Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Posted Monday, Feb. 14, 2011, at 7:45 AM
Six weeks ago I set out to improve my eating. Instead of focusing on weight loss and calories, I decided to zero in on health and habits and why it's so hard to change them, even though most of us know the basics of eating right. I identified the five biggest obstacles to eating sensibly — information overload , money , time , external influences , and inertia — and put myself through a series of experiments to confront one issue each week.
I didn't know what would happen. Would my co-workers find me hiding on the floor in the coat closet, twitching, ranting, and hugging a huge bag of peanut M&Ms? All I had to go on was diets I'd been on previously, which had all gone pretty much the same: I lost 10 pounds in the first two weeks, was starving all the time, struggled to stay with it for weeks or months, was lured back to the charms of chocolate, regained the weight I lost and more. This time I wanted it to be different: I wasn't interested in weight loss, at least not as a primary goal; I was interested in finding a sensible way to eat and seeing if I could do it consistently despite the challenges of my busy, urban, workaday life. Another difference between then and now was that I would be doing it publicly this time, by photo-blogging everything I ate .
So, how did it go?
I think it went amazingly well. Within the first few days of giving up white flour, sugar, and coffee, friends told me my skin looked great. My energy improved almost immediately — I had more than ever before. Maybe I really wasn't the lethargic person I'd always thought myself to be. I felt less heavy, tired, grumpy, and foggy. I wasn't napping on weekends or struggling to keep my eyes open at work on weekday afternoons. My daily tension headaches vanished. And I lost some weight, too. The morning I started the project, I checked in with my internist and got weighed. I was about 11 pounds above "healthy" weight according to body-mass index charts (not the be-all-end-all authority, but which I've used here to give a general idea), not an unusual size for me. And despite being "overweight," my other test numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar — have always been good. I didn't intend to weigh myself again until the end, but I'd mail-ordered a new winter coat that arrived at the beginning of the project. It was size medium, and the waist/hip area was a bit snug. Within a few days, however, the coat grew looser, as did my pants. Out of curiosity, I stepped on the scale at my dog's veterinarian's office at the end of Week 4 and found I'd dropped about 5.5 pounds.
More importantly, I enjoyed what I was eating. Home-cooked food made me feel good physically and emotionally. I got into the habit of eating breakfast before leaving the house, and, though I hate to admit that the powers that be have been right all these years, breakfast really did set me up for the whole day in terms of energy and blood sugar level. Eating three home-cooked meals a day was a revelation.
Eating was the easy part, however. Eating has never been a problem. But planning, shopping, lugging, prepping, and cooking still remain challenging. I've managed to plan two or three dinners a week, though I've not yet mastered planning an entire week of meals. But the photo-blog helped me see that I eat the same things all the time, so planning ahead shouldn't be that hard. Also my idea that planning is boring and kills spontaneity is kind of silly, since I'm not all that spontaneous anyway. If I want to be spontaneous one night and eat something other than what I've planned, I can. I have also managed to freeze serving sizes of leftovers for lunch or when I need a quick dinner, and this has been incredibly helpful.
Focusing solely on food for six weeks was great in many ways, but not in others. My guitar skills were the real casualty of this experiment. I used to practice every night, but for the last several weeks I've had to use that time for cooking. However, there are two time issues I've been conflating. The first is the project and experiments themselves. The second is the blog, which took much more time than I ever would have guessed and gave me a heightened sense of busyness. I suspect the pure cooking-and-eating part won't seem so onerous once I'm no longer documenting it.
During Week 1 , I focused on getting nutrients into my body by following the USDA Food Pyramid . It wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd expected. Once you clear away the fad diets and nonsense information, you see that the components of a healthy diet are no surprise and don't change all that much: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and lean dairy products (unless you want to be vegan). And if you eat enough of these, you don't go hungry or crave less nutritious foods. This was a first for me.
Week 2 's challenge — to spend as little money as possible — did not go as well. Part of the problem was that I wasn't starting with a tabula rasa each week. I was still living off groceries from the previous week, so I was eating things I may have paid more money for than I would have during a week of austerity. In any event, I discovered buying the least expensive options isn't a top priority for me. I'm more interested in getting what I like and what I want. Nonetheless, I was surprised to discover how little it costs to prepare everything yourself, which I calculated per meal and per day in Week 2 . I can eat for a whole day with what I used to spend picking up coffee and breakfast on the way to work. This is encouraging.
Week 3 's experiment — eating slowly and performing eating meditation every time I ate — was extremely challenging and overly ambitious. Eating incredibly slowly is just incongruous with working during the weekday. It was instructive to time my meals. I knew I ate fast but seeing exactly how fast--most meals I could polish off within five to 12 minutes — was disturbing. I came up with more doable practices to slow me down, including thinking small: small serving sizes, small plates and utensils, small forkfuls or spoonfuls, small mouthfuls. All of these can help me avoid shoveling too much in too fast. I discovered that eating meditation is a good practice to do once a day, perhaps at breakfast, when it's quiet, I'm alone, and I have some time to myself, or perhaps with just one piece of fruit a day. I also concluded that not all multitasking is created equal. Book reading seems more compatible with eating than watching TV or working because it's something we do at a slower pace. Eating slowly is an important practice to cultivate because speed eating is associated with obesity , but it's the most challenging one for me.
Week 4 's experiment — increasing awareness of temptations and their effect on me — was one of the easiest for me. As I've said a million times already: Being full on healthy food is the best protection against temptation. Also, not depriving yourself of small indulgences helps. I had some high-quality chocolates at home that my mother had sent me , which I ate one or two of a day, and this was enough to keep me from buying cupcakes and brownies at the bakery. I also found that naming temptations you can predict before they occur is helpful. I know when I get in the checkout line at my market, I will see a rack of fancy chocolate and other candy, pies, and other baked goods. I've named it Temptation Alley and when I get in line I think, Here comes Temptation Alley . It keeps me focused on the market's techniques instead of lost in my own desires. The truth is, we need to avoid more than 90 percent of what we see. But knowing that allows you to group it all into one big category and avoid it as a whole.
And Week 5 's experiment — broadening my palate by trying new foods — was fun. It allowed me to approach food with curiosity and wonder instead of a feeling of restriction. I discovered new foods I really like (wheat berries! kale!) and rediscovered old ones (apple butter! Brussels sprouts!) to reincorporate into my regular eating.
In Week 6 , I attempted to put all of these together as a means of figuring out what my priority should be when it comes to eating. My health and satisfaction seem to rotate for top position in my priority list, followed by time, with money and the environment sharing third position.
So, what happens now? This is a good question. No doubt I was the beneficiary of the Hawthorne Effect , in which subjects of an experiment behave better because they know they are being watched. Many times I wanted to eat something but worried what readers would think. Or, realizing I hadn't eaten greens all day, I added some, not because I wanted them but because I knew I was supposed to and a commenter would likely mention it. What will happen when no one is watching anymore? I'd like to think I'll hang onto some of the knowledge and habits I've acquired and incorporate them into my future eating, but I can't say for sure what will happen.
The main lessons and practices I hope to retain:
- Eat breakfast at home in the morning before starting your day.
- Think small: small fruits and vegetables, small portions, small tableware, small bites.
- Eat beans! They are one of the least expensive, most nutritious foods out there. Per capita Americans eat about 7.5 pounds of beans each year, compared with more than 200 pounds of meat .
- Planning ahead is helpful and makes you eat better. Cook extra. Freeze portion sizes. You can also chop ahead and freeze chopped vegetables for future recipes (brilliant!).
- Eating healthy takes work. You can make it easier for yourself, but there is no simple, no-brainer way to eat right. You can set up your 401(k) deductions once per employer. You can visit your doctor twice a year. You can think about car maintenance quarterly. But food is something you have to think about and deal with every day. No way around it.
By far the best part of this entire project for me has been corresponding with readers in the comments section. You have been my biggest supporters, critics, champions, cheerleaders, companions, defenders, guides, information sources, and devil's advocates. I've carried you around in my head with me for the past six weeks, wondering what you'll think, how you'll respond, and what comments you'll leave. I've loved your questions, comments, critiques, encouragement, and the way you've shared your stories and struggles, your tips and recipes. Mostly you've shown me that we all wrestle with these issues and that you are an intelligent and varied group with much insight and advice to offer. I feel I've gotten to know some of you by name, or username at least, and I really am going to miss communicating with you every day. Thank you, all.
When it comes to food science, there may be nothing new under the sun, and during the months I spent researching this project, I didn’t hear much that surprised me. Except two things. I asked almost everyone I interviewed why they thought people have such a hard time eating healthfully. I expected to hear criticism: that people are lazy or unintelligent, that they don’t know what’s good for them, that they don’t care or are in denial. I heard something unexpected instead. My friend, food writer and Slate contributor Regina Schrambling, said: "People don’t think they’re worth it." Registered dietitian Dana Angelo White echoed this sentiment, specifically in regard to mothers. It never occurred to me that this could be at the base of our national eating disorder. Is this what it comes down to? The L’Oreal slogan ? A few commenters also mentioned it. The second thing that surprised me also came from Schrambling: She is completely exasperated with the fact that some people insist that eating healthy is elitist . This issue isn't new but it has become more visible lately, with Michelle Obama championing healthy eating for children and Sarah Palin responding by bringing cookies to classrooms. Is there no issue that can’t be politicized?
I didn't talk much about the joyful role food can play in our lives. It has become such a fraught emotional, financial, social, and political issue for so many of us that sometimes we lose touch with the simple joy it brings. A friend once said we get so obsessed with losing weight that we forget appetite is a blessing. People who are injured, ill, depressed, grieving, or dying lose their appetites. Hunger is good. It is a sign of health, vitality, life. Food fulfills more than just a physical need. There is a spiritual component to it, too. There can, and should, be great joy in satisfying that need.
Eat well and be well.
Posted Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 8:29 PM
Goal: To put it all together: to continue to eat healthfully, to make smart shopping decisions, to eat slowly and mindfully, to eat foods that satisfy me, and to make the best eating choices for the environment, with the ultimate goal of figuring out what my No. 1 priority should be when it comes to eating and in what order the other priorities should come. The hope is that ordering my eating priorities will help me make better decisions.
My Eating Priorities:
- My health and satisfaction . I think health has to be my top priority, because I am the only person on the planet who can take total responsibility for my health. And this gives me the most options. When I have a lot available to me, I can make the healthiest choice, but if I'm in a place with limited options (such as traveling), I can make the healthiest choice based on what's available. Nonetheless, satisfaction is important. There's no point eating healthy food if it isn't enjoyable and satisfying. So my health and satisfaction will continue to vie for top position, but hopefully health will win be a little bit higher.
- Time will take spot No. 2. I'd love to be able to spend all the time in the world planning and shopping and cooking the healthiest meals possible, but the fact is I can't. I have a day job, I live in a tough city, I have other responsibilities, and there's only so much time I can devote to food.
- Money and the environment. I am concerned about the environment. I'd love to be able to buy everything local and/or organic, but that's not always possible. I have learned that buying the least expensive option isn't as much of a priority for me as eating what I want, but I can't spend all the money in the world either. So environment and money will vie for position No. 3. The environment will win when I can find and afford the more environmentally-friendly choice. Money will win when I can't.
Next up: Tomorrow I post my conclusions about the Clean Plate project and say goodbye.
Posted Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 8:18 PM
Breakfast yesterday was so nice, I had it twice: skim milk, wheat berries, apples, raisins, cinnamon, walnuts, apple butter.
Lunch: whole-wheat gnocchi (bought) with marinara (bought) and grated parmesan, broccolette and garlic sauteed in oil.
A Cara Cara orange for dessert.
And lunch was so nice I had it twice.
For dessert: Siggi's pomegranate and passionfruit yogurt with strawberry butter.
Healthy? Gnocchi = very starchy, but at least it was whole-wheat. Since I bought the gnocchi and marinara, I can't really be sure what is in them and in what quantity.
Financially smart? Premade foods are not the least expensive option.
Slowness and mindfulness? Lunch I scarfed because I was starving and I had to be somewhere. The rest I ate at my "normal" speed.
Satisfying? Very. Everything was delicious, especially the broccolette.
Environmentally-friendly: local or organic? No.
Posted Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 3:58 PM
Saturday's yummy breakfast, something new(ish): wheat berries, skim milk, apples, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon.
Saturday afternoon banana:
Saturday lunch, something borrowed (recipes/ideas, that is): another big arugula salad, with white-bean-puree dip and whole-wheat pita.
Saturday dinner, something old: leftover black bean soup and brown rice.
Saturday dessert: something blue. Siggi's blueberry yogurt with fresh blueberries crammed in.
Healthy? I'd say quite.
Financially smart? Siggi's is pricey. So are blueberries out of season, but otherwise, pretty economical.
Slowness and mindfulness? Not so much.
Satisfying? Very much.
Environmentally friendly: local, organic? I believe the arugula is local, and that's about it.
Posted Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011, at 11:27 AM
Black bean soup for breakfast. It was actually pretty good. I tend to go for sweet things for breakfast, but perhaps I will have to explore the world of savory breakfasts.
I noticed two things about Danielle's menu: 1. It's vegan and 2. It doesn't seem like a lot of food, so I had to mix it up a little bit.
Mid-morning snack: a Cara Cara orange and chai tea.
For lunch: a giant arugula salad, whole-wheat pita, and hummus. I didn't eat all that hummus. This was really good. I should definitely do more salads at lunch.
Danielle had given me some leeway on snacks: "something that responds to your craving--salty, crunchy, sweet," she had said. I did want to get some dairy into the day, so I had this Siggi's orange and ginger yogurt with crunchy Grape-Nuts on top. The yogurt tasted like ginger snaps.
Still hungry, I added a banana:
And then dinner: Check it out! I made chana masala and chapati! I was going to make raita too, but, as you can see, it was already pretty late (I work until 8 p.m. every other Friday), so I topped it with a dollop of lowfat sour cream instead. The chana masala was spicy--I'd tweak the spices a bit next time. I managed to successfully halve both recipes.
I am in big trouble with this chapati, though. I love this stuff. A local Asian fusion restaurant sells these as an appetizer called Indian pancake with a spicy sauce. A local Israeli restaurant sells them for brunch with eggs and harissa. Now I can make it at home? Uh-oh.
Overall a good menu: beans, lots of vegetables, whole grains, fruits. Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Indian food all in one day. Delicious and not too difficult. Thanks, Danielle!
Posted Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, at 8:47 PM
Uh-oh, I'm in trouble. I had to leave the house at 7:45 a.m. and I felt too nauseated to eat, so I brought breakfast with me. I got hungry around 9:15 a.m., but I was out and about and couldn't eat until I got to the office. This is Kashi GoLean cereal with skim milk. Kinda looks like dog kibble, no?
Berries and yogurt shortly after. I tried a different kind of Greek yogurt: Chobani. Not bad, but so expensive!
For lunch, I finally killed the curried black-eyed pea stew. This is a lot of food. That's a 3-cup container. It probably could have been two meals, but I was intent on killing it today. I brought it all, thinking I wouldn't eat it all, but then I did. There's leftover bulghur wheat under there too. Quite filling.
Some cucumber spears for the crunch and the green:
And a delightful banana:
For dinner I made black-bean soup, since I'm going to have to eat it for breakfast, too . Here's one great way I mess up recipes: I decided I should halve every recipe like this one because I end up with leftovers forever (and my freezer can only hold so much). So I commenced to halve it, but then forgot halfway through with some ingredients. So: too much water, not enough beans. It was still pretty good, though. That's low-fat sour cream and blue-corn tortilla chips on top. It looks like Halloween in a bowl.
Healthy? Looks pretty good to me, except it doesn't look like a lot of food now. Could do better on the vegetable front.
Financially smart? The yogurt was pricey. Still eating the out-of-season berries. However, leftovers and large pots of bean-based meals are obviously good for the wallet.
Slowness and mindfulness? Not so much, but it did take me forever to eat all those beans for lunch.
Environmentally friendly/local or organic? The black beans were organic. So was the sour cream.
Posted Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, at 4:41 PM
On Jan. 12, I asked readers to design a perfect eating day for me , since I seemed to be doing everything wrong. I set out some of the complaints readers had about the way I was eating (too much food! not enough food!) and some guidelines of my own (no meat! no fake foods!), and I promised that if someone designed a day that worked for me, I would eat their menu. The response was terrific. I got more than 60 comments, with everything from advice about how to plan and cook ahead, to specific menus and recipes with cost included, to admonitions that I am on the wrong path and suggestions that I should just eat out, to book recommendations, to advice on what kinds of cheeses to avoid. Someone thought I needed to get more fun in the form of waffles with whipped cream into my diet.
Some menus I dismissed right away, either because they violated my guidelines (they included meat or fake foods), or they included a food readers didn't realize I didn't like (coconut) or a product I wasn't familiar with or didn't want to deal with (Whey protein powder, spirulina, acai).
I was struck by the similarities in many the menus. Some of you advocated for eating a lot of eggs--up to four for breakfast and more for dinner. Many of you suggested a hot grain cereal with fruit for breakfast and some variety of vegetable salad for lunch. Lots of you mentioned hummus.
Overall, there were loads of great meals and ideas, including making a frittata and freezing it to eat all week (done!), eating quinoa with fruit for breakfast, blending a smoothie for a snack, trying mashed turnips, and making a white-bean puree (check!). And there were several entire days that could work for me. Here are some of my favorites:
kate_is suggested an intriguing onion, greens, and beans skillet dish for dinner.
Abby Dye offered a frittata recipe, a lentil soup recipe, and a dressed baked potato for dinner.
Rebecca gave a recipe for some great-sounding chickpea cakes for dinner.
kcar1 suggested sunflower seed butter as part of breakfast, leftover whatever for lunch, and included a black-bean soup recipe for dinner.
Jon had a nice simple menu of oatmeal for breakfast, spinach salad for lunch, and pasta for dinner.
Eric Stoveken included some of my favorite things: a caprese sandwich for lunch and fried rice for dinner.
MK Ryan had a great mix of whole grains, fruit, legumes, and even pasta with tomato sauce.
Megan Jacobs illustrated one way to get five servings of fruits and vegetables in a day.
Any of these menus would be doable for me.
But my favorite came from Danielle Ricci , because she happened to hit on a few things I love: arugula salad for lunch, chana masala for dinner, and homemade chapatti (which she promised is easy to make). So that's the menu I'll be trying tomorrow. I'm a little leery of eating black beans for breakfast, but I'm willing to give it a chance.
Thank you, everyone, for all your great ideas and in-depth comments! I'm sure I'll be drawing from them for a long time.
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011, at 8:39 PM
True confessions: I woke up at 3 a.m. hungry. I ate two bowls of yogurt with strawberry butter—the second with Grape-Nuts, too. No pictures. My husband was sleeping and my gear was in the other room. This is good. It means I'm feeling better.
Daytime breakfast: wheat berries, blueberries, walnuts, skim milk. I feel like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life when he returns from bizarro-world Bedford Falls to find the town he knows and loves . Hi, you wonderful old blueberries! I love you!
Boy was I hungry today. Apparently three breakfasts wasn't going to do it. So here is the next one: gluten-free bread toasted with almond butter and strawberry butter. I wanted regular cow butter but figured a protein-rich nut butter would be a healthier and more filling choice.
Hello, you big mutant out-of-season strawberries! I could kiss you!
Sugar-snap peas. Because they are green and I was too lazy and busy to eat a real meal yet.
Lunch: more curried black-eyed pea stew. I know it doesn't look like much, but it's quite delicious. There are more wheat berries hidden under there.
Oh, bananas, how I've missed you! Well what do you know about that?!
More true confessions: I had a little ramekin full of pecans that I neglected to photograph. I'm telling you, I was hungry today. And then I was done being hungry, but I still had to make dinner: pureed white-bean dip (right; a Mark Bittman recipe recommended by commenter kcar1), tabouli (left; also Bittman), babaganoush (bottom) that didn't come out well so I chucked it, and leftover hummus that I didn't make, with little pitas and vegetables. I was no longer hungry so I didn't eat that much. I'm sure you'll be seeing more of some of these later this week.
And today's evaluation:
Healthy? Pretty much, except that strawberry butter is just another sugar-delivery system. I can't seem to do without sweets of some kind.
Financially smart? Aside from my happy reunion with my usual fruits, I'm still living off last week's groceries. The fruits were not the most economical purchases, being out of season and all.
Slowness and mindfulness? Well, I certainly taste and enjoy my food, but I've not been putting much effort into eating slowly. Sugar snap peas are kind of fun and easy to eat slowly.
Satisfying? For the most part. I haven't really been planning new meals so much as finishing old ones. Dinner wasn't as good as I'd hoped.
Environmentally friendly/local or organic? No. (Shame, shame.)
Tomorrow I hope to announce the winner of the Slate Clean Plate Challenge ! And I plan to eat the winning menu on Friday or Saturday.
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, at 8:18 PM
Breakfast: wheat berries, apple butter, skim milk.
Lunch No. 1: leftover root vegetable couscous, Twinings English breakfast tea with lemon.
Lunch No. 2: leftover curried black-eyed pea stew with mushrooms and tomatoes, barley, leftover gluten-free pizza crust, water.
Dinner: I tried to make this Jicama, Grapefruit, and Pepita Salad With Cilantro-Lime Dressing . It didn't come out very well. I used daikon instead of jicama, pomelo instead of grapefruit, blood orange, Romaine and arugula. I wasn't quite up for it--not feeling quite well enough to prepare it or to eat it. Or maybe it's the wrong season. The pomelo was good.
Healthy? Overall, the day looks a little heavy on grains, though they were all good grains. Apple butter is probably not the best choice, since it's really just concentrated fruit--concentrated sugar. I already discussed milk in yesterday's eating. Pretty low on green vegetables and variety too.
Smart shopping? Apple butter not as economical as fruit. Wheat berries and apple butter came from a rather pricey store. Couscous ingredients from FreshDirect, thus not the best buy. Avocado and pomelo not the most cost-effective ingredients. Black-eyed peas came from a can; not as inexpensive as dried beans. Cremini mushrooms not the least expensive choice. Then again, aside from the banana, these were all purchased last week, when economy wasn't the goal.
Satisfying? All good until dinner.
Environmentally friendly? Not really, aside from the meatlessness. The milk is local.
I'm not quite on the ball this week yet.
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, at 12:52 PM
Not a big eating day today. The winter illness finally got me, but not my appetite. I called in sick and slept all day, aside from these two meals.
Breakfast: wheat berries with apple, pecans, cinnamon, and skim milk. Delicious.
Then I conked out. I'd hoped to get up and eat lunch at around 1 or 2, but next thing I knew it was dark out. I wanted some eggs and toast but didn't think I'd have the energy to stand at the stove long enough to cook eggs, so I nuked more couscous. That's homemade seltzer with orange juice. Thirsty from sleeping all day! Yes, it was fantastic to have a quick, nourishing meal ready.
And then back to bed for the night. I hope to make up for it tomorrow!
So let's evaluate based on this week's criteria:
Healthy? Milk is questionable, depending on how you feel about animal products. There was probably more oil than there needed to be in the couscous. Perhaps more grains in both. Not much protein, except the milk and nuts. Juice is also not the healthiest choice, though there wasn't much. And seltzer is unnecessarily fancier than plain water. The tea is black, not green. Also, this is clearly not enough food or a balanced day. If we are going to be nitpicky about it.
Cost? The wheat berries and pecans came from an uptown produce store--likely not the least expensive choice. The milk and apple are from the farmers' market, both local farmers, so not the least expensive. The apple was something like $1.80/lb., but I did eat it at three separate meals. The couscous ingredients came from FreshDirect.com. I don't think any of them were organic or local. Also, some of these vegetables are enormous--much more than I need. So, overall, I could have made smarter shopping decisions.
Mindfully eaten? Nope. I ate lying down and was just trying to cram some food down my piehole so I could go back to bed. Being sick slowed me down a little bit though. And I certainly enjoyed the taste.
Satisfying? Most definitely.
Environmentally friendly? Because it was a meatless day, yes. But only the apple and milk were local. The farm I buy my milk from, Ronnybrook, uses antibiotics. The juice is Tropicana.
This seems pretty standard for me: satisfaction first, then health, cost, environment, and mindfulness.