Sharing stuff I've learned, and things I've thought about...

Managing Weight – Part 2

How often have you heard someone claim “Oh, I can eat anything I want and never have to worry about my weight”? How often have you heard a claim for some diet pill/program/product that makes the same claim – “Eat all the foods you enjoy and still lose weight!!”.

In essence, there is nothing at all contrary about these claims, provided you read them carefully – they claim you can eat “whatever” you like, not how much you like. Big difference there. Butter, eggs, steak, french fries, potato chips, baked potato with all the trimmings, ice cream, pizza, fried chicken, pies, cheesecake – yes you CAN eat any or all of these foods and be healthy and lose or maintain your weight. But the fact remains that if you eat an average of 3000 calories worth of any kind food every day, you will soon be the size of the Goodyear blimp.

However, think about how much ice cream you’d need to eat to reach that 3000 calories, and compare that to how much broccoli you’d need to eat to reach the same number. I know I could (if I wanted to totally indulge my inner glutton) easily polish off 3000 calories of ice cream in a single sitting, I’d probably be very hard-pressed to eat that much broccoli (and I LOVE broccoli!!).

Understanding this is the key to the point I was trying to make in my first post on this topic. If you’re feeling deprived by following a particular dietary practice, you will NOT stick with it, and while you might lose weight on such a regimen, you will not be preparing yourself for long-term health and weight maintenance. Denying ourselves of foods, flavors, textures that we enjoy isn’t a practical or productive strategy. Making a change in the balance and variety of the foods we eat to make it easier to keep our caloric intake within healthy limits is what we want to achieve.

Much has been written about the trend toward ever-increasing rates of obesity in the U.S. and in most nations that have achieved similar levels of prosperity. Obviously this indicates a change in the eating habits of people both as income levels increase, and over time as lifestyles and product offerings change. In my opinion there are two related factors that contribute more to this trend than any other.

  • I have a way of classifying foods into two categories – everyday foods, and what I call “picnic and party” foods. It is helpful to classify everything you eat into the appropriate category, and shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m old enough to have seen a significant change in how people think about the latter category. When I was a child in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, in a prosperous two-parent family, there were foods that were ONLY in evidence at picnics and parties. These foods included snack crackers, cheese spread, cookies, potato ships, soda, potato salad, any kind of finger-food, pies, cakes, donuts & pastries etc. Compare that to purchasing habits today in which the weekly grocery trip has all of this kind of food going into the shopping cart as a matter of course.
  • The growth of processed foods has certainly freed many people from the “drudgery” of daily food preparation, but at a terrible cost. Again, I recall a time in which there was very little in the house that one could eat that did not require some preparation. If you wanted a quick snack, about the only thing available was some fresh fruit like an apple, banana or orange. Even something as simple as a slice of buttered toast, a bowl of cold cereal or a PB&J sandwich required some preparation and cleanup. Today we have hundreds of foods that only require one to open a package, or at the most, run something through the microwave – pudding cups, candy and granola bars, crackers, potato chips, pretzel rods, cookies, pizza rolls, pop-tarts, corn chips, breakfast sandwiches and on and on…

The net effect of the two changes I describe above – keeping our houses stocked with foods that were once considered an occasional indulgence, and the elimination of much of the need to prepare food and to clean the utensils and appliances needed to do so – is that we now have, within arm’s reach, so many more calories that can be consumed without expending any more effort than that required to walk into the kitchen and open a cupboard or the refrigerator, and it’s all stuff that tastes really, really good!

I have two take-aways from this post for you:

  1. When at a picnic or at a party, I do NOT keep track of what I’m eating, because I don’t go to picnics or parties more than a dozen or so times a year. Why should I worry about “falling off the wagon” under these circumstances? The rest of the time, I recognize that the foods that we eat on picnics and at parties are NOT something that I eat in other circumstances, and shouldn’t have them in my house.
  2. If I’m serious about eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight, I have to cook. For people that are unable to cook for themselves (or don’t live with someone who can cook for them), and are not interested in learning how to do so, it is going to be very very difficult for them to improve their diet. Packaged, processed and prepared foods are engineered to meet many criteria other than good nutrition, and tend to be calorie-dense rather than nutrient-dense. If a diet is based on packaged, processed and prepared foods, a person can successfully lose weight by carefully counting calories, which can actually be easier with processed foods (the calorie content is printed right on the label!) However, I can guarantee you that they will feel frustrated, deprived and hungry because they are leaving the important food choices to the purveyors of these products. To make the choices necessary to change one’s diet to be healthier and still enjoyable and satisfying, it is absolutely essential to be able to assemble meals and snacks from fresh ingredients.