Most holiday celebrations focus to some degree on food. Consider the Hanukkah tradition of latkes or the peanut soup of Kwanzaa. Think of the Christmas’ ham; the roast turkey and mulled wine of Solstice/Sabbat. Then, of course, there are all the other goodies – pies, cookies, fruitcake and such – we share with each other through this time of year. Even those of us who create rituals of our own often include traditional foods for celebrating the season. For breaking bread together is one of the simplest and most common ways we have of strengthening and sustaining our family and community ties. It makes sense that food should play such a large role in our celebrations.
Then comes Diet Season.
Perhaps feeling guilty for overindulging in holiday sweets, a good many of us make losing weight our main New Year’s resolution. Like clockwork, we pick up the latest popular diet book, join a program like Weight Watchers or start a new exercise program in order to lose the pounds we put on over the holidays – and while we’re at it, finally work on that old spare tire we’ve been carrying around for years. We set a goal of five, 10, 15 pounds or more. And once we reach that goal – if we reach it – what do we do?
Go back to our old habits…and are stunned when the weight comes back.
This American Way of Dieting is but another tentacle of Western corporate medicine. Just as each new drug provides a stop-gap “cure” by squelching symptoms, so, too, each new diet gives us a temporary fix. Just as with most drugs, we resort to them again and again. For “going off a diet” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve succeeded in it and so no longer need it. It just means you revert to the patterns of eating and behavior that caused you to gain weight in the first place.
To maintain a healthy weight – along with good overall physical health – we need to be consistent in our approach to food. Nutritionists broadly agree that the diet you choose to reverse or control obesity should be one that you will follow for the rest of your life. Since no one can live on a reduced-calorie diet for the long term while remaining in good health (there is a good reason why researchers have referred to these as “semi-starvation” and “starvation” diets), we need to choose a diet – which means, after all, simply a pattern of eating – that’s nutritionally fulfilling yet not prone to make us fat.
Indeed, what you eat matters at least as much as the amount you eat, if not more.
In broadest terms, a healthy diet is based on vegetables, whole grains, legumes and, if we choose, lean meats and fish. It includes nuts, seeds, fruits, fish and other foods rich in healthy essentials fats, as well as olive, safflower, flaxseed and other unsaturated oils. It includes plenty of pure water, and sufficient protein (55-80g daily) and fiber (25-30g daily). It is moderate in carbohydrate (125-200g daily), most coming from vegetables. It shuns refined sugars and highly processed foods. It shuns low-fat “immitation” foods, which often contain extra sugars and other refined carbs to replace the fat. Products containing artificial trans fats and high fructose corn syrup are likewise avoided.
Reading that, you might think, “I’ll miss so many of my favorite foods, though!” Maybe it’s that Coke and potato chips you always have with your sandwich at lunch, or the take-out, deep-dish pizza you order every Saturday. But as you begin to modify your diet, you discover a wide variety of tasty and nutrient-rich foods to replace them. Your appetite broadens. More, you find yourself losing both your craving and appetite for nutrient-poor foods. Once you forego them completely, you lose your tolerance. Try eating them, and your poor physical response (e.g. headache, cramping, gas) will be a real deterrent. This applies less to homemade treats, largely because they don’t contain all the additives, preservatives and other chemicals that industrial foods contain. And this brings us back to the matter of the holidays.
As said, the sharing of food is a community-building ritual. This and other rituals matter deeply to our mental wellbeing and spiritual lives. There is no need to forego them. But it’s important not to let the pies, cookies and other seasonal goodies displace the more nutritionally-fulfilling elements of our diet. As in all things, moderation and balance are key. Following a regular, healthy and nutritionally-appropriate diet, you should find little need for the American Way of Dieting. And you’ll feel a lot better, too – feeding yourself well, nurturing yourself, body, mind and spirit.
From Biosis 7, November 2005