On dieting and real food

Because I’ve been traveling nonstop for the last two weeks (from Boston to Springfield back to Boston, to Washington D.C., to Baltimore, to Roseville, Michigan, to Brighton, to Detroit, and back to Boston), I haven’t done any cooking at all. (I did, however, spend a weekend with my aunts and baked the cinnamon rolls again, this time with brown sugar, no nuts, and the help of my nine-year-old cousin. I left the rolled-up dough in the fridge overnight and baked the rolls in the morning. They were, if anything, better than the last time.) Travel brings up all sorts of food issues—healthy eating, fast food, social eating, social drinking—so I’ll be doing a miniseries of non-cooking blogs. This week, I’ll write about which fat-free foods I’m afraid of and which I think aren’t bullshit and are worth eating.

I don’t believe in diets. I think the obsession with being skinny and/or fear of being fat drives people to do some insane things. Sure, maybe cutting all carbohydrates out of your diet might make you lose weight, but that is not a sustainable way to live. Diet even has the word die in it. People who diet want to lose weight, but I think the losing can become so all-consuming that long-term health goes out the window. (Before I say the things I’m about to say, keep in mind that I am not a trained doctor or nutritionist. I am, however, someone with common sense. What I say might not be helpful for you, but it’s been helpful for me.) Here is a fact: we need food to live. We need fat to live. We need carbohydrates for energy. We need fruits and vegetables. Here is another fact: dieting is not fun. Have you ever seen someone on a diet? Have you ever talked to anyone on a diet? It’s all they can talk about. It’s all they can think about. It’s really boring to listen to. And usually, they are talking about some way that they failed.

Is that really good for you? Maybe you cut out some fat, but maybe then you really wanted that ice cream and now you are stressed and anxious and feeling bad about yourself because you’ve failed. Here is another fact: Stress and anxiety are bad for your body, too.

I’m not saying that because pizza and ice cream are delicious, you should eat some every night (although that does sound really tasty right now). But, what’s the happy medium? No matter how you look at it, even if you hate diets like I do, eating too many calories will be a problem. In this post, I’ll tell you about some of the ways I try to eat a little healthier without wanting to drown my sorrows in chocolate chips.

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s small handbook, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. His motto for eating is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’m still working on the plants part, but I think the emphasis in that statement is food. Eat real food. Seriously. In the book, he says that we should shop only around the perimeter of the grocery store—bread, dairy, meat, and produce. All of that is food your body needs. The rest is food products, stuff with varying levels of actual food and chemicals you’ve never heard of.

Now, I’m not saying I’m some kind of food martyr like vegans are or that I only eat raw. However, I really high-five the impulse to try and eat mostly things that are actually on the food pyramid. This means that I eat only real sugar and NEVER Splenda, or Sweet ‘n’ Low, or whatever other new sweetener that pretends to be natural but isn’t. (Made with sugar? That always makes me wonder what else it’s made with. Powdered unicorn horn?) Did you know a teaspoon of sugar only has 15 calories? I don’t add much more than a teaspoon of sugar to anything unless I’m baking. Also, guess what? Sugar is made from a plant. Let’s relax and not be so afraid of sugar. (Unless you’re diabetic. In which case, you should probably be a little afraid.)

Next on my list is butter. I eat real butter for the same reason I use real sugar. It’s made from actual dairy. I buy a butter that is made with yogurt, so it has fewer calories than regular butter, but is still made from ingredients I recognize. I’d rather use the real thing and just use less of it. My (super arbitrary) rule is only one dip with the knife into the tub of butter. I’ll leave the muscle of that one dip up to you.

Part of my decision to eat real food includes avoiding diet soda. If I want soda that badly, I’ll have a real soda. Diet soda frightens me. Have you ever seen what Diet Coke does to people? I’ve known several people who drink can after can, all day long. What is in that shit that makes people so addicted to it? It can’t be the flavor. To anyone who says that you can’t taste a difference between diet and regular, you are straight up lying (or there is something wrong with your taste buds). Maybe that nasty aftertaste kills some of your sensory nerves. Bottom line, to me, the diet doesn’t satisfy. If you’re going to indulge, why not on something that actually tastes good? If I’m going to eat a chocolate bar or an ice cream sundae, I don’t want the dairy-free, sugar-free, fat-free crap. I want all the calories. And it will be amazing.

Now, on to some lower-fat options that have been worth my while.

  1. Reduced fat peanut butter. Here, I honestly don’t notice a taste difference. There is no fake sweetener in the reduced-fat version, so why not?
  2. Reduced fat Ritz crackers. I don’t know what they do to these, and I sense it’s probably nothing good, but they taste no different to me.
  3. Low-fat plain yogurt. This is just made with skim milk. Since I’m dependent on dairy to keep me from going into a hypoglycemic rage most of the time, I like to find low-fat options that taste good. I add a teaspoon of honey or sugar to it, and sometimes a drop or two of vanilla extract—check the sugar on some flavored yogurts sometime. It’s like candy.
  4. Skim milk. I know. Some people think it’s watery, and I might agree, but I’ve gotten used to it. I graded down from 1% to ½%, and now to skim. If you think it’s too gross, I recommend organic skim milk, if you can afford it. It’s skim and somehow still really creamy. It’s magic.

The items above are things I eat often, so it was worth it for me to switch out to lower-fat options. Again, remember that I’m not an expert whatsoever. However, I do think that it’s worth it to eat food that tastes good in moderation, instead of torturing yourself with half-assed substitutes. Do you have any that you recommend? Are you vegan and want to fight me? Leave a comment!

9 Responses to “On dieting and real food”
  1. deepa says:

    A friend of mine read the Pollen book a while back and the rule she told me about was “if your grandmother won’t recognize it, don’t eat it”, which really stuck with me. I have been trying to cut back on the processed foods for a while, but his list of rules really helped. We only feed the kiddo “food”, he doesn’t get processed or junk food, which is nice, but not as easy on a day to day level with the grown-up contingent. For now, I have been checking the ingredients – if I can’t picture what is listed, I don’t buy it.

    Next up, cutting back on meat without increasing carbs. I think this will get MUCH easier once the farmer’s market is back and veggies and fruit are in season again. Every time winter comes along and I try to keep up on the fruit and veggies, I always wonder how the Pilgrims did it…

  2. Bruno says:

    Low-carb diets definitely work since it’s carbs that trigger your insulin response, and thus put your body into fat storing mode. Couple this with the thought that a lot of the carb products in the world are coupled with a fat (desserts come to mind) and tend to be very suspensive comparatively and you start to see why most of America is overweight. Low-carb diets however, are not sustainable, as you mentioned. Our body craves carbs and without them it goes into starvation mode which drastically slows down your metabolism.

    The answer to this is to try to eat the majority of your carbs from “complex” sources (things with a low glycemic index) since they take more energy to digest and don’t spike your insulin levels quite so high. Thankfully, a lot of complex carbohydrates are delicious. Leafy vegetables, rices, whole grains, root vegetables, legumes. Good stuff.

    The number one thing I tell people when they ask me how to lose weight is to cut out simple carbohydrates from you life as much as possible (Refined flours, sugar, white potatoes, white rice, breakfast cereal).

    • Emily says:

      I take huge issue with you calling potatoes simple carbohydrates! They are plants. They are nourishing. Potatoes are a powerhouse of nutrition. EAT your potatoes!

  3. Anna says:

    I try to eat generally real foods nowadays, although I find myself not wanting salad with grilled chicken at all anymore. We’ve been eating pork tenderloin a lot lately. And fish sticks from Meijer, which actually aren’t that bad and don’t have too many ingredients.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to tell you is that I love Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. I try not to have it every day, but after a ridiculously long run I HAVE TO HAVE IT. I don’t know what it is. As for the taste factor: I stopped drinking sugared pop in middle school when I got braces because the orthodontist told me not to, and now regular pop tastes sickeningly sweet to me. Plus, I’m married to Jack, which makes buying sugared pop just kind of mean. :) I do agree that having less of it in general is probably for the best.

  4. Gavin Craig says:

    I love Pollan, but I think he’s on weaker ground when he starts trying to talk about food traditions, or things like the “grandmother” rule. My grandmother would recognize Lucky Charms as food. And energy bars. (And Dewar’s. She loves Dewar’s.)

    I’m not sure she’s ever eaten sushi, but I’m pretty sure she’d recognize it as food. On the other hand, I have no idea what my great-grandmothers would or wouldn’t recognize. It would be pure speculation. Avoiding food in a box is a great idea. Doing more cooking at home is a great idea. Drinking less soda (diet or otherwise) is a great idea. Knowing where your meat and vegetables come from is a great idea. Rebuilding a dysfunctional American food culture by appealing to imagined cultures of the past is not such a great idea.

  5. Nicole says:

    Jill, I’m with you on pretty much everything here. (!)

    Slightly off topic: The thing that really got me thinking is what you wrote about butter. I didn’t actually use butter outside of baking until I moved in with my boyfriend about a year ago, and it was one of the items that he *had* to put on the grocery list as a necessity. The food I grew up with (mostly Asian and Caribbean) seems like a whole different ballgame than what my boyfriend grew up with (Midwestern meat and potatoes). Our biggest challenge now is balancing our food wants/needs. (And about the butter….now that I’ve started using it, it’s kind of hard to not to put it on everything).

  6. Jill says:

    I agree with you, Bruno. White, processed flour has pretty low nutritional value, unless you’re starving. Whole grain carbs are the way to go!

    This just in re: diet soda: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41479869/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/
    The study accounts for other risk factors, like smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

    I may accept that you like it for taste…. maybe. ;) But be careful!

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