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6 Tips To Make Dessert Worth It

by | Dec 12, 2012

Never trust anyone who believes dessert isn’t an essential part of life.

There may be some small, joyless percentage of the population who can live indefinitely without sugar, but in my experience those who attempt it are kidding themselves and will inevitably fail.

Sugar is wonderful sometimes, and in general it is easier to find a way to live with it than without it.

But I’m not here to propagate any illusions either. The scientific literature makes it is pretty clear that sugars, specifically sucrose (table sugar) and fructose (the sweet stuff in fruit and corn syrup), are some of the worst foods you can eat and should generally be considered dangerous.

Sugars promote aging, weight gain and most chronic diseases. Sugar is also regarded as addictive by many in the field of obesity and weight loss.

So how should you deal with it?

Keeping desserts in perspective goes a long way to helping you make smart choices.

Keep these tips in mind to make sure the desserts you choose are worth it.

6 Tips To Optimize Your Dessert Choices

1. Make it formal

Self-control is not the easiest thing to practice when dessert is involved. You probably know this from experience.

Make a rule for yourself to not eat dessert in an informal setting. That is, do not eat sweets between meals and always sit down and be fully present when you eat treats.

Resist the piles of cookies, brownies and candies set out around the house. If you do choose to eat one, do not make light of it. Sit down with a chair, table and napkin and enjoy every bite.

Try to wait until after a meal so you are eating for indulgence and not to satisfy your hunger. Trying to feel full from dessert is a losing battle (see tip #4).

2. Size matters

Dessert has an obscene amount of calories. I know this is not fun to think about, but you should be aware that if you are eating something with sugar and fat there is an excellent chance you are putting down 50-100 calories PER BITE.

A single Godiva or See’s truffle runs at about 100 calories. A slice of Oreo cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory has 600-800 calories. It is hard to overemphasize how huge this really is. If you eat a reasonably healthy diet, this is likely more calories than you consume in an entire meal.

When you do sit down and eat dessert, remember that you do not have to eat everything that is put in front of you. The first two bites are always the most satisfying. There is no need to test the hypothesis that the 12th bite doesn’t live up to them.

3. Make an allowance

You should keep tabs on how often you eat dessert, and one or two per week is a reasonable goal for someone looking to maintain their weight. Zero to one serving is best for someone trying to lose weight.

For most people, weekly allowances are easier to manage than daily or monthly allowances.

Rules likes this help you make smarter choices. Do you really want to waste your only treat this week on a cookie from a box or a cake from Costco?

If you are ever going to be a picky eater, dessert is the best place to turn up your nose.

4. Don’t treat yourself when hungry

Sugar does not satisfy hunger. In fact, repeated sugar exposure creates spikes and dips in blood sugar that make you feel hungry again sooner than you should.

For this reason, sugary foods should never be substituted for real food and you should not rely on them to satisfy your hunger. Not only is this ineffective, it also makes it more likely you will overeat. Remember tips #1 and #2 and eat your small desserts after a real meal.

5. Eat healthy meals

Having an overall healthy, balanced diet is another effective way to avoid dessert binges. If you already feel satisfied with what you have eaten, dessert will truly be a treat and not an overcompensation for poor nutrition.

Healthy meals can also go far to prevent emotional eating, since they help create a feeling of fulfillment, comfort and satisfaction.

6. Stay on the bandwagon

Slip-ups happen with dessert, and it is not the end of the world.

Remember point #2, that size matters.

Just as 5 bites of dessert is much, much better than 10 bites of dessert, one slip-up is better than 3-4 slip-ups. Don’t let one holiday uh-oh send you into a week of unbridled gluttony.

When it comes to sugar, less is always better. Avoid the temptation to throw in the towel.

Are your desserts worth it?

Originally published December 21, 2009.

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How To Burn More Calories Without Breaking A Sweat

by | Sep 12, 2012

It’s amazing to me how easy it is to forget to move.

This year was the first time in about 5 years that I found myself gaining weight. It wasn’t a lot, just 5 lbs over 6 months or so, but it was strange for me since I didn’t think I was doing anything different.

I write and think about healthy living all the time, and I absolutely love the food I eat. I no longer crave sugar, and avoiding it isn’t hard. If anything I have eaten healthier than ever during this time, since I started working at home and control 100% of my meals. I’ve been eating the same or better quality food than I always have, and have even improved on my mindful eating techniques.

So what gives?

I didn’t think the problem was exercise, since I still go to the gym 4-6 days a week. My workouts have actually gotten better, and I’ve noticed welcome improvements in several aspects of my physique (thank you kettlebell!). I wasn’t upset about how I looked, I had just gotten slightly larger and didn’t know why.

Then about 6 weeks ago I figured it out: I had stopped walking.

When I was still in my PhD program I had a substantial walk to work, at least a mile each way if I took the campus shuttle, and about 2.5 miles each way if I walked the whole distance (I did this rarely, but tried to squeeze it in when I could). I also worked in the lab, running back and forth between rooms and up and down stairs to get equipment. Though I came home each evening and worked on Summer Tomato until the wee hours of the morning, I was not sedentary.

Even during my brief stint in the corporate world after graduation I had a walking commute to work. But after I quit in January I just stayed at home writing. At first I had a standing desk/table I was using, but logistics and a problematic elbow forced me to move to the coffee shop across the street where most of my work gets done now. This sedentary shift correlates exactly with when I noticed my pants getting tighter.

What’s crazy to me is that this amount of exercise seems so inconsequential it doesn’t even register in my brain until months after the change has occurred (did I mention I was still working out almost every day?). And it’s not like I never think about this stuff, I noticed when I first started walking that I effortlessly dropped weight. How could I forget that non-exercise activity (NEAT) is so important?

It’s easy to forget, but this is good news. It means that it is not a chore to burn more calories—in fact, you will hardly notice. All you need to do is make an effort to be a little more active throughout the day, and work to build more activity into your daily routine.

To solve my problem, I turned to my puppy Toaster. He needs to get out and walk a few times a day, so I thought why not improve both of our lives by making a daily pilgrimage to the bigger, better park that’s about a mile from the house instead of the smaller, dirtier park that is closer and more convenient? He gets more exercise and behaves better, I get my walk in, and we both have more fun. Win-win.

I’m happy to report that my pants are fitting better again and I’m back down to my normal weight.

If you don’t have a dog, there are plenty of other ways to move more. Avoid elevators and escalators, walk to lunch or between floors in your building, do chores more enthusiastically at home and park further away in the parking lot. Just standing up more can make a difference. These things add minuscule amounts of time to your tasks but add up significantly for your health.

Unlike structured, high-intensity exercise, walking and other low-intensity movements don’t make you hungrier. There’s good evidence that increasing your daily activity can burn hundreds of extra calories each day and may be one of the most effective ways to impact your energy balance (i.e. burn more without eating more). This is not true of more formal exercise, which tends to make people hungrier. Importantly, non-exercise activity correlates with body weight in obese as well as normal weight individuals, so everyone can benefit from extra movement.

Even if you already work out regularly you should still strive for additional daily activity. Amazingly, high-intensity exercise doesn’t lower your inclination toward NEAT, but raises it. In one study, scientists measured NEAT 3 days before and 3 days after overweight individuals performed either moderate or high-intensity exercise. There was no measurable change in NEAT until the third day after exercise, when it increased 17% after moderate activity and 25% after intense activity. That’s impressive.

When you’re as busy as I am, it’s easy to make excuses about why extra effort is impossible. But adding a little extra movement to your normal, daily activities is far and away the easiest way to lose weight and improve your health, so why not?

I’ve also found a substantial meditative value in incorporating more physical activity. Several of my most complex problems have been solved during my walks and I’ve been plowing through podcasts and audiobooks, which I swear makes me smarter. Your brain truly appreciates a break from the screen.

Ironically, it took noticing that I was “reading” less to make me examine what was different in my life—I realized I was listening to fewer audiobooks because I was walking less, and put 2 and 2 together. Problem solved.

It’s easy to be lazy and just wait for the elevator with everyone else, even though you know the time it saves you is insignificant. But today I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worth resisting that urge and making an effort to be more active. Try making it a game or competing with your friends using pedometers like the FitBit for extra motivation.

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Originally published September 12, 2011.


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Is Healthy The Opposite Of Thin? How Body Image Messages Can Backfire

by | Aug 29, 2011

Photo by AmandaBreann

When I was 18 few things were further from my mind than health. Sure I enjoyed my status as a thin, relatively fit teenager, but there was virtually no connection in my brain between what I put in my body and how long or happily I would live.

At that time I saw healthy eating as a fringe activity, for granola crunching hippies or men over 60 with beer bellies. I had no reason to worry about heart disease at my age and organic food was way more expensive, so why bother?

But that wasn’t the only reason I avoided the issue. As a self-conscious girl from Southern California, I was very concerned with my weight. People considered me thin, and I had every intention of staying that way. I knew that my obsession with my body image and constant dieting was considered “unhealthy,” but I didn’t care.

From my perspective the message from the media was clear: healthy is the opposite of thin. And when you’re young and think you’re invincible, the choice is obvious. Getting kids to worry about something in the distant future is difficult enough, but when you set it up as the antithesis of their immediate goals you make it nearly impossible.

It wasn’t until years later that I started to appreciate the value of health as an objective. I now understand that healthy is beautiful, and that thin and healthy are not mutually exclusive. Your ideal size is determined largely by genetics, but if you eat well, exercise and take care of yourself not only will your body look the way you want, you’ll also have nicer hair, a clear complexion and brighter eyes. You’ll likely have more energy and feel happier as well.

Sadly, body size is still the focus when most people talk about health. When you’re “too thin,” healthy means eating more regardless of quality. When you’re overweight, healthy means losing weight no matter how you accomplish it. But in the long term health is a reflection of your daily habits and is determined by things like the quality and diversity of your diet, how often and vigorously you exercise, exposure to environmental toxins and other factors.

While body weight can certainly be an indicator of health problems and sometimes reflect improvements, it’s important to understand that the message we send about health can backfire if these two things are inextricably linked.

How do you define health?

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Why I Don’t Post Calorie Counts On My Recipes

by | Jul 27, 2011
American Cheese Facts

American Cheese Facts

Over the years I’ve had a few people ask me why I don’t include calorie counts on the recipes I share. Isn’t this website supposed to help people eat healthier and lose weight?

You can imagine their surprise when I tell them that the reason I don’t post calories is because I want to help them eat healthier and lose weight. (Zing!) And calorie counts don’t contribute to that goal.

I’m not disputing the notion that eating less promotes weight loss. I’ve tried it and it works. The problem with posting calorie counts is it doesn’t give you any information about whether or not you’re making a good food decision, which is all most of us need to worry about.

You might think that calorie counts can help dieters monitor their food intake and lose weight, but when you stop and think about what this entails it’s easy to see how ridiculous it is.

It takes extreme skill and dedication to accurately tally your calorie intake every day, if it is even possible. As we saw yesterday, calorie counts at restaurants can be off by over a hundred calories, and packaged foods are legally allowed to be 20% higher than their labels claims. You may have better luck with home cooked meals, but it requires the detailed weighing, researching and recording of every ingredient you use.

And toward what goal?

Very few people have been tested and know their resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn while doing nothing). To balance your energy expenditure you’d also need to account for your physical activity each day (dream on if you think the machines at the gym, or even your heart rate monitor, are giving you accurate calorie expenditures).

Theoretically you could just set a very low calorie goal and hope for the best, but that is essentially a semi-starvation diet and if that’s all you want to achieve then why bother counting?

If you really want to know if a recipe (or packaged food, for that matter) is healthy, skip the calorie counts and look at the ingredients. Do they consist of natural foods that grow from the earth or have they been processed beyond recognition?

Make better food decisions based on quality, unprocessed ingredients and you will be healthier and likely lose weight. Your food will be more satisfying (you’ll naturally eat less), you’ll have more energy (exercise is easier) and you’ll look better (positive reinforcement). If you’re already making excellent food decisions and still need to lose more weight, eating less using mindful eating and other tricks is very effective. Counting calories isn’t necessary.

In other words, I don’t post calorie counts because they distract you from what actually matters: eating real food.

All ingredients are proudly displayed on Summer Tomato recipes.

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Healthstyle Milestones: What Are Your Health Goals?

by | Oct 11, 2010
By woodleywonderworks

By woodleywonderworks

Abandoning the idea of “going on a diet” is one of the most difficult and important adjustments to make when you are trying to lose weight and improve your health. To achieve and maintain your fitness goals, learning to think in the long-term instead of the short-term is a necessity.

We’ve been conditioned to think about our health as a temporary endeavor. When we find ourselves getting a bit out of shape we assume we need to start a new diet plan and maybe join a gym or cardio class.

“But, you know, things are busy right now and I’ll get to it in a couple weeks when I have more time.”

Even if we do start the plan and lose some weight, how long will it be before we slip back into our old routine and the pounds creep back on?

If you learn only one thing from Summer Tomato I hope it’s that diets don’t work. Calorie restriction in any form can induce temporary weight loss, but the vast majority of people emerge worse off than before they subjected themselves to the difficult and demoralizing task of losing weight and inevitably gaining it (plus a little extra) back.

The science is painfully clear that only long-term and consistent healthy lifestyle choices result in permanent weight loss and improved health.

To really win this war you need to shift your focus from short-term diets and weight loss goals to lifelong habits that promote good nutrition and a healthy metabolism–changes that, in my opinion, should be welcome and enjoyable.

It is never too late (or too early) to get started on your upgrade.

But once you’ve made the commitment to a better healthstyle, how do you know you are making progress without the specific goals and endpoints you get from a temporary diet plan?

This is an excellent question and something worth taking a minute to think about. The answer will be different for everyone and depend substantially on where you start and how you define success.

An example of a fantastic healthstyle goal would be getting off cholesterol, blood pressure or diabetes medication, something attainable by the majority of people taking them. For others the goal may be avoiding meds in the first place by reaching a healthy body mass index (BMI). Health goals like these are obviously a first priority for anyone facing them.

But healthstyle is not just for people with serious health problems. After all, the “normal” BMI range is pretty lenient and you may still have the goal of fitting back into a certain pant size or reaching a specific body fat percentage. These are certainly reasonable goals, especially when you are not approaching them from an all-or-none, feast or famine mentality.

But in my experience, specific number-oriented goals have little stay power when health is your top priority.

When you focus on eating delicious, healthy foods and getting regular exercise (in any form), as the months and years pass goals like reaching a certain body weight or jeans size start to feel a bit contrived. This isn’t because physical appearance or achievements aren’t important, but as your metabolism changes and your body gets healthier it becomes clear that you can feel and look a lot better than you ever really imagined.

What exactly defines the perfect weight or size anyway?

I am not trying to trivialize specific fitness goals nor the effort required to attain them. If you’ve read my diet history you know that I am not immune to aspirations like these. But over time feeling good becomes a more meaningful and satisfying goal than fitting into your jeans. And in my experience, the more energy I put into being healthy and living well, the smaller my jeans get anyway.

For awhile now my healthstyle goals have had little to do with body weight. Instead I choose to focus on habits I can develop that will improve my life and health overall. These include cultivating my cooking skills, learning to eat mindfully and figuring out the best lunch for an awesome afternoon workout.

Here are some of my recent healthstyle goals, which are changing constantly.

This article was originally published Oct 26, 2009, and I have left the original goals intact. However I have added my new list of 2010 goals below so you can see how my healthstyle has evolved. I’m happy to see that I’ve made progress on many of my goals from last year, and most of my new goals reflect bigger life changes that have occurred in the past year.

Healthstyle Goals 2009

  • Experiment with new vegetables
  • Recreate favorite restaurant dishes at home
  • Get enough sleep
  • Try new spices
  • Eat slowly and mindfully
  • Find great foodie resources in my neighborhood
  • Get away from my computer at least twice per day
  • Make friends with farmers
  • Seek new challenges at the gym
  • Take the stairs even when I don’t feel like it
  • Learn new cooking techniques
  • Get new pans
  • Discover fabulous restaurants
  • Recognize and avoid overeating cues
  • Take advantage of seasonal produce
  • Eat more legumes
  • Prevent food cravings with good nutrition
  • Eat more fish
  • Take more walks
  • Use usual ingredients in unusual ways
  • Eat better when out of town
  • Cook more ethnic cuisines
  • Get more sun
  • Develop a taste for my least favorite foods
  • Make more soup
  • Cook more for friends
  • Eat out less than twice per week

Healthstyle Goals 2010

  • Adjust to more frequent dining out
  • Cook more at home (this is harder these days)
  • Improve at cooking for two
  • Buy more cookbooks
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Get better sleep
  • Explore tea
  • Cook more soup
  • Eat slowly, even when very hungry
  • Optimize food storage
  • Practice meditation
  • Cook more for friends
  • Eat well and exercise while traveling
  • Share great food discoveries
  • Make friends with more farmers

What are your healthstyle goals?

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10 Reasons Dieting Is Idiotic

by | Sep 27, 2010
Start diet today

Photo by alancleaver_2000

Are you looking to gain a few pounds over the next 3 years, slow down your metabolism or develop an unhealthy relationship with food? Then dieting is the perfect solution for you.

But my guess is that is not what you want.

Diets are seductive because everyone who tries one loses weight and, for awhile, looks great. They rave about how good they feel and you congratulate them, all the while secretly plotting your own personal transformation. (“This time it will work!”)

You start your _(insert latest trend)_ diet. Maybe you feel good for awhile, maybe you lose weight. But it is a struggle, it affects your social life and, worst of all, it never lasts.

Diets are a trap.

Similar to drug use, a diet gives you brief, immediate satisfaction (short-term weight/water loss) at the expense of your long term health and happiness. And just like a drug, with each use you need more and more to achieve the same results.

But dieters are actually a lot stupider than drug users, who sadly have an excuse to maintain their self-destructive behavior. Drugs are physically additive, diets are not.

You can think your way out of dieting, so let’s start now.

10 Reasons Dieting Is Idiotic

1. Diets don’t work.

Maybe this is obvious, but if diets really worked you would only need one in your entire life. The reality is that diets are a short-term fix, like putting a Band-Aid on a cut when the bleeding is internal. Diets don’t solve the real problem.

2. You’ll probably gain weight.

Not at first, in the beginning you will lose weight. But studies have shown that in the long term, dieting is a reliable cause of weight gain. That’s right, even if you’re overweight you’re better off never dieting.

3. Diets make you miserable.

Calorie deficits make you grumpy. Nutrient deprivation makes me grumpy. I think there are better ways to spend our time, how about you?

4. Diets screw up your metabolism.

When you lose weight too quickly, you’re bound to lose some muscle. Also, when you dramatically decrease your calorie intake, your body adjusts to this lower level and learns to use less energy. These two strikes against your metabolism mean that when you go back to your old eating habits (if you’re lucky and don’t over compensate for your starvation by eating more, like most people) then you will store more calories as fat than ever before.

4. Diets make you a buzzkill.

Friends and family with restrictive diets ruin it for everyone. If you won’t even pretend to eat or drink what everyone else is having in celebration you make people uncomfortable in at least two ways: 1) they can tell you aren’t having as good a time as they are, which isn’t fun, and 2) they feel judged being less virtuous than you. Suffer on your own time.

5. Diets destroy your relationship with food.

Diets set you up for a feast or famine mentality, where you oscillate between barely eating anything and binging on 12-packs of deep-fried bacon-stuffed cupcakes. You can’t win.

6. The food tastes horrible.

Eating bad tasting food won’t kill you, but it’s hard to argue that you’re really living either.

7. Diets are hard.

Diets take lots of time, energy and self-discipline. They aren’t easy to keep up, and they’re nearly impossible to maintain. Since they don’t work, this is particularly unfortunate.

8. They’re temporary.

Even if you can stick out a diet and meet your weight goals, you know that as soon as you go back to your old habits the pounds will return (and probably bring some friends). So if it isn’t going to last, what’s the point exactly?

9. They cost money.

Not all diets are expensive, but chances are high that if you start one you will invest in a book or program, and probably special foods as well. It’s true that good food costs money, but do you need to pay extra to suffer and gain weight?

10. There’s a better way.

All the above inconveniences might be acceptable if weight loss is very important to you and there are simply no other ways to achieve it. But that isn’t true. Small, customizable lifestyle changes can transform your body and your health. The changes are slower and much less dramatic, but they last because they are permanent. Losing a simple 2 lbs a month (.5 lb/week) will set you down almost 25 lbs in one year. More important, for most people a shift to healthier eating greatly improves quality of life. Not only do you get healthier and lose weight, the food is amazing and you discover a world of flavors and food culture you never knew existed.

It’s amazing, and it works.

How smart is your diet?

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Does Fruit Make You Fat and Old?

by | Jul 14, 2010
Mango Vendor in Bangkok

Mango Vendor in Bangkok

Several readers have asked lately about the impact of fruit–specifically the sugar in fruit–and it’s capacity to cause weight gain and accelerate aging through insulin signaling:

“Do people usually gain weight because of eating fruit and does the sugar in fruit age us?  I just hate to think that I am doing my body harm by eating fruit.”

If this question sounds insane to you, it shouldn’t. It is actually a very reasonable query that was sparked by two Summer Tomato articles, one about saving money while eating healthy and another on calorie restriction, aging and quality of life. In the first article I recommend thinking of fruit as dessert, a treat to be enjoyed once or twice per day. The second article is about the impact of sugar and calories on aging.

Body Weight

The fact is that fruit contains a lot more sugar than other natural foods and in large enough quantities it can contribute to weight gain. But fruit is certainly not bad for you, nor is it worse for your health than anything else in life.

The sugar in fruit contributes calories to your diet, but since you need calories to survive fruit is still a very good choice. The reason is that in addition to sugar (fructose, to be specific) fruit also has vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and many other things that contribute to health and possibly slow aging.

On the rare occasions when I do make an effort to lose a little weight, however, remembering that fruit should be dessert is something I keep in the back of my mind. I eat fruit every day, but when trying to lose weight I keep it under two servings and always choose whole fruit–avoiding anything blended or juiced. (Drinking calories is usually a bad idea.)

But this healthstyle tactic is not for everyone.


Unlike most people trying to lose weight, I already have a very healthy diet and fruit is one of the easiest places I can trim calories without feeling deprived. Cutting out things like fat and protein make dieting very difficult because you are always hungry. In my experience reducing unnecessary carbohydrates–especially sugars–is the easiest and healthiest way to lose weight.

But it is essential to remember most people are not overweight because they eat too much fruit and the vast majority of people would benefit from eating more of it.


The question about whether sugar causes aging is a fascinating one that I am very interested in.

Yes, in most organisms eating sugar has been shown to promote aging, but this has not been proven in humans. Sugar induces aging via the insulin signaling pathway, so therefore any food that increases insulin signaling could theoretically accelerate aging. The problem is that you need insulin to survive–those who cannot produce insulin have a disease called type 1 diabetes.

The good news is that eating a diet that minimizes insulin signaling is also the best way to lose weight and stay healthy, so if you are living a healthy lifestyle (one that includes fruit) you do not need to worry about anything else.

Although fruits have sugar, it is extremely unlikely that they accelerate aging. In fact, most evidence suggests that fruit slows aging because of its high levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

If anti-aging is your goal, fruit is your friend not your enemy.

For more on insulin signaling, check out my post at MizFit Online, When is a calorie not a calorie.


While fruits contain sugar, they do not pose a special threat to your health goals. Eat and enjoy fruits as a wonderful and delicious part of life.

How much fruit do you eat?

Originally published August 31, 2009.

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Don’t Eat This, Don’t Eat That: How To Eat Healthy Without Fast Food

by | Jun 9, 2010
Quarter Pounder

Quarter Pounder

Last week in For The Love of Food I called out Men’s Health as B.S. of the Week for their article, “Eat healthy at the airport.” There seems to be a growing trend in the number of weight loss programs that support eating fast food. The idea is that some menu items have slightly fewer calories than others and do not contribute (as much?) to weight gain.

It is true you can lose weight eating anything (so long as you do not eat very much of it), but that does not make eating fast food a good idea. What is misleading about these programs is the grossly inappropriate use of the word “healthy.”

Credit the book Eat This, Not That for this special brand of quackery on which Men’s Health bases their article. They begin with the example of McDonald’s (because, you know, where else are you supposed to go eat?) and suggest you order the Quarter Pounder without cheese (and without fries and soda) over the Premium Grilled Chicken Club.

The reason?

The Quarter Pounder has only 410 calories compared to the 570 calories of the chicken sandwich, a 30% reduction.

To me this sounds the same as saying 7 cigarettes is healthier than 10 cigarettes.

Sure it might be “better” to smoke a little less, but do you really believe you are doing yourself any favors? You’re still ingesting something toxic. Would you be happy if China promised to put a little less melamine in your child’s baby formula?

After decades of consuming slightly smaller doses of poison is it logical to think you’d be a more sprightly 80 year old than you would have been eating full dose poison? I don’t think so.


Rationalization is the name of the game here:

“Some people are going to eat fast food no matter what, it might as well have fewer calories.”

“It’s impractical to not eat fast food. What if I’m in a hurry?”

“There’s nothing else to eat at the airport, do you want me to starve?”

“I cannot afford to eat anything healthier. Value meals are the best!”

“I just eat crap then spend extra time in the gym, so it balances out.”

“I love junk food and could never stop eating at McDonald’s.”


The problem with all these faux arguments is that they are based on the assumption that fast food is an inevitable part of life, too powerful to resist or avoid. My guess is we can thank the McDonald’s marketing team for this twisted bit of psychology, but that does not mean we have to accept it.

Here is why those arguments don’t hold water:

  • The “fact” that some people will continue to eat fast food does not preclude the need to have a diet that endorses it.
  • There is always something to eat besides fast food. In fact, there was actually a time when Burger King didn’t exist!
  • A few healthy-ish options can be found at the airport, but if you do a tiny bit of planning beforehand you don’t have to be stuck eating there in the first place. Another thing to consider is that starving would be healthier, since caloric restriction has been consistently shown to improve health, prevent disease and extend life. (But don’t worry, going hungry isn’t necessary.)
  • The organic kale and tempeh I ate for dinner last night cost the same (~$3.50) as that flaccid Quarter Pounder in the photo, and smelled 1000% better (yeah, I actually bought one). [For the record: I did ask for it without cheese and they just botched my order–can you imagine it looking even more tasteless? Blah. So much for tricking yourself into eating fewer calories.]
  • Working out is very important for your health, but it does not give you essential vitamins, minerals and all the other wonderful things offered by whole foods–exercise cannot substitute for a healthy diet.
  • There is room in your healthstyle for any food on special occasions. Personally I prefer to use my occasions for exquisite (rather than cheap) meals, but for some of you special may mean going out with the guys for game night or a road trip from L.A. to S.F. (i.e. the In-N-Out in Kettleman City). What is important is that you make sure foods that do not contribute (or are detrimental) to your health make up an extremely small proportion of your diet.

The Real Problem

I contend that the real issue is not that there is nothing else to eat besides fast food, but that we are not trained to recognize any other option. There is a whole world of food out there that does not include unsanitary chain restaurants.

The little secret those of us who don’t eat fast food know is that this other world is far tastier than the one of processed foods and chain restaurants. Also, the convenience factor is easily overcome if you approach it right.

The Answers

Your first defense against eating foods you didn’t plan for (isn’t that what fast food really is?) is to make sure you have a plan. Always.

Rule #1 is to know what, when and where you are going to eat all your meals throughout the day by the time you leave your house in the morning. Not doing this is setting yourself up for an uh-oh. If you are not able to know for certain the specifics of your meal plans, at least try to envision the most likely scenarios and think of ways to make them as healthy as possible. Trust me, these decisions are a lot easier if you make them before you are starving and willing to eat a deep-fried shoe.

Rule #2 is to always have a back up plan. Is there any chance that your friend will bail on you for dinner? Or that you will get stuck at work so long your neighborhood grocery will close? In cases like this it is best to have a plan B. I keep stuff in my freezer and pantry that can be whipped up at any given moment. I also store food in my desk at work for emergencies.

My go-to back up plan is carrying a small bag of nuts like almonds or cashews around with me where ever I go. That way I have something to snack on until I can get myself into a more favorable eating environment. Keep a small bag of nuts in your purse, glove compartment of your car, gym bag, desk drawer or carry on luggage. Your hidden snack should be in whatever container you will be sure to have with you at all times.

Nuts make a particularly good snack because their high fat and protein content (the super good-for-you kinds) make them very satisfying. One day when you are not starving try eating exactly 8 almonds, take a sip of water and wait half an hour. For me, this usually staves off hunger for at least another 45-60 minutes, and sometimes up to 2 hours.

It is more difficult to restrict your intake to 8 or 10 nuts when you are starving, however. But it is easier to exercise self-control if you believe (through experience) that a certain quantity is sufficient to satisfy your appetite. This is why I recommend you try this once before you find yourself in an emergency situation.

If for some reason you end up hungry and do not have your handy bag of nuts, you still have non-Whopper options:

  • Grocery stores Most grocery stores have fresh sections with cut up vegetables, fruits, hummus, lean meats and lots of other healthy items (nuts included). Pretend like you are having a picnic and nibble on a few of these things instead or resorting to the drive-thru. You will get plenty of calories, I promise.
  • Delis A small sandwich with lean meats and vegetables is a pretty good, easy option if you can find a deli. I would not call this an ideal meal, but it’s better than a BigMac for sure.
  • Non-chain restaurants If I am resigned to eating in a restaurant I haven’t planned on the first thing I look for is a non-chain restaurant, preferably a place that specializes in soups, salads and sandwiches. These places are usually well stocked in vegetables and often boast organic produce. They can be a little pricier than a Happy Meal, but it is worth it if you don’t have to eat a gray colored mystery meat patty, right?
  • Colorful plates Wherever I decide to dine, I search the menu for dishes that sound like they have a high percentage of vegetables, preferably multicolored. Ordering a side salad or vegetables instead of potatoes is an easy way to accomplish this mission.
  • Little bread Giant servings of generic, processed breads made of refined white flour are the biggest problem at most mediocre restaurants. If you can, try to order something that doesn’t require too much bread. This is especially true if you will be sitting on an airplane for the next several hours.
  • Avoid cheese Cheese is delicious and I love to eat it occasionally. However, it is common these days for restaurants to bury plates in cheese to mask the crappy ingredients they used for the rest of the dish. Chili’s low quality cheese is hardly worth the extra few hundred calories being used to cover up the fattening, mediocre food you ordered.
  • No sweets Sugar is one of the most dangerous things you can eat and should always be consumed with caution. We all love desserts, but you will be much better off saving your sweet tooth for truly special occasions. Airport terminals really aren’t that special.
  • Healthy fats I go out of my way to find healthy fats like nuts, fish and salad oils when I am eating solely to satisfy my hunger. These fats will make sure you stay full as long as possible.
  • Lean proteins As far as satisfaction goes, what is true for fats is true for proteins. Because they digest so slowly proteins help you feel full longer. Fish, eggs, nuts, beans and even whole grains like brown rice can give your meal a more satisfying impact.
  • Eat simply When you are eating on-the-go and in restaurants you are unsure about, your best bet is to stick to simple items. Avoid menu descriptors like glazed, gooey, cheesy, creamy, fiesta, piled, smothered, etc. Sauces are really a problem at airport-style restaurants. Stick to predictable items to keep yourself out of trouble. A turkey sandwich or chop salad are usually pretty safe.

The basic message is to find fresh foods and eat as balanced as possible. No matter what you order this is probably not going to be the most delicious meal of your life, so you may as well try to make it as healthy as possible. A little planning–like eating before heading to the airport–can go a long way in saving special occasions for food that is truly special.

What are the biggest obstacles you encounter when stuck somewhere without food?

Article was originally published June 3, 2009.

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For The Love of Food

by | Feb 5, 2010
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Diets are dying, the faulty vaccine-autism paper was retracted and yet another study shows low-fat diets are bad for heart disease. Could this week get any better?

And in case you missed it, definitely check out the video of Michael Pollan’s talk at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there. (Note: If you want a follow back on Twitter introduce yourself with an @ message).

Links of the Week

What inspired you this week?

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Learning To Eat Less: How Understanding Your Brain Can Make You Healthier

by | Sep 16, 2009

the-end-of-overeatingIn a nation where obesity and health loom large in our public dialog, there is no escaping the simple fact that we eat too much.

On average Americans consume 500 more calories per day than we did in 1970 (more than we ever have), mostly in the form of refined and processed foods. This corresponds with a 25-30 pound increase in body weight and obesity rates near 30%.

Debates rage over the specifics of what is causing our weight and health problems, but it seems clear enough that the critical element is the amount of food we choose to put in our mouths.

But does everything we eat represent a true choice?

In his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler examines the role of the brain in eating behavior and the mechanisms involved in what he calls conditioned hypereating.

According to his findings specific combinations of sugar, fat and salt hijack the reward pathways of our brain and force us to behave more like food addicts than hungry organisms. This leads to a cycle of conditioned hypereating that makes the habit harder to break with each repeated episode.

But whether or not we are addicted to food is a point of debate. In my interview with Kessler, he made clear he does not use the word addiction for fear of oversimplifying conditioned hypereating. Our relationship with food is more complicated than it is with something like alcohol or tobacco because a human can live without cigarettes, but food is vital to survival.

When pressed to describe the neural differences between addiction and conditioned hypereating, however, Kessler conceded, “The fundamental circuits are the same.”

For this reason, treatment of conditioned hypereating can draw from the success of substance abuse treatments. These tactics involve cognitive and behavioral therapies we can use to train ourselves to override our instincts and adopt new behaviors in response to stimulus cues.

For conditioned and compulsive behavior, cognitive strategies are necessary because intuitive inclinations and “listening to your body” do more harm than good. If your body is telling you to have a cigarette, this does not mean it is in your best interest to do so.

At the FDA Kessler was instrumental in the fight to regulate tobacco, and now he believes some of the same lessons can be applied to the treatment of overeating.

“What took me a decade to understand is you need to change the valence of the stimulus.”

The positive emotional reaction associated with indulgent foods is at the center of our motivation to seek them out. Twenty years ago cigarettes had tremendous allure. But the FDA was successful at demonizing the tobacco industry, and the public no longer sees smoking as glamorous and attractive.

And smoking rates have plummeted.

Changing a conditioned behavior requires a fundamental shift in how we think about a stimulus. In conditioned hypereating the stimulus is food, which makes the task especially difficult, but not impossible.

To break the cycle of conditioned hypereating we must redirect our automatic response to the kinds of foods that cause us to overeat. Kessler calls these hyperpalatable foods, which are loaded with layers upon layers of sugar, fat and salt. The goal is to replace our automatic responses to these foods with different, equally enjoyable actions that are not detrimental to our health and do not reinforce compulsive behavior.

I asked Kessler what is the first step in controlling our eating habits and overcoming conditioned hypereating.

“I can tell you the last step. Change your relationship with food. If sugar, fat and salt are your friends, you will lose. You have to get to the point where that is not what you want.”

The End of Overeating outlines the four basic steps of habit reversal: awareness, competing actions, competing thoughts and support.

But Kessler believes the critical step is fundamentally changing the way we view what we eat, cooling down our emotional response to hyperpalatable foods. In essence, we must train ourselves to stop wanting what we believe we want.

According to the book, the first step in this transformation is becoming aware of the power food holds over us, which requires understanding how our brains work. We must recognize that when we are tempted to indulge, the urge is not generated internally but is a reaction to a cue that makes us respond automatically. You may think you are hungry, but really you are just reacting to an emotionally charged stimulus that tells you to eat.

Once you recognize a cue for what it is you have a brief moment to decide not to take the bait. To successfully divert yourself to another course of action you must have a plan ready in advance that allows you to do something completely different.

Considering alternative activities and the reasons you might prefer them can help you tremendously at this point of decision. Rather than focusing on the positive emotions you will experience by giving in to your desire for hyperpalatable foods, also remember the negative emotions that follow if you give in and the positive aspects of the alternative action.

For instance, it may help to remember that every time you get cued and give in, you are strengthening the neural circuitry that compels you to this behavior in the first place. If you even briefly entertain the possibility of indulging, you create a state of ambivalence that leads to torment, obsession and cravings. However, when you successfully divert your attention to another rewarding activity you have made a small step toward cooling down the positive valence of the food.

It is the state of mental torment and ambivalence that increases the positive emotional charge of a food, building and strengthening the neural reward circuitry that causes conditioned overeating. This may be one of the reasons dieting almost always results in long-term weight gain, since constant deprivation makes hyperpalatable foods more difficult to resist and creates severe anxiety.

Mentally, the best strategy to overcome conditioned hypereating is to develop new, positive associations with food that are independent of palatability–something you care more about than the fleeting reward of overeating. Kessler says this is a deeply personal process and must reflect an individual’s own set of values. For example, it helps some people to become vegetarian, while others value organics or local food. These decisions remove virtually all hyperpalatable food from the lives of people who choose these paths.

It also helps to develop aversions to hyperpalatable foods. Some may learn to demonize “Big Food,” while others turn away after educating themselves about health concerns. Developing a more sophisticated culinary palate can help make hyperpalatable foods less palatable. Kessler himself developed an aversion to over-sized portions, which he now sees as repulsive piles of sugar, fat and salt.

Developing positive associations with healthier foods while demonizing the hyperpalatable foods we have been conditioned to crave can fundamentally change your emotional response to stimulus cues. As you learn to recognize your brain’s response to cues, you can override conditioned behavior by consciously deciding to take alternative actions because you want to.

You will never win an internal battle with yourself. Instead use what you know about the brain’s reward system and give up trying to summon willpower to resolve the torment of conflicting desires. Reprogram your habits by closely examining your relationship with hyperpalatable food and begin making deliberate decisions that are consistent with your goals, breaking the cycle of conditioned overeating.

To read more about conditioned hypereating and habit reversal read The End of Overeating, by Dr. David Kessler.

Have you read The End of Overeating? Have you overcome conditioned hypereating?

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