Saturday, September 24, 2011

How much should I eat? Using your head, trusting your body.

I just returned from two weeks abroad, 24-7 vacationing with my husband of 25 years (and yes, we still remain happily married). One week hiking in the Swiss alps, one week eating and drinking my way through Italy’s Piedmont and Tuscany regions have left me with so many thoughts to share. So enjoy the photos and commentary in the next several posts, and please share your thoughts and comments with me!

The lovely town center of Bagno Vignoni we pushed our bikes to.

I get it now.

This week I was struck by how much I utilize, maybe even rely on nutrition information to make my eating decisions. Sure, I eat intuitively, and I stand by absolutely everything I’ve told you throughout Drop It And Eat’s many posts. But I had an interesting revelation this week while in Tuscany. Until then, I hadn’t fully realized just how much nutrition info is a part of me, my food choices, my portioning. It came to light in a big way this Wednesday in Italy.

A lovely lunch, except for the 1/2 cup of oil!
Of course I’m aware that information impacts what I purchase. That includes higher fiber cereals, to keep things moving, as well as desserts with real butter, (because of the knowledge that I like the taste); white meat poultry, lower in saturated fats associated with cholesterol levels and cardiac risk, and whole grains for their mineral content, fiber as well as my awareness that I love their chewy texture. And while my awareness of the nutritional content of rich pastries doesn’t stop me from eating them, nor from thoroughly enjoying every bite, it makes me mindful to savor these items and to consume them in modest amounts.

18 euros, about $26 for these two fellas!
Twenty-five years as a nutritionist yet, I take knowledge for granted; I never really acknowledge its impact on my diet. No, I don’t calorie count, or tally my fat grams. And I don’t use a meal plan of any kind. Nor do I weigh my food. 

But at home, nutrition guidance surely impacts my life. When I buy fish, I ask for the amount based on an estimate of the number of ounces our family needs per person; ¾ pound for the two of us is not an unusual request. In contrast, most people I see approach the fish counter saying “I’ll have those two fillets” or “3 salmon steaks for the three of us”, without regard to the portion size.

I know how I like my food prepared; I enjoy good tasting meals with added fats—flavorful oils and butter—but I do add them sparingly, knowing they are calorically dense. Over time, I’ve learned how much rice I need at a meal, and just how much will serve my family, preparing accordingly. When I eat out, as you’d have guessed by now, I’m vocal, requesting foods the way I want it—light on the oil, or with extra basil or cilantro, or with added tofu or vegetables—whatever. Are you cringing just thinking about us dining out together?

Given the price of olive oil I considered getting this oil to go.
So imagine this. I’m in a country where I could barely order off the menu with minimal understanding of what I’m ordering. Culturally, I have virtually no awareness about regional preparation of the dishes. Imagine my surprise when I was served this veggie and cheese plate (right).

Earlier in the day, we ventured into the local fish market to plan for our home-cooked dinner in our apartment. Unlike what I am accustomed to, the fish are sold whole—then weighed, cleaned, and filleted—so we had no idea just how adequate a single fish would be. God forbid we should go hungry! So we ordered two whole fish. The price of 19 euros (approximately $26) should have been a red flag—a mighty expensive dinner for two! But what did we know?

Our home-cooked fish dinner, made with onion, peppers, fennel, capers,
garlic, white wine, and did I mention olive oil?
That evening, after cooking the meal—roasted branzino fish, risotto, cheese and figs—I realized that this meal was truly enough for four people, versus two. I had no knowledge of the food’s weight, the cheese was bought as a round single unit, and we just ate it. Slowly, we sat enjoying our delicious meal, together with a lovely white wine from the region.

And then it struck me. I had felt, at first, handicapped, yearning for my usual knowledge-based cues to assist me that day. How much oil is in this dish at lunch? How many ounces of cheese am I eating? How many people should this fish dinner serve? But I let it go.

Dinner included delicious goat cheese with black truffles. Lunch featured
the regional specialty of Pecorino, a sheep's milk cheese.
While I didn’t have the concrete information I usually rely on, I still had my experience—my knowledge of just how much I usually eat, which allows me to maintain a healthy weight. And I retained my internal knowledge—the physical signals that told me when I had had enough food and was satisfied.

When I reflected on this day, consuming ½ an Italian bread (no, I am not exaggerating), cheese, and god-knows-how-much olive oil in my lunch, I realized that I hadn’t gotten hungry throughout the afternoon; in fact, I seemed to have skipped my usual afternoon snack, inadvertently.


So it still comes down to trust. If you’re maintaining a healthy weight, your usual portions will suffice. Need to gain or lose? Modify your portions accordingly. Eventually your physical signals will resume, so you can finally distinguish physical hunger from all the other reasons you do or don’t eat.

If you speak the language, then speak up! Ask for foods the way you’d like them, and request a doggie bag for leftovers. And trust that all is not lost (gained?) if a meal is different from your norm. I personally would never choose to use half a cup of oil on my veggies, even good tasting extra virgin olive oil, but as I told my husband at lunch, “at least it’s good for my coat!”

I got more of an upper body workout than I bargained for.

In the end, in the two weeks I had had much more wine than I ever consume, significantly more fats of all types, more meals out, and more frequent desserts. Swiss chocolate is divine, and there were times we had some with breakfast. I biked less than planned, walked more than expected (including walking the bikes in terrain I couldn’t manage), and was generally more active than usual, especially given the length of our hikes. 
Sometimes, all we can do is to laugh at the situations
we encounter!

And for the record, my weight is exactly the same, as it should be, as I’d expect. But most importantly, I enjoyed it all, even playing with the leftover oil-soaked food at lunch. Because life’s too short to diet.


  1. You rock!! Love the photo of you pushing that bike uphill!!
    And how fantastic that there are still things out there to learn about food! Taking yourself out of your familiar environment and trying something new was even a challenge for you - something you were able to overcome obviously, but perhaps a momentary insight into that feeling of preferring the safe option??
    Trust is such a good word :)

  2. Yes, it was an "aha" moment for me, experiencing what many struggle with daily, as they step out of their comfort zone, taking a leap of faith with trusting their body, before they have the experience to know this way of eating really works.
    And for the record, the bandana is not decorative. I had just taken a spill in the 5 minutes I had actually been riding, and was using it as a tourniquet of sorts.

  3. Oh no! I thought you were just being cool! (or at least sweaty LOL).

  4. Beautiful post. Your trip sounded absolutely divine.

    You really put your finger on the central horrors of the diet mentality: control and restriction. The frequency with which dieters repeat that they must be in perfect control of their food, that they must check, weigh, "vet" every bite is terrifying.

    I am constantly struck by the straightjacket that dieters wear. Whether it's points, or straight calorie counting, their lives revolve around rules that are imposed upon them by The Diet.When you are on The Diet, you cannot go on a trip to places where restaurants don't post their calorie counts are dangerous. When at home on The Diet, you cannot eat foods for which a calorie count is not available. You become a slave to pre-packaged foods, because they provide you with the safety of knowing how many points or calories they contain.

    What a dull, lifeless, frightening world it is for so many people. And despite the straightjacket, most don't even lose weight. They just become increasingly sad and fearful and many end up heavier than when they started.

  5. @New Me Well said. Hopefully these posts and affirming comments from readers who have "stepped out" of this trap will help those who are stuck move forward.
    Thanks for your comment!

  6. Great post. A good thing to acknowledge, I think, that your background for "mindful eating" is steeped in knowledge about what you are consuming.

  7. I never worry about what I’m eating when I’m vacationing. I’ve got the rest of the year to do that. :-D