Conclusion: Eating Healthfully, Because You're Worth It?

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Feb. 14 2011 7:45 AM

Conclusion: Eating Healthfully, Because You're Worth It?

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.

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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.

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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The main lessons and practices I hope to retain:

  1. Eat breakfast at home in the morning before starting your day.
  2. Think small: small fruits and vegetables, small portions, small tableware, small bites.
  3. 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 .
  4. 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!).
  5. 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.

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Eat well and be well.