One rainy afternoon at a French bistro, my friend Janet, a gorgeous, voluptuous woman with perfect skin and long, chestnut hair, eyed me across the table and fired, “How come you can eat anything and never gain weight?” That particular day, “anything” was a croque monsieur, a fantastic, artery-clogging affair made with Gruyere cheese, fluffy bread and shaved ham. As I popped another bite of the satanic sandwich into my mouth, my friend continued her litany. “I mean, I’ve seen you lose weight and still eat that stuff.” She said, poking her fork at my innocent lunch.
My friend’s tirade about my meal choice got me thinking. Why is it that some of us can eat virtually anything and not gain, and sometimes even lose, weight? The answer is portion size. Now, much has been written about food portion sizes and generally, the word “control” is always thrown in there somewhere. I don’t like the word “control”. It implies an uncomfortable and unwanted reining in of one’s wishes and desires. Nobody likes that. Just think of all the unpleasant terms associated with that dastardly word: control oriented, crowd control, pest control and the ever popular, control freak. (My ex-husband’s a big fan of that one.) So, for the sake of weight loss and blameless food items everywhere, let’s just drop that word from the whole discussion, shall we?
Losing pounds and maintaining a healthy weight comes down to one thing - physics. Yeah, yeah, I stunk at science in high school, too, but really, it’s pretty simple; energy in equals energy out. Period. Food is energy and if you eat more that your body can use it will store it on your thighs for later. We’re made this way on purpose. We store what we don’t use just in case our food supply runs out and we have to survive for a while sans sustenance. Think of it as nature’s untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s a drag, I admit, but there it is. Eat more than you need and you’ll gain weight. Eat less and you’ll lose weight. Eat just enough, and presto, you stay the same size.
I can see you there, scratching your head and unbuckling your belt because you can’t feel your feet, “Are you kidding me? I can eat anything and never gain weight?” My answer to you, my dear, confused friend is, yes, you can. Now, grab that bag of Fritos off your desk and come with me.
Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go, by anything, I mean, anything. Not just protein, not just vegetables, fruits and snack foods that taste, and look, like packing material. I’m talking anything. The fact is your body doesn’t know the difference between a calorie that comes from a Gravenstein apple or a Hostess Ho Ho. A calorie’s a calorie. Obviously, if you want to be able to eat large quantities of food and still lose weight, well, this article isn’t for you and you might want to find a more appropriate weight loss site, say, Atkins or maybe Livestockfeed.com. But if you love food, and love to eat a wide variety of things that taste good to you, read on.
First, you need to know how much food is enough for your particular body and the best authority on what size portions of food are enough for your body, is well, your body. Contrary to what fashion magazines and television might tell you, your body’s not stupid. It knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s your friend. You need to treat it like one. And in order to lose weight you don’t need to cajole, hurt or trick it into giving up its excess poundage. You just need to listen more and eat less. “Oh, sure,” you’re grumbling, “Just exactly how do I do that when everything tastes so good?”
Remember, you’re your body’s best buddy, right? And what do buddies do? They listen to each other. And your body’s way of talking to you is hunger. Hunger is one of the many languages of the body. Think of all the other languages your body uses to communicate with you. There’s drowsiness to tell you you’re tired and need to hit the hay, numbness to tell you you’ve been sitting in that airplane seat too long, and pain to tell you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing before you end up in the emergency room.
If you want to eat anything you want and never gain weight you must learn to understand the language of hunger. You can only eat the calories that your body needs. The form these calories come in is irrelevant. Yes, nutrition is important. Fruits, vegetables and the like should be part of any healthy diet but how you like to eat those things is entirely up to you. If you eat five pounds of steamed broccoli instead of three ounces of broccoli au gratin, you’re still going to gain weight. A calorie’s a calorie.
So how do you learn this language of hunger? Well, unlike pain, hunger doesn’t have much in the way of a vocabulary. It has about five words: Stuffed, Comfortable, Empty, and Food Now!
Stuffed: Just pushed yourself from the Thanksgiving table and hit the sofa. Think beached whale.
Comfortable: Just ate not long ago and even though food might sound or smell good, you don’t physically need it.
Empty: Your stomach is feeling hollow and it’s been quite a while since you ate last. You’re hungry but not crazed.
Food Now!: You’re woozy and your stomach is rumbling. All you can think about is food.
Like most things in life, you want to aim for the middle. Comfortable is your goal. You’re satiated and your body is fueled up and ready to go. Empty is golden, too. You’re hungry, ready to eat and darned near everything you put in your mouth is going to taste phenomenal. What you want to avoid here are the two bookends on the shelf of overweightness, namely, Stuffed and Food Now! If you wait to eat until Food Now hits you, you’re going to go straight to Stuffed because you’ll be so hungry, and eat so fast, you won’t even see the off ramp to Comfortableville.
It’s kind of like bowling. You want to stay in your lane by only eating when you’re empty and stopping when you’re comfortable to avoid rolling off into the gutters of Food Now on the left and Stuffed on the right. And, just like in bowling, you can have a gutter ball now and then, still bowl pretty good games most of the time, and loose or maintain your weight. Ending up stuffed a few times a week won’t change things much. In the long run, it isn’t what you do some of the time that matters in eating and weight management, it’s what you do most of the time that counts.
So how do you get to Comfortable and avoid Stuffed? Well, this is where portion size comes in. In the beginning, while you’re still learning your body’s language, you might want to employ a few strategies to help you get to know what amount of food will get you to Comfortable but keep you away from the dreaded Stuffed. Try these out:
Use small plates: I mean small. The appropriate amount of food that will comfortably fill most people’s stomachs will fit comfortably on a six-inch salad plate – honest.
Sit down at the table to eat: I know. You love to eat in front of the idiot box. So do I. And I can because I learned to listen to my body’s hunger signals a long time ago. You’ll be able to indulge in that most treasured of American rituals again soon, too, I promise. But not yet, you’re still learning. Now go sit.
Slow Down: You say you love food so much you can’t stop eating it. Well, taste it for gosh sakes.
Stop: As soon as you feel comfortable and no longer hungry, stop! Put your leftovers in the fridge for later. Your clean plate won’t feed our hungry planet. Trust me.
After adhering to these suggestions and listening to your hunger signals for a few weeks, you’ll probably find you can eat anywhere, doing anything, and still know when it’s time to put down your fork.
And later, at the corner table at Jaques’ Bistro that rainy afternoon, as the waiter took our plates, Janet's clean and mine still half covered with mutilated croque monsieur, we both declined dessert. I skipped the crème brulee that day because I was comfortable. Janet passed because she thought she should. She said she was stuffed. I wondered if she really was but decided only she could know that. Besides, it doesn’t matter. She’s stunning and she knows it. And when she finally learns to maintain her weight by listening to her body, well, then she’ll know that, too.