Friday, February 18, 2011

Healthy Living: An Experiment in Eating

After G. tried to con me into feeding him processed, packaged "unfood" last weekend, I wrote about making the hard and often unpopular decision to eat mostly real foods -- non-processed, un-enriched and preservative-free foods {though we have our moments, just like everyone else, where we've been known to eat a Frosty or something}.

And Jade, a smart, witty writer who is currently working to stop sex-trafficing of women in Thailand, left an amazingly insightful comment on that post detailing her struggle with weight and experience with food of both America and Thailand.

Totally intrigued, I asked her if she would please fully share her experiences here. And thankfully for me {maybe you, too?}, she obliged. I think you'll be happy you stopped by today.


Do you ever feel like, despite your best efforts to be healthy or lose weight, there is something beyond your control sabotaging your efforts?

That, no matter how hard you try to make informed decisions about the food that goes in your mouth, there is some hidden power greater than yourself working against you?

Meanwhile, you’re left beating yourself up for the times you “slip”?

I do. All the time. And I’m kind of thinking that maybe I’m not the only one who does.

Hyacynth most graciously asked me to write a post on this topic because I, like she, have come to distrust what the American food industry tries to tell us is “food”.

Let me explain the angle I’m coming from here. If you knew me in real life, you’d probably know that weight is an issue that plagues me.

I’m one of those people about whom well-intentioned family members might (and did) say, “If she just lost a few pounds, she could be pretty.” Almost there, but not quite. I used to try really hard to eat healthily, choosing fresh fruits and vegetables from the local Farmer’s Market, cooking a lot at home so I could weigh and calculate every bite, and fighting with myself to exercise regularly.

I also had an insatiable sweet tooth, and every night was a battle with myself between soothing the beast craving sweets now and hating myself or being plagued with guilt later. I could be good all day, and then lose it come 8 p.m.

I blamed myself. A lot.

But there was a quiet part of me that kept popping up and saying, “Being a healthy weight shouldn’t be so friggin’ hard.” And a suspicious part of me noticed that when my skinny Thai cousins came to the U.S., they all started putting on pounds.

They all started having to do exercise and watch what they eat. Meanwhile, everyone I knew who spent a significant amount of time abroad came back having lost weight. And we’ve all wondered about the French who consume a steady diet of cheese, and bread, and cream and wine and still manage to walk around looking svelte.

I began to think that maybe it’s not food that’s the problem. It’s something in the food. We can see all the chemicals and preservatives, corn and sugar, and all kinds of unnatural things listed right on the side of all our packaged foods.

I can eschew the packaged stuff. But I still eat meat. Meat that has been fed on a diet of corn because it’s cheap, and stuffed with growth hormones to make it look plump, and additives to make it look pretty on the shelf longer. (Food, Inc. is a really good documentary that goes into this, if you’re interested in looking into the subject further. I also highly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.)

So, three months ago, when my husband and I packed up and moved to Thailand, I made a secret deal with myself. I wouldn’t make a special effort to control my diet here. I would eat what I want when hungry, stop when I was full, and when our scale arrived in our package of stuff shipped from the U.S., I would see what happened.

We ate out almost exclusively. This is a big shift for someone who used to almost always cook at home. But we’ve been eating mostly food served at the street stalls or local mom-and-pop style restaurants. A lot of it is fried. I’ve eaten way fewer veggies and way more rice. Meat is probably about the same.

Portion sizes here are significantly smaller, but here’s the kicker: I actually like that. In the States, I would eat until full and sometimes until stuffed. If food is in front of me, I can’t say no to it. But here, the food tastes amazing, but I happily stop at “satisfied”. There’s room for more, but I prefer not to feel full. I might eat less at a particular meal, but I probably eat more over the course of the day.

Meanwhile, we also enjoy desserts (donuts, pastries, coconut snacks…the gelato here is fabulous) on a fairly regular basis. (Before we came, I think it had been at least 5 years since my last donut.) We don’t hold back on the sweets. If we want them, we’ll eat them. BUT I don’t have the crazy sweet tooth I used to have either. Most times, I’m not interested, or I’ll think “maybe in a few minutes.” And then forget about it entirely.

This is not like me.

And also? We’re totally not exercising. By all accounts, the way we eat and don’t exercise, we should have gained weight. I could barely wait for our scale to arrive to find out what the effects were.

And then on Monday, our moment of truth came. Our stuff was delivered and we pulled out the scale. My husband, who is naturally pretty skinny, in three months without even trying lost FIFTEEN pounds. (!) (Full disclosure: he also drinks significantly less beer here.) The pants he sent in shipping? None of them fit anymore.

And me? I lost between 5-8 pounds. And this is me, a person for whom losing weight without trying ranks right up there with unicorns on the scale of likelihood.

I won’t take this as license to eat unhealthily. Because I do care about my health and heart, even if the pounds continue to drop, I will be more circumspect about the food I eat from here on out. But there is definitely something I learned about how the food I used to eat created cravings, while the food here seems to satisfy them.

All right, so we can’t all get too excited because this experiment is in no way backed up by real science.

It has a test group size of 2.

And very little in the way of controls.

But I share this because all my instincts are telling me that all that extra junk our food industry puts in our food has a real effect on our health. These things the industry adds to cut the costs of production or increase sales, I really am starting to believe have an effect on us. Even if they don’t necessarily add calories directly, they may still have an indirect effect.

Particularly, what I suspect could be the case is that they change the nature of cravings. They make us want to eat more, especially of things that contain sodium and sugar.

I don’t blame the farmers. (Ok, maybe I do give an evil side-eye glance towards the mega-corporations like Monsanto.) But I do think the costs for our health could be given a higher weight against the bottom line, even in economic times such as these.

The problem is, honestly, these are tough choices to make. It’s a difficult truth, but often we have to make a choice between nutrition and convenience. It’s made even more difficult when the convenient choice is also the cheaper, more affordable one (at least at face value), especially when you’re raising a family and are short on time and money.

However, the real question is: would we choose differently if we knew more? If we really knew about what effects those extra chemicals and preservatives and additives have on us?

Maybe we would choose differently.

Maybe we wouldn’t.

But at least the power to make that choice would be ours. We would no longer be fighting some unnamable force.

And we wouldn’t be sabotaged by the very hands that feed us.

Jade blogs at Tasting Grace. If you don't already know her, I hope this served as an awesome introduction to a very talented woman.