By The Restaurant Dieter

Tag: about me

Back with a new attitude about food and weight

It’s true in any language. Diets don’t work.

So where have I been?

Well, like a lot of bloggers, my desire to write after a day of work waxes and wanes. And for more than a year, it’s been waning.

That’s not the only reason. I’ve also continue to think about food and health. I don’t endorse dieting — at least as it concerns the defintion “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” Simply put, scientists are becoming convinced that dieting doesn’t work.

At 60, I’m the same size I was in high school, college and my early 20s. Most pictures from any point in my life show me with the same 36-inch waistline. At one point it got to 38, but mostly, I’ve been a 36 for years. Those two periods in which I got to 31 and 34 were a result of my exercising like a fiend and starving myself. I was eating a no-fat, turkey-and-cheese sandwich and a microwaved baked potato dipped in barbecue sauce for dinner. That’s no way to live.

I’ve come to the conclusion that first: the sane approach is to eat real food. By this I mean food that comes from fresh ingredients, cooked at home, with none of the salt-fat-and-unpronounceable words on prepared foods’ ingredient labels. Second, I also try to balance my choices; if I’ve had something rich and incredible, the next meal might be a salad with lots of vegetables, nuts and protein. The fact that I truly enjoy the latter helps.

So let’s continue the journey, shall we? Under new management, of course.

Why I am not dieting

About a year ago, I rebranded this website from The Restaurant Dieter to Healthy Restaurant 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.

In a recent column for The New York Times, she wrote:

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.

From burger flipper to burger journalist; My history with restaurants

For a period in the mid-to-late 1970s, I was the best “bun runner” at the McDonald’s in Southgate, Mich. — that is best after Linda Whose-Last-Name-I-Can’t-Remember. She was awesome.

Like Linda, without setting up trays of buns (lest they get dry), I could assemble 12 for toasting in seconds, gathering the tops in between my fingers in one sweep of my hands. (Two in-between-fingers had to hold two bun tops each; you try that at home!) In between toasting buns, I usually had time to help the “tray dresser” apply the catsup, mustard, pickles and cheese to the toasted buns while the burgers were finishing on the grill. And I handled all the Filet-o-Fish and pies as well.

It feels so long ago. It was an era in which teenagers were happy to get a job at a reputable fast food restaurant like McDonald’s. Now, to hear nieces and nephews talk about it, working fast food is totally lame.

With my white paper McDonald’s trainee hat, I started where everybody did: cleaning the tables, floors and bathrooms in the dining room. Then I graduated to making shakes. From scratch. Not pulling the lever and dispensing them into a cup. I said it was a long time ago.

From there, the possibilities for moving up dazzled: making fries, working the counter, cooking the meat and, good God — filling in for a manager. I stood at the front of the store, wrapping burgers and putting them in the warming bin.

This last assignment left one positively glowing. It involved “calling production,” or balancing the supply and demand curves perfectly. Running out of food meant customers waited — a near mortal sin in those days — but making too much meant that when food sat around too long, we had to toss it out. Such awesome responsibility.

I was pretty good at most jobs and eventually made it to manager, opening a nearby store in the morning when we first began serving breakfast. Yes, all of those eggs were in fact cracked from a whole egg and scrambled. No mixes in a quart container were used.

One of the benefits of that job was the free food: a sandwich, an order of fries or a fried pie and a refillable drink or a shake. From behind the counter, we also savored the delights we weren’t allowed to serve to customers: fries dipped in gobs of tartar sauce, Big Macs with extra everything; the odd sloppy joe assembled on the grill using two beef patties, onions, catsup and mustard and a little sugar; pies with a piece of cheese melted on top; fish sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes. (This was long before Burger King’s “have it your way” challenge: no lettuce was permitted on McDonald’s fish then.)

At closing time, anything left in the warming bin was fair game. You could have a Big Mac and cheeseburger nightcap while you were washing down the french fry area for the next day.

Is it any wonder that my weight shot up from 140 as a high school sophomore to 180 by the time I left for Michigan State University? My experiences eating at restaurants in college are a blur, save for the Taco Bell and the bagel shop that were near to the student newspaper. Can you imagine how cheap the all-bean burrito was in those days?

After school, I took a job at The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. After a couple of years there covering neighborhoods and city hall, I became a business writer. It was the dawn of daily newspapers’ interest in serious business journalism.

Wichita’s business community was known for two things, both of which I would up covering in my five years there: chain restaurants and aircraft manufacturing. It was the place where two brothers, Frank and Dan Carney, founded Pizza Hut in 1958 and minted chain restaurant millionaires all over town. At the time, Wichita also was home to Cessna, Beachcraft, Gates Learjet and Boeing Military Airplane Co.

The interest in chain restaurants was palpable. Pizza Hut was acquired by PepsiCo in 1977, and everybody in town seemed to be looking for the next big thing. There were guys who dabbled in what the industry called “casual theme dinnerhouses” such Chi-Chi’s; Wendy’s was in its major growth spurt; and the gourmet burger trend was just getting started with Fuddrucker’s.

With the vast wealth of PepsiCo behind it, Pizza Hut began seriously experimenting in those years: pizzas with odd ingredients such as barbecue sauce and chicken and my favorite innovation: a multi-layer stuffed pie that tons of crust and cheese in addition to the toppings. It was sort of like a Chicago-style pizza. I’m amazed to find a Bring Back the Pizza Hut Priazzo Facebook page devoted to it and this video on You Tube.

The notion of chain restaurants serving healthy fare was laughable. No one felt the slightest inclination — save for the folks behind D’Lites, a novel idea from a former college football player that flamed out by the end of the 1980s. Clearly an idea before it’s time.

So it’s encouraging to see some progress in the industry. With the obesity epidemic we have, you just wish there was more.

No, I’m Not a Food Critic

Full disclosure: I am not a restaurant critic.

I will rarely critique the ambience of the dining room or write at length about the service in general. I won’t show off my knowledge of food. (I am a good cook, but not an expert.) If I can help it, I won’t use fancy names for things that might otherwise be known by a common term. Or rely on common terms that make no sense when paired with food terms.

You’ve been served by this waiter before and felt stoooop-id.

Hello. My name’s Caleb. Can I tell you about the specials tonight? Chef has prepared a lovely shabu-shabu featuring rascasse with a mint-cilantro romesco. It’s served with a side of chickpea pakora. Our featured appetizer is a chicken lasagna lollypop. Oh, and you have to guess the price because I certainly won’t tell you!

That is not me. Where possible, I’ll make it simple. What did I have? Was it good? How did the restaurant handle any special requests designed to keep me on track?

I’ll leave the bacon-and-babaco profiterole to the pros.

The Restaurant Dieter Was Here

When you’re on a crusade — as I am — you spread the word in a variety of ways. I Tweet, have a Facebook Page, use Gowalla or FourSquare and now will be spreading the word in person. If you’re a restaurant owner and you see this card, it tells you I’ve visited.

Spread the word.

A Weekend of Extremes Visting Family

The Restaurant Dieter was visiting family in the Detroit area this past weekend.

Going home is fraught with diet peril. For starters, there’s the emotional baggage, no matter how much you love your family. And even when you can separate yourself some — I stayed with a friend — you can often fall into the same bad habits.

Food is love in my family. My spouse thinks it’s odd. He tells the story of what happened when my mom once offered him some treat after one of her huge holiday dinners.

“No thanks,” he said, falling into food coma on the couch.

“Why not?” she persisted.

“Boy that was big meal. I’m not hungry,” he replied.

“Why not?” she inquired, pushing the treat into his mouth until he succumbed.

That tale is another reason I often compare us to the couple in “My Fat Greek Wedding.” Food as love figures in their courtship.

By mid-Friday evening, I’d already gotten into the biscotti that my mother and sister bought at a bakery. I couldn’t say no, could I? They did it for me. (Insert the rationalization of your choice here.)  I’m sure I had at least four. By the time I was off to my friend Rich’s house to sleep, that sweet taste lingered and had me salivating for something. Something…more. Actually, anything more.

I stopped at a convenience store to get some snacks. What’s that they say about folks who travel with their own alcohol, for fear there won’t be any where they’re going? I bought chips — baked, of course — plus peanut butter filled pretzels and unsalted almonds.

My friend and I picked at those until the late night dinner he’d arranged arrived: a pie from a Detroit institution called Pizza Papalis. It bills itself as Chicago-style pizza, but it has a Greek surname. The first location was in downtown Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. The pizza is double crusted, with layers of cheese and fillings.

I had two pieces of the vegetarian. Pizza Papalis’ website doesn’t include nutritional information. Not that I stopped to think and look it up anyway. Two pieces racked up at least 1,000 calories and 80 grams of fat, judging by the nutritional information provided by the helpful folks at Uno Chicago Grill, which also specializes in deep dish.

Then — smack me silly for compounding the error — I went straight to bed. At 4 a.m. I woke to the wicked acid reflux moment I surely deserved. I chugged a Diet Coke and sat up at least an hour.

I resolved to behave the next day. Mom and I had lunch at Ram’s Horn. It draws a crowd Mom’s age — 85 — and has some decent large salads. I ordered a modified Cobb: yes chicken, no cheese, no bacon, fat-free raspberry dressing on the side.

When it arrived, I had a salad dressing epiphany: That fat-free raspberry vinaigrette, ordered many times at many restaurants, just tastes plain awful. A serving may only be 50 calories and no fat, but it’s just not worth it. Especially when water and high fructose corn syrup are the first two ingredients listed. Next time, I’ll spend the calories on a reasonable dressing, or ask for vinegar and oil. (The latter is no guarantee of a satisfactory dressing either, however; I’ve been handed canola oil and cider vinegar.)

For dinner, my sister had a coupon for Red Lobster. The full-color regular and specials menus are a case study in modern menu design. Flavors and fat layered until the fish is mostly obscured, but it’s what the customers seem to want. How about that spicy coconut and citrus shrimp from the specials menu? 1,230 calories, 70 grams fat and 3,490 grams of sodium — more than double what an adult over 51 should consume in a day.

It aims at a wider swath than the best fish restaurant I’ve been to: Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York. I’d only been on Weight Watchers a few months when we went. We had the tasting menu, which was a parade of amazing dishes that highlighted, rather than buried, the fish. It was impossible to figure the points value, but it all tasted so clean and fresh that I didn’t even bother.

Last weekend, in more modest surroundings, I went for shrimp cocktail — always a good bet — and ordered grilled whitefish from the “Lighthouse” fresh catch menu. It was a half-sheet of paper, no color, no illustrations — clearly for the rare ascetic like myself. I requested my meal prepared with no fat; it came out with a sheen that told me: Even if my request was honored, it picked up some fat on the grill. The flavor was excellent — fish, rather than a coating, sauce or fat. With steamed asparagusas a side, I had a pretty good day.

Of course, I did have to have one of those ubiquitous cheddar biscuits, which added 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 350 of sodium. Sabotage is everywhere, I’m afraid.

But give Red Lobster credit for trying. The Lighthouse menu saved me. And the company’s website has good information on healthy eating and a food calculator so you can plan your meal in advance.

The Restaurant Dieter’s cookbook

In my introduction to The Restaurant Dieter, I forgot to mention that I had edited a healthy foods cookbook. It seemed so long ago, until I was looking for something and realized copies still were available on

The HeartSmart Cookbook was a joint venture of the Detroit Free Press, my employer in the mid-1990s, and the Henry Ford Hospital Heart & Vascular Institute in Detroit. At the time, I edited the food section (along with some others). A weekly recurring feature in the food section was the HeartSmart recipe.

My collaborators in this affair were the woman who ran the program at the hospital and the certified home economist who ran the test kitchen at the Detroit Free Press. The latter was a goddess of domestic affairs; for one Thanksgiving, Jeanne crafted a dinner that could be turned out in two hours. She taught me almost everything I know about food, including and especially, the danger posed by raw eggs in a recipe. I think of her fondly and often when I’m cooking.

One of my chores for the newspaper was to edit the recipes in the Food section, which is not as easy as one might think. A mistake in a newspaper story is unfortunate, but a mistake in a recipe can be a disaster. The meatloaf recipe that called for a cup of milk, when it should have called for a tablespoon, still gives me nightmares.

“What am I supposed to do with this mixture?” the woman on the phone demanded of me.

“Add more breadcrumbs?” I offered hopefully.

And then there was that recipe that called for you to mash the potatoes and set them aside. What you were supposed to do with them later to complete the dish was never clear.

Of course, when you’re publishing a cookbook, the necessity for recipes to be accurate is all the more important. A correction cannot be issued in the newspaper the next day. So my job was to thoroughly check the recipes we’d planned to include plus edit the text.

It turned out rather well and racked up sales that any cookbook author today would crave. It helped that the book was offered for sale at the many speaking engagements undertaken by the Henry Ford Hospital Heart & Vascular Institute.

Still, it was nice to pull up Amazon and see 14 new for $6.50; 63 used from 1-cent; and one listed as “collectible” for $3.99.

And, of course, to read the lone user review, which says:

“I have loved this book and the dishes I’ve made from its recipes for years. The editors’ knowledge of food and flavor balance is apparent in every recipe I’ve tried. Some recipes do not excite me but eventually I may try them. Not every recipes is quick to prepare but I’ve always found that the results have been worth the time I’ve spent. I bought my first copy over 20 years ago, recently gave that to a friend and bought another copy for myself. I couldn’t be without it. Oh, yes, and the best part is that the food is healthy!”

What makes a person write about a crazy subject like dieting and eating out?

Not too long after The Restaurant Dieter took up with his spouse, he heard the phrase “PR” applied to restaurants. Specifically, it stood for “personal record” — how much was spent per person on expensive, high-end meals. We were at a nice restaurant with TRD Spouse’s family at the time.

This was a sign of the danger to come, of course. I grew up in more modest surroundings. There wasn’t much point in dwelling on a PR at Symack’s restaurant in suburban Detroit. It was one of two restaurants we went to when I was growing up, and then only occasionally. Moreover, it met the criteria that rendered restaurants acceptable or not in my family: the napkins did not “stand up.” Once on a vacation with the family my mother laid down the law: A cloth napkin folded into a triangle sitting on the table was a sure sign that a restuarant was too expensive. Symack’s was all paper placemats and napkins.

I do have fond memories of the food itself, though; my adult diet dilemma can’t be blamed solely on my husband. Growing up, even if we ate cheaply, we didn’t necessarily eat healthily. I craved the triple-decker Dinty Moore sandwich, whose chief sins were white bread, corned beef and Russian dressing. And the salad dressing — a big gob of Thousand Island Dressing topped with what seemed like 1/4 cup of blue cheese crumbles — still makes my mouth water. As an adult, I’ve savored it on an iceberg wedge at The Palm.

Classy, no?

The other restaurant was called the Sweden House. What was a nice Sicilian family like ours doing at a place with faux-Scandanavian overtones? Bellying up to the buffet, and I do mean bellying. It was an all-you-can eat smorgasbord, where you could — and we did — pile on the fried shrimp. Repeatedly.

So I introduce you to TRD Spouse’s dining predilection with no malice. It’s certainly not his fault that I’ve battled weight nearly all my life. And even if he weren’t finding new high-end restaurants to try, I’m still  occasionally guilty of finding my own smorgasbords to belly up to.

My Fat Greek Wedding

Still, he provides a convenient foil in nearly all ways. A good way to think about it is that I and my family represent Toula from “My Fat Greek Wedding.” And he is Ian, so white bread he’s …Canadian. My family is securely working class, while his grandad was the chairman of the local bank. His family is The New Yorker, and mine is Life magazine.

So 16 years ago, we melded the world of restaurant PRs with “I’d like a clean plate for some more fried shrimp, please.”

Together, we have ordered a Reuben sandwich for — 2? 3? all of Manhattan? — at The Carnegie Deli in New York. Our love of good food has led us to restaurants such as Alinea in Chicago. The link to that restaurant’s website should tell you just how swank the place is. See if you can figure out what to click on.

(By the way, for the Toulas among us, Alinea is pronounced “ah-LYNNE-ee–ah.” I tend to forget and refer to it as “al-li-NAY-uh” because it sounds ever so more chic.)

Alinea is the creation of Grant Achatz, who is listed on the restaurant’s website as a partner on “the creative team,” otherwise known as the chef. He’s one of the nation’s high priests of molecular gastronomy, which means that the kitchen has thrown mere pots and pans out the window in favor of laboratory glass beakers and liquid nitrogen. He gets extra credit in this elite world because he has lost his sense of taste. I’m not kidding. I can’t think of a better reason for a restaurant snob like TRD Spouse to want to go there. So go there we did.

There is no menu from which to choose at a restaurant like this. A meal is a symphony of chef derring-do where the menu is set in advance and only the number of courses varies. Each table must select the same meal plan, however. TRD Spouse once did the “24 course chef’s tour” with a group from work and they didn’t even have to leave Chicago.

This is a restaurant where the napkins not only stand up, they also are folded, re-folded and/or replaced every time you leave the table.

On our visit, a parade of servers emerged from the kitchen dispensing tiny bites of food and extensive instructions. To get the proper effect, the server advised that we need to toss back — in a single gulp — the contents of the shot glass, for inside was a celery broth and a frozen horseradish ball filled with apple juice. Maybe it was apple essence; juice sounds a little too hoi polloi. We were advised that the pillows on which one dish was set would gradually deflate, releasing the juniper scented air and imparting a lovely flavor profile (profile? which, exactly, is what?) to the food itself. No dish could simply be eaten.

Of course, figuring Weight Watchers points on a meal like this is pointless. In 16 years, we’ve had a great many meals like this. One thing I’ll say for them is: the portions are tiny and while there is undoubtedly diet damage, the intense flavors are likely to come from mad scientist preparations or expensive ingredients — not the fat, salt and sugar that dominate inexpensive restaurant meals. I mean, how many calories could that juniper air have been?

Still, the meal left me wondering, and therefore perfectly entitled to be a jerk and ask the server when the coffee arrived: “Is there a particular way we’re supposed to consume this?”

Now where can I go find a good friend shrimp buffet?

The Restaurant Dieter begins

Meet TheRestaurantDieter.

He’s 52, soon to be 53. He lost 50 pounds about four years ago and has managed to keep most of it off. His blood sugar is normal, his blood pressure is normal and he can even fit into clothes that are — occasionally — age inappropriate. More on that later.
The Restaurant Dieter

He is currently about the size he was in high school, but bigger in the chest and shoulders. What man doesn’t love that? He has gained and lost several people in weight over the years. He’s boxed up clothing for Goodwill and counted himself lucky when the transition coincided with a change in fashion trends.

Since he discovered kneecap-slamming aerobics in the early 1980s, he’s always had some exercise in his life. Currently, it’s a combination of elliptical machine, bike, yoga and free weights.

When he lost the 50 pounds four years ago, he had help from Weight Watchers. There is ample research that supports WW’s commonsense approach: Most people in our food-centric world cannot lose or maintain weight without some system of counting and accountability. He’s found this to be true and not onerous.

Plus he likes the Weight Watchers cookbooks, which have come a long way from the days when they listed tomato juice as a salad dressing.

He reached his WW goal in about a year, and has been consistently over that by about 10 pounds since. He chalks some of it up to the testosterone supplement he’s taking. But honestly compels him to disclose that he does not count WW points every day. But he does count as often as he can.

He lives in Atlanta — a pretty wonderful restaurant town  — and travels frequently with his spouse, whose hobby is checking off the Best New Chefs from Food & Wine.

He admits he rarely counts WW points when he’s visiting New York City, where the “Sex and The City”-inspired cupcake craze has given way to the doughnut craze, courtesy of Doughnut Plant. It is a city where temptation is on every corner. He stays within walking distance of a place that serves carry-out lobster rolls.

Remember this?

When he can summon the internal fortitude to behave himself in the food department, he often finds the choices lacking or uninspiring. It is as if the diet plate of his youth has never disappeared. Moreover, restaurant staffs are either unhelpful or deaf to requests.

For four years, his quest to maintain both lifestyle and weight has posed a challenge.

Along the way, he’s learned a lot that he promises to pass on in this space.

Oh, by the way, The Restaurant Dieter is me.