When I was a kid, I loved Sundays. My family would all go to church and after the mass my older sister and I would walk over to the rectory (where the priests lived) and go down to the basement to open the money envelopes. It was a job we got paid for in donuts. Yup, after all the envelopes were open and counted, Father Flower (his real name) would come in with a box of donuts for all of us (maybe a half dozen of us trustworthy young Catholics). I loved donuts back then because we rarely got them. They were a treat. But it didn’t end there.
My dad would pick us up and him and I would go together to Valley Acres. This was a small local store that had the best cold cuts in town. We would wait in line and get our ham and salami and provolone. Next stop, Lin Lou’s bakery for the poppy seed hard rolls and Italian bread, the best. Finally, home for lunch. Mom would have the peppers all fried up by now. We would make the most delicious sandwiches on those fresh rolls with provolone and ham and salami and fried peppers (nobody thought about cholesterol back then). After that, I would help my mom make the meatballs (it was Sunday after all, which was always pasta day, sauce, meatballs, sausage, eggplant if mom was feeling like it). I loved grating the Italian cheese and mixing up the meatballs for my mom. She would do the cooking and then we would all go playing outside while the sauce simmered all day. No electronics back then, and only 3 channels on the TV so not worth it, unless of course it was football season. Then I would be on the couch with my dad, glued to the Green Bay Packers, his team. Anyway, dinner would be all together at the kitchen table, a big bowl of meatballs and Italian sausage, pasta with sauce and freshly grated cheese, great Italian bread from Lin Lou’s bakery, green salad with tomatoes and cucumbers and lots of oregano and olive oil. Maybe dad would have a glass of cheap Italian red wine, and we would eat and enjoy every bite. Then we did our jobs, clearing the table, doing the dishes, putting them away. And that was it.
Today, many years later, I think about how eating was back then. Nobody really thought about it much that I can remember. When it came to eating as a kid, all I remember was that I loved the food my mom cooked. I loved the Italian traditions. And I loved those donuts. I sometimes roll my eyes when I listen to adults talk about food and diets and nutrition, and I often think “TOO MUCH THINKING!!!” Somehow, we survived, even without knowing much about nutrition. We just ate. And, mostly, we ate what we liked. What happened? Why don’t people do that anymore? How did it get to where we need to analyze every morsel we put in our mouths?
Yes, since then, we have learned a lot about how to eat to be healthy. We have learned about antioxidants and phytochemicals and fiber. Funny thing, the old advice of “eat your vegetables” pretty much covers all that. Back then, fast food establishments were far and few between. We had one McDonald’s in the state of Connecticut when I was in grade school and when we went once or twice a year, it was a treat. Those discs of a burger were very different than my dad’s burgers on the grill, but french fries were something new. Yes, we enjoyed our McDonald’s and it did no damage. But then again, we went so infrequently, and there were only normal sized burgers and fries and one size of shake. These days our food environment is much different. I think it messes with our natural ability to eat the right amount. I have worked with lots of families who don’t have much money, so going to buffets is a big treat. Back when I was in high school we had to drive to a different state to get to a buffet. It was a once a year thing all teenagers did when they got their license…I think the place was called Custy’s and it was in Rhode Island and the big draw was the seafood…lobster, shrimp and all the kinds of things you really could not afford on a regular basis. I never went but I was fascinated by the stories of how much people ate…how many lobsters, pounds of shrimp, etc. I didn’t really get it because I did not eat fish back then.
Looking back at our attitudes and behavior around food as kids or even teenagers is interesting when you compare it to how we think about food as adults. Somehow, along the line we lose something. We seem to lose (from my experiences anyway) simple appreciation for yummy food without judgment. As adults, we just can’t seem to help adding our adjectives to food. “This is bad but I am not eating carbs tomorrow”. When we go to a party or out to dinner, instead of looking at the menu for your favorite food, or to see what sounds the most yummy (like you did when you were little), most people are weighing the calories or healthiness or carbs or trying to figure out the points. All of these cognitive methods to figure out what to eat weigh in to help you make the “right” or “healthy”decision about what to get. But, what most people are unaware of is that all this thinking interferes with your natural ability to choose food you like and enjoy.
Sometimes, of course, people who are on a “diet” or restricting to lose weight tend to behave somewhat differently. If they are being “bad” they tune out their body altogether, order too much food, overeat and feel very uncomfortable after because tomorrow, they will be “good” again. This is not what I am referring to as far as natural eating and choosing what you like. This is almost the opposite extreme, a type of “force-feeding” borne out of food insecurity, or the feeling that you may never get it again. That is what tends to happen with people who diet.
It is not easy for most people to accept the idea that you “can eat whatever you want to” and still be ok. You might be thinking “if I did that, I would gain 20 pounds!” The key word is “whatever”. The biggest mistake I have seen people make is giving power to food. Not any food, only certain foods. Somehow, a 200 calorie candy bar has more power than a 200 calorie spinach salad. People mistakenly believe that lone candy bar will “make you fat” because it falls into that “bad” category. The spinach salad with the high protein boiled eggs however, despite providing the same amount of energy (calories) is never the bad guy. Nope, most people would agree, hard boiled eggs and spinach will never make you fat.
What I have seen most people do who have moved away from eating foods they love is a tendency to walk around almost never being satisfied. As a result, they may tend to nibble and pick on more and more “good” or “healthy” food…..only to eventually consume more calories than they would had they satisfied their appetite (both physically and sensory satisfaction) by eating exactly what they really wanted. The key is they are less likely to overeat when they are satisfied. Remember, however, everyone is very different. I am referring to those who do not suffer from Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and those who have typical brains and appetites that may only be off a bit because of normal dieting. There are those whose brain chemistries will lead them to eat beyond a typical amount if they allow themselves certain kinds of foods (usually sugar and fat). Most people (I hope) who have such an eating issue usually work with specialists who help them cope with their issues. The typical dieter or even the typical “healthy” eater however, is who I am reaching out to.
The bottom line is that it is NOT the “whatever” that matters, but the “how much”. If you eat just one candy bar (or burger and fries, or whatever the case may be when it comes to “bad” food) it is no different to your body than eating an equivalent of “healthy” food that may not satisfy you. The secret is to listen to your fullness. For those of you who are disconnected from this feeling, it may take time, but don’t give up. Do some experimenting. I often use the example of a college girl I worked with years ago. She had been eating very little during the day, restricting herself to a plain salad for lunch, but then began nibbling on “healthy” snacks throughout the night. She would have several fat free granola bars, rice cakes, sugar free jello and apples and by the time she went to bed, she did not feel so great. She also was frustrated with having to be thinking about food and eating all night. When I asked her what she really wanted at lunch if she could eat whatever she wanted, she said “a cheeseburger”. So she took the risk and agreed that just once she would get a burger for lunch and see how she felt. I will never forget her expression (and happiness) she had at her next visit when she shared her experience with me. “I felt so satisfied! And the best part was that I was not thinking about food all day! I actually ended up having just one snack instead of a dozen and felt much better!” She had to take that risk and try it once. But it literally changed her life.
Does this mean you should throw nutrition caution to the wind? Not care about eating healthy ever again? Of course not! I believe in choosing healthy food, learning to cook healthy meals but educating yourself on how to make food yummy, too. However I also believe in living in reality. The fact is that you may really want the onion rings and not the side salad. And that’s ok. Plus, if you eat a few onion rings and feel satisfied I bet you are less likely to be seeking out food shortly after a restrictive meal.
So go ahead, take that step, even if it means just being honest with yourself (even if you can’t actually order that favorite food, at least you are considering it). Who knows, a fluffernutter may be in your near future yet.
PS A bit of advice: if you have been eating an extremely high fat diet such as visiting McDonald’s or other fast food joint on a daily basis, your body may actually be craving more fat than is typical. If you honestly don’t have a clue about nutrition, you may want to seek advice from a registered dietitian. Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian near you. Even one visit will give you direction.