I was recently at a dinner party with a group of friends, one of whom I hadn’t caught up with in awhile. She was asking me about my business and mentioned she might be interested in my services. She leaned in and asked, “…but if I go on one of your plans, can I still eat cheese fries? And can I still drink wine? Or do I have to eat like you do?” I laughed, first, because we had a history of eating cheese fries together and sharing dating stories over a glass (or several) of wine in our 20’s. Second, because just as I could sense the feelings of frustration and deprivation that are associated with a rigid diet, I also know the ease and joy of finding the right diet for you (which may or may not include cheese fries). And third, because I sometimes forget that people may not know that my diet does in fact include splurging on nachos, pizza, and cake balls*.
Let me explain. I went back to nutrition school because I was confused and I was overwhelmed by the endless bounty of conflicting nutrition information out there. I wanted to maintain a comfortable weight, but didn’t want to be tied to counting calories. I wanted to enjoy food, not be stressed out by it. I wanted to eat nutritious foods that supported my digestion, immunity, and helped balance my energy and mood. I wanted someone to tell me what to eat!
The biggest lesson I learned along my journey was that nutrition is about more than the food you eat; it’s about the larger picture of life including how you spend your time and who you spend it with (see my blog on Primary Food). Having said that, there are definitely some guidelines when it comes to the food you eat. My number one rule is: experiment! The best thing you can do for yourself in terms of nutrition is learn about a variety of evidence-based diets, try them out, and see what works. How does your body feel on this particular diet? How is your energy level throughout the day? How is your general mood? Do you enjoy the foods you’re eating? Does this diet feel sustainable? Can you still engage in your typical activities (including social events) while maintaining this diet?
As a rule of thumb, I follow Michael Pollan’s famous quote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I take food to mean real, whole foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and seeds. I personally include meats and dairy in my regular diet, some people do not. I have found that the combination of eating real, whole foods and paying attention to my mental, physical, and emotional needs allows me to easily and effortlessly portion out my food intake. Real, whole foods give me lasting satiation in a way that processed foods just don’t. When I prioritize taking care of myself, and feel fulfilled by my career, my relationships, am getting enough physical movement, and expressing myself creatively, I don’t look to food for ultimate satisfaction. This is no easy task, but it’s worth exploring because it works! On the other hand, I believe balance and flexibility with food are key. If you’re feeling in the mood, you can have a pint of ice cream or a glass (or several) of wine. Just don’t make it a pattern. If you love pizza, have it once in awhile. And you don’t have to have just one piece. Have several. Be mindful (breathe and chew!), but enjoy a hearty portion. And then go back to your regularly scheduled program of eating food, not too much, and mostly plants. Plants contain incredible amounts of essential nutrients, so making them the focus of your diet gives your body a large dose (hence the recommendation to add veggies to your pizza or include a salad with your order).
So the answer to my friend’s burning question, “can I lose weight and still eat cheese fries?” Yes, yes you can! Everyone is different and depending on your individual health needs, you may need to begin by cutting out a variety of foods that contribute to weight-gain or inflammation (including cheese fries) completely. Otherwise, eating them once in awhile, embedded in a diet of eating food, not too much, and mostly vegetables, is ok. Sigh of relief.
*Cake Balls: You haven't tried them yet?! Consider them to be gourmet version of donuts holes but made with cake ingredients :) For Chicago city dwellers, I suggest George's on the north side in Andersonville and for the burbs, you can't go wrong with Foodstuffs in Evanston! (links below). Suggestion: Keep them in the freezer until you are ready to eat for maximum taste bud pleasure. Bon appetit!