Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eating well requires consciousness

I get asked this question a lot: how can you cook like you do, eat like you do, have wine with dinner almost every night and still not weigh 300 lbs?  My first response is: well, it's certainly not my metabolism.  I was, off and on, a chunky child.  I also have been, off and on, a chunky adult.  And now that I've passed the half-century mark, the challenge of balancing a stubborn metabolism with enough physical activity is a serious one.  Also, balancing the foods I prefer to eat in the quantities required to maintain a healthy weight means that I must make daily decisions in an intentional and conscious manner.  That means Meal Planning.

Planning meals is not a new concept.  Plenty of women's magazines used to offer several weeks' worth of meals, even shopping lists, in order to make Mom's life easier.  But those meal plans existed in an era where Mom usually stayed home and kept house.  Some of you reading this post might not even have experienced this kind of lifestyle, but trust me, it did exist.  Today, however, Mom usually works to help pay the mortgage and often has the additional responsibility of throwing together a nutritious and attractive meal for her husband and their offspring.  And of course, sometimes it's Dad that has to manage meals, or each family member fends for themselves at meal times.

What does that look like in real life?  Often it looks like take-out, fast food, a budget chain restaurant or frozen, prepackaged meals.  Or maybe it's a bag of chips, microwave popcorn, or half a package of cookies.  Or a cup of yogurt or cheese and crackers.  Or, my personal favorite from my still-single days, peanut butter and celery.  Let's face it, cooking a meal from scratch after a long day and a frustrating commute home has potential to produce a Late Onset Psychotic Break complete with an E-Ticket to your local psych ward.  We are all stressed enough, you might argue, without having to cook too.  I agree!  And I plan to address how to cook quick, easy meals more healthfully and satisfyingly in a post in the very near future.  It is possible to have items on hand in your pantry, fridge and freezer to make less costly and more nutritious meals at home in about the same time as it takes to drive out and back to your local pizza joint.  What?  Don't like to cook?  We'll deal with that too.

But while you're waiting for that post on what to keep on hand, start with making a few small changes now.  Just thinking about making a change and becoming more intentional is half the battle.  After you've decided you're ready for change, you'll need to practice some discipline with yourself.  I do this by following four basic rules for eating well and eating healthfully.  My number one rule is No Processed Foods.  We must start thinking of most processed foods as synthesized food, not real food.  Start reading labels.  If there are words on the label you can't pronounce or don't recognize, realize that it's probably not something that is real food.  Anything that is manufactured in a lab has no business on your dinner plate.  And anything modified with additives and preservatives, even "fortified" and "enriched foods," is not real food.  Think about it for a minute: additives and preservatives enhance color, flavor, texture and give a longer shelf life.  Real food doesn't need enhancement in this way.  It is enhanced in the company of other real foods.  Similarly, we enrich and fortify food that is considered dead or no longer optimally nutritious.  Real foods, whole foods don't need to be enriched and fortified.

But there are other problems with processed foods.  The major health concerns in our culture--diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, etc., are strongly linked with heavy consumption of processed foods, mostly highly reinforcing products that provoke conditioned and driven behaviors.  In his book The End of Overeating, David A. Kessler, MD, a former FDA food commissioner, states that certain commercially prepared foods--especially those with added salt, sugar and fat--are so tasty and stimulating that they overload your brain's circuitry. 

Let's face it, highly processed foods are easy to eat (no bones, no pits, no knife and fork required).  They are calorie-dense with little nutritional payoff.  So what's the appeal?  Well, aside from the fact that processed foods make unconscious, mindless eating ridiculously easy, they're easily accessible.  They're intensely flavored.  And then there's texture, which, it seems, is a huge factor in their appeal.  The textures of processed foods tantalize us because they are engineered for optimum mouthfeel.  Did someone just say, "Philip Morris?"  Flavors are ratcheted up far beyond what is normally found in whole foods.  Processed foods are, in short, designed to deliver instant gratification.  Instantly.  And the beauty of this concept?  While you're not really thinking about that bag of chips you're scarfing down in front of the TV, the magic of engineering and advertising has already happened.  And, of course, you'll buy more.

When we eat highly processed foods, our brains manufacture dopamine (the neurochemical associated with reward) and that compels us to eat that food over and over again.  And that's the basic element of addiction.  Eventually, states Kessler, just looking at the food can trigger dopamine release.  Think of all the food and snack commercials you see if you're a TV watcher.  Just for grins, count them in a day's time and I think the number will astound you.  Those of you who do a lot of driving may also notice how many food and soft-drink billboards there are along our roadways.

Which brings me to rule number two: No Fast Food.  For a basic rationale, refer to Rule Number One.  In addition, I encourage you to do your research on calorie and nutrition information for your favorite fast food meals.  Sure, it's fast and easy to breeze through that drive through.  In fact, it requires almost no thought at all to order a super-size meal and inhale it in your car.  Get honest with yourself, get conscious and make an informed choice about what you put in your body.  Give yourself permission to sloooooow doooooown.  With a little forethought and a little effort, you could be taking healthful, lower-calorie food choices with you where ever you are.  Of course there are those unpredictable days when you are hungry, pressed for time, and have to grab a burger on the run.  But make them the minority, not the majority of the time.

Rule number three: Quality over Quantity.  Have you been to the grocery store lately???  It's getting more and more expensive to feed ourselves.  Everyone, however, no matter how small their food budget, could make changes in how and where they spend their food dollars.  You can choose to fill your shopping cart with a lot of inexpensive preprepared products.  Or you could choose to fill your grocery cart with nutritionally-dense, high quality whole foods.  Yes, the house brand orange soda is cheaper than milk and gelatin cups are cheaper than fruit.  Feeding ourselves is a challenge in our present economy.  We have to ask ourselves: can we be happy with less, if less means better quality, better taste, and better nutrition?  

Think about buying less foods with fillers, sauces and additives and more foods that are organic, plant-based, minimally processed and wholesome.  When you buy whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, you get to control how they're prepared, seasoned and served.  Sure, it's a no-brainer to buy a frozen lasagna casserole at the store on your way home from work.  But you could also make an easy uncooked pasta version the night before with just a little effort for about the same amount of money.  And you'd be consuming less sodium, additives and fat.  Again, I'm encouraging independent thought here.  And I think that most of us have gotten out of the habit of independent thinking, especially where food choices are concerned.

Rule number four: Move More, Eat Less.  Actually, I stole this quip from Jamie Lee Curtis.  Get active.  Take up jogging, speed-walking, rowing, yoga, boxing, cycling, or jiu jitsu.  The point is to get up off the couch, turn off the TV and move around.  Ideally, move your body in such a way that you get some cardiovascular benefit.  You want to eat?  Great!  But you've got to move.  We can't afford to mindlessly eat enormous portions of food any longer in our culture.  We no longer live in the Agricultural Era, when people worked hard--from sun up to sun down--for their calories.  We sit and play our X-Box 360s, fiddle with our BlackBerries, spend endless hours on Facebook, and watch entirely too much TV.  And we often snack and eat enormous quantities of synthesized foods while we're doing it.  So make a conscious decision (there's that thinking again!) to exercise at least every other day.  Make a conscious decision to leave some food on your plate (your mother is no longer there to tell you there are starving children somewhere!).  Make a conscious decision to eat less.  Period. 

So the take-home message of today's diatribe could be distilled into this one idea: Consciousness.  It's the most important thing you could do to help yourself stay healthy, to eat better, to make good choices.  Even more importantly, we need to teach our kids to make better choices.  If you lack the ability to be conscious alone, find someone to help you and support you, and most of all, to help you be accountable to yourself.  Get a community group together to do what Jamie Oliver is doing.  You have the ability to change your life and to change others' as well

Get up off the couch and dance so your tastebuds can continue to dance.  Meet me here again soon.  We'll do it together.

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