The Healthy Eating Plan I Accidentally Adopted
The best part? I was already following a lot of it, and you probably are too
I hate diets and everything they imply
Like many girls and young women, I grew up absorbing a powerful and poisonous message: my value was in inverse proportion to my weight and my dress size. The smaller I was, the greater my worth.
But I wasn’t small, at least not small enough for my pre-woke era, long before body positivity was a thing. From pre-puberty and on far into adulthood, I undertook a litany of weight-loss regimens, many of them no doubt familiar-sounding: the Stillman Diet, the Atkins Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet. Mostly I cycled in and out of trying to convince my body it didn’t need to eat.
The results were predictable. Occasional achievement of an unrealistic, unsustainable weight for my body type — accompanied by a lightheaded, almost manic thrill — punctuated by longer episodes of hunger, irritability, and frustration, laced with soul-crushing guilt when I would inevitably give in to my body’s demands for adequate food.
After more decades than I care to admit, I called a halt. If I have any diet guilt now, it has to do with all the energy I wasted in those years and, worse, how I willingly participated in the diet culture and industry, a pernicious system that has surely damaged many times the number of people it purports to help.
The War I Fought Against My Body
I grew up believing it was part of being a woman. I’ve declared a cease-fire.
I love food and feeling good
And I don’t feel good when I’m not healthy. Therefore, while I endorse and celebrate happy and whole-hearted eating, I am also determined to do so in a way that keeps me energized, satisfied, and in good shape as I round the corner into my golden years.
And here’s the truth: left to my own devices, I’m a bit of a libertine. I can both eat and drink my husband under the table, and while that’s okay on occasion (my husband marvels at my capacity), it’s no more sustainable than continual undereating. Not if I want to be healthy and feel good, which I most certainly do.
Meanwhile, I lead a busy life. How to strike a balance between my robust appetites and my need to remain creative, productive, and free of food-induced stupor?
Eliminating whole food groups (carbs, fat, high-glucose-index, or god forbid, chocolate) is self-defeating. Counting calories is soul-destroying. Replacing real food with meal bars is just sad. In fact, having to think too hard about food is a pain in the rear.
Delaying my first meal of the day was an easy fix
I don’t skip breakfast; I simply wait for several hours before I eat it. I have a day job and a morning routine that starts pretty darn early, and I enjoy having the time to practice yoga and meditation and drink a nice big mug of coffee and get some writing done before I head to work. This has been my habit for at least a year now.
Breakfast comes to work with me, usually in the form of steel-cut oatmeal that I make in a big batch on Sunday and lace with blueberries, chia seeds and a scoop of whey powder to boost the protein. Sometime between 10:30 and 11:00, I heat up a portion and add some almond milk, or, if I’m feeling decadent, a little cream. It’s not like I feel zero hunger in the morning, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother me to wait. In fact, I feel a certain mental clarity in my temporary fasted state.
Because, as it turns out, that’s the method I’ve stumbled upon: intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating. I’d already learned the hard way that going to bed on a full stomach is a recipe for a lousy night’s sleep, so I don’t eat after dinner, and late-night snacking hasn’t been a thing for me since high school.
Given that there was already at least a 10-hour gap between finishing my dinner and my mid-morning oatmeal — including the 8 or so hours when I was asleep — I was already well on my way to a very respectable IF routine.
Once I caught on, all it took was a little refinement and a wee bit more conscious planning and I found myself, with very little effort, following a program that’s getting positive nods from medical research.
The benefits of IF go well beyond weight regulation
Notice I’m not using the d-word here, although there are people who have found intermittent fasting to be a boon for weight loss. Still, we know how I feel about diets.
But according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there’s evidence that eating within a restricted window can act to stabilize blood sugar levels, increase resistance to stress, and suppress inflammation, as well as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improve resting heart rate.
Not only that, but it can improve memory and brain health. If you’re a person of a certain age — or really, any age —that should prick up your ears.
There are many different ways to approach IF, and if you’re interested in giving it a go, I leave it to you to do your due diligence and of course make sure you’re doing something that is safe and appropriate for your own body and state of health. I am not a doctor or a nutritionist or any kind of authority except a person who has found a routine that works well for me and that is easy to stick with. You may find it works for you too.
My thing is to eat within an 8-hour window, and it took me a little time to whittle down to that from a more common 12 hours. Note that the dazzling results called out in the NEJM article used a more restricted time limit of six hours. That’s a bit stiff for me on most days, but I feel good with my 10:30 to 6:30 or 11:00 to 7:00 routine — and there are days when I fudge somewhat in either direction (but very rarely both).
All the other principles of healthy eating still apply
Eating within a time frame is not license to pound down cheese puffs and lardburgers during your chosen window. It’s still important — perhaps even more important — to focus on good food, real food: fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils and fats. I love dairy too, so that’s part of my daily consumption.
Like many others have discovered, once you are thoroughly accustomed to eating health-giving food, any taste you may once have had for junk tends to fade away. I can’t even look at most fast-food and chain-restaurant ads on TV without feeling cringy and queasy. But I have my happy indulgences: just last night I reveled in a side of perfect onion rings with my kale salad.
Here’s why intermittent fasting is easy for me
First, I don’t have to think about it much. On workdays, I pack my breakfast and my lunch, an apple and maybe some almonds for snacking, and always a square of my favorite dark chocolate laced with flake salt (life is for enjoying, right?). I eat a reasonable dinner with my husband, sometimes have some wine, and enjoy a cup of herb tea after dinner. I feel well-fed but not stodged.
It’s a routine I follow five or six days a week. The 8-hour window is surprisingly easy to adapt to weekend days when I thumb my nose at my workday schedule. But when there’s a dinner party or an early brunch in the offing, I don’t worry about it. It’s a practice, not a diet.
Grazing has never worked well for me. I’m better off having a substantial, satisfying amount of food two or three times a day, with maybe a small snack (hence the apple and almonds) in between, than trying to eat little bitty bits all throughout the day. Otherwise, I’m prone to eat mindlessly and never feel like I’ve really had enough. This way, when I’m hungry, I eat good stuff.
This plan also leaves me enough time to exercise, write, recreate, and in general live life without spending overmuch time or energy on keeping myself decently fed.
For me, and at this stage of my life, my version of intermittent fasting aligns with my innate proclivities and keeps me feeling good. And it honors my body’s natural desire for plentiful, satisfying nutrition. IF may or may not work for you — but whatever approach you do take to eating, may you savor every single bite.