A Mere Self of My Former Shadow (or How Alton Brown Saved My Life)

Dear A- D-,

I’ve been mulling over how to write about my diet for quite some time now. I’m not following a set “diet plan”, so it has taken some time to organize my thoughts. I have finally come to the conclusion that I just have to dive into in and hope it falls into place.

I’ll start out by describing what lead me to decide to change my eating habits, including my “a-ha” moment about the meaning of “diet”. Then I’ll talk about the “three list” approach I’ve adopted and give you the lists. Finally, I’ll delve into some of the items on the list in greater detail, along with my observations and realizations as I’ve adopted and adapted to this new diet.

Given everything I’ve been through in the past few years, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that watching what I ate wasn’t high on my list of priorities. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar. I’m not a typical stress eater, but I suppose to some extent I did use the weight I carried on my shoulders as an excuse to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and as much as I wanted. I inherited my dad’s sweet tooth, and I have never had much luck staying away from sweets. And lately, I didn’t even try. Given that, and the fact that we survived for the past six or so years largely on take out, it’s really no wonder that my weight kept creeping up. I topped 200 pounds at some point, but even that didn’t really motivate me to change (it at least made me think about it).

Two things, both of which occurred last October, finally nudged me into realizing I had to change my diet and get back in shape. First, of course, was J-‘s death and the realization that I was all my girls had left. It’s hard to explain, but as long as J- was alive, even though she was increasingly debilitated, there were always two of us. Losing her meant the girls needed me more than ever. If I didn’t have the motivation to change for my own sake, I knew that, to the extent I could control it, I had to get and stay healthy for them.

The other thing that happened last October was that, shortly after J- died, I went to the doctor. And for the first time in my life, all my numbers were bad. I was overweight according to the BMI index, and my cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure were all in the danger zone. And my triglycerides were through the roof (322).

I knew it was time for a change, but even with all that, it took me a while to get far enough along in my grieving to be able to concentrate on dieting. My “a-ha” moment came when I watched an episode of a show called “Good Eats”. The host, Alton Brown, is a nerdy food expert who approaches food from a scientific and historical perspective. His show is entertaining and extremely informative. The episode I saw was one where he talked about his own weight loss. He was looking at some footage of himself for the show and realized he had really let himself go. He was about 50 pounds overweight.

So, in typical fashion for him, he developed his own weight loss strategy. He developed four lists (on which I based my three lists). But what really struck a chord with me was his discussion of the word “diet”. Although it has come to be synonymous with losing weight, diet really has a much more basic meaning. By definition, your diet is simply the kinds of food that you habitually eat. When I heard that, a light came on for me. I didn’t need to “diet” in the modern sense of the word. I needed a new diet; that is, a new way to think about and approach the foods I habitually ate.

Weight loss has never worked for me for the same reasons it doesn’t work for most people. Simply put, I don’t like feeling restricted in what I eat. And counting calories, carbs, protein grams, Points, or what have you is tedious and unsustainable. I didn’t need to “go on a diet”; rather, I needed to change my diet. That is to say, to change my eating habits, not for a short-term weight loss solution, but for good.

So, with that in mind, I started thinking about what I ate, how I used food, not only from a sustenance standpoint, but emotionally and psychologically as well. And I realized I was ready for a change. Like I said, I started with Alton Brown’s four lists, but I whittled them down to three and changed them to suit me. Unlike a typical diet where you count calories and/or fat grams or, worse yet, totally eliminate whole categories of food or nutrients (e.g., carbs), the lists focus more on what you should eat. Very few items are totally off limits; and they are things no one should eat anyway.

Here, then, are my “lists”:

Foods to Eat Every Day

Whole grains

Leafy greens

Carrots

Nuts

Fruits

Green Tea

In addition, my daily list includes:

Multivitamin

Fish oil

Breakfast

Foods to Eat Not More Than Once Per Week

Dessert

Alcohol

Pasta

Red meat

Foods to Totally Avoid

Pop

Fast food

Prepared meals

Canned soup

Anything labeled “diet”

The daily items I really do try to eat each and every day. Whole grains and leafy greens are filling and chock full of nutrients. By eating them I feel not only full but satiated, and I’m less likely to reach for unhealthy foods and snacks.

Breakfast was a big change for me. I never used to eat breakfast , even though it is well known that it revs up your metabolism and keeps you from gorging later in the day. Eating is like taking pain medication (strange comparison, I know, but you can understand how I relate to that analogy); if you suffer from chronic pain or an injury and you wait to take your pain meds until the pain becomes unbearable, it is almost impossible to get ahead of it. So you end up taking more medication and still feeling the pain. In the same way, if you skip meals, especially the first meal of the day, you have a hunger deficit that is hard to overcome and tends to lead to overeating.

So, I usually start my day with some kind of whole grain — multigrain bread, oatmeal, granola — and maybe some fruit or nuts. This wakes me up, fills me up, and keeps me going until lunchtime. If I get hungry before lunch, I’ll grab a piece of fruit or some yogurt.

I almost always have a salad and carrots for lunch. That may sound tedious or boring, but I keep it fresh by adding different things to my greens every day. I use a lot of dried fruits and nuts, and I often replace salad dressing with something else like hummus, salsa, beans, or rice. I used to take dinner leftovers for lunch, but because dinners tend to be a heavier meal, I was eating way too much. So I keep my lunches light — salad, carrots, fruit, and yogurt are fairly typical fare for me — then I don’t have to worry too much about what I have for dinner.

Nuts, of course, are loaded with protein, which gives you energy and makes you feel full. They also have fat, but it’s the good kind of fat, which can actually help lower your cholesterol. I buy natural nut butters from the store — cashew, almond, and peanut are favorites. But make sure it’s all natural and has no added oils or sugar. The ones I buy contain only nuts and sometimes salt. I often eat nut butter on toast for breakfast or for a snack in the evenings.

Fruit can really help you feel full and can satisfy your craving for sweets. Some people will say you shouldn’t eat too much fruit, as it is high in sugar. But I don’t limit myself. It’s much better than eating processed sugar. And for me, at least, it really does satisfy my sweet tooth.

The benefits of green tea are well known and widely reported. It is high in antioxidants and, for me, replaces that second and third cup of coffee in the morning. It might take some getting used to, but most people find they eventually really like the light, grassy flavor of green tea once they drink it for a while.

Multivitamins are always a good idea, but especially when you’re dieting, to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs. And fish oil, even more than nuts, provides the good kind of cholesterol that can help lower the bad kind. The fourth list from Alton Brown was of things to eat at least three times per week, and many of them were sources of good cholesterol. I personally find it easier to take fish oil tablets every day.

The once per week list is probably not that surprising if you think about it, as it mostly contains things that should be eaten sparingly. Alcohol is not a problem for me, as I don’t drink that often. But when I do get together with friends these days, I limit myself to one drink, or, lately, pass it up all together.

Pasta might be more difficult for some people to limit than it is for me. We don’t eat that much pasta anyway, so I rarely have it more than once every week or two. And if you choose whole grain pastas, which are increasingly available in stores and restaurants, I think you could have it more than once per week. It’s the semolina-based pasta (read: empty carbs) that is the killer. And on that subject, I’ve also tried to cut out white flour and white rice, both of which are loaded with carbs and almost entirely devoid of nutrition. Multigrain breads and brown rice are much better for you and also more flavorful in my opinion.

At first, I wasn’t sure how I would do with limiting desserts, which also include all manner of junk food in my book. I always heard that if you cut out sweets you eventually stop craving them. I never found this to be true, but then I never cut them out long enough to really know. With this diet, I have been pretty strict about limiting myself to one sugary treat per week. Two things have resulted from that. First, I have found that the less refined sugar I eat, the less I want it. So it really is true that you can overcome your cravings.

The other thing that has happened as I’ve limited myself to one dessert a week is that, before I eat a dessert or sweet snack, I ask myself, “Is this the one dessert you want for the week, or do you want to wait for something more worthy of being THE dessert of the week?” And often, I find I pass up whatever is being offered if it’s not one of my all-time favorites. And many weeks, I’ve passed up sweets throughout the week, and I come to the end of the week and realize I didn’t eat any desserts at all.

Now don’t get me wrong — I still eat dessert. But I’m selective about what I eat. For example, if I know mom is making apple pie later in the week, you can bet I’m going to pass on the Oreos tonight. And I find that I gravitate toward really good desserts, especially homemade items, and almost never eat processed, premade junk anymore.

Red meat deserves special mention. With dad here, it would be impossible to limit red meat to once a week. In fact, when I started on this diet, I was quick to make sure everyone else in the house understood that I was on a diet, not them. I haven’t asked anyone else to change the way they cook or eat. I don’t always eat the same things as everyone else. Sometimes I’ll make something different for myself, especially when we have beef three or four nights in a row (not an uncommon occurrence around here). More often, though, I’ll eat whatever is served, but limit my portion size and fill up more on vegetables and salad and less on protein. Even with that, I don’t know that I’ve ever stuck to the once per week limit on red meat. As long as I limit portion size, I’m OK with having it two to three times each week.

The list of foods to completely avoid is probably not a big shocker. Fast food and pop, for example, are things no one should ever really eat. And that includes diet pop, too (which also falls under the “no diet food” exclusion). Studies have shown that people who drink diet sodas actually gain weight rather than losing it.

The more I read about no calorie sweeteners, the more I understand Alton Brown putting diet food on the no-no list. In addition to possible long-term negative effects on your health, diet sweeteners actually make you crave sweeter food by deadening your palate to the sensation of sweetness. So by eating “diet” food, you can make yourself crave, and ultimately consume, more sugar! Much better to get your sweets the natural way — through fruits, honey, brown sugar, etc.

Canned soup and prepared meals may seem like odd things to be on this list. But all you have to do is read the labels of either one, and you’ll see that they are loaded with sodium, preservatives, and lost of stuff you probably can’t pronounce.

As far as items that aren’t on the list, I simply exercise moderation. For example, I eat chicken several times per week. And if I ate pork, which I don’t, I would consider it a red meat and exercise the same moderation and portion control that I use for beef.

I know this is a lot to take in and probably seems overwhelming. My best advice it this: start with the lists. Eat whole grains, leafy greens, carrots, fruit, nuts, and green tea every day, starting tomorrow. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is, and how filling your stomach with good food will change the way you look and feel almost immediately.

If you simply begin by following the three lists, you’ll quickly adapt to eating better foods. And you’ll find your own routine and make adjustments to the lists as you go.

And I know I don’t need to tell you this, but, YES, IT WORKS! I have dropped 38 pounds, stopped taking both my blood pressure and acid reflux medications, gone down to a pants size I haven’t worn in decades, and, most importantly, all of my numbers — BMI, cholesterol, glucose, BP, and triglycerides — are back in the healthy range. And I feel great!

I think everyone needs his own motivation and has to find a diet that works for him. This was my time, and I found a way that has helped me not only lose weight and get back into good health, but has also made me think about what I eat and my daily diet in a whole new, healthy and sustainable way.

Whether or not my crazy three-list diet turns out to be your thing, I hope you find your motivation to change and a diet that fits you.

Good luck. Keep me posted on your progress.

Love,

P-

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6 Comments

  1. teaandscones said,

    October 5, 2013 at 10:10 am

    It’s not easy taking that step. It’s all about what and how much. I have also learned that the hard way. Thanks for this post. I needed more motivation. Glad you are back and living healthy.

    • gaaarp said,

      October 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      Thanks. I feel the best I’ve felt in years.

  2. Cher said,

    October 1, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Phyl – sorry to hear things have been a struggle, but it is great to hear about your journey to healthy living. I like the approach you are taking – it seems very rational and healthy.

    • gaaarp said,

      October 2, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks, Cher.

  3. Rebecca said,

    October 1, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Terrific post, Phyl! I think you’re absolutely right: diet is what you eat every day, how you approach food in general and everything you’ve written here aligns with what I’ve learned in the last couple of years, too. So happy to know it’s working well for you. Keep up the great work!

    • gaaarp said,

      October 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks, Rebecca. I feel so much better, and I don’t feel like I’m “dieting” at all. Which gives me confidence that I will get down to my target weight and stay there.


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