December 15, 2011

Resetting the Fuel Tank

(Alternate title: “How to shrink your stomach in two weeks,” except I didn’t want to sound like an infomercial).

For years, I have been a “volume” eater. My favorite healthy foods are those that are super low in calories so that I can eat them in mass quantity without having to worry about overindulging. For example, one night when I was particularly ravenous, I came home and made a three quart pot of veggie soup (made by basically just chopping tons of veggies, adding water and spices, and simmering for a while). That might sound totally healthy, but not when you consider that I then proceeded to eat the entire pot of soup (directly from the pot, using a trivet to keep it from burning me, because I am classy like that). The whole thing was extremely low in calories, but I felt stuffed, so it felt like a great way to indulge without being unhealthy.

Then when I was in Peru, I didn’t eat a lot. I purposely packed tons of protein bars and a few packets of homemade oatmeal in my suitcase, planning to mostly eat these for breakfast and some lunches – both to save on costs and also to eat a bit more lightly while I was on vacation. As it turned out, the resort where I spent most of my trip had incredibly expensive food, and while there was cheap food in the adjacent town, there were several evenings where I was a bit concerned about walking over there in the dark (as a solo woman and a foreigner who didn’t speak the language, at that). Most days I was in Paracas, I ended up eating oatmeal for breakfast, going to the town for lunch, and then having a protein bar or two for dinner. Probably not the calories I’d need to sustain myself for regular life, but given that I was primarily lying around reading and sunning myself, it was adequate.

Coming home from Peru, I got food poisoning – and then I ate even less. For a few days, I pretty much ate nothing but crackers for every meal. When the food poisoning started to subside, I still kept my portions fairly small (compared to my usual) and relatively high in carbs (totally not my norm). My body and brain started getting used to the idea that small portions were enough, and when the food poisoning was gone, I found that I was craving much smaller portions of things than I once used to. In fact, after making a massive spaghetti squash saute that ordinarily I would have wolfed done – I got full halfway through my plate and decided to save the rest as leftovers. That never happens to me – I am a clean plate clubber for life, and if you put food in front of me, I’m going to eat it! This was so new for me, and it’s been amazing.

I look back on that time when I ate an entire pot of veggie soup, and I realize that it was pretty darn silly – and maybe even bordering on eating disordered behavior. I wasn’t eating a whole pot of soup because it was the most delicious soup ever; I was making it artificially low in calories by refusing to add beans/meat/etc so that I could proceed to stuff my face. What a terrible motivation to eat a meal! Since finally being able to make the transition to smaller meals, I’ve become a lot more careless about what I eat, in that I’m not scouring labels for nutrition facts. When you eat smaller portions, you don’t have to worry as much about whether you’re eating a high cal sandwich or a low cal sandwich; in a reasonable serving size, there isn’t going to be much difference between the two.

Of course, I haven’t completely renounced my “see food” (I see food, I eat it) diet yet. We had our client holiday party last night, and I definitely ate more than I should have (passed hors d’oeuvres always give me trouble because I can’t see all the food I’m eating at once, and I don’t realize how many little bites I’m eating that dd up). But today, I recognized that, let it go, and then resumed my now-normal sized portions afterward – without feeling deprived at all. When my old roommate dropped about 10 pounds by simply changing her takeout lunch to soup and a roll, I thought she was crazy – wasn’t she starving all day with that little food? But now I’m on that other side, and I happily ate my Senagalese peanut chicken soup for lunch with a piece of baguette – and felt totally sated afterward. I’ve started recognizing more when I’m hungry and need fuel (aka, my stomach is growling), vs when I just want to munch – but the times when I just want to munch are becoming fewer and farther between, instead of the habitual noshing throughout the day. I haven’t weighed myself in a bit, but I just feel so much better than before – and that’s way more important to me than any number on a scale.

The interesting thing will be to see how this affects my long distance running. So far, the effect to my workouts has been negligible, but we’ll see what I feel like eating before and after a marathon when it comes time for that. I’m also curious to see if this lasts, now that I’m back to the team dinner environment, and especially with lots of holiday parties coming up. Only time will tell!


4 thoughts on “Resetting the Fuel Tank”

  1. Interesting. I think a lot of times we eat what we’re used to eating (portion-wise) and don’t realize that we’re full until we eat the whole thing. At least, I am that way.

  2. Lee, that is exactly what I mean. Even if I did the recommended “wait 20 minutes and see if you still want more,” I always ended up going back for the rest of my (massive) portion. It’s also part of why I’ve struggled so much with eating healthy on the road – because I can’t get a big portion of something without getting a TON of calories. I’m excited to see how things are different from now on!

  3. Hey there,

    Thanks for posting this, and acknowledging some less-than-stellar eating habits.

    I’d really recommend that instead of calories, you look at the type of food you’re taking in. As you mention, you can eat a whole vat of vegetable soup because it doesn’t fill you up – but look at that the other way: why not find foods that are actually giving you the nutrients you need?

    America has this huge fat-phobia, without really realizing that fats you eat don’t just become fat on your body. On the contrary, it’s more likely carbs (especially white carbs like sugar, flour, rice) that get stored. Having protein with every meal is going to fill you up, leave you feeling more satisfied AND help you rebuild muscle.

    I follow the Eat Clean Diet, which is 5-6 small meals a day, with each containing a lean protein and a complex carb. It’s made a huge difference in my energy and overall body composition. I really recommend you think about it – it’s really a great way to help look after your body in a healthy way, fueling it for the work you put it through.

    I don’t count calories at all, but I eat a TON. The difference is that it’s all good stuff my body can use, as opposed to crap like sugar that the body has to work to process, and then stores.


  4. Andrea, thanks for your insight! While I talk about low-calorie foods, I actually completely agree with you on eating good fats vs empty carbs (things like white rice and bread are on my “sometimes” food list). Fat is definitely a good thing and necessary in someone’s diet!

    Also, just finished a really interesting book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, that has made me really excited about trying some high quality oil and perhaps doing a tasting. Check it out!

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