Food for thought

I’ve read a few books recently that have influenced my thinking about food, so I thought I would share them with you in today’s post. Before we get started, let me put in a plug for the Ottawa Public Library, especially their amazing iPhone application (also available for Android, Blackberry, or your tablet). All four of these titles are available through the OPL.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That is Michael Pollan’s motto in In Defense of Food (Penguin, 2008). As a vegetarian, I do eat a largely plant-based diet. I could not feel smug, however, because I know that I have always eaten too much. What was new to me, though, was Pollan’s definition of food – not the prepackaged quasiedible processed substances that we buy everyday, but food that your grandmother would recognize as such. Soy protein isolate? Guar gum? Sucralose? Nana would say no, even though these faux foods show up frequently in products marketed directly toward those trying to follow a “healthy” or vegetarian diet. The answer, I suppose, is moderation. I have become more picky about the convenience foods that I choose, and I am trying to eat more beans and less fake meat. I have also given up beverages with either added sugar or artificial sweetener; now I love club soda and drink my tea or coffee unsweetened with milk.

Small changes like this really add up, Brian Wansink argues. In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam, 2006) Wansink says that we make about 200 food-related decisions everyday. By changing just a few of them, we can easily save about 100 calories a day (what Wansink calls the “mindless margin”), and we can therefore also mindlessly lose a few pounds. Just think – if you made three 100-calorie changes per day, you could lose 30 pounds in a year, mindlessly! Some of his tips (like eating dinner from a smaller salad plate rather than a huge dinner plate) are well known, but I feel that I picked up a few new strategies that I needed to be reminded of recently. For example, when eating out, use the “rule of two”: appetizer, drink, or dessert, but don’t choose all three. I was also surprised to learn that we don’t really notice if a portion size sinks by up to 20%, so once in awhile, I would serve myself a heap of pasta, for example, and then immediately scoop about a fifth of it back into the pot.

I have slightly mixed feelings about Geneen Roth’s Women Food and God (Scribner 2010). Roth’s basic argument is that our views about food are a reflection of our views on the universe and our place in it. At times I felt that her writing on emotional awareness and self-esteem was relentless and preachy, but there are occasional moments of insight. For example, “The promise of a diet is not only that you will have a different body; it is that in having a different body, you will have a different life” (77). This is just one reason why Roth is firmly anti-diet. Rather, she lays out seven guidelines for healthy eating: eat (1) what your body wants (2) with pleasure (3) when you are hungry (4) until you are satisfied (5) while sitting down (6) with no distractions and (7) without hiding from others. I have made a more concerted effort to eat sitting down (not while cooking, for example) but I have not even attempted #6, which seems a waste of a perfectly good lunch hour.

In September, a few weeks after I started Weight Watchers, I read The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite by David A. Kessler (McClelland and Stewart, 2009). I can’t completely articulate the effect it had on me, but I do feel that it changed my relationship with food, at least for the time being.

For someone who has reservations about animal testing, it was a bit overwhelming to read about every conceivable experiment ever done to a rat in a lab. But it is the demonstrated effects of sugar, fat, salt, and/or exercise on mammals that become the basis of Kessler’s work throughout the book and therefore enable him to write about scientific fact. Kessler only begins to lay out his own theory in part three, when he writes about “conditioned hypereating,” where “food cues are the stimulus, overeating the habitual response” (183). After channeling my inner lab rat in the first part of the book, I was easily able to relate to some of the phenomena Kessler discusses. For example, I had never heard the phrase “stimulus-induced tension,” but boy do I know the feeling – as soon as I see a bowl of M&Ms, I start thinking about whether I should eat them, a process that actually creates stress. It is a lie that “I can eat just one” or “a couple won’t hurt” because it is a fact that eating even one candy will make you want more; Kessler proves this beyond the shadow of a doubt through the data gleaned from those poor rats.

There is hope, however. We have a moment of choice when our higher brain is in control, but only a moment. Perhaps the biggest change for me since reading this book is that I have gained awareness of when I feel my brain go into decision-making mode, and I know now that I need to be decisive and to give a final, irrefutable answer immediately. Instead of launching into: “Hmmm . . .  should I eat a few M&Ms? I did take a walk this afternoon. I can make a wish on that green one. Maybe I just won’t have dessert tonight. I’ve already blown it for this week. It doesn’t matter anyway. I could eat a couple now, and then come back for more when she’s away from her desk…” I try to short circuit from “Hmmm . . .  should I eat a few M&Ms?” directly to “No.” And that’s my final answer. Any other response is not coming from my inner rat, not my higher brain, where my true self lies.

Kessler also encourages us to change our automatic opinions about food by developing what he calls competing thoughts. My gut reaction to the sight of M&Ms is “I love M&Ms!!!” However, I also know “I don’t need that,” and that thought will hopefully come to the forefront more often and more quickly as I am developing healthy habits, both physical and mental. Another strategy I find useful is “playing the tape to the end.” If I eat those M&Ms, I will have a few seconds of pleasure enjoying the crunchy shell and the melty chocolate (and possibly a slightly salty peanut crunch in the middle) – and this is usually as far as the fantasy gets before I dig in – but if we play the tape all the way to the end, five minutes from now, I’m not actually going to feel any less stressed or more joyful, and I am probably going to feel guilty. But if I don’t eat those M&Ms, I know that I am going to get through the day having done my best, and can feel proud the next time I weigh in.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have a favorite to recommend? LIO book club, anyone?

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6 Responses to Food for thought

  1. Julie says:

    I read “In Defense of Food” and Pollan’s shorter book “Food Rules” – both good.
    One that resonated with the scientist in me was “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes…. just reading his earlier book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” now. WWGF talks about the fallacy of “calories in, calories out” as the be all and end all of weight maintenance strategy….

  2. Lara C W says:

    I’m so glad you liked the Kessler book – it was required reading for me when I joined the chronic disease branch at public health in 2009 (to work on issues related to obesity and chronic disease). I think everyone should read it to understand how the food and restaurant industries know exactly what they are doing in combining fat, sugar, salt – and how brain biochemistry works in laymans terms. Also have read In Defense of Food. Be
    careful with Taubes – not very evidence
    based. Good luck w your reading :)

    • Julie says:

      Hm. I found quite the opposite re: Taubes. Also seen some significant examples with my own eyes re: cutting out sugar and upping the fat.

  3. Pingback: Around the Web – Nov 11 « 52 Weeks, 52 Pounds

  4. moosilaneous says:

    Awesome review. I feel much more in touch with my inner rat.
    In a good way.
    Seriously – despite all the studies that point at how bad sugar is, I’d never actually seen discussed the reaction that eating sugar —> eating more sugar, although that has always been my experience.
    Maybe I need to wade through some less escapist reading and get on the good health bandwagon.
    Somethings got to give. And not my waistline!!

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