Gaining weight is, unfortunately, one of the easiest things we do. While there are people who fret because they seem to lose weight too easily, for the rest of us the scale seems to go up much more regularly than we would like.
A few nights ago, I had a conversation with a neighbor at an apartment get-together. She refused all the appetizers that were being passed around, explaining that her mother had been with her for two weeks and cooked every night. “My job (she is a litigator) keeps me so busy that I never have time to cook anything but really simple foods. And Jim (her husband) comes home so late from work he only wants to eat a small meal. But my mother insisted on preparing big breakfasts and packing me a lunch. Then she had a full course dinner waiting for us every night. I think I gained a pound a day.”
Of course she hadn’t gained more than a pound or two over the two-week period but her experience is not unique. We change our eating habits just a little and discover to our horror that our weight has changed also. These changes do not come about because we are consciously overeating or dieting. But if we are not aware of where the calories are coming from, we may find ourselves gaining more than a couple of pounds. And even if our yearly weight gain is only five pounds, over ten years this adds up to 50 pounds.
Some of the common sources of unwanted calories are in foods prepared by others. For example, various people brought food to this gathering. While some of it was obviously low in calories, such as the raw vegetable platter, one woman brought homemade calzones stuffed with a variety of cheeses. Another contributed a mayonnaise and sour cream- based dip and a third brought dessert:, a multilayered chocolate cake. It was warm in the party room and many people were relieving their thirst with wine and mixed drinks.
The calories in alcohol are rarely tabulated. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, two calories less than fat. A few drinks at a party, or each night during the weekend, will add 300-400 calories to the daily total. And if these calories are not burned off through exercise or if less food is eaten to compensate, alcohol intake can certainly lead to a slow but steady increase in weight. And yet this is not really overeating in the sense that no one is stuffing down food until the stomach cannot handle anymore.
Calories from restaurant food are often much higher than we imagine. A chart in a recent American Airlines magazine featured foods that would add up to 4500 calories, which is apparently what professional basketball players may consume each day. That seems like an enormous amount of food but remarkably there were only nine items listed as examples of foods that provided so many calories. Some of them were surprising: a Starbucks large latte with whole milk was 230 calories and an Applebee’s grilled shrimp and spinach salad contributed 570 calories. The meal item with the most was a breakfast item from Denny’s: the All-American slam breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, hash brown potatoes and a biscuit contained 820 calories. A close contender was a snack from Taco Bell. Their Bell Grande Nachos with sour cream, cheese and bacon was 770 calories.
None of this is likely to affect the weight of someone who runs up and down a basketball court for a living. But for those of us who run only to the cell phone sitting somewhere other than in our pocket, this type of eating will inevitably produce weight gain.
When health care professionals talk about the importance of changing eating habits, they are talking about extinguishing the habit of eating high fat, high-calorie foods. Sensible diet plans guide you toward this change by eliminating all these fattening foods from the weight-loss program (unless the diet glorifies fat intake). But for many people, a diet is not viewed as the first step toward a permanent change in eating habits but rather something apart from real life. Once the diet is over, there is a gradual or sometimes rapid return to the nachos or cheesesteak sandwiches or 3 beers per night over the weekend.
Most of us realize that change in our food choices is crucial if we are to prevent ourselves from growing larger every decade. But this realization is intellectual and often doesn’t penetrate our feelings of “I want to eat that” when confronted with the choice of a double cheeseburger or grilled chicken on a tossed salad. Perhaps the reason it is so hard to say no to fattening foods or too much alcohol is that we don’t view preventing ourselves from gaining weight as important as losing it.
Making a permanent change is like emigrating to a new country or accepting religious or ideological restrictions on what we eat and drink. Living in a new culture often means living behind the foods of the previous culture or at best, eating them very infrequently. Becoming a vegetarian, or accepting the prohibition of drinking alcohol and/or caffeine, eating non-kosher meat or mixing meat and dairy products, or fasting on certain days is difficult at first but eventually becomes a familiar and comfortable way of eating, I once had a colleague who converted to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. She told me the hardest thing for her was giving up caffeine but she did so because giving up coffee was ultimately less important to her than obeying the guidelines of the religion.
It is not necessary to list the hundreds of reasons why obesity is so bad for health and longevity. Every week there is a new disease or decrease in quality of life linked to obesity. These health risks must be taken seriously and should be the basis for accepting the culture or ideology of eating healthily. It means always saying no thank you to the fattening foods with little nutritional value—and certainly you will miss them. But eventually it will no more occur to you to eat these foods than it would occur to a vegetarian to order a sirloin steak. And what you will get in return is something that you would miss terribly if it disappeared: your good health.