As misleading as you think this headline might be, it’s largely true. For two years now, I’ve been eating pizza, pasta, tacos, nachos, fried rice, and chocolate almost daily, and I’ve lost more than thirty-five pounds in the process.
To be upfront, I didn’t change my diet to lose weight. But my old eat-what-I-want-when-I-want milieu wasn’t doing me any favors (my husband has the metabolism of a tween). I hated how I felt—a deadly combo of sluggish and guilty, and I knew something had to change. Research proves that our basal metabolism decreases every year we age. At 30, my metabolism is vastly different from high school, when I could down half a Costco pizza and Coke in one sitting; now, I feel stuffed after one slice.
Due to my “have my cake and eat it too” personality, I knew that cutting out food groups or doing something I viewed as too restrictive (e.g., going Paleo or doing Whole30) wouldn’t work for me. The following is not some extreme manifesto. And no, I’m not depriving myself just so I can have treats here and there. These are simply six small changes I made that have transformed my eating habits for good.
01. It’s OK to Sort of Count Calories, But Here’s How & Why
I was curious about exactly how much I was consuming on a regular basis. So I made a mental note of approximately how many calories I ate for a week. To my horror, it was nearly 2,500 calories per day, the recommended daily amount for a 160-pound man of moderate activity. I’m 5’1”, 110 pounds, and live a pretty sedentary SoCal life. It was a wake-up call: I did not need to eat that much. If you’d like to achieve a healthier weight, it’s a good first step to find out how much food your body actually needs (it could be more or less!).
The MyFitnessPal app helps you quickly look up nutrition info in a chicken breast or a Chipotle bowl. New nutrition labels, packaging, and restaurant info make it easier to guesstimate, too. I didn’t bother counting fruit or veggie calories (they’re negligible compared to oils, proteins, and carbs). At night, I’d ask myself, “How did I feel today?” If I was hungry, I’d add a healthy snack (like an apple or almonds), and I knew to eat it earlier the next day. A few weeks in, I naturally found the perfect amount to eat during sedentary weeks. If I was more active, I’d add another healthy snack or two so as not to find myself binging on pantry Oreos at 11 p.m.
02. We May Hate These Two Words, But They’re Kind of a Big Deal
Portion control. Our bodies are smart. Binging on whatever-I-want meals over the weekend followed by eating salad all week does not make the boozy brunch and takeout choices you made disappear. It’s more important to eat a balanced diet from meal to meal.
A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine notes that despite all the diet strategies available these days, “it is primarily the net caloric intake that determines the net change in weight.” In the study, 130 obese patients were given a portion control plate and bowl to use for six months without adding weight loss medications or special diets during the trial period. Women were given a plate calibrated for a 650-cal meal (versus 800-cal for men). At the end of the study, researchers detected a significant 5 percent weight loss in the intervention group versus 1 percent in the control group. That means a seven- to one-pound weight loss difference for a woman who weighs 140 pounds, just by portioning her food appropriately and consistently.
03. When All Else Fails, Load Up on Produce
While there are plenty of portion control plates out there, you don’t need one to eat healthier. Nutritionist Suzanne Hollander, RD, says, “Go 50/50. Make half your plate fruits or vegetables to fill up on lower-calorie, higher-fiber foods, and allow the other half for your curated indulgences.” Pair bacon and eggs with a delicious smoothie instead of pancakes, and you’re on your way to making choices you don’t have to “make up for” later. Especially with the holidays coming up, being intentional about how you indulge will help make the season one of joy, not guilt.
04. A Healthier Recipe Exists Out There, Promise
For me, healthy food has to taste good or I won’t eat it (kale, barf). Thankfully, recipe sites have health-ified many of our favorite foods without sacrificing flavor. Craving pizza? Try Naturally Ella’s with premade dough and your fave toppings (Italian chicken sausage, fresh basil, and Parm, anyone?). Deliciously Ella’s (not to be confused with Naturally Ella's) vegan pesto pasta is my go-to; my hack is mixing noodles and zoodles 50/50 (best $10 I’ve spent on a kitchen tool) because I still want some pasta action.
From Skinnytaste’s loaded nachos to Cookie + Kate’s double chocolate cookies, clever home chefs and professional cooks have developed truly tasty recipes so that you can eat what you love without feeling sluggish, bloated, or regretful afterward. You just have to do a little digging.
05. A Little Less of This, a Little Less of That
Have you heard of the SOS-free diet? According to UC Davis Integrative Medicine, “An SOS-free diet simply means that no salt, oil, or sugar has been added during food preparation, cooking, or afterward.” The argument is that many foods have naturally occurring sodium, oil, and sugar content. Adding to it would be overkill. Plus, Americans who tend to eat out or eat packaged foods are probably consuming an excess already.
Dude, let me tell you. I used to pour olive oil into a pan, sugar in my coffee, and sauces on my meals like it was nobody’s business. Because it’s against my principles to cut out all of these completely, I focus on eating more whole foods (in their natural state); using an additive-free oil spray instead of pouring from a bottle; substituting natural sugars (such as applesauce or honey), vinegars, citrus, and spices (TJ’s 21 Seasoning Salute, y’all) for flavor; and not adding refined sugar to recipes or my coffee (there are already 13 grams of sugar in one cup of 1 percent milk) or ordering drinks when I’m out.
06. If You’re Going to Eat Junk, Make It Yourself
Michael Pollan, an acclaimed author, food culture activist, and associate professor of journalism at my alma mater, Cal Berkeley, has written several books that have transformed cooking and eating for the modern omnivore. Once I got accustomed to adding more produce to my diet and hacking regular meals to make them healthier, I took it a step further by attempting to follow Pollan’s food Rule #45: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
This is a great rule for a foodie because 1) it’s time-consuming and messy to cook junk food like french fries and ice cream, which means 2) you’re less likely to make it, and when you do, it tastes a million times better than it would at your local fast food joint or restaurant. Two weeks ago, I was craving gooey, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. So I found this single-serving recipe. I felt totally satisfied and proud of whipping it up myself. I’ve had small cravings for cookies since then, but not strong enough that I’d go out of my way to bake some. However, I know that when I do, I’ll have this delectable ammo in my back pocket.
In the end, it really is all about balance, which we all know is no easy feat. It’s not something you “accomplish.” You work toward it with every little choice you make. Whether you’re looking to lose, gain, or maintain your weight, eating healthily is constantly changing and looks different for everyone, but it starts with a solid framework. Once you’re familiar with the basics, you’ll feel empowered to strive for it on the daily, and you’ll know just where to begin again when you slip up (we all do!).
Photo Credit: Cookie + Kate