About a year ago, I rebranded this website from The Restaurant Dieter to Healthy Restaurant Eating.com. I did not know at the time how wise that decision would be. I’m done with dieting.
And I’m no worse for it.
Yesterday, I weighed in at Weight Watchers. Without tracking and counting Weight Watchers points for two months now, I have remained in the same weight band I have been for the better part of a year. How have I managed? I have engaged in mindful eating — not at all the same as a diet — and gotten some exercise. I’ve added more nuts to my diet, whenever I feel like it. And I’ve stopped eating when I feel full.
These are the wise conclusions in a revealing new book called “Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession with Weight Loss.” Author Sandra Aamodt chronicles her own journey, along with tons of peer-reviewed scientific research that shows why this is a losing battle. Most interesting of all to me is the research that shows the very act of mentally focusing on the weight battle wears us down and results in…more eating.
WHY would dieting lead to weight gain? First, dieting is stressful. Calorie restriction produces stress hormones, which act on fat cells to increase the amount of abdominal fat. Such fat is associated with medical problems like diabetes and heart disease, regardless of overall weight.
Second, weight anxiety and dieting predict later binge eating, as well as weight gain. Girls who labeled themselves as dieters in early adolescencewere three times more likely to become overweight over the next four years. Another study found that adolescent girls who dieted frequently were 12 times more likely than non-dieters to binge two years later.
How credible is her work? Pretty credible. She has an undergraduate degree in biophysics, a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester and four years of post-doctoral research at Yale University, according to her biography. She’s also was the editor-in-chief of the scientific journal, Nature Neuroscience.
And her own journey will sound achingly familiar to those who have struggled with weight their entire lives.
This is no knock on Weight Watchers, which just this year changes to a new emphasis on eating mindfully, exercising and overall health. It’s called “Beyond the Scale.” In fact, though I am not tracking and writing things down, I am eating the way Weight Watchers recommends on its “Simply Filling” plan, which does not require the level of writing things down that the standard points-tracking plan does.
At some point, I might chuck Weight Watchers entirely, but not yet. I like being able to weigh in to keep my mind on my mindfulness, so to speak. And for a person just starting to get serious about living a healthy lifestyle, I’d still recommend it as a splendid way to get acclimated to eating the good food our bodies need more often.
Travel is hard. It shows up on the scale for nearly everyone. In my case, it was:
A weekend in New York for fun.
A week in Orlando at a company conference. You can’t set the menu, you can’t avoid the food. There are healthy choices, of course, but so many others and so much of it. And when the meetings start with breakfast and go through sponsored events until 9 p.m., it’s not easy.
When proponents of healthy eating talk about the “Mediterranean diet,” they are talking about Italian food, but not Italian food as it is often consumed in the United States. Here you find huge servings of pasta, drenched in heavy sauces and overwhelmed with cheese. Not for the weight-conscious at all.
In Italy, the Mediterranean diet uses lighter preparations and more vegetables and legumes than you’ll see on the typical Olive Garden menu. My Sicillian grandmother might pair a pasta with a light sauce made from nothing but garlic, olive oil and broccoli. Or peas with a touch of tomato and some of the cooking water from the pasta itself. One of my favorite restaurants in Rome serves nothing but fried fish and giant white beans cooked with onions in olive oil.
A recent visit to il Giallo Osteria and Bar in Sandy Springs, Ga., allowed The Restaurant Dieter to order just such a meal from a nicely accommodating wait staff. In Weight Watcher terms, a very filling dinner was a mere 14 points.
il Giallo is proudest of the pasta, which is made on-site. This point took a starring role in the server’s menu spiel, which unfortunately went to record length. Pasta can be ordered in a large or half portion for those who wish to have a “primi” in the spirit of a traditional Italian meal: antipasti, a small primi of pasta or risotto and a secundi of meat or fish.
il Giallo’s menu has its share of rich pastas; this restaurant is in the suburbs of an American city, after all. But one seemed doable if only the butter could be left off. It certainly could, the sever immediately agreed. What arrived were three perfectly cooked tortelli, stuffed with a bit of cheese and an earthy tasting of greens and a modest amount of marinara on the side. It was excellent, and the butter was neither needed nor missed.
The tortelli with ricotta and wild greens, minus the butter
When any restaurant menu has so many vegetable sides — cortoni, as they’re called in Italian — I often make a meal of two or three. There were seven on the il Giallo menu. The the server offered to make a plate of three. It was enormously filling — huge mounds of nicely caramelized cauliflower and golden beet with a bowl of simply prepared cannellini beans.
The kitchen’s presentation on one plate deserves praise, too. It’s embarrassing when a restaurant is so clueless that, even when asked for a vegetarian entree, sends out two or three plates and tries to wedge them onto the table.
All were excellent, but I couldn’t finish. I assessed 7 Weight Watchers SmartPoints for a cup of the beans and another 4 for the fats in the preparation. And were it not for il Giallo’s location — a strip mall off Roswell Road — I felt I might just have been in Rome.
Vegetarian and vegan restaurants evoke thoughts of healthful plant foods and grains, if not Birkenstocks and skinny people whose thighs are no bigger than my wrist. If you’re watching your weight and looking for that kind of vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Sunflower, with locations in Atlanta and Sandy Springs, is probably not for you.
My first visit to the Atlanta location was on an unseasonably warm day after Christmas. It was nice enough to sit outside on the narrow patio. It was late in the day for lunch and the hostess was firm: “We close in 10 minutes.”
“Does that mean that I can order?”
“Yes, but quickly.”
OK, not the best welcome, but I learned later from the server that the cooks do indeed hightail it out after the end of the lunch service at 2:30 p.m. Dinner begins at 5 p.m., presumably with a second crew of cooks.
Their hasty departure did not prevent them from serving me a lunch that, while vegan, was sumptuous. Just imagine: those two words together in the same sentence.
Beet carpaccio with cashew cheese and olive pesto
The starter was a beet carpaccio. Thin raw slices were arranged on a long, rectangular plate with squiggles of superfluous sauce on either side. On top of each beet slice was a dollop of cashew cheese. The combination was wonderfully rich and didn’t seem affected one way or another by a smear of the sauces, described as olive pesto. I couldn’t find a listing for cashew cheese, so I assessed 6 Weight Watchers SmartPoints for 2 tablespoons of cashew butter.
The entree was filling enough that a starter wasn’t really needed at all. A large spinach wrap was stuffed to capacity with quinoa, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, mashed sweet potato and avocado. It nudged the edge of pool of chipolte aioli, and the small dish of a vegan cheese came on the side, as requested. It was accompanied by a small cup of earthy butternut squash soup and a green salad with a bright, ginger dressing.
Even without the cheese, the burrito was thick and rich. It didn’t look shiny, as if the vegetables had been bathed in an olive oil. But what was inside felt undoubtedly substantial. This clocked in at 6 smartpoints for a cup of quinoa, 5 for a half an avocado, 6 for the spinach wrap. Even with no visible fat, it seemed wise to throw in another 3-4 smartpoints to cover that potential plus the couple of times the burrito hit the chipolte aioli.
Quinoa avocado burrito with butternut squash soup and green salad
For lunch, 26 is a substantial expenditure of points. Too much, really. Half the burrito would have sufficed. The Restaurant Dieter paid for it, too.
The whole affair called for a nap that ended with heartburn — a rare event when I’m eating light and healthy. All the contributing factors were probably at play: the position of the lower esophageal sphincter when laying down, too much food, meals high in fats and oils (animal or vegetable) and likely, garlic and onions somewere in the preparation.
But I couldn’t stop.
On my second visit, I resolved to consume fewer calories and ordered a decent squash soup and the warm quinoa veg plate. On the latter, the name proved as accurate and boring as the dish itself. I’m sure the chef would say it was my own fault.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts
Meanwhile, my companions reveled in the menu’s delights: excellent steamed dumplings with cabbage, carrot, tofu and black mushrooms; crispy (read: deep fried) brussels sprouts; the sunflower burger; and the Kabocha squash ravioli.
I felt so deprived that I wound up ordering a slice of their rich, dense, coconut cake and eating every crumb.
Going on vacation is hell on a diet, period. This is doubly true in a country where one has to be careful about what he eats and drinks — say Mexico, China and Cuba.
Two of the three above landed The Restaurant Dieter on an antibiotic. For the Mexico trip some years back, I thought those fears about the water were overblown. So I ate lots of produce washed in the local stuff and consumed water and ice cubes with abandon. I brushed my teeth with the bottled water the hotel provided and figured that was enough. Until it wasn’t.
Earlier this month, in Cuba, I took a Pepto Bismol before every meal and tried to strike a balance. At the start, I skipped the healthful vegetables and ate meat-and-carb-laden meals: pork, chicken, lobster, black beans and rice; and ropa vieja, the shredded beef that is the national dish.
But I missed raw vegetables and gradually added them back in as the week went on. The result? Cipro again.
The problem, of course, is that while the water in many countries is perfectly safe for those used to drinking it, there may be pathogens that our bodies cannot tolerate.
When the subject is eating healthy, a Mexican chain restaurant seems an unlikely choice. But this Weight Watcher passed by two other restaurants to eat at Mi Cocina in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.
The menu offers a perfectly dieter-friendly ceviche that is spicy, fresh and quite filling.
The Mexican restaurant ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips is not salted, making it possible to eat just six and no more. A salty meal, with its addictive properties, can trigger a binge day that doesn’t end.
Mi Cocina’s ceviche is a smaller portion than it used to be, but it is still a nice mix of shrimp, jicama, mango, avocado and red onion in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. The restaurant does not publish nutritional information, but My Fitness Pal estimates it at 109 calories, 4 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. That comes to 3 Weight Watchers SmartPoints.
The ceviche great on its own, but today I ordered a salad — blue cheese dressing on the side, no bacon and no crisp friend onions. The server was so stunned, he stammered: “Without those things, there really isn’t anything to the salad but the lettuce.” Perfect.
When it arrived, I dumped the ceviche over the lettuce, added about a tablespoon of the dressing and mixed it all up. “That’s pretty smart,” he said.
Yes, it was. So smart I had six of those unsalted chips.