By Elaine Corn
I don't know anyone who wakes up on Jan. 1 cheering, "Woo-hoo, I can't wait to go on a diet." Most of us hate to diet. But as a rite of passing into a new year with well-intentioned resolution, The Diet is an annual dilemma that needs to be looked at a bit differently. In this first month of 2013, let's resolve not to diet. Let's anti-diet.
You can already see the ads on TV. Lose weight with this system, here's an impossible-to-believe before-and-after shot of [insert you] after some charlatan's weight-loss scam. We know most of these don't work and don't last. You've got the low-carb diet, the calorie-restriction diet, the açai berry diet -- all cruel and unusual over a prolonged period. And not sustainable either.
This discussion is mostly for post-holiday bellies and diminishing a gut that's bigger now than it was before Thanksgiving. It is not for anyone diagnosed as morbidly obese. For that you need medical advice. But anyone looking for a resolution you can live with should be thinking about wellness. And that means a new way of eating and of shopping, getting into a heartfelt ritual of improving the quality of the food you eat.
Here are five candid points that have helped me and could possibly help you.
1. Eat clean
This means getting habituated to eating better, shopping for, and simply cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables and a piece of meat or fish for dinner. Stay away from what I view as unclean food, usually posing as low-calorie frozen dinners. They're not lean on unnatural ingredients and certainly not anything resembling cuisine. Another example is a commercial spinach dip available at a big box member store. It's got an ingredient label of biblical proportions. Sure, the dip's got spinach and dairy, but it also includes hydrolized soy protein, high fructose corn syrup. What's this stuff? Why not wilt some fresh spinach (or defrost frozen spinach) and mix it with some garlic, Worcestershire and real sour cream or thick yogurt? Dinner is perhaps a serving of fresh chicken with two vegetables. Those vegetables might be steamed peas and mashed sweet potato. That's clean.
2. Stop eating crap
Yes, I said crap. The commercial spinach dip, mentioned above, is unnatural. Potato chips as a side dish with a sandwich are nutritionally ridiculous. Cheetos, as yummy as they are for salt addicts, are not food. Twizzlers aren't food. Pizza has trick nutrition, because with it calories and fats can pile up fast. I recommend avoiding it while you're getting started this year. Ignore nutritionists who encourage daylong snacking. I say stop snacking, and this should help a few pounds here and there melt away.
Don't forget the stop-eating-crap rule when you're eating out too. Over the next couple of weeks, don't get trapped in the salad-is-diet-food myth. There's low nutrition in lettuce and lots of calories in dressing. When you find yourself out for lunch or dinner, make your own meal. Look over a menu to see what ingredients are on it, then ask the waiter to tell the chef you want the chicken breast out of the chicken sandwich and bring it with the side of chard that comes with the steak entrée. Sometimes the chef can be very obliging.
3. Get used to being a little hungry
This rule goes well with the stop-snacking rule. Some experts say hunger pangs send the body into starvation mode. Snacking your way to satiety is self-defeating.
A few hunger pangs are a sign your stomach is getting accustomed to less. Also, eat dinner early so you're up more hours to burn calories. You may go to bed a bit hungry, but there's always breakfast eight hours away.
4. Go to a farmers market
You'll eat seasonally and you'll be able to practice one of the best pieces of nutrition advice ever to come along: Eat your colors. Buy orange produce such as winter squash, yams, carrots and oranges. Go green with chard, spinach, kale, broccoli, even frozen peas. Get your red from beets, red cabbage and pomegranates. If you hate beets, don't eat them. The variety from eating colors keeps boredom at bay. A farmers market will awaken your interest in fresh food, which obviously requires some skill to cook, and that brings me to the next rule.
5. Learn to cook
Zester readers may know more than the average reluctant cook about getting a meal on the table, but many people indulge their interest in food by eating out and making excuses for not cooking.
You won't think that time spent cooking robs you of time spent doing other things if you decide that cooking is one of those other things. Taking charge of what goes into your body benefits you on many fronts: your budget, your nutrition and your control of all ingredients that enter your body. If you regard the knobs on a stove like they're controls on a nuclear reactor, then cook in your microwave. About 99% of homes have microwaves. I've used the microwave to cook an entire meal that's clean, nutritious and not too expensive.
Ultimately if you can make yourself a reasonable promise, you'll feel better, you'll lose that holiday gut, and you may well be on your way to some new good habits.
"Baked" Chicken From the Microwave
1 whole cut-up fryer, bones in, pieces rinsed and dried with paper towel
Salt and ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon oregano (leafy type, not powdered)
Few sprinkles paprika, for color and a bit of kick
1. To make the breasts of relative size to the rest of the pieces, cut the breasts in half crosswise. Arrange chicken pieces on a microwavable large dinner plate like spokes, with the plump ends along the rim of the plate and narrower ends toward the center.
2. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with oregano and paprika. Do not cover.
3. In a microwave equipped with a turntable, microwave on high, in 5-minute intervals, for up to a total of 10 to 15 minutes*, until meat is browned and no longer pink inside.
4. Serve with fresh microwaved green beans and half a sweet potato.
* Depending on microwave's wattage power, your chicken may cook very quickly or slowly. At home, mine is done in about 12 minutes. At a friend's house with an older model, the chicken was done in 14 minutes. You can stop the microwave at any time to check progress.
Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.
Photos, from top:
Healthy "baked" chicken, green beans and yams from the microwave. Credit: Elaine Corn
Microwaved chicken that tastes like baked. Credit: Elaine Corn
More on healthy eating at Zester Daily: