Like many women over 40, I’ve experimented with a wide variety of weight-management strategies since my teens, including near-starvation, bingeing, deprivation, limiting myself to certain food groups or only eating at certain times of the day, never snacking, only snacking, sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, fruits only, veggies only, food combining, over-exercising, under-exercising (usually when I didn’t eat enough to have any energy), living on Diet Coke (ugh!) and the list goes on. I am sure I have forgotten some of them.
Aside from gaining weight during three pregnancies (and far more than the “healthy” level for the first two) and consciously losing it afterwards, my weight has usually been “average” with a few highs and lows. Since I am fairly tall (5’8), a few extra pounds are easier to carry. Being underweight was more obvious as my long limbs looked longer than usual and along with that came comments (usually from my parents) about not eating enough.
If I were totally frank with myself, the reasons I had such an unhealthy relationship with food had a lot to do with some bad childhood habits that blossomed into teenage weight gain and the dreaded freshman fifteen in college, resulting in the usual self-esteem issues for a young woman trying to find her real adult self. But instead of growing out of it, my dysfunctional relationship with food continued on throughout my 20s and beyond.
In my 30s I became really interested in nutrition, sleep and well-being, logically enough as I was a young, sleep-deprived mother of two children born seriously close together. I also became more involved in sports, running and amateur competitions, mainly half-marathons. Suddenly, eating well became a way of fueling my body for exercise, or just for the endurance a young parent needs. I was disciplined about sleep, nutrition and exercising as much as my schedule permitted, and I realized that this made me feel great, inside and out.
Still, I did not have a “safe” relationship with food. I felt like I was always a step away from danger. I never allowed myself to enjoy food in any way. My mentality stayed focused on “willpower” and “deprivation”. And so often I would find my willpower eroding, enjoy a good binge, and make up for it by more deprivation and over-exercising. And so the unhealthy cycle continued.
When I moved to Paris, France, entire new food groups were suddenly a part of my everyday life – full-fat, delicious cheese straight from the farms. Fresh, preservative-free bread, amazing desserts from patisseries just a stone’s throw from our front door. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
Of course, given my odd relationship with food, being in such close proximity to delicious food revered the world over was a source of discomfort. At first, I just ignored it all. I could’ve been living in Paris, Texas and not in Paris, France as far as my dinner plate was concerned.
It’s been almost 15 years since I arrived in France, and although I live in a different part of the country now, the eating habits I picked up have totally transformed my relationship with food, in the best possible way. Finally! It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. I’ve realized that for me, depriving myself - especially when there’s such great food available fresh at my doorstep - is a surefire path back to old, unhealthy habits such as yo-yo dieting, and a less enjoyable life.
A while back I wrote about a similar topic, surveying what I’ve learned from my half-French children’s eating habits. This time, I wanted to offer a list of the MODERATION-based habits I’ve learned. It has made all the difference in the world for me: foods I once considered forbidden (or reserved for “binge” mode), are now part of my weekly or monthly intake.
Of course, moderate eating is not just a French habit. But it is pretty much a cultural given, one I encountered it again and again, among friends, acquaintances, family, doctors, nutritionists (someday I will write about my first encounter with a famous Paris-based nutritionist!), business associates, bakers, butchers, teachers, etc. The message finally stuck. Today, I enjoy food without guilt, my weight is completely stable, I don’t diet, and I feel better than I ever have in my life. And I eat whatever I want.
Below are a list of tips that work for me. If you, like me, have found your relationship with food is a fragile truce, I hope they will help transform your life too!
1. Eating at set times every day creates a natural rhythm.
This natural rhythm frees you from ‘distraction’ eating (out of boredom, stress, or just because it’s there). In France, there are three set meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with an optional snack around 4 pm. Eating outside that structure is a no-no. When your body is trained to meal times, natural hunger means that you look forward to the next meal and really enjoy it.
2. Eating real, whole foods not only makes you feel better and healthier, but also teaches you to crave real, unprocessed foods.
Just the other day, I overheard my 10-year-old tell his classmate that he only likes cakes that are “fait-maison” (homemade).The French love of food is based on seasonal produce, locally made delicacies, and fresh-baked goods.
3. Special occasions don’t mean going overboard.
I used to worry about dinner parties, holidays and vacations because they represented temptations I couldn’t resist. In truth, a moderate amount of everything is fine. Have a few bites of dessert, one small piece of bread, a delicious slice of full-fat cheese. Then, eat lighter the next day. Having a moderate amount of “forbidden” foods once a week, for example, will not make you gain weight. But it will keep cravings at bay, allowing you to enjoy everything, at least part of the time.
4. Let yourself stop when you've had enough.
The French have a way of knowing how to stop eating when they are full or almost full. I’ve seen this in my children, who will stop halfway through an ice cream cone or a piece of cake because they’ve had enough. Eating slowly and being aware of how you feel as you eat means you can stop when you’ve had enough … even when portions are beyond generous (as I find is the case in most American restaurants).
5. Water is essential.
Wonderful wines aside, water is the drink of choice, at table and in between meals. Hunger is often thirst in disguise, so drinking water helps keeps hunger at bay and frees you up to allot calories to delicious, whole, unprocessed foods.