The Five Obstacles to Eating Right

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Jan. 1 2011 9:24 AM

The Five Obstacles to Eating Right

New Year's resolutions: I don't believe in them. Mine tend to fall into one of two useless categories: impossibly stringent ( no chocolate all year! ) or ineffectually vague ( lose weight! ). Still, it's hard to let New Year's go by without reflecting on the past year and fantasizing about change in the new one.

This year, a different plan. I'm done with diets. I'm over the idea of losing weight and getting in shape, but not over the idea of improving my eating. Instead of focusing on weight loss or calories, I'll focus on health and habits and why it's so hard to change them: We know we should have a nutritious bowl of steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast, but we inhale a doughnut instead. Most of us know how to eat right. So why do we still choose not to?

Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

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That's what I aim to find out. I'm going to identify the biggest obstacles to eating well and for the next six weeks put myself through a series of experiments to grapple with one issue each week.

I'm not a complete food moron: I'm educated; I was once a personal fitness trainer, which means I had to study nutrition and pass a test on it; I've read books and watched documentaries about food; I read the news; I grew up with the USDA's food groups and pyramid. I've been on diets before. Despite all this so-called knowledge, my eating habits have deteriorated to the point of embarrassment. But what's the purpose of being an American if you can't humiliate yourself in public? So, here goes: One recent day I ate a whole box of Pop-Tarts and little else. Another day I ate an entire loaf of raisin challah bread. (Not all at once, mind you; it was split up into about three meals and three snacks.)

Here is a particularly excellent example of a bad eating day from the food diary I've been keeping for the last few months. Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010, or, as I like to call it:

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The Day of the Mixed-Berry Pie
7 a.m.: coffee before walking the dog
8:30 a.m.: coffee after walking the dog
12 p.m.: mixed-berry pie with coffee
1:45 p.m.: mixed-berry pie with coffee
2:52 p.m.: fresh pineapple chunks (new groceries just delivered; thirsty and desperate for fruit)
4.30 p.m. Breyer's sugar-free reduced-fat vanilla/strawberry/chocolate ice cream (bought this fake ice cream by accident, bummed about it, so I ate more)
5 p.m.: more ice cream (also it was melted and refrozen and has freezer burn; really just should have tossed it)
6:13 p.m.: two ears of corn on the cob, boiled (dee-effing-licious, didn't even put anything on it; husband not home; I usually snack for dinner when he's not home.)
7:30 p.m.: a couple of bites of beef (food for my dog), a smoothie: cider, berries (rotting? we'll see)

This is fairly typical for a day when I work at home, a dozen feet from my kitchen. Usually I'm busy and haven't planned ahead, so I grab what's available, and, trust me, there isn't a whole lot of kale lying around.

What's wrong with my eating habits?

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What I eat: too much coffee (though decaf), chocolate, sugar, white carbs, snacks, baked goods, takeout foods, wheat, juice, full-fat dairy products; too few fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, local foods, organic foods; too little variety; not enough attention paid to environmental and political issues regarding food. I spend too much money.

Where I eat: seldom at a table, except at a restaurant or dinner party; during the work week, I eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks at my desk; at home I dine reclining on the couch that's right, reclining . That's why all of my shirts have a stain in exactly the same place.

When I eat: no set mealtimes or restrictions about snacking between meals. I skip meals I eat breakfast late or not at all, which wreaks havoc on my blood sugar, rendering me comatose in the afternoon. I am an all-day grazer. I spend as little time as possible planning, shopping, preparing food, and eating it. Life's too short especially when you've got lousy eating habits.

How I eat: much too fast, and always while multitasking: working, watching TV, driving. I pay no attention to the temperature or quantity of food. I take too-large bites and under-chew them. I don't pay attention to how full I am. I approach my plate like a cleaning project rather than a meal.

Why I eat: Of course, I eat for all kinds of wrong reasons: because I am bored, tempted, in my late afternoon slump, when I'm angry, when there is a seasonal trigger (ice cream in summer, hot chocolate in winter), when I'm tired, emotional, when I feel like not feeling, when I'm uncomfortable at a party, when I'm having fun at a party, when I'm not at a party but wish I was, when I'm at a party but wish I wasn't. I eat because food is there. Oh, yeah, also sometimes because I'm hungry.

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Despite all of this, I've been remarkably healthy, knock wood. My blood pressure is naturally low; my cholesterol has always been low to normal. This can only be chalked up to sheer luck.

As for my size and appearance, I've been thin, but never skinny; I've been fat, but never obese. Charitably, I would call myself "meaty." On a body-mass index chart , I'm in the overweight range, though I'm sort of muscular for a girl. I can shop off the rack, but at the mid- to high end of it.

But now I'm in my 40s, which feels like a pivotal decade. You enter your 40s a young person and leave it no longer young. Maybe I'll feel differently on the other side: Maybe 50 will be the new 20. Nonetheless, irrevocable health changes begin in the 40s: We lose strength and flexibility; metabolism decreases; nerves deteriorate, slowing reflexes; bones thin; the risk for diabetes, cancer, and heart disease increases; cholesterol numbers shift. Obviously, it would be better to head off health problems by learning to eat like an adult now, when I want to, rather than later, because something is wrong and a doctor tells me I have to.

Of course, the eating habits of one meaty person don't amount to a hill of legumes in this crazy world, but I am not alone. My Facebook friends often joke about their eating. "Ate Cheez-It crumbs for breakfast," wrote one. "Honey Bunches of Oats is in fact crack cocaine, disguised as innocuous breakfast food," wrote another. Here's one exchange a post of mine prompted (my friends' names have been changed):

Ellen: perhaps just eating a loaf of bread for a day isn't really the best diet to follow.
Nadia: at least put nutella on it!
Elaine: Really? I used to eat french bread and Coke all the time. Seriously? It's not healthy?
Arnold: Hostess Apple Pies. 2 for $5.00. 3,700 calories. Such self hatred.

My Facebook friends range in age from twentysomething to sixtysomething. They are single, married, parents, nonparents. None are obese; many are actually quite thin. Most are smart, educated, and earn a decent living. They know what a healthy diet is; otherwise they wouldn't be able to make fun of their own.

This disconnect between what we know and what we do goes way beyond my circle. Lean Cuisine built an entire ad campaign around it. Studies show that while most Americans possess basic knowledge about nutrition, many of us still make poor diet decisions and suffer the consequences. The Centers for Disease Control tracks the prevalence of obesity in the United States from 1985 to 2009 in this animated map . In the late 1980s, the rate of obese residents in most states was at less than 10 percent. Today, the United States is the world's fattest nation , with 30.6 percent of the population classified as obese. In addition to the personal, the consequences are environmental, medical, financial, political, and ethical. This issue affects all of us.

What can be done about it? Rather than go on another futile and miserable diet, I've decided to go sensible this time. The goal is to learn to eat like an adult. What does that mean? My fantasy is that an adult:

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  • eats nutritious foods that fulfill her daily requirements; avoids refined sugar and flour and processed foods; drinks coffee in moderation or not at all; does not ever crave chocolate or ice cream and certainly not Swedish fish.
  • eats three meals a day at a table: breakfast at home before leaving the house, lunch away from her desk, and dinner without the television, even if her husband is working late.
  • buys and prepares all her own food.
  • eats slowly when she is hungry, tastes the food, and stops before she is full.
  • never goes to Haagen-Dazs just because she's mad her emergency eye-doctor appointment ended up taking four hours and she missed lunch.
  • is in control of her eating, not the other way around.

To get there from here, each Monday I'll present one obstacle and experiment. In Week 1 (starting this Monday), I'll focus on information overload: How can we sort through so much confusing nutrition information? In Week 2, I'll talk about money. How much does it cost to eat well? Week 3 will address time. How can you fit healthy eating in to your busy life? Week 4 explores the external influences on our eating habits: our friends, family, the food industry, the government. And Week 5 will examine our own inertia. What keeps us from changing? In Week 6, I'll try to put it all together.  I'll blog my progress during the week and post my preliminary findings each Friday right here.

And this is where you come in. I need your help. Each week I'll ask questions for you to respond to in the Comments section below. I'll need your advice and to hear about your experiences with nutrition and diet. So, first questions: What should I eat? Is there some sort of book, plan, pyramid, etc., that you follow? On Monday, I'll let you know what I'm thinking based on the research I've pored over during the last several months and I'll launch the first experiment.

I'm off to unlearn everything I think I know about food and health and to start again with a clean plate.