Rules – love them, need them! The American Diet and the French Paradox

Sorry for the dearth of posts, I have been busy with Grad School, so you may expect a little space between posts. This one, however, is a long one, so get comfy if you actually want to read it all. It is also pretty personal, but I hope my thoughts can help someone else, and I will try not to be too sappy. Here goes….

I need to lose weight. No, thanks for the compliments, but I really, really, need to lose weight.

Melodie Morgan, 1972

Me, before an addiction to cheese and extreme lack of coordination cut short my promising dance career. 1972

I have struggled with it my entire life. I was the 95 pound 5th grader when my friends weight 65. I loved cheese, and my after-school snacks consisted of as many slices of Kraft singles I could get out the refrigerator without my mother noticing I had finished the one she gave me. Ice cream bowls in our house were as big as my head, and I loved ice cream. I love food, and never learned much restraint or portion control.

Oh sure, I learned to diet. I knew every diet and all the rules for losing weight. I have done it often enough. I have been on diets for much of the past 35 years. I do not lack will-power, as it is described in diet terms…I can starve myself to thin(ish)…it just doesn’t last long enough to keep the weight off permanently.

Melodie Morgan on Goldie 1980

Me and my horse friend, Goldie, 1980. I honestly thought I was enormous in those years.

I like walking, Pilates, yoga, dancing. (I am ridiculously uncoordinated, but still like it!) I managed to be acceptably thin throughout high school, bouncing between 128 and 135, but 110 was my goal and I hadn’t seen that since 6th grade. I reached my lowest weight right before my wedding in 1986. (It was 123 pounds, if you really want to know. I am 5’5”), and even spent 2 weeks hovering in the low 130s after my son was born.

Michael, Pam & Fred Morgan, Andrew, Melodie & Roger Nichols '87

Shortly after our son was born, still carrying around a lot of “baby fat.” Boy, we all had a lot of hair back then!

And that was that. I haven’t seen those numbers since Miami Vice went off the air. I have bounced all over since then, and believe you me, sometimes you could have bounced me like a beach ball! I have tried all the diets, and the non-diets, liquid supplements, appetite suppressants (that was fun, if you like heart palpitations) fasting, grapefruit, vegan, Atkins, South Beach, juicing, you name it, I probably tried it. I even tried that cleanse where you drink a quart of salty water to supposedly “flush” your system. I threw up.

I really never got it. I think, like many people, I kept looking for the magic potion, the one thing that would allow me to keep doing whatever I wanted and somehow be thin. There had to be a formula, it couldn’t be anything I was doing wrong. I wanted someone or something to blame. Yeah, I am kind of big boned. I am a little “chesty”. My husband likes curves….um, those aren’t curves. Those are lumps. Wake up, chub.

Dovie Henry, Marie, Edna, Bessie & Ruby 1951 or 52

You can blame it on genes, but I didn’t get fat from this group! My grandmother is at far left, my Great Grandma in center. No beanpoles, but no double chins, either. Early 1950s

So I made new rules. I researched (as an historian, it is basically my only skill.) I read, I talked to people, – successful people, not those who have been struggling with the diet du jour for five decades. And along the way, I realized something…this isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible. Weight loss is possible – the math works. As a friend pointed out to me, people in concentration camps got THIN, so cutting calories will, eventually, lead to weight loss. I am not making light of the horror of concentration camps, don’t read me wrong. My point is, if you eat less, you will weigh less, eventually. I needed rules. (don’t worry, I’ll get to the rules. If you are sick of my babbling, skim ahead to the rules below.)

The problem with a reducing “diet” is you don’t do it forever. Obviously, you reach your goal, or something in the neighborhood, and revert to your old ways. Ahhh, thank god that is over, pass the gravy.

So I needed to look at people who are successful at staying thin. It makes sense that, if you weigh more than you should, you are eating too much food. Maybe, I thought, it was a perception of how much food I need that was the problem. Maybe it was a fear of feeling hunger that was stalling my attempts at shedding, permanently, extra poundage.

I am fascinated with the “French Paradox” as they call it…the idea that the French eat a diet full of butter and oil and pastry and wine and, by and large, stay svelte. Americans love this idea, because it suggests you can start your day with a 3 pound croissant, end it was a gallon of red wine and enjoy every cream sauce known to man in the middle, and still lose weight! Well, you can have all those foods! You just can’t have that much of them.

And that, my friends, seems to be the answer. Portions. Our concept of what constitutes a portion of food, what an actual meal, should look like, has been warped by our own abundance. Now, I am not being critical of our country in general, it is wonderful that most of us have a problem of too much food rather than too little. Needing a diet is actually not the worst fate to befall mankind.

I will use the example of my lovely mother-in-law. She is British, although she has lived in the US since the late 1940s. She grew up during time of Depression and War. Britain, I am told, was on rations for 14 years! She remembers her mother making the children eat all the fat off their meat, when they had meat. Their problem was not too much food; it was getting enough food, specifically fats, in their diet. My MIL was slim. I mean, really, beautifully svelte, even after having 5 kids. How did she do it? It wasn’t all healthy; when everyone else was having dessert, she had a black coffee and a cigarette. She never ate a lot, especially sweets, and her portions were never huge. She claims she gained weight after she quit smoking in the 1970s, but to this day, she is a lovely woman in her mid-eighties who still keeps tabs on her figure. She made a CHOICE not to over-eat.  Like the French women you can read about if you Google “French paradox,” portions are small, some meals are skipped, and they smoke A LOT.

I don’t advocate smoking, but there is definitely something to skipping a meal now and then. I think the conventional diet wisdom has done us wrong here. Feeling hunger is not something to be avoided. Being hungry is good…it means, you are hungry! Time to eat!  You don’t need to panic and head for the nearest drive-thru at the first rumble of your tummy. It is a good thing for your body to use what it had at hand, and then decide it is time for more. Sometimes, if you wait a bit, that hunger goes away, your stomach will shrink a bit, and you will begin to have an easier time eating less.

Because that is the key. Being hungry won’t hurt you, unless you have a hypo-glycemic problem, in which case, you probably already have some insulin issues and really should see a doctor. Hunger is a body signal, and we should listen to our bodies.

So I made some rules for myself. You can follow them, too, if you want; I think they are working. I have lost pounds already, I am not starving (although I get hungry, when it is time to eat) and I am enjoying my food soooo much more. I made up the rules, and I will tell you what they are in a bit, but first, indulge me on why I like having rules.

I need rules, even if they are rules I made up for myself to follow. Without my own rules, I am drifting, just doing what must be done and never allowing for what I want to do, leaving no room for improvements, growth, and exploration. Within my self-imposed rules, I can expand to enjoy the full freedom of being a healthy, happy, relatively affluent adult. Rules are like imaginary boundaries that I can throw myself up against when I need support. Silly, maybe, it works! My set of rules is not written in stone; it must have some flexibility as circumstances and life-stages change. And my set of rules does not work for everyone else – quite possibly it works for no one else.

For example, for almost my whole married life, I have had the rule that the bed gets made in our room every morning, the sheets changed once a week and all the laundry relegated to the laundry baskets. The room looks clean, always, even if it actually needs a dusting, because the bed is made. That rule actually came from my mother (thanks mom!) who pointed out a room with a tidy bed looks good regardless of what else is going on in there.

Another self-imposed rule regards makeup and grooming – basically, if I am well enough to be out of bed, I am well enough to put on my “face”. Every day. No matter what. Even if I am just going to clean the garage or walk the dog…moisturize, powder, lipstick, perfume. This rule is a newer one, about 3 years old, which came about after a long fight with pneumonia, when I literally wasn’t able to get out bed for several few days. Once I was up and around again, I was still somewhat under the weather for three months, during which time, my personal grooming really took a hit. It was somewhere in that time I realized I needed to put myself together every day, “dressed and brushed” I call it, even if no one else will see me. There may come a day in the future when these things aren’t possible due to illness or some other tragedy – all the more reason to enjoy them now.

I feel a sense of anxiety when I haven’t done what I need to do. While for some, spending the day in their nightgown may signify delicious indulgence, it fills me with anxiety and a sense of having wasted something very precious – time. My self-prescribed rules give me the freedom to enjoy my free time without guilt – I have done the little things, so now I can get to the good stuff. Could just be a remnant of my quasi-Puritanical upbringing that defined daylight hours for work, with any leisure only afterwards, if then. But I must say I do enjoy reading my daily blogs better when I can hear the whir of the laundry machines in the background. I throw in a load nearly every day. I don’t want to waste a whole day doing laundry; this way, it fits naturally into my daily routine.

I add rules when needed and erase them, too. When I worked in an office, I had rules about my manicure – I did it every Sunday night, and almost never left the house without polish on. While I still love polish, it isn’t practical at the museum, especially when I am cleaning, so the rule now is never leave the house with noticeably chipped polish. See, I can be flexible. A little.

Which brings me to the eating rules. I hesitate to call this a diet, because it involves a complete change in how I look at food and portions, and my attitudes toward it.

1. As stated above, get hungry. Food is GOOD when you are hungry, even healthy food like fresh veggies look great when the tum is rumbling. Don’t be afraid if you skip a meal. You have control over what you eat; you are a grown up, not a zombie. The conventional diet wisdom is hunger will make you over eat. It won’t if you follow the next rules….

2. Eat slowly. Really, really slowly. Put down the fork between bites. Chew. Talk to you companion. Sip some water. Don’t put food in your mouth while you’re still chewing. Hard to believe I had to teach myself this, but I did.

3. Don’t eat processed food. Real food is actually easier, cheaper, and much tastier. Half an ounce of real cheese will be more satisfying that a tub of diet “cheese food” whatever that is. You can afford better food now, since you are eating less of it! You will enjoy it more, and it will do your body better.

3. Don’t fill your plate, and if it is full, don’t eat it all. In a restaurant, ask for a box before you start eating and immediately put half the meal in the box. Now look at what is left. In most cases, that is a normal portion. Learn what a normal portion looks like. What does 3 oz. of meat look like? Measure it at home, and take that knowledge with you. Eat your veggies first – they fill you up, and if you are eating slowly (see rule 2) you will probably feel just fine eating half of what you usually do. We use tiny plates at home, and divide meals into “courses” to keep the flavors and textures interesting.

4. Learn your eating triggers. Mine is eating in the car, due to poor planning. New rule: no eating in the car. That means no drive-thru. If I am hungry, go home, there is soup in the fridge. (Then make sure there is soup in the fridge!)

5. Learn when to stop. Stop when you are satisfied, not stuffed. If you are eating slowly, you will probably get the signal after about 20 minutes. So, however much food you have stuffed into your gob in 20 minutes becomes your meal – eat slower, it will be less food, and you will still feel as satisfied. You learned what hunger felt like; now enjoy its opposite – satiety.

6. No snacking. Nope, never. Eat your three meals, or 4 meals, whatever works. Okay, if you REALLY must have something in the afternoon, make sure you include that in your total calories for the day, and don’t kid yourself. I just chose not to snack; it doesn’t work for me.

7. Don’t sabotage yourself. You know what I mean. There are a hundred ways to do this, from simply being afraid to be hungry, to not planning ahead to have a meal ready on a busy day. This is America, we are never really that far away from our next meal, and we likely won’t starve before dinner if we don’t clean our plate at lunch.

8. Keep it in perspective. Decide if you really want to be thin. I walked past Macy’s chocolate counter the other day. It was late afternoon, I had not had lunch (I actually forgot; I was too busy to eat, and I didn’t perish!) Anyway, it smelled lovely, and I looked at it and kept walking. I didn’t want it as much as I wanted to feel thinner and healthier. Same goes for homemade cookies, or that second glass of wine, or another breadstick. Do you really want it? Do you care about your waistline, or would you rather have a couple extra pounds and eat the breadstick? Your choice. Just realize, every day, we make the choices. I made mine, and they show around my middle.

9. No food is totally off limits. You decide what to eat, this is your life. Want the cheesecake? Make it a meal, or eat a tiny slice and then skip lunch. Just realize, that choice is less nutritious, but if you really must have it….your choice. Evaluate how you feel after each meal. If you are eating fresh, healthful foods, you should feel better on less. Oh, and drink water, it helps in so many ways. Sometimes when we feel hungry, it is actually just thirst.

10. Don’t take diet advice from failures. I could include myself in this, since I have failed at least once more than I have succeeded. Question your friends who are slim and stay that way, especially those who are older and have done it for a long time. I will be quizzing some of my slim friends in the near future, too. (You know who you are!) I suspect many of them will tell you they eat whatever they want, so look at what they eat….maybe it is a question of changing what you want.

I have to believe this is possible, because I have seen it happen. The math works. Now the choice is mine.

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About claymire cottage

I'm a museum curator who lives with a wonderful husband, Rowley the golden Retriever, and 2 cats; Mr. Cookie, and Mabel the Magnificent.

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