When and What Can You Really Eat to Lose Weight?
Bless me, reader, for I have sinned. It's been many years since my first diet, and with each attempt I've either lost weight and gained it back or slipped up and given up. It's gotten me thinking: I follow conventional weight-loss wisdom, but should I? Maybe I don't need to devoutly keep a food journal or eat every three hours. To find out, I put 10 of the top diet commandments to the test and enlisted the divine intervention of three dieting gurus. The experience was, well, enlightening.
Thou shalt eat only when hungry.
During the day this is easy; I'm so busy, I remember to eat only when my stomach growls. But temptations pop up in the evening, and I start to confuse what I want with what I need. Case(s) in point: After my 5-year-old was done with his Happy Meal, I couldn't resist finishing his fries and burger, not because I was famished but because — hello! — they were fries and a burger. Another night I wasn't hungry after dinner, but I ate the rest of his ice cream. (Who walks away from ice cream? Is this really my kid?)
Dieting Truth: I need to tune in to my appetite, but I also need a plan for when treats seem irresistible. "Try parallel eating: Have fruit or something that won't make you lose control while your son is having ice cream," says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, FITNESS advisory board member and author of The Real You Diet. I was dubious, but it works. I've also instituted a self-serve rule: Instead of putting a box of cookies on the table, I tell my son to take two and then put the container away. Out of sight, out of mouth.
Thou shalt eat a healthy breakfast.
Several cups of black coffee are usually all I have until lunchtime because I'm not hungry until noon and I'm following rule number one. Every time I tried to kick off the day obeying this rule — whether with a Luna Bar and a banana or a bowl of oatmeal with berries — my appetite seemed to be stoked rather than satisfied.
Dieting Truth: "People who skip breakfast tend to overeat at the next meal," says Andrea Giancoli, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Well, that's good to know, but I'm just not hungry. The pros think it's because dinner is too late. Maybe they're right: Supper is around 8 p.m., and it's often followed by a bedtime snack. Giancoli also suggested that I add protein to my breakfast to make it more satisfying. Sure enough, when I stirred a handful of nuts into my oatmeal or had cottage cheese and berries, I found that I had more energy. Plus, I wasn't ravenous later in the day, meaning that I ate less at dinner and woke up hungry.
Thou shalt eat only foods with ingredients thou can easily pronounce.
The theory behind this rule: Processed foods are unhealthy and won't satisfy you. That's why when I contemplated swapping my oatmeal for a cereal with five grams of fiber a serving — along with maltodextrin, guar gum, cellulose gum, and BHT (WTF?) — I went right back to my steel-cut oats breakfast. But here's a toughie: Since I can pronounce what's in the French loaf from the bakery (flour, sugar, butter, and so on), does that make it better for me than the whole-grain bread at the supermarket, which contains sodium stearoyl lactylate, menhaden oil, and triticale? (Please say yes!)
Dieting Truth: "Just because you can say butter and white flour doesn't mean they're good for you," Giancoli says. Turns out, menhaden oil is a fish oil rich in healthy omega-3s, and triticale is a nutritious hybrid of wheat and rye. So I'm dumping this rule, although after looking up BHT, which isn't just in cereal but also in jet fuel (!), I won't be eating that.
Thou shalt eat every three to four hours.
Wait a minute: Am I supposed to chow down when I'm hungry or every three hours? Yesterday I had a carne asada burrito for lunch, and I went six hours until dinner because I was stuffed. Today I had healthy snacks — toast with peanut butter; carrots and hummus; light string cheese and a banana — every hour or two and was pleased that I was eating when hungry rather than following what seemed like an arbitrary feeding schedule.
Dieting Truth: "Ditch this rule," advises Giancoli, who explains that while you need to eat regularly, you also have to listen to your hunger cues. "Just stick to a healthy number of total calories for the day," Fernstrom says, which you can do by following rule number six.
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Thou shalt focus on thy food.
I don't see the point of eating without multitasking. I'm busy! In the past week, I've had cereal at my desk, noshed on nuts while driving, and dined on steak with the Real Housewives (I don't think I ate any more than if I'd been watching my plate instead of the overprivileged). When I tried to focus on my meal, I was so worried about everything else I had to do that I carried my plate over to the computer. Fail!
Dieting Truth: The pros tell me I'm forgetting two keys to weight loss: (1) enjoying food and (2) tuning in to satiety signals. "You need to slow down and focus on what you're eating so you can savor food and recognize when you're full," Giancoli says. But how? "Practice eating without distractions for a few meals until you master the skill," says Judith S. Beck, PhD, author of The Beck Diet Solution, who recommends setting a timer for 15 minutes and taking that long to eat, or putting a note by my plate that reads, "Slow down!" Since incorporating her advice, which was agony at first but pretty easy now, I've quit the clean-plate club.
Thou shalt track every bite.
Whenever I bust out the food journal, the pounds melt away. Trouble is, after a few days I figure I've mastered the art of tracking — which, let's face it, can be a real pain — so I start doing it in my head. "Sure, that looks like four ounces of chicken." "A wineglass is supposed to be that full." And just like that, when the accountability disappears, the pounds reappear.
Dieting Truth: Beck had just the solution: reverse tracking. "It's better to write down a plan in advance and check things off as you go," she says. "You can still be flexible — for example, whole-grain cereal and fruit for breakfast, and lean protein, one roll, and vegetables with a little oil at lunch. But this reduces the likelihood of spontaneous eating." At first I was skeptical, yet once I started printing a checklist each morning, I was hooked. It's fun to mark off those boxes and see that I'm on track.
Thou shalt ask the server to pack up half thy meal at a restaurant.
Here's what happened the first time I tried this: "I'll have the oatmeal. Um, could you split...never mind!" I chickened out. I already felt conspicuous because the rest of the table — my dad's girlfriend and her family, whom I'd just met — was having pancakes. But I was determined, so while out to lunch with a friend, I asked the waitress to box up half my eight-ounce swordfish. She didn't bat an eye, and even said people ask her to do this all the time. When the fish came, the portion looked small but only compared with a typical restaurant serving. I loved knowing that I could eat the whole thing guilt-free; plus, I felt satisfied, not stuffed, and had leftovers.
Dieting Truth: The experts give this rule a thumbs-up, but Fernstrom had another option in case embarrassment gets the best of me: Split an entree with your companion; this worked perfectly at dinner with my husband when we shared a filet mignon. Another day I came up with my own strategy and ordered from the kids' menu, one of the many upsides to having a pint-size person in tow.
Thou shalt shop only the perimeter of the supermarket.
It sounds so sensible — all those fruits and vegetables are right by the entrance — but I discovered plenty of diet don'ts on the outskirts. On one recent excursion I progressed from celery and bananas right to snack cakes and booze! And if I hadn't ventured into the middle, I wouldn't have found frozen peas and broccoli or whole-grain bread.
Dieting Truth: "There have always been plenty of healthy options in the center," Giancoli notes. "We need to forget this rule because it doesn't hold water." Fernstrom gave me this tip instead: "To avoid impulse buying, stick to a list and don't go when you're hungry."
Thou shalt eat thy fruits and vegetables.
I'm supposed to eat two and a half cups of veggies and one and a half cups of fruits each day (find your recommendation at mypyramid.gov). Fortunately, I love produce — so much that I wash and prep it right when I get home from the supermarket, then store it front and center in my fridge for easy access. A typical breakfast of mine includes a cup of berries, and I fill up on raw or steamed broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans at lunch and dinner. I snack on cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and oranges. But even for a produce princess like me, getting enough is tough when my routine is thrown off — say, when I'm traveling or running errands.
Dieting Truth: Vegetable soup or juice is an easy way to squeeze in extra servings. Their salt content freaked me out, but Fernstrom gave the low-sodium versions of the single-serving portable containers her blessing (two to try: V8 100% Vegetable Juice and Campbell's Soup at Hand). Meanwhile, Giancoli blew my mind when she told me that hummus counts as a veggie, so now I dip my crudites in it. I just make sure not to eat the whole container.
Thou shalt have 25 grams of fiber a day.
I'm a fiber fan, so I couldn't wait to tally the grams. Frozen berries (11 grams) with my oatmeal (4 grams) got me more than halfway to the target. I snacked on a Luna Bar (3 grams) and a slice of whole-grain bread (4 grams) with a tablespoon of peanut butter (1 gram); then I had a heaping helping of steamed veggies with lunch (4 grams) and a frozen beef tamale at dinner (4 grams).
Dieting Truth: "Produce, beans, and whole grains are your best bets," Giancoli says, "but in a pinch you can have oatmeal or a bar that's fortified with extra fiber. Some have as many as 12 grams." But when I tried one of those bars, I found that another reason to have them infrequently was — TMI alert! — room-clearing gas. I opted instead for popcorn (4 grams) and barley salad (6 grams). TMI alert two: It's made this whole pound-shedding process even more...productive!
Have I been saved?
After two weeks of test-driving and tweaking the commandments, I was down four pounds. Being able to toss some rules and stay faithful to the rest makes me feel that I might actually become a dieting demigoddess myself. Can I get a witness? Amen.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2011.