Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Healthy Eating

For about two months now, I've been trying to follow a restricted diet for health reasons. No alcohol, no coffee, no dairy (except yogurt), no sugar, limited fruit, and no grains except for low-glycemic grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats. It was easy the first couple weeks, but after that it became near-impossible. I've learned a few things about myself and society in the process:

* There are no particular foods that I really miss. In fact, I miss bread and pizza a lot less than I expected. Instead, I miss the overall feeling of indulgence. I've realized that our lives are built around little daily indulgences. A morning cup of coffee with honey. A chocolate chip cookie as a pick-me-up during a terrible afternoon at work. A glass of wine with dinner. The evening walk to get ice cream after dinner. I'm used to being able to eat relatively whatever I want whenever I want it. My days now feel like constant deprivation, as I'm confronted with other people consuming foods I can't have.

* Our society is built around unhealthy eating. In the abstract, reading sample menus for a healthy diet don't sound so bad. Really, it's the exposure to all the tasty, unhealthy food that makes sticking to a diet hard. It feels particularly so in New York City, where temptation is on every block, in every bodega, restaurant, pizza place, ice cream parlor, cafe, bagel store, falafel cart, and so on. I must pass more than a hundred places selling food on my bike ride to and from work. I suppose that's part of the fun of living in New York City -- all the easy access to restaurants and bars that push enjoyment as a lifestyle. They call at me to stop and relax and enjoy myself with a drink and whatever food I want. I imagine it would be easier if I lived in a place with fewer options where I drove directly to and from work. For example, I know was able to diet easily in the summers during college because my setting was restricted to campus without a dining hall.

Moreover, when eating out, it's hard to find meals that don't come with bread or noodles or white rice or fries or chips. Because tasty food is what sells, that's what restaurants and companies sell, sending the message that they're okay and normal to eat. Yet, it would be better for us all if refined grains and processed foods weren't so ubiquitous.

* I thought I had my approach to healthy eating down. I pride myself on incorporating a variety of grains and beans and vegetables into my home cooked meals. I consider whole milk and butter and meat healthy when sourced from grass-fed farms. I like to experiment with natural sweeteners like honey and pureed fruits. I have no problem making whole grain versions of foods like breads and crackers and muffins from scratch, but this doesn't even allow for that.

* I also miss making baked goods not for the tastiness of the sugary confections themselves, but for the act of making something fun and creative that will delight people. I used to bake a lot, as documented on this blog. My baking has waned over the past couple years. Part of that is because of Evan, who is always reminds me how unhealthy baked goods are (yet he eats ice cream every day...). Which is true, and which is why it has always fascinated me that some food bloggers bake seem to bake so often, also given that it's expensive to keep buying all that butter and chocolate. I used to take my friends and coworkers' birthdays as occasions to whip up some new creation. In the two years at my current job, I've brought baked goods into work only a few times. I've been wanting to get back into baking, especially now that fall is here. But alas...

* Which is all to say that I haven't kept to the diet strictly. I make small exceptions to help get myself through the days (and big exceptions on a recent two week vacation in Oregon). And it isn't forever. It's temporary. But it's been a good learning experience that will make me more conscious of what I'm eating going forward.

Have you done any crazy diets? What did you learn from them?


  1. I'm honestly not sure how you're surviving! I try to do a really restricted diet for 5 days/month. (I realize this sounds weird, but I use it as a re-set button and the first 5 days of the month are no alcohol, no grains of any kind, just giant salads, good quality meat and eggs) By the 3rd day I'm feeling deprived, although also healthier. And I'm still allowed coffee and milk!

    What I've learned is that I rely really heavily on bread and it edges out lots of more nutritional choices. So re-setting once a month is ideal for me. It cuts my sweet cravings a bit and it's short enough that I'm never tempted to cheat during or binge afterwards.

    This week is the first time I've done it all summer, though. I let myself get a little out of control the last few months. Whoops.

    Hope you figure out what you need to figure out so you can go back to more enjoyable diet soon!

  2. Rachel, I'm surviving because I lose willpower and make exceptions now and then...like giving myself a pass to eat and drink whatever i want at weddings, having sips of my boyfriend's coffee etc.
    I think it can be really helpful to eat clean for a period like you're saying, to realize that we don't really need to eat refined carbs with every meal or as snacks, even though it's so common.
    i think i'm going to follow up with a post on what i actually have been eating.

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