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Monday, October 20, 2008

Cabbage Soup for the Soul

As I’ve probably overshared on our blog before, I am on a perpetual quest to better myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. All of the above take a toll financially, of course, but since we are now in the age of belt-tightening limitations on lifestyle (thanks, recession!), I have become all about tightening the belt in a physical sense rather than financial. Specifically, by the time I got out of grad school this August, I was fed up with the way I was—twenty pounds overweight since 2005 and half-heartedly trying to limit myself to 2,000 calories a day.

Living in New York City the better part of this year, of course, was tough. Pizza is just too delicious sometimes to make you stop and think, “Should I be eating this?” Well, let’s say pizza, tortilla chips, French fries, hot dogs, reuben sandwiches, Mister Softee vanilla soft-serve cones (the best!), the list goes on. I love them all dearly, but the age of emotional eating and self-rewarding with food is over.

So, for the last few months, I started up on the Weight Watchers program for the second (maybe third?) time, determined to change my lifestyle for the better. It hasn’t been wildly successful, I’m losing at a rate of a little less than 0.5 pounds per week, but I am buoyed by the knowledge that every choice I make adds up to a overall effort towards a better, healthier, faster, stronger, spiffier me.

As women, we’re exposed to dietary tips from all angles, on television from lifestyle gurus espousing detox diets when on the Food Network, they’re making frosted cake monuments to Americans’ obsession with food. “Women’s” magazines want you to eat this now and prevent Alzheimer’s disease later in life, drink wrinkle-fighting Amazonian berry purees for perkier boobies, the list goes on. Dieting tips from our mothers and grandmothers are, a la Betty Draper, to in the vein of eating iceberg lettuce instead of that juicy, delicious steak everyone else is having. For the modern-day health-minded woman, it’s tough to know who to trust and what advice to follow. Pay beaucoup bucks for a personal nutritionist and chef, and you’re set, but what are the rest of us supposed to do?

The below is a list of tips and tricks for losing weight through dieting that I’ve heard, tried, or formed an opinion about in the last few years. Everyone has advice on this matter, and it’s hard to know which tidbits are urban myths and which are based in nutritional, dietary, and/or biological fact. Here we go!

-Chew each bite of food 100 times.
…So you get so tired of the taste and texture of it, you just feel like not eating anymore. There is some healthy inspiration behind this tidbit, mainly that most emotional eaters, the time-crunched, the exhausted, the hordes and masses, scarf down their food without actually enjoying it. What a thought! Thoroughly masticating, rather than swallowing whole, also helps digestion along—remember, this is why we evolved to have both molars and cuspids. It’s unnecessary to chew every single bite 100 times, just make sure you chew and savor the flavors and complexity (or simplicity!) of what you’re putting in your mouth.

-Eat an apple before each meal (three apples a day).
I tried this. After about two days, you are so sick of apples you never, ever want to see them again. It’s an easy way to cram in your mandatory servings of fruits and veggies, but it’s not a sustainable dieting method. The “apple” diet, like so many others, is essentially meal replacement. Apples are great, but you can only eat so many out of hand before you start feeling a little sick, so take a dose of reality and just add ONE apple a day to your diet, not three!

-Eat a bowl of soup at the start of each meal.
Soups will fill you up and are an easy, delicious delivery vehicle for those oh-so-important fruits and veggies, but be careful—-soups like cream of broccoli are often more cream than broccoli. If you can curb your cravings for burgers and fries with a nice bowl of chunky vegetable minestrone, then all the more power to you. Soups are great if you're trying to pack your diet full of veggies, but beware of your sodium intake. Most off-the-shelf canned soups and broths are high in sodium, which can lead to water retention, and you won't see that scale budge an inch.

-Drink a glass of water before each meal/snack.
If your tummy is full of liquid, you'll certainly feel full faster, but this method requires a steel resolve. Only mind over matter will convince your brain that you're full of nutritious food instead of water. Be careful with this method as well, believe it or not, over-consumption of water can lead to hyponatremia, a dangerously low level of sodium in your bloodstream, or water intoxication--yes, like alcohol. Healthy guidelines for your daily water intake say that eight glasses or more a day (64+ liquid ounces) is good to keep your body hydrated, and those oh-so-important chemical balances in check.

-Eat off of a fork without letting your lips touch the tines.
I remember seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh do this in The Best Little Girl in the World when I was a young teen, and it scarred me for life. Thanks, JJL, for ensuring that my parents would never have to force-feed me peanut butter sandwiches in the middle of the night, because you certainly discouraged me from anorexia in any way, shape, or form. The idea behind the fork method is a kooky one. If your lips don't touch the food, you're sparing yourself the (meager) calories on the fork with every bite, and depriving yourself of the act of enjoying that food. This sort of thing is the sign of an unhealthy relationship with food and pleasure. You've been warned. Go watch a 1981 vintage anorexia movie.

-Replace one meal a day with [Special K, Ensure, PowerBar, Grape Nuts, SlimFast, etc. etc.]
You see it on all the packages in the grocery store, some woman lost six pounds in a month by eating cereal for two meals every day and obviously, it MUST be the cereal, not simple ol' meal replacement and limiting calories! It's a bit of a hoax, ladies, because A) you aren't getting the satisfaction of eating different kinds of foods, B) you'll get so sick of that meal replacement so fast it's not even funny, and C) in the long term, it can lead to vitamin deficiencies. This is a short-term boon for short-term weight loss. Once you start eating real meals regularly, you'll gain that weight back. And, don't forget, if you apply yourself, eat healthily and exercise, you should be able to lose two pounds per week--more than the Special K box says!

-Eat with chopsticks (smaller bites).
I heard this cockamamie nonsense from somebody in Weight Watchers, and I had to laugh. I've been eating with chopsticks all my life and I am certainly no skinny Minnie. You might be taking smaller bites, but if you're still ordering the chicken karaage and tonkatsu or kung pao chicken and larded-up fried rice, you're eating the same number of calories in one go as your neighbor shoveling it in with a fork and spoon. I do think eating with chopsticks allows you to savor eat bite and experience the balance of flavors and textures more than a big spoonful would. Then again, Asian cuisine has evolved to be eaten with chopsticks, while the creamy pastas and creamy chicken bakes of the West are to be eaten with forks, so maybe there is a little something more complex behind this one.

-Don't pick up the next bite of food until you have completely finished chewing, swallowing, and savoring the previous one.
Like chewing a bite 100 times, eating smaller bites, or anything, this is easier said than done. I tried it for about a week and it's true that the way we eat today, there is no pause for contemplation between bites. I really had to force myself to stop picking up the next bite through sheer will--try it, it's excruciating.

-Stall the bread basket.
All too often when you go out to eat, the bread/chips/dip/fries/something fattening is on the table before you've even gotten a glass of water. If you think about it, no one does this at home, so why do restaurants insist on ruining your appetite with fried goodies? I always thought it was embarrassing to have to send the bread basket back to the kitchen untouched, or to tell the waiter to take it away, but watch yourself the next time you dine out. You'd be surprised how many slices of bread end up in your stomach before your main meal arrives! It's a good temptation to avoid, if you're just starting out of the dieting gate--particularly hold the butter, or olive oil dip. (I remember watching my vegetarian cousins eat pats of butter once as kids at an Italian restaurant, and now I can't even look at those little gold-wrapped pats.)

-Say "no cheese" or "no dressing" on soups, pizzas, and salads.
My mother always insisted on this, and let me tell you, cheeseless pizza is an abomination. Still, if you go without the creamy, mayonnaise-y dressings, you're always better off calorie-wise. The other habit she taught me was to order salad dressing on the side, and rather than dumping the whole ramekin-full onto your greens, dip your fork delicately into the dressing before spearing your veggies. You'll get the whole flavor shebang without the whole serving of dressing ending up on your thighs. (Does that sound like your mother, too, or what?)

I'll end this rather dour list of scathing diet reviews with some interesting, delicious, and outlandish recommendations out of the media lately:
-USAToday has menus for six healthified "comfort" foods, making up a daily intake under 1,500 calories.

-ABC News says the pen is mightier than the pounds.

-Out of the UK, the Times asks, Can eating au naturale help you diet?

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