I used to eat like an idiot. I have only myself to blame, because, looking back, my mother did a very good job of feeding us healthy food. Part of this was because we were dirt poor. We just didn't have the money to eat out at fast food restaurants or pizza joints. We also couldn't splurge on junk food like potato chips or snack cakes. We did what we could to stretch meat. In recent years, I've gone to steak houses and ordered 20 ounce steaks to eat by myself. In my youth, a single 1 pound steak would get divided up between my parents and all the children... which, it turns out, is a lot closer to a healthy serving size. We ate a lot of beans and vegetables grown from both our own small garden and my great-grandfather's farm. We would can tomatoes, green beans, and freeze corn and blackberries to eat on year round. We drank sodas very rarely. It was a special occasion to get your own 12oz bottle of RC.
Then I went to college and the cafeteria was all you could eat. And, man, did I eat! I wolfed down food like I'd never seen it before. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner I drank Coke. Around the same time, my father got a better job, and junk food started appearing at my parent's house. Little Debbie snack cakes. Cases of soda stacked on the porch. More bags of potato chips than you could quickly count. My father went from a rail thin man into a rather portly gentleman in the span of a few years. I was spared the effects of my overeating by my youthful metabolism and the fact that for most of college I didn't have a car and had to walk everywhere. (And, later, when I did have a car, I had no money for gas, so I was still walking.)
Eventually though, my financial prospects improved enough that I could drive everywhere. And, my frequent destinations were fast food joints. I knew the location of every pizza buffet within fifty miles. "All-you-can-eat" was my favorite restaurant catchphrase. Which is how, between my sophomore year of college and my 47th birthday, I doubled my weight.
Intellectually, I knew one shouldn't drink 2 liters of sugary soft drinks each day. Intellectually, I knew the proper serving size for pizza wasn't "buffet til you bulge." I suspected all these things might be bad for me. But, they were bad for me in small increments. It's not like I ever got on a scale and found myself 50 pounds heavier than when I last checked. Instead, it was 1 or 2 or 5 pounds, over months, accumulating over years and decades. My head might have known that my diet needed improving, but my stomach didn't see what the problem was. What was the point of being thin if I had to give up eating what by body craved?
I'm happy to report that, once I finally decided to change my diet, my body stopped craving the things that were bad for me. I no longer drink any soda and don't miss it at all. A few weeks ago, before setting out on a long hike, I decided I'd pay a return visit to a Pizza Hut buffet. It was like eating heavily salted cardboard that had soaked in bacon grease. Thank heavens they also have a salad bar.
I no longer eat at any fast food restaurants except for Subway, and I'm careful about what I eat there, avoiding cheese and mayonnaise and sticking to the lean meats like turkey and ham.
When my wife and I go out to eat at real restaurants, we research the menu beforehand. Most chain restaurants will have nutritional information available, so we know which dishes are calorie bombs and which dishes we can stuff ourselves with guilt free. And it's not always the dishes you suspect. We went to one bar known for their burgers and thought we'd just order the veggie burger, but by looking up the calories beforehand, we found the veggie burger had more calories than the beef one!
However, despite the veggie burger being laden with calories, the number one rule of eating smart would have to be, "Eat your vegetables." Eat the starchy stuff like potatoes and rice sparingly, but go to town on leafy greens like spinach and kale. Cauliflower is a stunningly versatile and delicious food once you learn what to do with it. One wonderful thing about vegetables is that you have so many choices these days. Every week, it seems like we're trying a food we've never eaten before; kohlrabi, endive, sunchokes, jimica, parsnips, rutabagas, and rainbow chard have all been added to our menu. Before we started our diet, we ate sweet potatoes twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, we go through a bag every other week, sometimes using them as savory foods (they're great paired with flakes of chili), sometimes as sweet (sprinkled with cinnamon and a touch of brown sugar). We eat lentils and chickpeas and bulgar wheat, quinoa and farro and flax seed.
We don't avoid meat, but we do eat much smaller portions. 3-6 ounces of steak are more than enough if you are eating a good helping of vegetables with it.
I don't believe in "don'ts." I think if you go into a diet swearing you'll absolutely, never ever eat certain foods you'll probably fail. That said, eating a reasonable amount of some foods means eating a small amount. You shouldn't load up with a big bowl of ice cream. The "correct" serving size is about half a cup. Pasta's laden with calories, so I only eat it once or twice a month. I still eat candy... but I record every single ounce, and treat it as a treat rather than a staple food.
Ah, yes, recording every single ounce. It's old diet advice, but it's what worked for us. Cheryl and I downloaded the "My Fitness Pal" ap to our phones and started tracking everything we ate. It's a great tool for educating yourself as to just where your big sources of less healthy calories are coming from, and also a great way of training yourself to think before you eat, so you can avoid snacking out of boredom or habit. And, as a geek, it's really turned into a game for me to see if I can stay under my calorie goals. It turns my daily diet into a puzzle that I get to solve. It's kind of like real life Tetris. Through the day, foods keep falling my way. There are donuts in the break room. Candy bars at the project managers station. It's some one's birthday, have some cake! I get to decide what foods and how much of them are going to fit into my calorie slots.
I know it's possible to go too far down the path of obsessing over food. Eating is one of your fundamental biological functions. You shouldn't approach it with dread or shame. Still, being mindful of what you put into your body make sense. In my case, I have good results to show for it, at least when combined with my improved exercise habits. Which will be the topic of my next essay.