If there’s one question I get asked all the time, whether in my blog comments or over Twitter, it’s: “How do you not weigh 500 pounds?”
It’s usually in response to a post about a very decadent meal or a recipe that involves several sticks of butter (like Craig’s birthday cake). The question implies that food with lots of butter or meals with lots of heavy courses are somehow responsible for massive weight gain; it ignores one’s own agency in the matter, assuming that when one bakes a cake with five sticks of butter that one is therefore going to consume several sticks of butter. If you visualize those five sticks of butter spread throughout a giant two layer cake, however, and then you cut an individual slice out of it, you come to realize that one piece of that cake represents just a few tablespoons of butter. And therein lies the answer.
How do you eat delicious things like burgers and pizza and cake and not weigh 500 pounds? Or, to put it another way: How do you eat what you want to eat, whenever you want to eat it, without putting on tons of weight?
I’m not a diet guru by any means, but here are my strategies. I realize they won’t work for everyone (genetics has a lot to do with it) but perhaps they’ll help some of you.
1. Balance. Take the long view, when considering what to eat. Think about your day, think about your week. For example, if last night you had a bacon cheeseburger, it behooves you to have a salad for lunch. In fact, I frequently employ that strategy–doing a healthy lunch at a place like Forage to make up for the roast chicken and chocolate chip cookies I had the night before. Here’s the lunch I just had, for example (well it’s from a previous lunch, but I ate the same thing today):
That’s a roasted carrot salad with tangerines and some kind of grain salad on the left. It may look too wholesome to be enjoyable, but that’s where you’re wrong–Forage pumps up the flavor with lots of acid (from vinegar and lemon juice) and keeps things interesting with textural components (nuts, dried fruit, cheese). Find a good place to do a healthy lunch and you’re well on your way to finding balance.
(You’re actually better off eating a lighter dinner, because a heavier lunch you’ll burn off throughout the day–but I can’t give up my decadent dinners. So this is my compromise.)
2. Eat breakfast. This is a new thing for me, but it makes total sense. Start your day with some kind of food (usually for me it’s a banana) and you won’t be starving for lunch; it gets your metabolism going and helps you eat less later on. Plus, if it’s a piece of fruit, it’s good for you.
3. Understand your cravings. The worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is to ignore your cravings. Oftentimes, a craving is a message from your body to your brain telling it what it needs. So to deny your body what it needs is to make yourself miserable; it’s usually at that point that people break down and binge on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. By understanding your cravings, you can find ways to sate those cravings without going overboard. For example: I love something sweet in the afternoon. Be it a cookie, a cupcake, a scone…around 4 o’clock (and this may be a habit formed in my youth, coming home from school, and eating a Ring Ding) I crave sweetness. So recently I bought a bag of Trader Joe’s trail mix; it has salty nuts in it, white chocolate chips, and dried fruit. Is it as good as a cookie, a cupcake or a scone? No. But a few handfuls of this, and I’m sated. And I’m ready to move on.
4. Don’t eat everything on your plate. This is a hard one for many people to handle (especially those who grew up being told to finish everything on their plate!) but it’s absolutely imperative, especially if you lead a food-focused lifestyle where you’re frequently looking at plates of pork belly and blue cheese potato fritters and Parmesan flan. Take, for example, the amazingly delicious tuna sandwich that they serve up at The Golden State on Fairfax:
This is not in and of itself an unhealthy lunch. Tuna is a protein; I ordered it with a cucumber salad on the side. But that sandwich was so wonderfully indulgent—the bread, I believe, is brushed with butter and grilled; the tuna is topped with a housemade aioli. It’s heaven.
When I ate half of it, recently, I felt full. It was a ton of food. So I didn’t eat the other half (normally, I would have wrapped it up and taken it home, but I was doing a lot more that day and didn’t want warm tuna to stink up my car). So yes, there was waste, but I ask you this: would it have helped the planet in any way to have put the rest of that tuna sandwich in my belly rather than in the garbage? The sandwich had been ordered, it had been plated, it had been served. Maybe if I had seen homeless people outside, I could have offered them the sandwich wrapped up, but I didn’t see any homeless people. So I left it.
I wonder what you commenters will say—how wasteful! How awful! But this is an important strategy for keeping the weight off as a food writer. In fact, I would go as far as to say that almost every food writer I’ve ever had a meal with employs a similar strategy. Food writers rarely finish the food on their plates. It’s a necessary survival tactic and one that may ruffle some feathers, but a survival tactic nonetheless.
5. Make healthy food taste good. On those nights where you decide to eat healthy, don’t go to extremes. So many diets end because dieters serve steamed salmon on steamed vegetables without a drop of butter or salt to liven things up. That sets up the paradigm that healthy food has to equal torture. But that shouldn’t be the paradigm. Look at my Quinoa post, for example. I didn’t just cook up quinoa and serve it plain; I made a flavorful dressing with lots of mustard and olive oil and vinegar.
Would the quinoa have been healthier without it? Absolutely. It also would’ve been inedible. So do what you can to make the healthier food you eat taste good and you’ll eat healthy food far more often.
6. Exercise. Yes, the dreaded “E” word. I avoided it forever; in fact, I’m scared to even write about it because I don’t want to jinx myself. But since October 31st (as documented here) I’ve been going to the gym, pretty much, five days a week. It’s a huge deal for me because I’ve always hated going to the gym; but I realized I’d been leading such a sedentary lifestyle (sitting at my computer, sitting at the lunch table, the dinner table) I needed to put a moving surface underneath me to force myself into action–and the treadmill does just that. It also helps to have a trainer that you like (I see Danny every two weeks) to keep yourself motivated if, like me, you’re very likely to quit. But the point is, that thing dangling from your neck is called a body and if you don’t move it around at least once a day, it’s going to puff up on you. So figure out how you like to move it and then do that as often as you can.
7. Eat what you want, make up for it later. It’s important that you not think in absolutes, when it comes to what you eat. One indulgence does not equal The Fall of Man; in fact, it helps to indulge every once in a while because it keeps you happy. So eat that In-N-Out burger, Double Double Animal Style:
Eat that Valhrona chocolate croissant at Proof bakery:
Eat that chicken skin with chicken liver mousse on top at LudoBites:
Return to point one—just take the long view—and remember that now that you’ve eaten those wonderful things, you should have a salad for lunch and exercise a little harder the next day.
Somehow these seven strategies have worked for me through the years; I hope they’ll help you too.