Like what seems like the majority of Americans, I have struggled with my perception of my weight for what feels like all of my life. Regardless of how I look at any given time, in my head I am that roundly shaped sixth grader with pimply skin and hair parted down the middle. She was a nice kid, but she got a lot of grief about her appearance, mostly dealing with her weight. These days I don’t think too much about my appearance–one of the benefits of being in my mid-40s is that I am far more interested in what I am accomplishing with my brain and my hands than to be too concerned with how I look.
But I am also now of an age when my weight can cause problems in my health in other ways than whether or not I injure myself trying to wedge into a pair of jeans that I should just get rid of already. If I have learned anything, it is that I want to be as healthy as possible as I grow older, because I have no intention of stopping the activities I enjoy, which are largely physical: hiking, gardening, growing most of my produce, walking two errant Siberian huskies, touring new places, etc.
I do not diet. Period. I do not follow food fads, either. I have been reading Cooking Light and Eating Well long enough to know that there is one ratio that matters: the number of calories I burn needs to be more than the number of calories I consume. For the healthiest me, those consumed calories should be from the kinds of foods that will support my overall health, and when I listen to my body, it tells me that Michael Pollan was right: for me, following the mantra, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much,” makes me feel my best.
If only my brain always cared only about feeling my healthy best.
Sometimes, it cares more about that pint of peanut butter and chocolate gelato in the freezer, or about the boneless, fried, garlic wings at a local restaurant. Or nachos. It always cares about nachos.
There are a lot of “experts” out there who will tell us that we should be tricking our brains into thinking they are eating the high-fat, super-sweet things that so many of us love. I don’t know about you, but my brain is not fooled. Spaghetti squash is not pasta. I do not care how much marinara you put on it, my brain is not going to think it is eating linguine. I am not saying that spaghetti squash marinara is bad–I actually really like it–but trying to “fool ourselves” into eating healthier seems like a recipe for a late-night dive into that gelato.
What works for me? I don’t care how healthy it is; it has to be utterly delicious. If it is not, then my brain is going to tell me it wants more food, even if I already ate a full meal’s worth of calories. Aside from portion control, which is my biggest problem, I have to carefully consider my triggers and make sure that what I am eating is going to meet all of my, “This meal makes me happy!” criteria. I tend toward a more savory, umami-bent in my cravings, while my husband has more of a sweet tooth. And I have to have crunch: my toast and bacon are almost always way more well-done than my long-suffering husband would prefer. I constantly have to rethink the ways I can cook so that I am getting what I want from plants and whole grains, rather than simply covering things with cheese and eating too much meat.
I think this is key for all of us: figure out what you most love in your favorite less-healthy meals, and learn how to create it with lower-calorie, higher nutrient-density foods. Because here’s the thing: it is totally possible.
Do I veer off course? Do you really have to ask? But when I do, I call it what it is and get back on track as soon as possible. I just had a bad few days. (Let’s call it what it is, shall we? PMS reared its ugly head. I had the gelato, the nachos, the wings, and an assortment of other high-calorie delights. It happens.) Today, though, I am correcting my course. Tonight’s dinner is an example of considering my triggers: the salad gave me the crunch I want, there was butter and honey–just a bit of each–on the peas and carrots, and there was a little bit of cheese in and on the baked Broccoli, Cheddar, and Rice Cakes, along with more crunch from the rice on the outer edges. I had a plate full of vegetables and grains, (really full, because it takes a lot of veggies to equal a steak, calorie-wise…which was not the goal…hopefully you know what I mean) but because I catered to what I most want in my meals, I am not feeling deprived*. In fact, I’m full. Not I-need-to-go-get-stretchy-pants-full, but comfortably so. Combined with the hour-long power-walk the dogs and I took today (there is no other kind with these two), I am feeling better about my chances of finishing the week with a healthier spin.
Link to the Broccoli, Cheddar, and Brown Rice Cakes. They are delicious, and easy to make.
I used 8.8 ounces of brown rice that I cooked myself (Tip #16.5: kitchen scales are awesome) and it worked well.
*That we “should” feel deprived after eating a plate full of plants is a whole ‘nother post.