Several emails landed in my inbox after I published my post on vacationing in California. They all asked the same question: How do you stay fit even though you eat so much? Instead of responding to each email individually, I decided to answer them here. This is how I do it.
1. Portion control. I don’t eat that much! I know that most of the recipes I publish here are not diet-friendly, and that the restaurant food I eat is not exactly low in calories. I don’t do low-cal or low-fat. I like rich food with strong flavors. I adore butter. I also very much dislike the grainy texture of whole wheat bread, so I eat white flour, including this incredible pita bread, white rice and regular pasta. BUT I KEEP MY PORTIONS IN CHECK. I’d much rather eat small amounts of full-fat food than large amounts of low-cal or low-fat foods. I don’t put a lot of food on my plate and I listen very carefully to my body. I try to never allow myself to get to the point of being uncomfortably full. In restaurants, where portions are huge, I often share meals with my husband, or I eat just half off my plate and get the other half to go. So when I posted photos of the fabulous meals we had on that vacation, it doesn’t mean I actually finished everything off my plate! In most cases, I didn’t.
2. Stay active. I exercise almost daily, for about an hour, either at home, doing a Pilates-like routine, or outside – walking, biking, hiking, swimming or skiing. I rarely stay sedentary for an entire day. I simply don’t feel well when I don’t move. I also follow the usual tips of moving a lot during the day, using stairs instead of elevators etc. On vacations, I am very active – which probably explains why I rarely gain weight even though I indulge.
Hiking in the Bay Area
3. Avoid using food to soothe emotions. I have a friend who struggles with her weight. She tells me that she knows it all – she knows what she’s supposed to do to stay fit, to lose weight and to keep it off, but so far she’s not been able to stop using food as a source of comfort whenever she’s stressed or upset. She theorizes that people who are naturally slim treat food as fuel and have no emotional attachment to it. I agree with her, to some extent. I don’t really treat food as fuel. I love food and view eating as highly pleasurable. But it’s true that I have learned to avoid self-medicating with food. I just don’t turn to food to deal with unpleasant emotions. I turn to friends, to exercise, even to the Internet – but never to food. While weaning oneself off the habit of emotional eating is not easy, I believe it can be done, because in my late teens and early twenties I did it on occasion, but have not done so for at least ten years.
These are, in my opinion, the main reasons why I stay fit and don’t gain weight.
4. While I eat what I want and don’t worry too much about fat, white flour or sugar, I do eat adequate amounts of fruit and veggies each day (at least 5 servings, usually more) and drink tons of water. I eat 5 small meals each day rather than 3 large meals, because large meals make me feel bloated and sluggish. I also finish eating fairly early – we eat dinner around 6:30PM and I don’t eat anything after that.
One of my favorite snacks: fresh fruit
5. I don’t snack mindlessly. I never got into the habit of grabbing a large bag of chips, sitting in front of the TV and eating the whole thing without paying attention. I always sit next to a table to eat, and I make myself a plate rather than grab a bag of something. A typical snack might be Greek yogurt, mixed with some fruit and nuts and drizzled with honey. Or cheddar cubes with a sliced green apple and a few crackers. Even if it’s chips, I still take a portion, put it in a bowl and sit at the table to eat it. With half a bottle of cold beer. 🙂
6. I don’t keep junk in the house. Right now, my fridge contains whole milk, grapefruit juice, cheddar cheese, butter, Greek yogurt, cream cheese, turkey lunch meat, chicken breast for tonight’s dinner, tortilla-style wraps, beer, and lots of fruit and veggies. In the freezer: plain bagels, sourdough bread, brioche rolls, a few bags of frozen veggies, and Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. Pantry: pretzels, crackers, popcorn, nuts, beans, rice, couscous, 70% dark chocolate, red wine, avocados, yams, and bananas. Some of you may consider some of these (ice cream, butter, beer, white bread) as junk, but I don’t – as long as they’re consumed in moderation.
7. I monitor my weight. I rarely weigh myself, but I do pay attention to how my clothes feel, and if – after a few days of indulging – I feel that my jeans are a little tighter, I pay extra attention to what I eat over the next few days and make sure I exercise.
I think this is pretty much what I do to stay fit. A nutritionist friend once had me keep a food diary and said that I eat about 2200 calories per day, which is about right for an active woman my age (39) who has a good muscle mass. Do I have a great metabolism? I don’t know. If I indulge for several days in a row and am fairly sedentary, I do gain weight, so I don’t think it’s about metabolism. More than anything, I think it’s about portion control and being active. I also think that as I get older, staying fit will become more of a challenge, so we’ll see how things go in the future and if I have to adjust my habits.
I’m not immune to the many temptation I’m surrounded with on a daily basis. In my opinion, the biggest challenge we’re facing in the developed world in terms of avoiding weight gain is the sheer abundance of food, coupled with a strong primal instinct to eat as much as we can and stay sedentary (in case food becomes scarce later), and a ruthless food industry that does whatever it can to make us consume more food, including the use of aggressive advertising and unhealthy food additives. I am facing these temptations just like anyone else, and sometimes I give in, but never for longer than a few days. Staying fit requires constant awareness, the daily exercise of self control, and deciding that being fit and healthy is a top priority.