I wanted to talk a bit about how I’ve been changing how I eat lately. Let me first say that I think the choice of a way of eating is highly personal. I don’t really advocate my way for anyone other than me, since we are all individual. Other people may be sensitive to foods that don’t bother me. On the other hand, I may want to avoid some foods that others can handle just fine. And, I’m mindful that I’m not really an expert in how to eat. On that point, I enjoyed this essay by Dr. David Katz. But, I have tried to figure out what I think makes sense to me, for me, based upon what I’ve read and what my experience has been.
I posted previously about how we ate when I was growing up. And, then I posted about how my eating evolved over the years after I was out of school. I have made a lot of changes over the years. For example, I gave up eating beef 14 years ago. I also have slowly limited the refined grains that I eat and mostly eat whole grains when I eat grains. And, I’ve increased my intake of vegetables and berries. But, there are other changes I’ve also been starting to undertake.
1. Probably the most major change is to lessen my intake of highly processed foods and to be far more selective of where I eat out. I am not giving up all processed foods, but I am giving up (or severely limiting) the ones that have little nutritional value, are highly processed with lots of artificial ingredients, and are more created in lab than really being a food that would be found in nature. So, I would still buy frozen chopped vegetables, but would not buy Cheetos.
One of the major reasons is that I am focusing on what I think is best for maintaining weight loss. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food over the past months. I’ve looked at various ways to eat and I’ve tried to come to some sort of synthesis of everything I’ve read to something that makes sense for me. I’ve really come to believe that the industrial food system — which includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, many chain restaurants — has become a force that really promotes overeating. I found The End of Overeating by David Kessler (former FDA commissioner) and Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss to be really eye-opening. They really demonstrated to me how the food industry really tries to use fat, sugar, and salt to make food so appealing and so rewarding that we want to eat more and more of it. I’m not saying that no one should ever eat fat, sugar, and salt. But, these books show how this stuff just gets added on beyond a reasonable amount in so much processed food. To get an idea, here is an article by Moss in the New York Times adapted from Salt Sugar Fat. Another great book on the industrial food system and why corn seems to be in everything was The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I really loved this book and how it tells us there can be alternatives to the industrial food system.
I also have been very fascinated to read about food reward theory and obesity. Stephan Guyenet (a neurobiologist) on his blog did a great series talking about food reward: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII. I found the entire series very interesting to read. I hasten to add that I don’t know if he is right on the science, but a lot of what he said resonated with me.
Here I thought he did a good job of explaining the concept of food reward and how it relates to obesity:
Reward is a psychology term with a specific definition: “a process that reinforces behavior”. Rewarding food is not the same thing as food that tastes good, although they often occur together.
Food reward is the process by which eating specific foods reinforces behaviors that favor the acquisition and consumption of the food in question. You could also call rewarding food “reinforcing” or “habit-forming”, although not necessarily in an addictive sense. Food reward is a perfectly normal and healthy part of life, although I believe it can be harmful if it exceeds the bounds of what we’re adapted to. Food reward is essential for survival in a natural environment, because it teaches you what to eat and how to get it through a trial-and-error process.
Here’s the fundamental concept that I think explains a lot of obesity in industrialized nations. We live in a more or less Darwinian economic framework (capitalism). Food manufacturers are in constant competition, and any food that sells poorly will rapidly disappear from stores. How do you get people to buy your product? You produce something that causes them to come back and buy it again. In other words, the goal of processed food manufacturers is to create a product that maximally reinforces purchase and consumption behaviors– food reward! If the product is not extremely rewarding, it won’t sell because it’s competing against other products that are extremely rewarding. Only the most rewarding products survive.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you like the Little Debbie cake once it’s in your mouth. It doesn’t matter how you feel afterward. The only thing that matters is whether or not you’ll buy another one tomorrow. That’s food reward.
When I look back on when I got to goal weight (actually, I got down to 117 pounds) many years ago, I think the above was a key part of why I regained. The environment then (early 1990s) wasn’t as obesogenic as today’s environment, but I was a big processed food eater, and I loved fast food and I ate out a lot. I did for awhile (when I was losing weight) start cooking a lot, but it went by the wayside after I got to goal. I was very busy at work and it was easier to just cook a frozen meal, or drive through Jack in the Box, or go out to eat. And, I loved those very rewarding foods.
When I regained 30 pounds ofter we moved 3 years ago, I see that it was because of that kind of thing again. We were busy finding a new house, then moving, then doing some remodeling to the new house. And, we ate out a lot. And, when we didn’t eat out, I was buying packages at the store. Cookies, chips, ice cream, and frozen (diet) dinners. We would eat fast food 2 or 3 times a week and then go to a restaurant a few times. No wonder I regained 30 pounds.
And, to be honest, I’ve resisted for years the idea of giving up or limiting the highly processed foods. Yes, I’ve modified how much of them that I eat. I’ve counted calories and Weight Watchers points and when I do that, then I can eat those foods and still lose weight. But…the rub is that many of those foods are designed by food manufacturers to be foods that I want to eat more of. So, I now think that if I avoid or limit those foods then the weight loss I have left to do and maintenance will be far easier for me.
Weight loss isn’t the only reason I want to limit my intake of highly processed foods. I think that doing so will result in overall healthier eating. I am also being more cognizant of where the food I eat comes from (particularly the animal protein which raised ethical concerns to me).
2. Eliminated soft drinks. I implemented this a couple of weeks ago. Since this I have had no soft drinks at all. I gave up sugared soft drinks many years ago. But, giving up my Cherry Coke Zero has been difficult. I tried for awhile to just not have it at home and to only have it restaurants or when out and about. But, what always happened was that I would maybe buy a 20 oz. Coke Zero at the gas station to drink on the way home…but then I would buy a few more to have at home. So, I ended up drinking as much as I drank when I was buying 12 packs at the store (and the 20 oz. ones from a convenience store are really expensive). I finally realized that I would do better to just not drink them at all. Since then, at restaurants I have either water or unsweetened tea. At home, I have iced green tea, water, or sparkling water (the kind with no sweeteners).
3. Carb limitation and modification – In January, I posted about my blood test results which really suggested my body wasn’t handling carbohydrates very well. After that, I bought a blood glucose meter and started testing after meals. Over time, I’ve found that some things do raise my blood sugar high enough that I don’t want to eat those things any more. I find that refined grains raise my blood sugar a lot. Of course, something with high sugar will raise my blood sugar (the cinnamon crunch bagel from Panera was, alas, really problematical for me). On the other hand, I’ve found that limited amounts of whole grains (a small whole wheat tortilla or half a cup of brown rice, for example) are OK for my blood sugar. I guess most days my carbs are around 90 to 100 grams (net carbs are probably closer to 70 to 80), and that seems to work out well. I tend to spread them out throughout the day and a lot of them come from berries and vegetables.
So what am I eating? I’ve gotten some ideas from various sources. After The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan wrote a great book about what to eat, called In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. He famously summed up his approach as: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That seems simple, but it really succinctly makes some important points.
Eat food – My first thought when I read this quote (long before reading the book) was to wonder why he was saying that? I mean, what else would I be eating? But, that is his point. Not everything we eat is really food. Some (a lot) of what we eat isn’t food, but is more like food like substances. His point is to eat actual real food, not something that is really a science experiment created in a lab. S0, he suggests that we not eat anything that our great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. And, to avoid food products that have ingredients that are unpronounceable or are unfamiliar or that have more then 5 ingredients, or that contain high fructose corn syrup. I don’t totally follow this. For example, I buy stuff with more than 5 ingredients if I can read and understand what they are. And sometimes, I buy things with uunpronounceable or unfamiliar ingredients (but I do look them up first). But, the general rule holds. Buy real food and cook it at home when possible.
Not too much – Well, yes. I still am losing weight and then will need to maintain my weight loss. Calories still matter. Now that I am cooking more at home, though, I find that I get to eat a lot more volume of food for less calories than I was eating when I would eat out or buy processed foods.
Mostly plants – I think the point here is that Pollan says to eat mostly plants, yet he doesn’t say to eat only plants. I was a vegetarian for a couple of years (lacto-ovo, not vegan), but I feel comfortable now with having some animal protein. But, I m eating a lot more vegetables now than I used to eat. And, more berries. I find that on some days, without setting out to do so, I end up not eating any chicken or fish.
Another book that I found helpful in translating this into actual eating was 100 Days of Real Food where a family transformed their eating inspired by In Defense of Food.
So, what am I doing? More cooking. I truly don’t like to spend a lot of time cooking, so I looked for recipes that were easy to do. I make a large salad several days a week with a lot of veggies in it. I make a simple balsamic vinaigrette (really simple – olive oil and balsamic vinegar). I add a little cooked chicken to it or maybe a pouch of wild salmon or even a couple of tablespoons of hummus. Maybe a little cheese or a few almonds or not. I make some simple recipes that don’t take a long time to make such as a vegetable frittata that I modified from Food Matters. I buy frozen fish and cook it.
I do sometimes eat some processed foods. I buy frozen vegetables (but look carefully at the ingredients). I look carefully at ingredient labels and decide whether I feel comfortable with the food. I am avoiding the really ultra processed foods. I am avoiding fast food restaurants. I could certainly envision eating at one such as when traveling, but not for everyday eating. We do still eat out a couple of times a week, but I’m much more careful about where we eat and what we eat. I really make an effort to eat simpler foods where I know what is in them. Some of my favorite places currently: The Counter (burger place where you can build your own burger — I have mine in a bowl with no bread), Panera (I don’t buy the pastries, basically I eat some of the salads and a couple of the soups), Chipotle (I have a bowl, not a burrito).
This is very much still a work in progress, but I’m definitely feeling better and feel that this will help me sustain my weight loss for the long term.