Food for Thought

Food for Thought

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body!

Food for Thought

What Should I Eat? And How Much?

A patient of mine, a middle-aged woman who struggles with her weight, once told me that she drove to the supermarket but found herself in tears in the parking lot, unable to get out of her car. “Why?” I asked. “Because I just don’t know what I’m supposed to eat!” she answered. How did food, such a basic and pleasurable thing, get so anxiety-provoking?

However it happened, we can certainly say when it happened: sometime between the childhoods and adulthoods of the women reading this book, eating got very complicated. As Americans and others in the developed world became heavier, dieting became a multi-billion dollar industry — and a cacophony of conflicting advice, much of it shouting from food labels, resulted. 99% Polyunsaturated! Low Carb! Organic! Sugarless! More Fiber! High in Calcium! And, my favorite: “Fat Free Half-and-Half.” (When you figure that one out, please let me know.)

No wonder my patient broke down in front of the supermarket.

Things used to be simpler. People ate less, weighed less, and obsessed about food less. Whether or not you grew up in a rural area, eating home-canned fruits and vegetables, I’m sure you’ll relate, as I did, to the story “The Tiny Waist of the Fifties,” that you’ll read later in this chapter. When we were kids, people ate smaller portions, less processed food, less refined sugar, less restaurant and takeout food, and more meals with their families. Plus, they dieted less, walked more, took more vacation time, and spent far fewer hours staring at screens. And — no surprise — they were, on average, much thinner than adults today. Since the late 1970’s, the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States has doubled. Two out of three Americans are now overweight, and one out of three is obese. If this trend isn’t slowed or reversed, it’s estimated that half of all Americans will be obese by 2030 — with disastrous consequences for our national health and economy.

Take a little trip down memory lane to get a more personal sense of how changes in lifestyles have contributed to our society’s weight problem. What and how did you eat when you were a kid? Were you physically active? What did the adults around you look like? In my 1960’s childhood we had dinner as a family almost every night; I drank Coca-Cola (in a 6-ounce bottle) only at birthday parties and other special occasions; my parents allowed me to watch TV for one hour on Sunday evening (The Wonderful World of Disney!); I walked to school, home for lunch, back to school, and home again (about a mile and a half, total, every day) — and very few of my teachers, or the ladies who worked in the beauty parlor, the bank, and the drugstore, or my mom’s friends or my friends’ moms… were obese!

But while we can take a few pointers from our mothers’ more svelte lifestyle, nostalgia isn’t the total solution to our current weight and fitness challenges. There are certain realities of modern life with which we have to contend: two-career families, long commutes, an endless supply of labor-saving devices, computers, and other gadgets that encourage us to be sedentary, and fattening food tempting us at every turn. It’s just not practical, and probably not even desirable to most of us, to turn back the clock to the June Cleaver era. Plus, we can benefit from the enormous amount of information that researchers have learned about nutrition and health in the past few decades.

Before I get to specific recommendations about how and what to eat in order to lose weight and stay healthy, it’s important to say something you’ve likely already figured out from long experience: Diets don’t work. You’ve been told this time and again — often in the first sentence of a new diet book! And the more restrictive a diet is, the more types of foods it prohibits, the more likely it is to fail.

There’s a good reason for the dismal track record of virtually all diets — and, no, it’s not that we lack willpower. Psychologists at the University of Rochester have observed that one of the most powerful human drives is our desire to be independent. That makes sense, from a biological perspective. Though we live in families and communities, we also need, as individuals, to fend for ourselves to survive. The rebellious behaviors of two-year-olds, teenagers, and even elderly people whose independence is threatened, reflect the natural resistance we humans have to being told what to do. A diet plan that someone else has prescribed — whether it’s the author of the latest weight loss book, your doctor, or a well-meaning relative, tends to bring out the rebel in you. As you “break” your diet, gorging on “forbidden” foods, there’s a part of you that’s thumbing your nose and saying “So there!” It’s much more effective to gather information about exercise and healthy eating, such as you’ll find here, and figure out what suits your tastes and lifestyle best. If you’re the boss, that inner rebel will have much less reason to rebel.

There are some people who lose weight and even keep that weight off with commercial or medically supervised diet programs, but I’ve noticed that my patients who have stuck with such plans have found ways to personalize them so that they don’t feel like they’re “following orders.” The National Weight Control Registry, the research database that tracks people who’ve maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for one year or longer, shows that people are just as likely to be as successful devising their own weight loss plans as following a formal program. “The Tiny Waist of the Fifties,” “The Closet Witch,” “The Power of Four,” and “An Apple a Day” are all stories that show how effective a DIY food plan can be for weight loss.

Additionally, an important study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 showed that low fat diets and low carbohydrate diets were equally effective in helping people lose weight, as long as calorie intake was reduced.

Bottom line: the only thing that makes you lose weight is burning off more calories than you take in, with a 3500 calorie deficit required to lose one pound. True, age, heredity, hormones, and other issues can affect your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories with routine activity) but, by far, the two most important factors in weight loss are how many calories you consume, and how many you burn off.

Now to some specifics: If you are moderately active (exercising 30 minutes per day), you need to eat about 15 calories per pound to maintain your weight. So, multiply your current weight by 15. Then subtract 250 calories a day for a half-pound weight loss per week (500 calories for 1 pound per week). As you lose weight, the number of calories you need to maintain your weight goes down, so you have to keep adjusting your intake.

For example, if you are now maintaining a weight of 200 pounds, then eating roughly 3000 calories a day keeps you there. Along with daily exercise, eliminating just 250 calories a day — that’s a slice of pizza, a brownie, a 20-ounce soda, or a large whole milk latte — will result in a 25-pound weight loss over a year!

Does this mean that if you eat nothing but jelly beans and French fries you’ll lose weight, as long as you don’t eat too many of them? Well… yes. But you’ll feel awful and invite all sorts of health problems — not a great strategy for long-term success. The optimal goals, especially important for women over fifty, are to reduce calories and eat foods that promote health and prevent disease. Fortunately, these two goals are very compatible and, in many ways, easier to achieve than ever, because of the wide variety of nutritious foods now available.

So forget diets — you’ve given them a good try, over many years, and they haven’t yielded lasting results, right? It’s time for something new. Here are five simple and flexible guidelines that sift through all the confusing information out there and give you just what you need to know to make your own plan to lose weight and get healthier — for good.

1. Eat Less

Obvious? Perhaps, but, along with “move more,” this is the most helpful and honest weight loss advice anyone can give you. Many of my overweight patients actually eat mostly healthy food, they just eat too much of it. That’s easy to do, since portions are so much larger than they were even a generation ago. Sandwiches, muffins, soft drinks, hamburgers, even eggs and some fruits are just bigger than they used to be. And, not surprisingly, the average American eats about 600 calories a day more than forty years ago.

So how do you eat less, when there’s so much food around? You can read labels, measure portions, and use one of the many sites and apps available for keeping track of your caloric intake (,,, and are particularly user-friendly). Especially when starting out, many people find the careful recording of calories that these sites enable helpful.

But you can also eat less without counting calories. Using just your hand, you can estimate recommended portion sizes for various foods:

1 thumb tip = 1 teaspoon of peanut butter, butter, or sugar

1 finger = 1 oz. of cheese

1 fist = 1 cup cereal, pasta, vegetables

1 handful = 1 oz. of nuts, seeds

1 palm = 3 oz. of meat, fish, or poultry

You probably won’t have to rely on this system forever. Just as we’ve gotten used to oversized portions — when’s the last time you saw a fist-sized serving of pasta? — we can get used to thinking of smaller portions as “normal.”

Other ways to reduce calories include: switching to smaller plates, bowls, glasses, and cups at home; serving food pre-plated rather than bringing platters to the table, buying single servings of treats (think: ice cream cone instead of half-gallon); packing up leftovers for future meals immediately after eating; and eliminating sweetened drinks altogether.

Mom was right when she told you “breakfast is the most important meal”: studies show that people who eat breakfast, especially if it contains a protein such as milk, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, or eggs, are much less likely to binge later in the day.

In restaurants, order an appetizer portion instead of a main course, ask the server to take the bread basket away and to bag up half of your meal before you start eating, and look for menu items that are broiled rather than fried, or dressed with olive oil (or not dressed at all) rather than with cream, cheese, or butter. Request a salad, fruit, or extra vegetable to substitute for French fries or other caloric side dishes; order fruit or sorbet for dessert, or share a rich dessert and just have a forkful.

Also, whether you’re eating at home or out, slow down and pay attention. In one study, women who were asked to take their time and set their forks down between bites ate 10% less than women who ate more quickly — without trying to reduce their intake. Several studies have shown that eating while watching TV causes people to eat more and that eating while driving, in addition to making people eat more, is as dangerous as talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel!

You’ll be pleasantly surprised that these little adjustments, which add up to major caloric savings, are relatively painless. Cornell psychologist and expert on eating behavior Brian Wansink calls these small changes the “mindless margin” — calories you would have consumed by eating the last few spoons of rice in the pot, the mediocre mac and cheese that came with the chicken, or that whole piece of chocolate cake that you didn’t even really want, and won’t miss.

2. Make Healthier Choices

As I mentioned, calories aren’t the only consideration. To maintain a healthy body, you need to eat a varied and balanced diet that includes 10-35% of its calories from proteins, 45-65% from carbohydrates, and 20-35% from fats, approximately 30 grams of fiber, plus vitamins and minerals. Within these categories, some choices are healthier than others. For example, monounsaturated fats like olive oil and polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil are healthier than saturated (animal) fats like lard and butter; beans, tofu, fish and other lean proteins are healthier than red and cured meats; whole grains are healthier than refined white flour products; and the fiber, calcium, vitamins, and other nutrients found naturally in food are preferable to those packaged in supplements.

Here’s a more detailed summary of healthy food choices:

Instead of these:

Use these:

Butter, solid margarine, or lard

Olive oil, canola oil, or margarine without trans fats

Cream-based sauces

Tomato-based sauces

Whole eggs

Egg whites or egg substitute

Salt for seasoning

Herbs and spices

Canned vegetables

Fresh or frozen vegetables

Corn flakes, Special K, or other refined-grain cereal

Cheerios, Wheaties, or other whole-grain cereal

Cream of Wheat

Oatmeal (steel-cut oats are best) or other whole-grain hot cereal

White rice

Brown rice or other cooked whole grain

White pasta

Whole-wheat pasta

White bread

Whole-grain bread

Full-fat dairy foods

Skim or low-fat dairy foods

Processed meats

Fish, chicken, beans, nuts

Fatty cuts of meat, such as prime rib

Leaner cuts, such as tenderloin (occasionally)

Smoked, cured, salted, or canned meat or fish

Fresh or frozen meat or fish, without added salt

Sugared soda or juice

Water, or juice mixed with sparkling water

Ice cream

Yogurt with fruit

French fries

Roasted vegetables and potatoes


Fresh or dried fruit


Nuts, raisins, popcorn without butter (try olive or canola oil), raw vegetables

Snack crackers

Whole-grain crackers without trans fats

Dips high in saturated fats

Hummus, peanut butter, or seasoned low-fat yogurt

Baked goods containing butter or trans fats

Foods baked with healthy fats


Graham crackers or oatmeal cookies with fruit

Super-size restaurant entrées

Small- or medium-size entrées

Fried foods

Grilled, broiled, steamed, poached, or roasted foods

Adapted from Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter Willett, M.D., (Simon & Schuster and Harvard Medical School, 2005).

In 1992, in an attempt to make healthy eating recommendations easier to follow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed the food pyramid. Foods at the wider parts of the pyramid, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, were to be eaten more often, and foods at the narrow top, like sweets and alcohol, rarely. But many found this diagram confusing. In one funny cartoon, a person who’s clearly not losing weight with the pyramid exclaims: “Oh! I was reading it upside DOWN!”

In 2011, the USDA switched to a plate diagram, which makes a lot more sense. Who, after all, carries a pyramid to the buffet table? Several organizations have come up with their own version of the healthy plate. Here’s one from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health:

I find the Healthy Eating Plate a useful image to keep in mind, whether you’re eating at home or out. Your plate may not be perfect every time, but loading up on vegetables, looking for brown rice instead of white, ordering fresh fruit for dessert, and sticking with water rather than soda, are changes that, added up, make a big difference to your health and waistline.

3. Eat Less Prepared and Processed Food

In general, food that is less processed and, especially, prepared at home — fruits and vegetables; fish, meats and legumes; seeds and nuts; milk, yogurt, and naturally-aged cheeses; whole grains — are healthier than processed and packaged food. Additionally, when you cook at home, rather than buying take-out or eating in a restaurant, you have much greater control over portion size, and avoid the added salt, fat, sugar, and preservatives that pre-made food so often contains — not to mention the money you save and the many pleasures of enjoying a home cooked meal, plus leftovers!

Though many factors have contributed to the rise in obesity and weight-related disease in the past few years, I would vote our increased intake of processed and pre-made foods #1. Currently, cookies, chips, processed meat and cheese, and sugary sodas and energy drinks make up an astonishing 35% of the calories Americans consume. I’ve seen many women lose weight and even get off blood pressure medication and insulin simply by giving up these unhealthy foods.

As you start eating less processed and more whole foods, you may find yourself wondering whether organic (grown without pesticides) fruits, vegetables, and grains and hormone-free dairy, eggs, and meats are healthier than their conventionally produced counterparts. Certainly hormones and pesticides aren’t beneficial, and can be harmful, so it would be best to avoid them when you can. Fortunately, the price of organic, locally sourced, and/or hormone-free foods has been coming down, and these foods are now often available in regular grocery stores and discount chains, as well as at the farmers’ markets that have sprung up in most towns and all major cities.

When, because of cost or availability, you can’t buy all organic produce, keep in mind that some conventionally grown fruits and vegetables tend to retain more pesticides than others. The so-called “Dirty Dozen” are the twelve kinds of produce you either want to buy organically grown, or wash extra-carefully before eating if you don’t buy organic. Then there’s the “Clean Fifteen,” those types of produce where it is less important to buy organic.

“Dirty Dozen” (In other words, try to buy these organic)

• Celery

• Peaches

• Strawberries

• Apples

• Blueberries

• Nectarines

• Sweet Bell Peppers

• Spinach

• Kale/Collard Greens

• Cherries

• Potatoes

• Grapes (Imported)

“Clean 15” (Lowest in pesticides, probably don’t need to buy organic)

• Onions

• Avocadoes

• Sweet Corn (Frozen)

• Pineapples

• Mango

• Sweet Peas (Frozen)

• Asparagus

• Kiwi Fruit

• Cabbage

• Eggplant

• Cantaloupe (Domestic)

• Watermelon

• Grapefruit

• Sweet Potatoes

• Honeydew Melon

Reference: Environmental Working Group

While we’re on the subject of processed food, what about artificial sweeteners? Don’t they help you lose weight? In fact, a 2008 study done by researchers at Purdue University showed that laboratory rats fed artificially sweetened food gained more weight than rats fed food sweetened with sugar. At least one study suggests that people who drink one or more diet sodas a day are also more likely to gain weight. The reasons for these surprising findings aren’t entirely understood; changes in metabolism and increased desire for sweets created by artificial sweeteners have both been considered. But one thing seems clear: many people use sweeteners like aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) as a way of justifying unhealthy food choices. How often have you ordered a cheeseburger or two slices of pepperoni pizza… with a diet soda? You see this same “logic” at work in coffee shops where people often ask for a skim latte or cappuccino… with whipped cream on top!

Just as an experiment, try avoiding artificial sweeteners. Use a teaspoon of sugar, honey, or maple syrup here and there if you enjoy a little extra sweetness in your drink or on cereal or fruit. (If you have diabetes, discuss this with your doctor or dietician, first.) I bet you won’t gain any weight, and you may find a small taste of “the real thing” much more satisfying than several packets of the fake stuff.

A word about supplements: they are greatly overused. The biggest nutritional problem we face as a society is excess, not deficiency, though poverty and hunger are still present at alarming rates. The evidence in support of most nutritional supplements is either poor or evolving. For women over fifty who eat a healthy and balanced diet who wish to take supplements, good daily choices would be: a multivitamin (not with iron), 1200-1500 mg of calcium, 1000 IU vitamin D, and 1000-3000 mg omega fish oil (or flax seeds or oil, for vegans).

4. Be Prepared

Yes, it’s the Boy Scouts’ motto and it should be yours, too. Quick quiz: At the end of a hard day, would you rather have a bowl of homemade soup, a fresh salad, a whole grain roll, a bowl of berries and a glass of red wine… or take-out pizza or Chinese food? At three in the afternoon, when your energy flags, does half a turkey sandwich, some hummus and crackers, or some dried fruit and nuts sound good… or would you be happier with stale, leftover Halloween candy? Which breakfast would fuel you better for an important morning meeting: oatmeal, fruit, and yogurt eaten at home or at your desk… or a doughnut eaten in your car?

No question, sometimes we do crave junk food. Most of the time, though, given the choice, we actually find the healthy stuff more appealing. But so often we don’t give ourselves the choice because we don’t shop for ingredients and prepare meals and snacks in advance, or carry food with us when we’re out of the house. Then what happens? We get hungry or our blood sugar levels drop — at least every 2-4 hours — and we reach for whatever’s available. Would you take a child on a three-hour outing without bringing a nourishing snack along? Would you invite a friend over for dinner and forget to shop and cook for the meal? Why not provide for yourself at least as well as you provide for others?

From years of dieting, you may have gotten accustomed to the idea that weight loss = deprivation. In fact, with a little preparation, your healthy eating plan will feel like the opposite of deprivation: you’ll always have plenty of attractive and delicious food available.

Here are a few simple strategies for staying prepared:

Stock your fridge and pantry

Diet books often advise you to ban all fattening foods from your kitchen. It’s true that if having boxes of cookies in your cupboard makes it difficult for you to avoid eating too many cookies, it’s best not to keep them around. But you also don’t want to have one of those homes that contain nothing edible other than diet soda, diet margarine, and diet bread, either. Few things make people more anxious — or more likely to overeat at the first opportunity — than a scarcity of food. So replace an abundance of unhealthy food with an abundance of healthy food. Here’s a list of staples to keep stocked — add your own favorites:

Fruits and vegetables: They’re all great but the tastiest and most nutritious are the most deeply colored ones: carrots, red peppers, beets, dark greens, blueberries, cantaloupe, etc. Wash, peel and cut produce before putting it in the fridge so that it’s easy for you and your family to grab a healthy snack or cooking ingredient. Keep an assortment of fruits and vegetables in the freezer, too. Dried fruits are a good dessert, sweet snack, or cereal or salad topping — but use in small amounts since they’re high in calories.

Whole grains: Read labels carefully. “Whole wheat” often means some whole wheat with a lot of white flour. Look for 100% whole grain breads, English muffins, rolls, tortillas, pita, cereals, and pasta. Also try brown rice, bulgur, barley, and quinoa for variety.

Proteins: Low fat and non-fat milk, soy milk, yogurt, and cheeses; canned and dried beans, tofu, canned tuna, salmon, and sardines; chicken breasts; ground turkey; veggie burgers; hummus; unsweetened nut butters; nuts (almonds and walnuts are especially healthy).

Fats: Olive oil and canola oil are the healthiest of the oils and good to have on hand for cooking, sautéing, and baking. Avocados and olives are a satisfying source of vegetable fat — but, like oils, high in calories. Flax seeds can be added to yogurt, smoothies, cereals, and salads for some extra omega 3 (the “good” fat also found in salmon and other cold water fish).

Extras: Salsas, pickles, relishes, and mustards are salty, but used in small amounts can really perk up foods, as can hot sauce, herbs, spices, and a variety of vinegars (balsamic, sherry, and champagne are great). Intensely flavorful fruit sorbets and dark chocolate (70% cacao and higher is best) are excellent to have on hand because just a little will scratch the itch for something sweet.

“Default Dishes” and “Little Black Dresses”

Keeping all these good foods in the house is one thing, and eating them is another. If you come home tired and hungry to raw broccoli and frozen chicken breasts you won’t eat well…unless you have a plan.

One excellent plan is to have a few “default” dishes — those no-fail, easy-to-make meals you really love to eat. Perhaps these are healthy updates of recipes you’ve enjoyed for years, or those you’ve pulled from cookbooks, magazines, or the Internet. Ideally, these are dishes that can either be prepared on very short order, or ones that you can make over the weekend and then re-heat through the week. Many homemade soups and stews, in fact, taste better when they sit in the fridge for a day or more.

A good, basic repertoire to start with would be: a vegetable or bean soup; a chicken or lean meat casserole or potted dish; a vegetarian pasta sauce; a vegetarian or lean meat chili. If you aren’t a confident cook, look up recipes for these dishes on the Internet and experiment with the ones that use healthy ingredients and are labeled “easy.” Gradually, you’ll have mastered a few that will become your “default” or go to recipes. I almost always have, in my refrigerator, a lentil and brown rice stew, a pot of chicken or vegetable soup, or some homemade marinara sauce — all very simple to make (I’m not a great cook) and dishes I’m always happy to have when I get home.

In addition to those “default” recipes, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of “little black dress” dishes. You know how every woman is supposed to have a basic “LBD” she can dress up or down for any occasion? (A man in my wellness group asked if he could think, instead, of khaki pants and a blue blazer!) Well, translate that idea to food. Here are some “LBDs” you can “accessorize” to make an infinite variety of healthy meals and snacks in less than 10 minutes:

Rainbow salad: In the fridge, layered between paper towels in a salad spinner (I learned this trick from my mother-in-law — it keeps veggies fresh for days!) keep salad greens, sliced peppers, shredded red cabbage, chopped herbs, leftover cooked vegetables, etc. Top a portion of this colorful salad with beans, hardboiled eggs, leftover fish or meat or whole grains (great for those restaurant doggie bag contents), nuts, seeds, jarred peppers, pickles, and artichokes. Splash on some olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice and you have a very satisfying meal, with lots of flavor and crunch.

Stir fry: In olive or peanut oil with a little sesame oil and soy sauce, sauté sliced chicken breasts or firm tofu with veggies from your rainbow stash plus chopped fresh ginger, scallions, snow peas, and bean sprouts. Add a few chopped peanuts or canned water chestnuts.

The Big Burrito: Stuff a whole wheat tortilla with beans, leftover chicken or tofu, veggies, salsa, a little cheese, brown rice. Microwave for a minute or two.

The Little Dipper: Put some yogurt, nut butter, or hummus in a bowl. Dip apple slices, carrot sticks, or whole grain crackers or pretzels.

Trail Mix: Put whole grain cereal in a bowl or small bag with a few nuts, raisins or other dried fruit, and dark chocolate chips.

Oatmeal, Your Way: Microwave 1/2-cup rolled oats with 1 cup water plus chopped apple, banana, raisins, dates, or other fresh or dried fruit topped with a dash of cinnamon or allspice. Top with skim milk or yogurt plus walnuts, almonds, or pecans and, if you like, a few drops of real maple syrup or honey.

Omelet for One: Beat eggs or egg whites and cook in a pan greased with a little olive oil. Add raw or leftover cooked veggies, a sprinkle of grated cheese, salsa. Serve with whole grain toast, or rolled in a tortilla, or cold… on a rainbow salad!

Smoothies to Order: Put a handful of ice cubes, a cup of milk, soy or almond milk, kefir, or yogurt, a banana, and a handful of any kind of fruit (if frozen, skip the ice), plus protein powder and/or flax seeds if you like. Blend.

Topped Potatoes: Keep baked white and sweet potatoes in the fridge. Split, soften the insides with a fork, and microwave with leftover veggies, beans, a little shredded cheese. Top with Greek yogurt, chives, black olives, and salsa.

Personal pizza: Top pre-made whole wheat pizza dough with homemade or jarred tomato sauce, a little shredded cheese, turkey or chicken sausage, peppers, onions, spinach or any other vegetable. Bake according to directions on the dough package.

Get creative. Invent your own “LBD”s... and do send me the recipe!

5. Don’t Forget the Treats

Holidays, vacations, anniversaries, birthdays, and other special occasions are some of the most joyful and memorable times of our lives. Any weight loss plan that requires you to pass up croissants in Paris, champagne on New Year’s, or your favorite Thanksgiving stuffing, is not one you can stick to — nor should you! The trick is to be choosy about your splurges. They should be the very best versions of foods you really love. If you adore that Thanksgiving stuffing, but feel less enthusiastic about the candied sweet potatoes, then skip the potatoes — don’t eat them just because you’re “already blowing your diet” with the stuffing. Day to day, if you enjoy dessert, keep it simple. Stick to fruit with a little sorbet or yogurt; or a square of dark chocolate. Save the special treats for special occasions. As a dietician colleague of mine likes to say: “You should enjoy your holidays, but ‘Wednesday’ isn’t a holiday.”

Remember that calories do count, even when you eat healthy food. You may find you need to use an online calorie counter or keep a written journal, read labels, and measure portions for a while, or on and off — or even forever, if that works best for you. Your stomach is also a good gauge of when you’ve had enough. Stopping when you’re full, and putting away food for later when you’re hungry again, is the best and most natural form of “portion control.” But it takes some practice — and many of us are out of practice. You may have grown up feeling guilty about “wasting” food (as if stuffing yourself to the point of discomfort were not wasting it) or hearing, depending on your age, about the starving children in Europe, Asia, or Africa. Also, if you’re a chronic dieter, you may not feel very confident that the potatoes or cookies that you’re gorging on will be available later if you don’t polish them off now — because you’re so used to starting a new diet that forbids them.

It may seem to go against the way you’ve always thought about food and weight loss, but keeping your refrigerator, cupboards, lunchbox, and office desk drawer full of healthy and appetizing food, and deciding for yourself when, how much, and what to eat rather than punishing yourself with diets and deprivation, will make you feel calm, well cared for… and less likely to overeat.

Emotional Eating

There’s a cartoon that always brings nods of recognition when I show it to my patients: a woman who’s spooning ice cream directly from the pint container explains to her concerned-looking husband: “I’m not eating. I’m self-medicating.”

The truth is, many of us use food in an attempt to make ourselves feel better when we’re sad, anxious, angry, or just plain bored. This is called “emotional eating” — eating that’s driven by uncomfortable emotions rather than hunger. A good way to know if you’re eating for emotional reasons is to ask yourself where in your body you feel the desire to reach for food. If your stomach feels empty and rumbling, you are likely hungry. But if the sensation you feel when you just have to eat something is located more in your upper chest and throat, you are more likely eating to drown out an emotion.

Your choice of foods also gives a clue as to whether your eating is emotional. When you’re really hungry, you feel most satisfied by proteins and fat, plus some carbohydrates to refuel the glycogen stores in your muscles (especially if you’ve been exercising). When you’re eating to soothe psychological distress, you reach mostly for sweets and carbs (plus fat and salt), which act directly on the “feel good” centers of the brain. Think about it: what woman has a fight with her spouse or receives an audit notice from the IRS and then goes searching frantically for grilled chicken and greens sautéed in olive oil to cheer herself up?

The truth is, emotional eating works pretty well in the short run — that’s why we do it. You do feel better after gobbling a chocolate bar or a bag of chips, for a few minutes. But there are several problems with emotional eating as a coping mechanism. For one thing, it makes you gain weight. Even a very brief episode of emotional eating, in which you’re likely to wolf down highly caloric food very quickly, can add hundreds of calories to your daily intake. Second, these episodes often leave you feeling ill and lethargic. That’s because if you’re not eating to satisfy hunger, you don’t have a natural stopping point.

As author and philosopher Sam Keen once noted: “You can never get enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.” So you keep eating until you run out of food, or you feel too sick to eat another bite — whichever comes first. Finally, and most importantly, stuffing yourself with food does nothing to address the reasons you felt uncomfortable in the first place. So you’re likely to get uncomfortable again and again — and react to that discomfort the only way you know: overeating. Plus, overeating often leads to self-blaming, self-punishing thoughts (“I’m so fat!” “I need to go on a diet right away!”) which causes even more distress, which leads you, inevitably, right back to the cookie jar.

How to get off this merry-go-round? Resolving never to go on a restrictive diet again helps. Threatening yourself with diets really fuels overeating. How many times, after all, have you gone on a “farewell to food” binge right before starting a new diet?

As I mentioned, eating breakfast decreases the likelihood of a binge in the mid-afternoon and after-dinner hours (the most popular times for overeating). I find that women who binge later in the day skip breakfast — because they’re still stuffed from the previous night’s bingeing! A way to break this cycle is to start eating breakfast regularly, even if that feels unnatural at first. In fact, I’d recommend to anyone trying to lose weight that they “front load” their day’s food intake: eating two small breakfasts about 2-3 hours apart, and two light lunches, also 2-3 hours apart, then a light dinner. You’ll be amazed at how this routine increases metabolism and cuts that late-in-the-day desire to snack.

The best remedy for emotional eating, however, is to understand and learn to better manage the emotions that lead to it. Trying to control emotional eating instead of dealing with the emotions that cause it is like trying to resist shivering rather than putting a sweater on. It just doesn’t make sense.

So what, exactly, do you do with all those unpleasant emotions other than smother them with food? Many diet books suggest all sorts of tactics to distract you from your desire to eat: call a friend, take a bubble bath, etc. These work sometimes — though taking a bubble bath on the street in front of the bakery is tricky! — but I think it’s much better to learn a few simple stress management techniques that allow you to calm yourself down without food. You can find many of these techniques in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress, but here are just a few:

• Wait it out. Feelings, including uncomfortable ones, tend to be fleeting. Often, if you delay even five or ten minutes, the desire to grab for food passes.

• Talk it out. With yourself, or with someone else, try to identify why you feel the need to binge. Are you lonely? Tired? Worried? Is there something that might relieve the problem more directly and effectively than ice cream?

• Learn to relax. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply and slowly. Drop your shoulders and un-tense your facial muscles. Even after a few seconds, your blood pressure and heart rate fall, the stress chemicals your body releases when your brain perceives a threat become less active, the urge to eat dissipates.

• Become more stress-resistant. Satisfying relationships, meaningful work, hobbies, and community activities, and spiritual fulfillment can all make you less likely to experience those panicky moments that drive emotional eating. Regular exercise, good nutrition, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and other relaxation practices have also been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and psychological distress in general.

Sometimes an inability to manage emotions without overeating signals a mental health problem, such as anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you engage in emotional eating frequently, and find it very difficult to stop, you should consult your doctor. A referral to a therapist or treatment with medication may be helpful.

Severe and frequent gorging may be a sign of an eating disorder. Though eating disorders are often associated with adolescents, even older women may have or develop binge eating disorder (a condition in which very large volumes of food are consumed several times a week) or bulimia (bingeing accompanied by attempts to “purge” the extra calories through self-induced vomiting, use of diuretics or laxatives, or compulsive exercising). If you’ve experienced any of these behaviors you should also consult your doctor.

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