I really enjoy preparing food but I have to admit that this is a fairly recent passion. I didn't always have such a great relationship with food. It wasn’t an active dislike, more of an apathy that made me somewhat impatient with the whole process. Having to think about what I was going to cook, shopping for the ingredients, stopping whatever I was doing every day in time to do the preparation and finally, cleaning up the aftermath. The only part I held any enthusiasm for was the actual eating and that perhaps a little too much.
So, while I don’t think my diet was horrible as far as Western standards go I knew that was setting the bar pretty low and I was going to have to do some research.
Typically, the minute I set out to “clarify” something for myself I dive into a pool of information and stir up a crap load of silt to muddy the waters. I read about this diet and that diet - some that had a seemingly sound theory behind them, some that seemed completely irrational and a few that were downright silly. I also boggled my mind with good fats/bad fats, good carbs/bad carbs blah, blah until one day I stumbled upon Michael Pollan’s slim little volume of food wisdom titled Food Rules – An Eaters Manual”. Like a little ray of sunshine breaking through the grey mist this brilliant little collection of 64 “rules”, kicked the stuffing out of all the nonsense around eating.
I realized that what I was actually looking for, and what I was going to have to put together myself, was a rational diet (if you’ll pardon the pun). It would have to accommodate my personal preferences, have very few restrictions aside from logical ones and be super easy to follow so I could actually stick to it forever and ever amen. Possible? Yes! Michael was there to help. I’m sure he won’t mind my familiarity because he seems like a thoroughly decent guy who clearly has a sense of humour – he even got Maira Kalman to illustrate the new version of his book and since we obviously both adore her we have that in common right off the bat.
I knew I was on the right path when just about the very first thing I read was, “Eat Food, not too much, mostly plants”, which pretty much set the tone for this journey. Suddenly food wasn’t scary anymore. I was even more relieved when he told me that I could eat healthy without ever knowing what the hell most of that unpronounceable stuff is on the label. Why? Because you shouldn’t put most of that stuff in your mouth anyway – and that, come to think of it is one of the rules.
So I started to think about food in far more basic terms.
Eat Food – I almost want to wedge in the word “real” in there even though it isn’t necessary, it’s pretty clear that I start by eliminating everything that isn’t.
Not too much – yes I probably served up biggie portions of most everything.
Mostly plants – I think it’s fair to say that nobody ever got fat eating vegetables so a minor, or major, shift toward an emphasis on veggies was going to help there. That is of course aside from all the other reasons for not relying on meat as a major food source – animal cruelty, medicating and consumption of land resources etc. none of which I am any authority on but all of which come into play when deciding what to put in your mouth.
For myself I would actually prefer a full out vegetarian diet but my significant other likes meat so how do I compromise? Easy – lean meats from local, healthy, unmedicated animals. It is more expensive yes, but when I stopped to consider the serving sizes that we consider “normal” in this part of the world I realized that I could easily cut the portions in half and increase the veg factor to compensate if necessary. Which, of course, wasn’t really necessary since my “portions” were off by about half again anyway.
I was also in the habit of eating a full, huge meal at dinnertime even when I wasn’t hungry which I’m certain had something to do with my mother and starving children somewhere and clearly could do with reassessment. I thought I would begin by writing down the basic principles I needed to address:
1. Why to eat
2. What to eat
3. When to eat
4. How and where to eat
#1 – Why do I eat? This sounds like a silly question, I mean we eat to live right? Well no, sometimes the reverse is closer to the truth but while I didn’t actually “live to eat” I often ate for reasons other than hunger. I ate when I was bored, anxious, stressed or sometimes for no reason at all – simply out of habit, like munching a bag of chips or whatever while watching a movie. During all of these times I was hardly even aware of what I was doing.
So step one had to be noticing why I was eating and making a conscious decision as to whether the feeling of hunger was valid. “Food Rules” had a great line for assessing actual hunger – “if you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you aren’t really hungry”. Oh, so harsh, but true.
#2 – What’s to eat? Rule #24 is “when you eat real food you don’t need rules” and I think that is really true so I decided to divide up the grocery list into two categories. First, fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw or cooked guilt free at any time provided the aforementioned apple rule was observed. Second, read the label foods which aren’t necessarily taboo but must be approached with caution. If reading the label is impossible see the rule regarding unintelligible ingredients that basically says if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. This is closely linked to another rule that says anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food likely isn’t.
Seems fairly straightforward – real food, mostly plants – got it. BUT, no matter how much delectable fruit I have in store there are times when I crave those salty snippets that taste like manna from heaven but are actually make by the Kettle Chip Company. That’s why this rule made me want to kiss his whole face. “Snacks, seconds and sweets only on days that start with an S”. If you want to be negative you could say that means you can never have another Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino on a Monday OR you could look forward to smacking your lips while thinking of the one you had on Sunday - guilt free. I checked it out and sure enough there seems to be some credence to the theory that allowing yourself to have a day (or two) each week to indulge (be reasonable) your cravings actually helps you stay on track with a healthy diet. From a psychological standpoint – deprivation sucks – so how likely is it that you, okay I, will continue to bypass all the temptations that waft across my path forever. Now here is the best part, some dietary geniuses say that an occasional indulgence actually “tricks” your body into stepping up the natural, fat burning functions which tend to slow down under constant low calorie conditions. I have zero expertise in that area but it sounds totally rational to me so it’s in. As Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation”.
#3 – When to eat? In theory it would be nice to be able to eat when actually hungry but in real life I know that I will snarf down almost any “instant” food in my path if I allow myself to skip regular meal times. Worse, if I don’t pay attention to hunger signs until I am suddenly famished I will inevitably wolf down too much food and feel gross for having done so regardless of its merit. Eating breakfast gives me a better chance of making it to lunch. Eating lunch means a higher probability of making it through to dinner and eating a reasonable dinner at a reasonably regular time means I really have no bloody excuse to be hungry in the evening so snacks will more likely be gauged by the “apple” test.
#4 – How and Where to eat? When our children were young we insisted on meals at the table for all the obvious reasons, family time, proper manners, and good eating habits in general. Then one day after they were all grown and gone my husband and I found ourselves balancing plates on knees in front of the television. After ruining a t-shirt or two with salad oil my partner suggested that we return to our former custom and save on laundry. I was happy to do so for a variety of reasons that did not include laundry but when I started to research habits for my “diet” those reasons became infinitely clearer.
There is a Zen proverb that says, “when walking, walk – when eating, eat”. Which of course implies an entire lifestyle and layers of meaning that have little to do with food but in this case it serves to remind me that eating in particular isn’t something that you should be doing while distracted. Setting aside time to eat and turning off television, radio, computer etc. allows you to be fully conscious of your meal – which automatically makes you slow down - which allows time for your brain to catch up to your stomach – which allows you to recognize when you are no longer hungry – which is long before that horribly uncomfortable stuffed feeling sets in. It’s logical so it’s in.
As much as I enjoyed reading and pondering Michael’s 64 fun food rules I knew that I needed to weed that down to a number I could count on one hand if they were going to stick with me. They needed only to serve to remind me to make conscious choices about what I put in my mouth and exercise some control over quality and quantity. So here is my RATIONAL DIET PLAN:
1. Eat regular meals at reasonably regular times proportionate to actual requirements. This means I actually have to think about my meal rather than load up a plate – a little pesky at first but it quickly becomes habit.
2. Eat the simplest, cleanest, best quality and freshest foods available to you. Mostly plants.
3. Eat when eating – actually enjoying food with full attention is not only healthier, it is a pleasure. It also makes me very aware of the value of what I am eating and the reason I am eating it.
4. Eat snacks and goodies only on weekends, which don’t always happen to be S days in my schedule but the rule still holds.
5. STOP eating when you are no longer hungry, which is at least a little ways before you are full.