Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Sweet It Is

In my last post, I got all misty-eyed about cake, probably a result of having recently eaten a small piece of cake at a gathering. I was really proud of myself for having only a tiny serving, but I couldn’t help but notice how much I desperately wanted a second and also how much willpower was required to resist a second. That got me thinking. Like how one grilled chicken breast doesn’t automatically make me crave another. Same with a cup of steamed broccoli. But cake is different. Strangely, I’ve observed this same effect when drinking diet soda, or if I put Splenda in my iced tea. There is something about the sensation of sweetness that is different from other tastes, something that makes me yearn for more.

I don’t think I’m alone in lusting after sweetness. Just look at what happened to poor Michael Bloomberg. When he announced his proposed ban on 32-ounce servings of sweetened soft drinks, he set off a firestorm. Yes, of course, the beverage industry hit back in full force, appealing to the sacred American right to kill ourselves with bad health habits, just because we can. But a lot of regular folks got outraged too. You want to take away my big soda? Really? Now, Mayor Mike was targeting non-diet drinks only, but I can say from personal experience that soft drinks, even diet soft drinks, can be highly addictive. My drug of choice is Diet Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper has no sugar in it whatsoever, but it does contain aspartame and it is profoundly, outrageously, otherworldly sweet.

If you read food labels (and for those intent on maintaining a large weight loss, it’s a habit that must be cultivated), you’ll notice something: everything has been sweetened in some way. It’s as if no modern processed food can respect itself unless it contains at least one of these as an ingredient: refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice or no-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose or stevia. I have had difficulty finding even whole wheat bread that does not contain a sweetener of some sort. And I have to say that there is something profoundly disappointing about searching for a hearty, chewy whole grain bread only to find that the second ingredient listed is high fructose corn syrup.

To be fair, it must be noted that it has become ultra-chic to lament sugar as one of the most damaging of the diet demons du jour. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that sugar be classified as a toxin, confirming every conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare about what all those cute little “grandmothers” are doing in the kitchen (Can you imagine the movie title? Crouching Cookie, Hidden Calorie!). Yet I’m starting to think that there may be no difference between actual sugar and the sensation of sweetness. Both the full and no-calorie versions of this taste sensation produce the same toe-curling ecstasy that just makes us want more. And more. And more.

What would happen if food wasn’t sweet? If we weren’t being bathed in the syrupy nectar of the Saccharin Goddess, day in and day out? Would it make a difference in the obesity rate? Would it make a difference for me, in my struggle to maintain my weight loss? I don’t know, but I’ve decided to try something. I’ve sworn off sweet. I’m still eating fruit, but nothing that has added sugar or artificial sweeteners. That includes my beloved Diet Dr. Pepper. And already, about a week into the experiment, I’ve noticed I have less food cravings in the evening.

Now that’s sweet!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Balancing Acts

The Atlantic ran article this week discussing how successful women are once again re-examining the question of work-life balance, in other words, whether a woman can really have it all. This is not an issue for me. Somehow, in my early twenties, I came to the realization that “having it all” might be more difficult than it sounded and I decided that I would focus on my career. While I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I had children, I do not regret choosing to be childless. In fact, the older I get, the more I marvel at my wisdom in choosing architecture over motherhood, for as sure as day leads to night and night leads to noshing, I was not cut out for parenthood.

Yet, when it comes to food, I think I still believe that somehow I can have it all. A large part of the agony of my post-fat life is that I haven’t found the balance, that place where healthy eating co-exists in perfect harmony with food culture and custom. I suppose you could say that I want to have my cake and eat it too!

Isn’t that the Promised Land we all hunger for? That once you are slender, you need only adopt a simple “lifestyle change” and all will be well forevermore. This is the great lie. It often seems that I’ve merely made a trade, an exchange of the problems of obesity for the problems of staying thin in a food-obsessed world, not the least of which is the constant dilemma. Do I eat this piece of cake and then gird myself for the number on the scale the next morning? Or do I resist this piece of cake and risk making a fuss? It’s maddening that there is no right answer ever, just a weighing of which choice has the most undesirable consequences.

The cruelest moments are when I realize that I have created the dilemma myself! My husband has a birthday coming up and I heard myself asking him if he wanted me to bake him a cake. Not just any cake, but a cake covered in shredded coconut, his favorite. If you know anything about food, you know that shredded coconut is a particularly delicious – and evil – substance. One cup of shredded coconut equates to over 450 calories, nearly 150% of the recommended maximum daily allowance of saturated fat and 10 teaspoons of sugar – and I will need way more than one cup. Yet, I’ll make the cake for him and inevitably I will feel compelled to eat some of it. Why on earth do I do that?

Well, remember, food is love. I suppose that sounds like I’m justifying my irrational behavior. Um, yes, I am. For food is not rational. Maybe this is the real challenge, to find a way of living that respects the head, with its hard-earned knowledge of nutrition and health, yet also the heart, full of longing and memory, where the simple act of eating is inextricably linked with people we love and times we cherish.

I’ve spent the last four years searching for an equilibrium that always seems just beyond reach. What if there is no perfect balance between health and food culture, no place where having it all is anything other than another fairy tale? What if having it all is not the point after all, but rather making sure you have what is most dear? Health is dear to me. So are my family and friends.

I was afraid I was going to say something like that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Ties That Bind

When I started this blog, I knew that I wanted to explore Food Culture in all of its many forms. Of course, by Food Culture, I mean the beliefs and rituals of food that we share as a society, specifically American society. It is Food Culture that insists you must overindulge on Thanksgiving because… it’s Thanksgiving! It is Food Culture that makes chocolate mandatory on Valentine’s Day, a cocktail de rigueur on New Year’s Eve, and hot dogs a necessity all summer long. Food Culture also dictates that birthdays and weddings must have cake and the winter holidays must have pie. These are the gastronomic rules that we live and eat by.

But there is also such a thing as food culture. The difference between Food Culture and food culture is simple. While Food Culture requires potato salad at a summer picnic, food culture says it must be your mother’s potato salad drenched in mayonnaise and dense with hard-boiled eggs. Or your mother’s potato salad glistening with a hot bacon vinaigrette. Or your mother’s potato salad studded with crunchy celery and the skins left on. The key to food culture is that it is about you, your family, your friends. Think of it this way: Food Culture is universal, while food culture is personal.

A classic example of this is something I’ve spoken of before: my husband’s love of pasta. Pasta has always been a serious part of the food culture between me and my better half. For the first twenty-five years of our relationship, we were in sync when it came to all things semolina. Perhaps we differed on the best sauce for the noodle– he preferred tomato, I was a pesto girl – but on the noodle itself, we were in total agreement. No matter what the form, from rigatoni to spaghetti, fettuccine to linguine, we were of one mind and one opinion. Pasta = good.

But then I had to go and do an obnoxious thing. I lost a hundred pounds and stopped eating pasta. It was as though I had renounced my vows: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in… pasta? This has been a serious source of tension in our relationship for the last five years. Who knew the power of a mere noodle?

So often it seems that food culture is the glue that binds us together. Whether it’s pizza and wings, or wine and cheese, or coffee and bagels really doesn’t matter; what matters is the ritual and meaning we ascribe to it. And for the formerly overweight person, there are no really good options for navigating this terrain. You can leave the food culture unchallenged, but that’s probably what made you fat in the first place. You can quietly resist the forbidden foods, or even avoid social events altogether if the temptation is too much. If you are really brave, you can try to change the food culture of your friends and family, though in my experience most people are highly resistant to that sort of thing and in the end you may wind up feeling like just one more insufferable convert.

Dealing with food culture after a large weight loss requires adjusting many, and possibly all, of your relationships to the new realities of your life. Who knows what might happen when you decide you don’t want to eat pasta anymore. Will the people in your life accept the new you or will a rift develop? It’s a scary thing to contemplate.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps for many people it might actually be easier to regain one hundred pounds than to figure out how to regain a relationship without the super-glue of food.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Choose or Lose?

In my last post, I suggested that limiting your food choices could actually improve your eating experience. Faithful reader Ben made a comment that choices are good, as long as we remember that “No” is a choice. That got me thinking. No matter how the dictionary defines the word “choice,” in the popular culture, especially when talking about food, the word “choice” means one thing and one thing only: the right to say “Yes.”

This definition has enormous impact on our decision-making about what we will eat on a daily basis, for reasons not the least of which is that it is subconscious. By keeping this belief way on the back shelf of your mind’s refrigerator, you will feel that you have had a choice when you say yes to that 32-ounce Mountain Dew (also known as 496 calories and 31 teaspoons of sugar). If you say no to this nutritionally empty drink, you will not have had a choice. You will have been deprived.

Think about this for a few minutes and let it sink in. If you can eat The Three Little Pigs to your heart’s delight (and I mean this in an emotional sense only because the Pigs – better known as fat, sugar and salt – will destroy your actual physical heart), you have choice; you may even say you have “freedom of choice,” and we Americans sure do love to love our freedom. If you eat in a different way, perhaps in a healthier way, then your freedom of choice will have been curtailed, and you might find yourself ranting and raving about the evil nanny state run by a guy named Mike.

Now take this scenario a little further. Suppose you are overweight and you’d like to shed a few pounds. Chances are, you are overweight because you eat too much food that is high in the Pigs, so in order to lose weight, you must stop eating those foods and eat something else, like broccoli or apples, instead. If the way you experience this change is that you are being deprived of your choice to eat “good food” and forced to eat stuff that’s good for you (horrors!), the odds of your long-term weight loss success will be greatly diminished. On the other hand, if you decide that saying no to greasy, overly sweet meals really means saying yes to health, because maybe you deserve health, the outcome will likely be quite different.

Don’t get me wrong. What I’m suggesting is not easy and I haven’t completely mastered it myself. My closet is still stuffed with food demons and it’s not infrequently that I find myself craving the foods that made me fat. Like ice cream. Or a big honking bowl of macaroni and cheese. But I have a tool in my arsenal now that I didn’t have before. When I start to obsess about those bad boys, I remind myself how it felt to be 100 pounds overweight, which was the consequence of choosing to eat that way, and then I choose to eat something else. Or not eat at all.

The pushers and pimps of food culture will tell you that more is better. They lie. I’ll take my cue instead from the architect Mies van der Rohe, who famously said, “Less is more.” As in less fat, less sugar, less salt = more health, more vitality, more life. You can believe me or not. Once again, you choose.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You Choose

Every popular diet plan will tell you that their program does three important things. First off, their food will be satisfying (or, in other words, you will feel the need for an exceedingly long nap after you eat it). Second, you will not be hungry (see my previous thoughts on this topic). And lastly, you will have an endless array of food choices. Of course, you must have an endless array of food choices because if you didn’t, you might find their diet to be… drum roll please…


Is there anything worse than being bored by the food you’re eating? We take it as a gospel truth that our meals must contain variety, for if Heaven forbid you get bored with what you’re eating, you will want – be compelled even – to eat more. Lots more. Since eating more is generally a bad thing for a person trying to lose weight, or trying to maintain a large weight loss, it follows that a diet of the same old same old can’t be good.

While this may seem logical, in my experience I have actually found the exact opposite to be true. Think about it. If you are, say, at a party surrounded by a dizzying assortment of delectable morsels, i.e. “good food,” what would your reaction be? Naturally you’d say, “I’m going to eat just this one bacon-wrapped scallop because the feast for the eyes is more than satisfying enough.” Right? Wrong! You would be overwhelmed and seduced by the cornucopia spread out before you. You’d probably find yourself sitting in a corner at the end of the night, dazed and vaguely nauseous, having tried a taste of everything, at 100 or 200 calories a pop.

Even the occasional treat has this effect on me. Central to the holy dogma of variety is the belief that we have to allow ourselves “indulgences” from time to time, so as not to feel deprived. But for me, the occasional indulgence simply reminds me of how much I miss whatever it is that I can only indulge in occasionally. I imagine this is like telling an alcoholic that they can have a drink on New Year’s Eve – and only New Year’s Eve. That’s a bit sadistic, isn’t it?

What works for me is to eat basically the same thing every day. I’ve put together an anti-variety meal plan, with the help of a nutritionist, which includes foods that, 1) I like, and 2) are healthy. For breakfast, I have scrambled egg whites, a dry English muffin and an orange. Lunch is a salad with chicken. I have yogurt for a morning snack and a pear for an afternoon snack. In fact, the only part of my diet that varies routinely from day to day is the type of protein and kind of vegetable I have for dinner. Yes indeed, I’m one wild and crazy chick!

Boring you say? Well, I find it comforting. It takes the stress out of my dining life to know exactly what I am going to eat today. And tomorrow. And the day after. No worries about getting tripped up or falling off the food bandwagon. No qualms about whether I can resist the siren song of chocolate. No fears of a cheddar cheese binge or an ice cream avalanche.

If this sounds like an extreme reaction, I suppose it is. Yet it’s not as extreme as weighing one hundred pounds too many. And while the way I eat now offers fewer choices than before, I find that life offers many more choices now than before. All in all, it seems like a fair trade.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let's Talk

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but how we talk about weight has a lot to do with the way we think about weight. The words and phrases we choose to describe the experience of eating, dieting or dealing with being fat shape our cultural beliefs and attitudes in ways that are sometimes hard to see.

For example, when we talk about becoming more slender, we say we want to “lose weight.” In most instances, when we talk about loss, it’s not a good thing. Are you happy when you lose money? Does the thought of losing your mind appeal to you? Why should losing parts of your body be any different (jiggly though those parts may be)? Who really wants to be a loser? Even a Biggest Loser? What else might you lose along with the weight? Will you lose chocolate? Oh please, not chocolate! Maybe we scare people with words that imply they must lose something in order to slim down. Is it any wonder that most people “gain” it all back?

Oh yeah, let’s talk about “slim down.” That sounds a lot like fall down. Run down. What a downer. Don’t let me down. Who wants to be part of anything headed downhill? Slimming down sounds like something your stock portfolio does and that’s not a good thing. And besides, Americans are all about “up,” aren’t we? Instead of trying to slim down, maybe we should tone up. Health up. Skinny up. Up, up and away in my beautiful (and lighter) balloon!

At this time of year, you’ve certainly seen a particular phrase emblazoned on a multitude of magazine covers: “Drop ten pounds by summer!” As if it were possible to just “drop” extra pounds, simply toss them away like a used Kleenex. In my experience, those buggers hold on tight, their greedy little fingers dug in with a strength and tenacity stronger than Kryptonite. Unwanted fat cannot be “dropped.” It must be ripped away, cell by cell, and, if you’re not careful, it will reattach in a nanosecond, as if it were a magnet and your body was steel. Ignoring this fact is like trying to deny gravity – you can do it, but the impact is still gonna hurt. How about we replace the word “drop” with “dropkick”? Dropping ten pounds sounds easy, but dropkicking ten pounds, now that seems hard! Which it is, and maybe you won’t feel so bad if you’re trying to do something hard and it turns out to be… hard.

Among my favorites are diets that promise they will make excess fat “melt away.” This is similar to “dropping ten pounds,” but it makes it sound even easier, doesn’t it? I picture myself sitting in a beach chair on a sunny day, with a big aluminum foil tray under me to catch all the drippings. Just as excess weight cannot be dropped, it cannot be melted away either. A better analogy would be chiseling it away, one arduous hammer swing at a time, and eventually the David statue emerges from the lumpy chunk of granite.

Perhaps I’m being a bit pedantic, but I believe words matter. Maintaining a healthy weight is a very good thing, however, it’s not an easy thing. In fact, it’s an enormous struggle, yet a struggle worth fighting and also worth telling the truth about. Remember that the next time you decide to on a diet.

Oh, by the way, diet? Sounds a lot like dying. How about we go on a live-it?

 (Thanks to Jodi Smits Anderson for inspiring this topic.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Random Thoughts on Food and Felines

My cats do not think about food.

If you’ve ever shared your life with a cat (or, more likely, been owned by one), you may wonder if I’ve lost my mind. Cats don’t think about food??? Have I never observed the frenzy that ensues when the vacuum seal on a can of Ocean Whitefish and Tuna is broken, you ask?

Calm down. I didn’t say cats don’t like to eat. I didn’t say a cat would not salivate excessively over a warm mouse on a cold night. What I said was: Cats don’t think about food.

I think about food. All the time. What I will eat at my next meal. What I will not eat at my next meal. What the person next to me will eat that I will want to eat but not be able to eat because if I do eat it I might gain weight. I think a dizzying array of thoughts about food and all things food-related. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Which is why I envy my cats. You see, when there is food to be had, my cats eat. When there is no food to be had, my cats sleep. Or play. Or poop. If it’s Saturday morning and I happen to get up late, they will remind me that breakfast time is past due, but it’s more a matter of being perturbed about the disruption in their routine than anything else. There is none of the tortured angst, the endlessly excruciating rumination, the exquisite agony that drives me bonkers sometimes. The laid-back, laissez faire approach that my cats exhibit towards eating makes me wonder if they might not have something to teach me about my relationship with food.  In other words:

“Everything I need to know about food I learned from my cats.”

Food is tasty. (Particularly bird heads. Mm, Mm, Good!)

Food is fun. (Play with your food… especially when it tries to run away!)

Food is good. (Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will… sleep.)

Food is simple. (You eat, you barf, you find a sunny spot to snooze.)

If only I could empty my head of all the neurotic cobwebs that I’ve spun around food and eat like a cat! Life would be so uncomplicated. When I’ve eaten too much, instead of beating myself up, I could just take a nap. When I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t, instead of beating myself up, I could just chase my tail. When I’ve let myself be intimidated once again into eating something I didn’t want, instead of beating myself up, I could just lick my toes. To translate this into human terms, I could just acknowledge what happened, pick myself up and move forward with new resolve.

I’m sure this is not as easy as it sounds. But, hey, it’s food for thought.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

No Fuss, No Muss

I was not surprised to see a series of articles in the media a few months ago that made this claim: as our friends’ weight goes, so goes our weight. It seems that having heavy friends increases your odds of being heavy yourself and vice versa. Is it as simple as birds of a food feather tending to flock together? Or do we somehow influence each other’s propensity for attracting fat cells?

You may remember a previous post in which I lamented my husband’s love of pasta. For me, pasta is a gateway drug, a sure path to an overnight three-pound gain. In the years since I reached my goal weight, I’ve lost count of the number of times he and I have had the same tense discussion about which restaurant we should go to – the place famous for its spectacular salads or the place where you can get a big honking bowl of spaghetti, dripping in butter and meatball-laden tomato sauce? On any number of these occasions – too many I’m afraid – I’ve caved and gone to the pasta place. For to do otherwise would be to make a fuss and making a fuss is something I abhor.

You could say that the reason I was so heavy for all those years was precisely because I didn’t want to make a fuss. In my former fat life, I was the epitome of unfussness. I generally ate whatever was put in front of me. Or whatever my companion – friend, co-worker, or husband – wanted to eat. One of the most difficult transitions for me since becoming thin has been to learn to object, to say, “No, I don’t want that.” And to stick to it. It’s hard because it feels unnatural, but also because most of the people in my life still like to eat the way I liked to eat before my weight loss. To come out as a person with a different way of eating is to risk making a fuss, sometimes a big fuss.

Oh. Yuck.

It’s obvious that I alone am responsible for what I eat. And that is exactly how I would describe these last five years. I alone. Feeling like a stranger, someone who just doesn’t get the lay of the land anymore. It often seems that there are only two choices before me. One is to fit in, go along, and eat what everyone around me eats; this is the path that leads back to 250 pounds. The other is to make a fuss, be the odd gal out, and stay at my current lighter weight. It’s not how I imagined my life as a thin person, back in the bad old days when I was fat. Then, it was an indisputable truth that being slender lead directly to being deliriously happy, confident, and satisfied. No fuss, no muss.

Of course we tend to weigh what our friends weigh. In this food saturated culture, how could it be any other way? The challenge for me now is to learn how to live in this land of excess without becoming an example of it. It’s an interesting dilemma. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.