When I’m anxious or sad, I stuff my face with carbs and sugar and cheese, ingredients which are wonderful in and of themselves. Life is too short to deny myself at least one of these Chowhound Intense Brownies at some point. But comfort foods turn on me when I shovel bucketloads of the stuff down my throat, when hunger becomes a long forgotten point. I know I’m not the only one. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with food. Stress hormones and high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating, according to Harvard Medical School research. During the U.S. presidential election, #eatingmyfeelings was a popular hashtag for good reason.
So when my personal life turned upside down more than seven years ago, I used that rock-bottom situation to rebuild myself the way I’ve always wanted to be — healthy and happy. But I had to do it my way (cue Sinatra song), by focusing on more healthy food rather than less unhealthy food. Along the way, the pounds poured off my 5-foot, 10 3/4-inch frame, little by little, until I basically lost the weight of a 12-year-old boy (or 100 pounds).
Losing that weight caused me to fall in love with food.
That might not make sense at first glance, but hear me out. I didn’t follow any prescribed diet or exercise plan, but I went speed-walking every day for 30 minutes until I could gradually run. I did strength training and physical activities that felt fun. To change my eating habits, I had to change my perspective. I don’t want to be denied anything. Denial sucks, and it only makes me want the banned food even more.
Without realizing it, I used the crowding-out method, which is about eating the healthiest foods first, before the less healthy foods. I stuffed my face with vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. If I was going to have pizza, I ate a salad first. I love salads with fruit, cheese, and nuts, like this Fennel Strawberry Salad recipe. Then I was more likely to stick to one pizza slice instead of three or more. I’d wait 10 minutes to let the feeling of fullness travel from my stomach to my brain, and if I still wanted it, I’d have that second slice.
I’ve read enough women’s magazines in my life to know what’s healthy and what’s not. It was just a matter of taking action. That’s the kicker, isn’t it? For me, getting healthy means eating more whole foods found along the perimeter of the grocery store (thanks, Michael Pollan) and fewer packaged, preserved, prepared foods. That entails cooking from scratch.
Back then, I was a little intimidated by home cooking beyond sandwiches, ho-hum salads, and pasta with jarred sauce. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the past, I ate fast food, frozen food, and delivery. To change that, I started simple and worked up from there. I’ve never paid attention to calories, instead veering away from sugar.
Every meal or snack had to include fruit or vegetables or both. Not at the rolled-oats level for breakfast at first, I picked box cereals in which sugar was not in the first three ingredients on the ingredient list and contained the lowest levels of sugar per serving. I added berries and nuts. I picked or created the highest fiber breakfasts I could find and incorporated protein as much as possible. Bread: 100-percent whole wheat. Pasta: whole wheat or anything not white. Same with rice. I would create my dish using a 2-to-1 vegetable-to-carb ratio, and then add the protein on top.
I didn’t give up one of my favorite foods, cheese; I just used it sparingly. Desserts received the same treatment: Not forbidden, but treasured and rare — as in once nightly, in the form of a piece of dark chocolate or low-sugar ice cream with berries on top.
At restaurants, I’d eat half my meal and take the rest home. Sometimes I’d eat the second half that same night, which was OK. Other times it would be the next day’s lunch.
One book had more influence on my transformation than any other. It wasn’t a diet book, a health book, or a self-help book. My brother, John, and my sister-in-law, Sandy, gave me this Best Ever Three & Four Ingredient Cookbook by authors for Christmas. It taught me I can cook gourmet-ish meals without much fuss or formal training. I remember making chicken with an orange-soy glaze and blistered tomato goat cheese pasta.
The book’s food wasn’t focused on being healthy, just real. That’s the biggest take-away from all this. Focusing on cooking real, delicious food means healthier food by default. That perspective changed my writing career, as it became an outlet for my growing passion for food, cooking, and wellness. Chowhound isn’t a health-specific resource by any means, but it is about cooking and celebrating the joys of eating, cooking, dining out, and entertaining.
Food doesn’t have to be something immediately gratifying that then morphs into guilt. Of course I haven’t followed these principles perfectly. (But I did run my first full marathon!) Seven years after that transformational time, I’ve gained about 20 pounds back, half of it intentionally. I focus on maintenance and balance. I backslide sometimes into old habits. But I forgive myself. And I keep enjoying this limitless culinary world.
Eating is one life’s greatest pleasures, and the more I’m mindful of that, the better off I am. I hope you are too.