this outrageously delicious product, so much so that you’ll want to go out and buy it immediately. One of my personal favorites is Ghirardelli’s “Moments of Timeless Pleasure,” with up-close and personal shots of women nibbling in languorous fashion on squares of dark gourmet chocolate, eyes rolling and lips quivering with each bite. (Eeek! I want some myself! Right Now!) But below the surface meaning are more subconscious suggestions, tidbits that you may not notice unless you’re paying careful attention. Just the other night I saw an ad for a breakfast cereal that “wasn’t bad for you, it just tasted that way.” Hmm. So I guess the only food that tastes good is food that’s bad for you? Or conversely, healthy food doesn’t taste good?

Pretty sneaky. And pretty effective. What better way to get you to eat things that are profitable for the food manufacturer even though they may wind up making you sick.

It’s especially ironic to be watching a news program in which the topic of the “obesity epidemic” is discussed (with appropriate solemnity on the newscaster’s face), then cut to a commercial for Red Robin, home of the 1000 calorie salad. A recent development in the food industry’s arsenal is the advent of television channels devoted exclusively to cooking. Now, instead of the ten measly minutes of commercial break typical for a half-hour program, you can be subjected to an entire thirty minutes of hard-core sugar-coated ecstasy on Cupcake Wars. Since we’re speaking of television, here’s something to consider. Since 1950, obesity rates in the United States have soared by over 300%, from just under 10% of the population then to almost one-third now. What has also soared in that same time period? Why, the number of American homes with a television set. What a bizarre coincidence!

Imagine you’re a person like me, formerly fat and trying to stay that way, surrounded on all sides by subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages telling you to eat… eat… eat. Is it any wonder that so many people finally cry uncle? If you’re struggling with weight and wondering why you can’t resist the stuff you know is bad for you, consider that maybe your willpower has been hijacked by a food industry more concerned with profit than the customers it profits from.

Oh look, Doritos!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Veg Out

From the “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” department:

This week I read an article online entitled “Trick yourself into eating veggies.” Apparently, vegetables are so onerous that, in order to get them past your lips, you have to visualize a big, juicy steak.  Now, be honest, when you hear the words “eat your vegetables,” doesn’t it remind you of other phrases your mother may have uttered when you were young? “Eat your vegetables” has a hallowed place in the pantheon of great sayings such as “clean your room” and “do your homework.”

But why is that? Why do vegetables have such a bad rap? If you read my previous post, “The Three Little Pigs,” you know that that a food must contain fat, sugar or salt to be considered a “good” food. Vegetables are sorely lacking in those qualities, offering only health-enhancing vitamins, minerals and fiber in their place. In Pigspeak, vitamins, minerals and fiber can be summed up in one word: boring.

To be fair, vegetables haven’t always gotten the treatment they deserve. Who hasn’t been presented with a “salad,” only to find a chunk of tasteless or wilted iceberg lettuce and three slices of mealy, pink tomato? Who hasn’t endured a mushy mess of something green (Could it be spinach? Brussels sprouts maybe?), boiled into obscurity? Well, I think it’s about time vegetables got some decent PR. You know, the way any chain restaurant worth its salt would present their entrees on television, with a husky female voice cooing the delights of whatever gooey, greasy concoction is being introduced to the menu. I’m talking hard-core food marketing at its come-hither, can’t-resist-it, verging-on-pornography best.

So here goes: Veggie Erotica!

Have a salad. You know you want it. Sensuous slivers of sweet yellow pepper and ruby red tomatoes dripping in juice, slathered with a silky vinaigrette. Doesn’t the glistening olive oil give you the shivers?

It’s time for a languid lunch with crunch; crisp string beans, lightly steamed and steamy, fragrant with the seductive scent of garlic and dill. Undress their lush, long-legged beauty with your eyes.

Let’s get it on with luscious lobes of creamy white cauliflower, sure to leave you quivering with roasted, toasted, smoky goodness. They’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse… to eat.

Hey, is it possible that the problem isn’t that vegetables are too boring, but that vegetables are too sexy? Could that be why we insist on covering them up, like a modern day version of Victorian nudes? A modest cheese sauce. Demure ranch dressing. Bashful butter. Blushing bread crumbs. Anything to avoid having to look at the naughty bits on a head of broccoli.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? An entire world of culinary delight awaits and we’ve been conditioned to turn our backs on it. It’s understandable in some ways. I’m sure each of you can remember being seven and vowing that you would never eat those icky looking peas again. Of course, there were probably many other foods you found disgusting at the age of seven, but that didn’t stop you from developing an adult fondness for smoked salmon or gorgonzola cheese or even <shudder> olive loaf.

Vegetables are the best friend a formerly fat person can have. Tasty, filling, and, yes, a bit sexy. Shock the heck out of your neighbors. Eat your veggies!