The Italy Diet: Just Don’t

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERACan I tell you about the time I went to Italy and it was the beginning of the end of my terrible diet?

About a year after I had vowed to get my “best” body ever, I was ready to take a three week vacation to Italy. I had dreamed of going to Italy ever since I was in high school and now it was finally happening.

The itinerary included Venice and as many towns in Tuscany we could fit in, with Sienna and Florence as the main events.

There was only one problem: how the hell was I going to stay on my diet once I was surrounded by so much wonderful, non-diet-approved Italian food?? The “Points” value of all that cheese alone was incalculable. In my regular life, I was walking around in a mild to moderate state of hungry most of the time. I was also a strict pescetarian at the time, for reasons which are still unfathomable to me because they had nothing to do with my health or my love of animals.

If you are thinking right now, “What’s the big deal? Everyone eats what they want on vacation!” then you, my friend, have not been to a Weight Watchers meeting. When someone declared gravely, “I am going on vacation,” we would all nod in sympathy and rally around the person with suggestions of how they would be able to stay “on plan” and not gain weight. Then the leader would say, “But of course, enjoy yourself. It shouldn’t be all about the food anyway,” and what she really meant was, keep dieting.

And when someone came back from vacation, having gained a few pounds because it is so miserable to diet on holiday, the confessional would take on the proportions of a mental health crisis. Between the pre-vacation panic and the post-vacation guilt, you’d wonder why anyone on a diet would bother to go. Ironically, sometimes the vacation is the reason we wanted to lose weight in the first place!

But I digress. Off to Italy I went.

In Venice, I woke up to a breakfast of brioche and chocolate spread. Did you know chocolate spread was a thing in Italy?! I didn’t! I spread the chocolate over all of the little breads and pastries salaciously. Was I allowed to eat this? Do they even have Weight Watchers in Italy*?? I was convinced that none of the Italians I had seen on the street the day before would hesitate. So I ate it and then wished for more. For three days in Venice, it came.

Quickly I learned that in Italy, pizza is not considered a junk food. It’s just food! Vegetables were abundant on menus everywhere – but not just sad, fat free affairs. No! Roasted eggplant, peppers, mushrooms and zucchini swam in rich green olive oil. Ohhh, my diet! I ate them anyway. I would starve back in America, but in Italy, it seemed wrong to even consider it.

In Tuscany, I dined in a castle where I ate delectable, tender tuna marinated in – you guessed it – olive oil. I ate pasta of every kind, in marinara, oil, pine nuts, cheese – too many “Points” to count, so I gave up. I even tasted my companion’s wild boar sauce – and to this day I regret that I wouldn’t let myself order a helping of my own.

I had an entire meal of chocolate – a Nutella crepe, hot cocoa of gooey chocolate lava. I remembered thinking, this is it, I’ve given up on diet food, I’m just going to eat chocolate for every meal now (as a now well-fed person, this does not actually sound appetizing). The death knell of my diet began to toll. Real food is beckoningGelato

Oh yes, and I ate gelato. Everyday.

I couldn’t believe Italians were eating food like this every day…but they were! All the time! And they weren’t worried about it!

I still worried and obsessed over every bite. I still worried about what the scale would say when I got back. This did not add to the enjoyment of my vacation.

I came back from my Italian holiday having gained only 2 pounds (and the sad fact doesn’t escape me that I can tell you exactly what my weight was before and after vacation 12 years ago). But in the following months, having tasted heaven, it became more and more of a private hell to maintain such a low body weight. At the same time, I wanted to eat more of the healthy (yes, healthy, this is the Mediterranean Diet you know!), scrumptious foods I had eaten in Italy without turning it into a diet-friendly abomination. These two endeavors could not be reconciled with each other, and over the next three years I inched up 10 pounds (and of course, I would gain more after I really gave up dieting for good. WORTH IT.). Italy had won. As it rightfully should have.

I will go back to Italy someday, not on a diet. I don’t imagine gorging on everything I see because, being adequately fed, I no longer have that need. Nor will I worry about every bite I put in my mouth. I simply know I’ll enjoy whatever foods I want and eat as much as I need to feel satisfied. I know I will sometimes eat gelato just for the hell of it (but probably not every day as that no longer sounds appetizing). My focus will be on a lot of other things, too, that I probably missed the first time when I was there on a diet, hungrily worrying and obsessing about food every second.

*they don’t

Coming soon: Podcast!

I’m super excited to announce an upcoming collaboration between the awesome Aaron Flores, RDN and myself: The Dietitians Unplugged Podcast! Topics will focus on Health at Every Size®, Intuitive Eating and body positivity. The podcast will be available on both our sites as well as iTunes. Watch for the announcement soon!

Just Eat the Damn Cake

cake2I hear it, or some version of it, at least once a week: “Oooh, if I have this [insert delicious or even just plain regular food here] I’ll have to do at least an extra half hour on the hamster wheel tonight.”

To which I usually cringe, roll my eyes, eat the thing in question, and then leave. I don’t have time for this kind of tomfoodery anymore.

I was recently at a goodbye work party with a fantastic spread of Mexican food. Someone had baked the best tres leches cake I had ever tasted – actually, make that the best cake I had ever tasted…ever – and as I stood next to it at the end of the buffet, the middle-aged surfer dude I work with sidled up to the punch bowl, eyed it nervously and uttered, “Hm…is it worth the calories?” Then look lustfully at the cake. “That’s another hour of exercise for me, I guess.”

I didn’t walk away this day. “Really? Because I’m probably gonna lay down for a nap after this,” I said. I suppose sarcasm shouldn’t be my first line of response, but I am what I am.

I get it. He probably doesn’t want to look like me. We’ve talked before and I know he watches his weight religiously. But if you have to do so much hard math about what you’re taking in and expending, if your energy balance is so fragile that a glass of punch or a piece of cake can throw it completely out of whack, then you’re probably not at the weight that your body wants to weigh – a weight I’d like to define as your happy weight.

Your happy weight, by my own definition, is the weight your body arrives at when you’re just living and enjoying life, eating normally and moving pleasurably. You might be trying to eat healthfully and get regular exercise, but those things don’t take up too much mental real estate. It’s the weight your body eventually returns to even after a week of vacation in Paris (two words: baguettes and brie). It’s the weight you maintain without constantly trying to deny yourself cake or breaking yourself at the gym every night. Because, in the end, trying to outrun calories doesn’t work for most in the long run and it’s no fun either.

I remember having similar thoughts about food during my dieting days. Looking at a piece of birthday cake or a slice of pizza, I’d mentally calculate how much extra time I’d have to spend at the gym that night to compensate. I was terrified the dial on the scale would inch ever so slightly, but steadily, upward. Maintaining a constant level of hunger was crucial to my success, but it sometimes resulted in overeating the exact foods I was trying to avoid, without the joy I would have experienced if I’d just eaten the damn thing in the first place. I was definitely not at my happy weight. I was able to buy size 6 clothing but I was so preoccupied with outrunning my calories that I couldn’t even enjoy it.

The reality is, when you are at the weight that is right for you (and only your body can determine what that is, not some diet plan), you can afford to live a little out of balance, a little decadently, on occasion without facing massive exercise compensation. After I ate 3 small pieces of that amazing cake (that’s just how good it was) I was done with sweets for a few days. I craved lighter meals with lots of vegetables. As far as I can tell, my weight did not change significantly (I don’t weigh myself).  The body has its way of bringing us back into balance if we will only trust it.

I hope surfer dude enjoyed the cake without too much guilt, if he could bring himself to have a piece. After all, cake is a normal, wonderful, usually occasional part of our lives. He probably would have been just fine. I know I was.

Dieting Killed My Inner Foodie

Yum.
Yum.

Full disclosure: I was once a foodie. I loved trying new and unusual foods; I looked forward to meals out at fancy restaurants and holes-in-the-wall; I looked for recipes that challenged my burgeoning cooking skills – all while maintaining my love for grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft Singles (because it’s just best that way).

I grew up in a small town without a lot of culinary diversity (although I did first try Tibetan food there thanks to my friend’s enthusiastic siblings screaming “Try the momos! Try the momos!” at me from their booth at our town’s ethnic food festival), so when I moved to the huge Canadian city of Toronto at age 24, one of the first things I set out to do was taste everything.

A friend and I took the ethnic food listings from the local free paper and decided to conquer every cuisine listed. We started with a Moroccan restaurant (“A” for Africa – we were going alphabetically, at least at first). We ate earthy, spiced couscous and tender meat encased in a phyllo pastry crust. I’d never had anything like it. From there we tried food from Bolivia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Peru, Portugal (and we abandoned alphabetical order). We brought friends with us and it was fun.

It wasn’t just ethnic cuisine I tackled; I also tried ostrich steak, boar, lamb, bison and sushi (“Raw fish?? EW!” and then found it immediately and completely addicting. Except for sea urchin. Still ew.) and more fusion combos than you can shake a ladle at. I found out what really amazing pizza tastes like. I was once on a date with a guy who didn’t know what avocado and sun-dried tomatoes were or what they were doing on his plate and I decided then and there it would probably be our last date. I was already in a committed and exciting relationship with food.

At home, I learned to cook fancy(ish) meals using exotic ingredients I could find in the various markets of Toronto: Chinatown, Kensington Market, St. Lawrence Market, Little India. My inner foodie flourished.

I was not dieting very restrictively at this time, despite having lost 30 pounds a few years earlier (perhaps I had just reached the lowest end of my natural weight range, as Traci Mann advocates but I’ll never know) although I do think that my lazy, halfhearted dieting left me hungry enough to crave very rich foods often and fueling my foodieness. It wasn’t until I began severely restricting my calories in the name of bodily perfection that my foodie self came into conflict with my dieting self.

To be thin, I simply could not afford the calories of a truly delicious meal – ever. I couldn’t even afford the calories of a very basic, average meal. By this time I was living in San Francisco, another great food town, but instead of enjoying it, I ate a half PBJ sandwich and fat free canned soup every day for lunch (I would have preferred the French cafe down the street) and hoovered bags of microwave popcorn to keep my stomach from growling. When I did eat out, I would starve myself all week and then binge till I was sick, followed up with a terrible guilt hangover. I don’t remember any of those meals fondly. Ironically, during this time I started telling people how much I lurved food, how obsessed I was by it. That obsession and preoccupation was even why I became a dietitian.

As you know, I eventually quit dieting because it was ruining my life. For a while, I ate everything again. I was in school and funds were limited but I still had fun not constantly worrying about what I was eating. I have since developed acid reflux which has recently limited my experimentation and even enjoyment of food. I know this is partly stress-related and I fully expect some improvement with upcoming life changes. But I’ve also likely inherited my mother’s delicate middle-aged stomach and will probably always have to be cautious around some foods (avoiding too much garlic, too much heat, too much fat or fried).

And part of me thinks I will never be quite that excited about food again because 1. I’ve tasted a LOT of foods, and the novelty of experimentation has worn off over the years and 2. I’m never starving enough to get into a food frenzy. Eating is generally pleasurable for me but I’ve got other things to do, and that’s a bit of a relief.

I still pine a bit for my former inner foodie, though. At the very least, I want to reclaim the joy I once had in cooking. I want to make bagels in my kitchen again because my bagels rock and it’s really fun. While writing this post, I slaved over an amazing pot of chicken posole. This weekend was jambalaya which I haven’t made in years. At the very least, I’m thrilled to be able to eat these foods without any diet anxiety. What I lost through dieting, I will reclaim through liberation.

The Fundamental Weirdness of Dieting

Diet Crap with outline(Potential trigger warning to recovering dieters/ED folks: I discuss ridiculous diet advice in this post)

Many people who have, perhaps, never dieted to try to lose weight often think it’s merely a matter of “eat a little less, exercise a little more” and then the magic happens. I’m here to tell you that when it comes to weight loss efforts, nothing could be further from the truth. If simple lifestyle changes like eating more veggies, eating fewer fried foods, and moving some more produced viable weight loss results, no one would be fat, because making those changes is relatively easy. They can make us healthier but they generally don’t work to make us a whole lot thinner. Thus, dieting behavior ensues.

Some of the weight loss tips I was given during my time at Weight Watchers (the weight loss company most people consider “the sensible one”) are downright laughable when I think about them now. Although contemplating doing them again actually makes me want to cry, not laugh.

Here’s some of the diet advice I’ve encountered over the years:

  1. Eat your salad undressed, with dressing on the side, and then dip the tines of your fork ever so gingerly into the dressing before spearing a bite of salad. Honestly, even in my most diety of diet days, this seemed utterly ridiculous, both for the effort it took and results it produced. I happen to think the best thing (or at least the thing that makes it edible) about a salad is the dressing, so plunging into a naked salad with but a microdrop of dressing on the fork seems downright obscene. The whole time I dieted (most of my adult life) I avoided salads for this very reason – too much dressing would make me gain weight, too little would render it inedible. Healthy, right? When I order salads now and the server asks me if I want the salad dressed or dressing on the side, it’s such a comfort to be able to have my salad made as the chef intended it – fully dressed.
  2. Don’t use butter or oil on your vegetables; instead try a squeeze of lemon…on literally every vegetable you eat. Hey, guess what vegetables always dressed in lemon juice taste like? LEMON! I mostly skipped this one too by mostly just skipping vegetable sides altogether. If there was a vegetable incorporated into my entree, such as a stir-fry (and therefore coated in some sort of sauce or seasoning), I’d eat it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t touch a plain, steamed vegetable with a ten foot fork. There are a million awesome ways to cook veggies to make them more delicious to pickier palates: roasting, baking, sautéing, and yes, even steamed, but with a dollop of butter or drizzle of olive oil to really make them sing. Dietitian fun fact: many vegetables contain fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) which means having them with some fat makes the vitamins a whole lot more bioavailable to us. I like lemon as a seasoning – occasionally. But not to mask the flavor of my unfatted vegetables (yes I did just make that word up). By the way, if you have a hard time eating vegetables and squeezing lemon on them is the only way you can tolerate them, then I applaud you for your efforts, and it’s the way you want it. It’s when it’s not the way you want it that it becomes a problem.
  3. Eat “Zero Points” (aka fat free, low carb, low protein) soup to fill up before a meal. Anyone ever make a whole batch of this soup, recipe courtesy of Weight Watchers (basically vegetables boiled in broth), have one bowl, and then watch it go moldy in the fridge because while you didn’t have the heart to throw it out after all that effort, you also didn’t have the fortitude to force one more spoonful of this gruel down your throat? Yeah, I didn’t think it was just me. Notice no one eats this kind of soup while not on a diet? Know why? Because it tastes awful! I make amazing soups now. They often involve olive or canola oils (both rich in monounsaturated fats), butter, avocado (also rich in MUFA), cheese, meat and yes, vegetables. They are delicious, and while certainly not “zero points,” they are also not soul-crushing.
  4. Go to a restaurant, order a meal, and immediately have the server put half of it in a doggie bag. Okay, seriously? If ever there was a place I wanted to escape the grip of my dieting, it was at a restaurant. How sad I’d have been to see half of my lovely meal for which I’d “saved up” my calories all week then go directly into a doggie bag before I’d even had a single bite. And unless that bag was hermetically sealed, I know I’d be dipping into it before I even left the restaurant. I was so hungry back then that I wouldn’t leave one single scrap on the plate and usually over-stuffed myself, but by Thor’s hammer, I was not going to sacrifice my dinner to the Styrofoam container before its time. I don’t always finish my plate these days, either at home or eating out, and am happy to have leftovers, but that is always based on my fullness level, and it’s my choice, not someone else’s mandate, which really makes all the difference.
  5. The all-time weirdest: use spaghetti squash instead of actual spaghetti in any dish that calls for pasta. Two words: NOT PASTA. I did this once. The resulting fibrous strings coated with tomato sauce went right into the trash after one bite. I have a special hatred for one type of food pretending to be another in the name of calorie reduction. My friend had a similar experience with Shirataki noodles, which I have avoided rigorously ever since hearing her tale.

These weren’t ever a part of my diet, but I’ve gleaned them after a lifetime of listening to diet talk:

  1. Go Low-Carb. Ah, perhaps my biggest diet pet peeve. Even if it did work to produce long-term weight loss (and there is no evidence to show that it does), I’ve met tons of low-carbers who have lost weight and then gained it all back because they simply could not live with so few carbohydrates in their diet for very long. I’ve never heard anyone get excited about giving up carbs, though I’ve personally witnessed a few low-carbers get a little over-excited at the presentation of cupcakes at a birthday celebration and the contemplation of having a massive cheat moment. I am sorry for these folks because while man (and woman) certainly can’t live by bread alone, living without carbohydrates really sucks. I know many people who have tried some version of this diet, but very few people who have stuck with it long term. And in conversation, their alternating obsessions with not-eating-carbs and dying-to-eat-carbs is tiresome. If you’re going to do this, do us all a favor and stop talking about it.
  2. Eat a breakfast and lunch of [Special K, meal replacement shakes, fake food item] and then have a “sensible” dinner. I sure as hell do not want to eat anything twice a day, never mind the bland items on offer in these classic diets. I really enjoy the (perhaps unintentional) inference that while your dinner may be sensible, your breakfast and lunch sure weren’t. Is the concept here to bore you into thinness by making you sick of eating? I don’t think it would work for me; I’d be so off-the-rails with real-food cravings by dinnertime there would be a major diet fail daily. Sorry diet food companies, you’re not going to fool me into buying more of your product by making me eat it twice a day.

As one of the most ardent, “successful” dieters I knew, even I could not participate in a lot of this weirdness, opting instead to avoid healthy foods altogether to reduce calories (which is stupid in its own right). Most diet rules make eating completely unenjoyable, yet we are biologically geared to enjoy food. It makes no sense to deny our most basic instinct, but we do it every day when we diet. No wonder every diet ends up failing the dieter.

What are the most ridiculous diet tips you’ve heard or tried? Feel free to leave them in the comments section!

Calories In=Calories Out=Bullshit

If I had a nickel for every time someone talking about weight loss said to me “It’s just calories in/calories out, right? Just eat less and move more!” I’d be able to retire on a beach in Hawaii with a big fat Mai Tai always at my fingertips. Alas, no one has paid me anything to listen this sort of horse manure so now it’s my turn to disabuse everyone of this ridiculous notion.

In case you have been spared this silly platitude, I’ll give a little background. It all starts with the idea that 1 pound of fat = 3500 kilocalories (or what we know as just “calories”). This estimate was derived by researcher Max Wishnofsky, MD, in 1958, for who knows what reason. The derivation of the math is pretty straightforward (skip this if math puts you in a coma):

  1. 1 pound = 454 grams (fact!)
  2. 1 gram of fat is estimated to equal 9 calories
  3. Human adipose tissue is estimated to contain around 87% lipids.

So then… 454 g adipose tissue x 87% x 9 calories = 3,555 calories/pound of fat (rounded up from 3,554.82)

Then it was rounded down to 3,500 calories because, hey, it’s just easier to remember so why the hell not? The idea is that if you reduce your caloric intake by 3,500 calories a week, then you will lose a pound of fat a week. There’s a ton of rounding and estimating going on here, and yet people cling to this calculation like it came down written in stone from Mount Sinai as the 11th Commandment.

But let’s pretend for one moment that this calculation works. So you reduce your caloric intake weekly by 3,500 calories a week (500 calories a day) and that takes care of the Calories In part. Now you just need to rev up your Calories Out half of the equation in the form of ramping up your exercise. If you’re managing the 500-calories-a- day-less deal and exercising too, then you can definitely lose even more than 1 pound a week, right?

Oh…except we forgot something. There’s another part of the equation… it actually looks like this:

Calories IN:

Food

Calories OUT:

Exercise AND Metabolism.

Oopsy, we forgot that tiny little factor – our metabolism (specifically something we call Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR, the calories you burn while at rest, which accounts for 60-70% of our total energy expenditure). And it turns out that our metabolism is not something of which we are completely in control. This is borne out in science time and again; in fact, I recently had the pleasure of supervising the research project of a dietetic intern whose research consistently showed that RMR decreased with intentional weight loss. You can check out this particular research here and here and here and here and here and here. Sometimes the RMR remained low throughout the entire study, occasionally it eventually returned to normal, but in most of these studies the weight lost also began to return within the study period.

What happens when you start to eat less? Your body doesn’t know you’re just trying to lose weight for the sake of vanity or a misguided belief that it will make you healthier. No – after a few pounds are lost, your body eventually senses that you are in a place of food insecurity, and so to save your life it slooooows down its engine, the metabolism. Now you are eating less but also burning less in the way of your RMR – this is essentially your body’s way of maintaining homeostasis – stable internal conditions. Because that’s what the body wants more than anything – to remain at homeostasis. You might think you can compensate for this decrease in metabolism by exercising more – except that your metabolism will continue to compensate in the downward direction still as it continues to perceive this energy imbalance. This alone does not explain why most weight loss attempts end in lost weight being regained, but it’s a good start (I can think of some other reasons: unpalatable, unsustainable diets and hunger. Lots of hunger.).

Many health professionals have given up on this equation because they know it just doesn’t work all that well. Some researchers are working on new mathematical equations that will better predict how much a person should eat to lose weight and maintain the loss. Because – and this is dripping in sarcasm – we should definitely be eating according to a mathematical equation.

For me it all goes back to the idea of homeostasis. Our bodies want to remain in happy equilibrium, and they have amazing mechanisms to help us do so. Two of these mechanisms are a sense of hunger and a sense of fullness, which is why it is so important for us to use those internal mechanisms to guide our eating. Yep, back to the ol’ Intuitive Eating we go!

I think we’ve done a lot of damage with dieting over the years by ignoring those internal cues and trying to eat-by-the-numbers. Let’s forget this bad science and start paying attention to what our bodies tell us.