No, this is not my advice to you, readers. It is, in fact, the text of a lamp post banner that I happened to see while riding down Broadway in a cab this evening, on my way back from dinner with a friend. Apparently it’s one of several such banners posted around upper Manhattan, part of a new public health initiative. From a press release about the program:

“Put down cigarettes, pick up a hobby.” “Exercise your brain, take a brisk walk.” “Take control of your calories, eat less.” These are a few of the new messages that will be popping up on lamp posts throughout the Upper East and West Sides and the Greater Harlem community of Manhattan as part of a new campaign— Prescriptions for Healthy Living— just launched by The Mount Sinai Medical Center. The campaign, which runs through May of 2008, is designed to get residents and others passing through the neighborhoods to think about the importance of a healthy lifestyle to help prevent and manage chronic diseases.

I’m happy that Mount Sinai is trying to improve the health of the community, but I have to admit, when I read the banner quoted in this post’s title, I was a little turned off. On the one hand, it seems completely random: less than what? Less than whom? And isn’t this the same useless advice that fat people have been getting from thin health care professionals for decades now? “Just eat less”? As if it were that easy. Plus, the whole thing seemed a bit, well, bossy. Who are you, lamp post, to tell me what to do about my calories? “Eat less,” you say. Well, that’s nice and all, but were you aware that it’s the holiday season?

On that note, while I have maintained my 30 lb loss (actually 31 lbs), I have not lost any more weight, mostly because I have not really been “controlling” my calories lately. There was some downright crazy bingeing on and around Thanksgiving weekend (mea culpa, and DAMN was that sweet potato pie good). But while I have chilled out on the overeating, at least, in part because my new, thinner body can’t really handle that much food at once anymore–score one for the diet!–lately I have not exactly been sticking to the strict diet plan I’ve been on for the past six months.

Here’s one reason: delicious, delicious peppermint bark, king of all holiday treats. Every night for the past four nights I have had an ounce or two of it for dessert, and it is the height of wholesomely minty chocolate deliciousness. SO good! (P.S., if you have never tried peppermint bark, never fear. I was just like you at this point last year, before G bought me a tin for my birthday. My advice is to hie yourself to the nearest W-S and pick some up. Or order it. You won’t regret it. I think Crate and Barrel sells it too, though I cannot vouch for the quality of their product)

Another reason I have not been following the calorie-cutting plan: recently I’ve been drinking a small glass of wine with dinner most days. I have to say, it’s really made these past few stressful weeks at the end of the semester easier to bear, lingering over a few ounces of vino in the evenings. But it does add around 100 calories to my day. And peppermint bark is 140 calories per ounce, so lately I’ve been eating maybe 1700 calories per day rather than my usual 1400.

Surprisingly, though, my weight has pretty much stayed in the same place. I’ll admit to an upward bounce immediately after Thanksgiving (see crazy bingeing, above), but now I seem to have stabilized. I haven’t been counting calories at all for the past few days, but I’ve actually gone down a pound since I stopped.

Why do I think this is? Well, I think the months of counting religiously have affected my sense of appropriate portion size, and helped me to be more aware of my own satiety signals. I also think that sticking to my workouts–no matter what I’ve eaten, I’ve still been doing 20-30 minutes of cardio intervals and 30 minutes of full-body weight training at least twice a week–has elevated my metabolism. The weight training, especially, I think has made a difference in how many calories I burn even while at rest. Being more fit and stronger has even helped me feel more motivated to include other activity in my daily life, stuff like taking the stairs at work, or walking the escalators rather than riding in the subway station.

In any case, I’ve adjusted my goals–until January 1st, my plan is just to maintain my current weight. This will give me a little breathing room to enjoy holiday treats, and a clear time frame for when I’ll need to get back on serious track. I am actually quite happy at my current weight/size, but I would like to take off at least 10 more pounds before I’m done with this weight loss project.

Perhaps I’m pressing my luck, but I’m also conducting an experiment in non-counting. I want to know: can I maintain, or even lose, by eating healthfully but not writing down every morsel, and not counting actual calories? I’m about to find out. I weigh myself every day, so I will pretty quickly see if this is a bad idea. If Mount Sinai’s lamp posts are right, though, maybe all I need to do to “take control” of my calorie intake is “eat less.”

Um… whatever that means.


On not dieting.

November 13, 2007

Aunt Flo Update: No signs yet, but I’m guessing that if I continue to post, she’ll arrive eventually.

I’ve had a good eating day today. This morning, after my post-workout banana, I made myself a 3-egg omelet with prosciutto and asiago cheese. Heaven! And only 400 calories. Now, as I type this, I am sitting here eating three of the most delicious things on earth:

1. Bucheron goat cheese, with that incredibly oozy, creamy edge, near the rind, and that tangy, chalky, slightly salty, chevre-like center that makes for such a transcendent texture and flavor combination;

2. double-cream Brie. not even triple-cream, and not even a particularly special Brie–in fact, quite ordinary–but still, even an ordinary Brie is practically ambrosia, especially when you eat it with #3, below;

3. this:
Bonne Maman raspberry preserves are the most delicious jam, jelly or otherwise fruit-related product I have ever tasted. If you can believe it, I had never tried them before this Sunday. Of course, I had seen them around at the various gourmet shops that I frequent, but there are always so many choices of things like preserves. How was I to know which to choose? I was never even that big on preserves, per se, being more of a grape jelly with peanut butter kind of girl before I became a foodie. And as a rule I like chocolatey sweet things, not fruity sweet things, so even though I am solidly a foodie now, I am late to explore the wonders of the sweetened fruit world.

These preserves, though–I picked them up because I knew we had cheeses 1 and 2 in our basket, and I read on a little card in the artisanal cheese case at our grocery store that these cheeses might well be served with preserves. Hmm, I thought, preserves. I was going to pick up some more complicated ones, with pear brandy in them, because I liked the packaging (and the idea of pear brandy) but G was with me, and he objected, on the grounds that those brandied preserves looked awfully full of seeds, like, overly full of seeds. So I picked up the Bonne Maman jar instead, and WOW am I glad I did so.

But the point of this post is not actually to wax poetic about these preserves (although really. Go get some for yourself, immediately. Just stop whatever you’re doing–which is probably wasting time on the Internet reading this blog–get on down to your local purveyor of fancy eats, and buy yourself a jar. You will not regret it, and you can finish reading this post later).

The point is that these foods are probably not what you might imagine a “dieter” eats. (They also might not be what you imagine someone who is TTC eats either, what with the whole soft cheese issue, but that’s a topic for another post–if it makes you feel any better, though, both cheeses were made with pasteurized milk, I checked). I am anti-diet, even though I count calories. Perversely, counting is what allows me to indulge.

An ounce of brie contains about 95 calories; I am eating about 3/4 of an ounce, which I know because I weighed the slice that I took before I started eating. I sliced off a full ounce of the boucheron, since goat cheese is closer to 80 calories per ounce. Half a tablespoon of preserves, which is plenty for this amount of cheese, is 25 calories, which puts me at a total of 180 calories for my “dessert” (I’d already eaten a bowl of Progresso canned chicken noodle soup for lunch, at 220 calories). So that’s a total of 400 calories for lunch and dessert, a very respectable, reasonable number by any dieting calculation.

Now, I know that one reason it is possible for me to put together a meal like this is that I am working from home today (ahem, depending on how you define “working”) and have the time literally to weigh my food. But I could certainly see myself packing up a few slices of cheese and some preserves in a little plastic container and bringing it to work with me, and if I had access to a microwave oven I could also bring along the soup. It’d likely be a lot tastier than anything on offer in the faculty dining room.

I have been eating (so-called) decadent, non-diet foods like this from fairly early on in the process this time around, and I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to stick to calorie-counting long enough to lose 30 pounds. For one, I rarely feel deprived, because if I want something very rich that is a real food*, I go ahead and have a little bit of it. For another, I feel very empowered when I know how many calories are in things–it’s so much easier to choose how much of something to eat (or drink) when I have a sense of how many calories it contains, and the longer I consciously count calories, and the more real foods I cook and experiment with, the more of a sense I have about how many calories are in specific things.

Which makes it a lot easier to work in the foods that I love and still stay in a reasonable calorie range for the day.

I wonder if thin people know instinctively how to do this, or whether thin people just have higher metabolisms and can get away with not knowing and not paying attention. I don’t know. But paying attention does seem to be crucial, at least for me. I wouldn’t say I’m dieting, I’d say I’m eating way more mindfully. In earlier days, I might have sliced off twice as much cheese, not knowing how much I was eating (surely this big hunk the size of my head is an ounce?), and taken a handful of crackers, too (which I found unnecessary today). I might have run out of cheese before I ran out of crackers, or vice versa, so I’d have gone back for more of one or the other, and then I’d have felt compelled to finish it all merely because it was on my plate. And then I’d be stuffed, and sluggish, maybe too tired to exercise, maybe my stomach having expanded enough that I expected twice as much volume at my next meal, and my next.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me they could “never” measure their food or count calories consistently, but it took me less than ten seconds to weigh out an actual ounce (or less) of each cheese. I don’t get why more people don’t take the time to pay attention. I’m sure that sounds smug, and I don’t mean it to, but I guess I am sort of amazed that calorie counting has worked so well for me, especially since the effort of counting gets more and more minimal over time. Maybe I’m just lucky, though.


*To paraphrase an old article in the New York Times magazine, “real food” is something your grandmother, or possibly your great-grandmother, would recognize as food. Fruit, cheese, eggs, butter, meat, fish, vegetables, fresh bread, stuff like that. A few things that are, in my mind, decidedly NOT food: Twinkies, Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, “Go-Gurt,” Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Puffs, “American” Cheese, and anything “watermelon-flavored.”