By food writer and reformed yo-yo dieter BEE WILSON
Still on a diet? Congratulations.
Most of us fell off the band wagon last Thursday, according to one survey. Diets dangle promises — of a new life or a new body — only to make us feel like a failure when we can’t stick to their insanely restrictive rules. And by and large we can’t. So we feel guilty, too.
At any rate, that’s how I felt. For years, until my early 20s, my eating was out of control. There were weeks when I gave myself up to consuming guilty treats, sitting alone eating pint-sized tubs of maple & pecan ice cream.
Then there were the not-eating phases, when I taunted myself with short-lived diets that started with raw carrots and hope and ended, a few days later, in pastries and despair. I never thought I’d end this cycle.
But somehow, over a period of months, if not years, a happier way of eating crept up on me. Meal by meal, I reconditioned my responses to food. It was as if I were a child learning how to eat all over again. Structure returned to my meals. I shrank from large to medium without really trying.
This new life was the opposite of going on a diet and yet I lost my excess weight — and kept it off. We are more capable of improving lifelong habits than we give ourselves credit for.
How did I do it? I won’t presume to tell you what to eat. One of the reasons diets fail is that we hate being told what to put in our mouths.
But here are some tips — the insights I wish I’d known sooner. The key is working to change your preferences.
When you find yourself enjoying a smaller portion more than a super-sized one or actively craving dark, leafy greens, half the battle is won.
If you can make enough of these adjustments, tweaks that become good micro-habits, you may never feel the urge to go on a diet again.
TAKE A HOLIDAY FROM SANDWICHES
CUT out sandwiches, if not for a lifetime, at least for a month. When I stopped eating them for lunch, I lost half a stone without trying.
The British are stuck in a boring midday rut — according to one survey, nearly a quarter of us eat a ham sandwich for lunch every weekday and 22 per cent eat a cheese sandwich.
They are often eaten in the form of a supermarket ‘meal deal’ with a packet of crisps and a sweetened drink, which can easily contain 700 calories and 30g of sugar.
Relinquishing your lunchtime sarnie is the easiest thing you can do right now to recalibrate the way you eat for the better without going on a diet. Treat it as an opportunity to widen your food horizons.
Try spicy soup instead; a flask of warming stew; last night’s pilaf reclaimed as a rice salad with herbs, nuts and olives.
Given how many lunches there are in a life, this is not a small thing.
MIXING UP THE BOUNDARIES
COMBINE ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. Chefs know you can get customers to order unfamiliar ingredients by pairing them with something homely such as mashed potatoes.
Use the same trick on yourself. If you think of bacon and eggs as pleasure and broccoli as rabbit food, try broccoli with bacon instead.
Have vegetables with comforting pasta, but measure the latter sparingly and add handfuls of the former.
Sometimes, at home, we eat two whole heads of cauliflower between five, broken up and sauteed in oil with shallots until brown and crispy, then tossed with farfalle pasta, olives and toasted breadcrumbs. So deeply satisfying, you hardly notice it’s healthy.
LEARN TO CUT OUT SWEET TREATS
1. Cut right down on sweetened drinks, including anything with the word diet on it, and replace them with fizzy water and a squeeze of lime. If you find this too strict, build a couple of sweet drinks into your week, but treat them with ceremony and sip slowly, as you might a gin and tonic (which is also sugar, by the way).
2. When baking, cut the amount of sugar in the recipe down by a third. This will affect the texture slightly, but with most recipes (except for those cookies that need the sugar to crisp up), it works perfectly well.
3. Buy porridge oats, cereals and yoghurt in unsweetened form and add any sweet element — such as fruit or honey — yourself. Most of the ready-sweetened supermarket versions are crazily over-sugared.
4. Rely as little as possible on supermarket ready meals, which can be astonishingly sugary.
DISGUST HAS MORE POWER THAN DESIRE
Healthy food shopping becomes a habit not when it’s done out of guilt, but when bad-for-you food repels you.
Psychologist Paul Rozin has found that — unsurprisingly — no one wants to eat a box of chocolates if someone else has taken a bite out of each one.
If you see each burger restaurant as a temptation, life will be hard because there are just so many darned burger restaurants.
If you can train yourself to notice some of the ways in which fast food is disgusting — the grease, the sickly sweetness — it’s easier to say ‘No’ without even thinking about it.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF ADDING SALT
If you want to learn new tastes and eat more veg, salt could be your friend, at least at first. It’s the familiar flavour that binds a plate of food together.
We’ve been taught to fear salt and see it as a poison that will give you a stroke or heart disease. But new scientific evidence suggests eating too little sodium (under 1.5g a day) can be at least as bad for you as eating too much.
The majority of salt in the average diet comes from processed food.
And if you’ve seriously cut down on processed foods, as you should, you can afford to put a little salt back in, assuming that you don’t have high blood pressure.
To me, salt in moderation is miraculous stuff. It enhances sweetness, takes the edge off bitterness and makes everything moreish, even beetroot.
Think of rye bread spread with unsalted butter and covered in juicy slices of tomato. This is a pleasant enough snack. Add salt, though, and it becomes something to crave.
CHOOSE ‘MAN FOOD’ WITH PLENTY OF IRON
Almost a quarter of British women have very low iron intakes. Iron-deprived women need to be ‘built up’, as the reassuring old phrase had it, with soft-boiled eggs and wholemeal toast soldiers (there’s iron in the yolks, wholegrain bread and brown rice); with dark, leafy greens; steak and hearty Tuscan bean soup.
In short, they need man food. Six iron-rich foods worth learning to love:
Pistachio nuts: All nuts are rich in iron, but pistachios have the most.
Lentils: A serving of Puy lentils contains 4g iron.
Mussels: A bowl of moules mariniere contains as much as 7g iron. They’re surprisingly cheap and easy to cook.
Black treacle: Around 7mg in 2 tbsp. Make sticky dark gingerbread for a delicious snack.
Dark green leaves: From chard to kale to spinach — all contain iron to varying degrees. Your body will find it easier to absorb the iron if you combine plant sources of iron with some vitamin C. A squeeze of lemon should do it.
Sesame seeds: Tahini sauce — sesame paste diluted with lemon juice, water and salt — is a delicious iron-rich addition to veg.
IGNORE EXPENSIVE ‘SUPERFOODS’
We hear a lot about superfoods, the term for foods that are supercharged with certain nutrients. Usually, this is a marketing device, trying to get you to hand over your cash for expensive exotica, such as goji berries or wheatgrass. But how many people do you know eat goji berries every day?
The real superfood would be one that you enjoy that also happens to be healthy: crisp, sweet apples; hard-boiled eggs with celery salt; warm asparagus with sesame and soy dressing; pumpkin soup. A true superfood is affordable enough to eat every day.
EAT MORE PROTEIN AFTER YOU’RE 50
Be prepared to adjust your diet and tastes for different phases of life. As you age, you may need to eat less of some foods and more of others.
There are signs that over the age of 50, we may need more protein to counteract the loss of muscle mass as we age.
It’s easy to cling onto old food habits. Just because your diet appeared to work fine at 20 doesn’t mean the same foods will feed you equally well now.
BITTERNESS MAKES US FEEL FULL UP
From green leaves to artichokes and lemon zest — a penchant for bitterness has many advantages.
It makes you less susceptible to the endless sugar that greets us in every shop — a quest for bitter will help you to adjust your palate away from the ubiquitous sweetness of our food supply.
Research suggests ingesting certain bitter plant extracts may trigger the feeling of fullness in the gut, acting as a kind of ‘bitter brake’ on our eating.
Much as I love undressed rocket leaves to bitter oranges, I can’t consume much of them.
PACK A BENTO BOX FOR LUNCH
The original Japanese bento was pioneered in the early 20th century and is ideally designed for eating a healthy lunch.
Rectangular compartments are filled with varied flavours, arranged artistically: rice, vegetables, protein (tofu or fish, chicken skewers or an omelette) and fruit.
You can adapt the bento idea and put pretty much anything in, ranging from yesterday’s leftover stir-fry to cold curry and rice (nicer than it sounds if you add a wedge of lemon and coriander leaves) to Middle Eastern meze and any kind of hearty salad of roasted vegetables and grains. A bento box makes portion sizes easy without counting calories or obsessing about nutrients.
DON’T WORRY IF YOU FEEL ANGRY
Expect your emotions to change with your eating. Over-eating is an effective way to silence anger and fear. Without the analgesic of excess carbs, you may experience furies you didn’t know you had in you.
This is not necessarily bad: to know your real feelings is better than to suppress them. But it can be a shock.
Remember, the great thing about not being on a diet is that you can’t break it. If you find yourself two slices of chocolate cake down after a difficult day, don’t beat yourself up. Setbacks are to be expected when you are trying to change for good.
If you often find yourself slipping into old habits of compulsive or emotional eating, try to analyse what provoked you, so that you can prepare yourself next time.
Were you upset? Tired? Angry? You won’t be able to avoid all these triggers, but it helps if you can recognise what drove you to put the food in your mouth.
LOVE FOOD — BUT NOT ALL THE TIME
If it’s not a mealtime and you are wondering which of two ‘healthy’ snacks you should buy, the answer is probably neither.
If it is a mealtime, and you are vacillating between two main courses, go for the one you really love, the one you think will satisfy you the most. And when you are full, stop.
* This Is Not A Diet Book by Bee Wilson. To order a copy visit mailbookshop.co.uk
– Daily Mail