“I have learned the secret to eating well is simply to eat well.”
Back in high school, I was a devotee of the Cookbook Diet. This is how it worked: instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria, go to the school library and read cookbooks. Why not go to the cafeteria? Because I was trying to lose weight. Why cookbooks? Because, as I was intentionally starving myself, I was hungry all the time, and there is nothing, nothing more interesting to a starving person than food. I wouldn’t let myself eat, so I read cookbooks and looked longingly at the illustrations. Sometimes, when at home, I would pass the time by turning on the TV, ignoring the programs, and waiting for the food commercials. It was painful, stupid, unhealthy, impractical, mentally damaging and, of course, it didn’t last.
But while it did, boy, did I lose weight! In that way, it was like every other diet I have ever tried, including the (forgotten but not lamented) Scarsdale Diet, the Don’t Eat After 8 PM Diet, or any variety of the low-fat diets that have helped many people learn new ways to look confused as they gain weight anyway. The reason my lunchtime sojourns to the library worked – if making me skinny but miserable can be called ‘working’ – is that, like all diets ever invented, it restricted my kilojoules. You eat fewer kilojoules, especially while increasing your kilojoule expenditure, like, say, via obsessive running, and you will lose weight. A nutritionist named Mark Haub once lost 12 kilograms by eating only junk food over a 10-week period. Why did it work? Because how much junk food can one man eat!
So if a weight-obsessed runner like myself has been through the diet wringer and spat out the other side, at more or less the same weight he was before, how does he manage what he eats? If not a diet, then what?
It’s simple. To quote the author and food activist Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
By “eat food”, Pollan means: avoid the products of factories, the bizarre agglomerations of flavours and textures extruded from machines into cans and colourful plastic sacks that decorate the aisles in supermarkets and convenience stores. Eat foods with ingredient lists that would make sense to your grandmother (or now, perhaps, great-grandmother): beef, celery, salt, sugar or strawberries – not lecithin, guar gum or sodium benzoate. Once I’d read Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I started shopping only in the perimeter of supermarkets and grocery stores, where the fresh produce, the meats and the dairy lurk. Not all of those things are necessarily good for you, but at least you know what they are.
“Not too much” has been difficult for me. I’m a fidgeter by nature, and my favourite way of fidgeting is to open a book and a bag of chips and just keep going until both are finished. I eat everything that’s put in front of me, quickly, and have been known to stab food on friends’ and family’s plates if they’re so slow and inefficient as to give me the chance. How do I keep from gorging myself – not out of hunger but boredom and nervous energy?
I’ve found that two simple tricks help. First of all, I limit my portions. If I make a pot of noodles and vegetables, I don’t dump the whole thing in a two-litre mixing bowl and gobble it up (not that I’ve ever done that, it’s a completely fictional example, never happened). Instead, I carefully serve out one healthy but not insane portion into a normal dish, and put the rest away before I eat. It’s a lot easier to resist that extra serving when it’s behind the refrigerator door. For more desperate times, I’ve kept a food journal, simply a record of what I eat in a day. You will stop yourself from reaching into that potato chip bag if you know you have to confess it later.
Lastly, “mostly plants” means vegetables, fruits, grains and things made from them, such as pasta and flour. Like just about everybody, I grew up believing a “meal” was a hunk of animal protein with some decorative vegetables on the side, a leafy chrome bumper on a chassis of flesh. What’s odd, of course, is that none of our ancestors ate this way. Back in the old country, nobody ate steak – who had a cow? Or if they did have one, who could afford to kill it and eat it, when it was so much more fun to stroll around with it and impress the neighbours? But eating meat eventually became a status symbol, a reward for success. Once, while at university, I brought a girlfriend to my grandmother’s house for dinner. My grandmother was famed for classic Jewish foods like kugel and prakas and kasha varnishkes – various combinations of noodles, grains, and vegetables, with the odd cheap cut of meat thrown in – but on this night, in honour of my lovely new girlfriend, Dubie made, for the first time in memory, prime rib. Huge slabs of bloody beef. Why? Because it was a special occasion. And it certainly was! Because my girlfriend was a vegetarian.
I’ll add one more rule to Pollan’s simple trinity: “cook your own food”. Most of the things people buy premade, be they hamburger patties or pancakes, are ridiculously easy to prepare yourself, and taste much better when you do. A burger? I buy fresh ground beef, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, shape it loosely into a patty, and fry it in a hot pan. Pancakes? I whip up flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, butter, eggs and milk in a bowl, pour it onto a pan, and watch carefully. Food I make at home will generally be fresher, less processed, and less kilojoule-heavy than anything bought premade in a store, or even at most restaurants. Plus, when I bake my own bread, I know I didn’t slip in any high-fructose corn syrup, unless I have a split personality and my other self is slyly subverting my health.
And what if you can’t cook? Well, there was a time I couldn’t run a kilometre without gasping, and I managed to work my way through that problem. Cooking is significantly easier than you think. In fact, it’s easier than the people who are telling us how to cook seem to think. Modern food culture, as pushed by all the competitive cooking shows and food labs, seems to be a discipline requiring a Ph.D. in chemistry and a nuclear accelerator. But it turns out people have been cooking and eating well with a pan, a fire and a knife for about 6000 years, and if a peasant in ancient Sumer could do it, I can too. Probably. After some practise.
I’ve learned to use recipes not as instructions but as lessons. For example, why do so many recipes begin with sauteing onions or garlic (or shallots or leeks)? It turns out those plants are called, along with a number of other flavourful plants and herbs, aromatics, because – not to get too technical here – they smell good. Sauteing them releases their aromas, which nicely flavour the sauce or stew or soup you’re making. Any given food needs to be handled differently: mushrooms can be just sauteed in butter, broccoli needs to be blanched in boiling water first. Almost any dish, even sweet ones, can be brightened by the addition of a little acid, and for that you can buy acid dispensers at the supermarket – they’re called lemons.
There was a time when running a marathon seemed like an impossible, technically complex goal, like a moon landing. It turns out, all I had to do was run and keep running until I could run 42 kilometres. Similarly, I have learned the secret to eating well is simply to eat well. The secret of a good diet is to cook and the secret of cooking is to care – about the food you’re making, about the ingredients you’re using, and mostly about the person you’re cooking for, especially if that is yourself. Back in high school, I waged war on my own body and my own desires, and to hate your desires is to hate yourself. These days, me and I get along much better. Sure, I could stand to lose a little weight – who couldn’t? – but I’m healthy for my age, I can still reel off a fast 10K if I need to, and besides all that, I’ve become a pretty good cook. Come on over sometime: I promise, whatever else happens, we’ll eat well.