Eating indulgent food improved my fitness, cholesterol, and so much more.
Photo: Christopher Maharry / Maharry Photography
When I accepted the job as a restaurant reviewer for The Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest newspaper, my friends and family couldn't believe it. Who is lucky enough to expense her meals five or more times a week *and* get paid for it?!
Still, I almost didn't take the position that I so wholeheartedly applied for. I loved writing. I loved the adventurous palate I had discovered exploring our local dining scene. But I hated potentially disrupting my eating disorder recovery.
That's right, I'm a food writer who has overcome anorexia. (Find out what I learned weighing less than 100 pounds.)
I had finally turned a corner in my recovery and had made peace with food. So much peace that I decided to make the focus of my magazine writing about all things edible.
Still, relapse is always possible. Not having control over my meals—and the weight I'd probably put on as a result—was a scary thought. As a constant label-reader during my most skeletal days, I am well-versed in the fact that a tablespoon of oil has 120 calories and a serving of salad dressing can quickly add up to 400-plus calories. Even at my "happy weight," I found comfort in opting for a dish on the steamed section of the menu or ordering the light balsamic on the side. Now, as part of my new job, I was going to be forced to abandon every special order commandment I'd abided by for the 10-plus years I meticulously counted calories. No more "easy on the cheese, please" or "light on the oil"—it's only fair and ethical to review a dish made as the chef intended.
I accepted the position and came to terms with the idea of loosening my belt a notch or two over time. Hey, if it became too much for my recovery, I could always stop. But shockingly, as I examined the results from my physical after one year of wine pairings and eating all the cheese, I discovered the opposite happened. My waist circumference stayed exactly the same, my cholesterol dropped 20 points, and my body fat dropped two and a half percent. In addition to those physical changes, I noticed many emotional and social ones, too.
Hungry to figure out why (and why the hell more all of us don't give ourselves permission to dine with fewer boundaries), I spoke with the experts to dig into how my body ate up the lifestyle of eating more.
I finally tuned in to my hunger and fullness cues.
For years, I had relied on the time of day to tell me when I was allowed to eat. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, snack; all set to the clock. And for much of my adult life, measuring cups were the safe and stable way of telling me how much to eat. Rather than listen to my body and fullness cues, I blindly trusted my set portions—something that restaurants aren't exactly known for managing reasonably. Time to learn a new skill: how to know when I'd had enough.
At the second restaurant I visited after putting on my reviewer cap, a greasy spoon breakfast joint, it was time for fullness pop quiz number one. Noshing on a few bites each of a cream cheese-frosted cinnamon roll, a skillet full of cheesy eggs and potatoes, plus toast, forced me to actually think about when I was satisfied. A smorgasbord like that made me tune in to my stomach rather than relying on hitting the bottom of the pre-portioned oatmeal cup to know when I should stop.
"The best way to determine how much food you need to eat is to listen to your body, eat when hungry most of the time, and stop when full most of the time," says Heidi Schauster, R.D., a certified eating disorders registered dietitian and founder of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy in Somerville, Massachusetts. "If you have trouble doing this because you've lost connection with your body—and eating has become a mind-driven activity, it might be time to check in to your habits and potentially consider asking for help," she adds.
Because I was finally slowing down to listen to my body, I wasn't overeating or gaining a ton of weight as I feared—and I was enjoying what I was eating way more, echoing what former New York Times and Los Angeles Times food critic Ruth Reichl once wrote: "Restaurant critics eat less, but they enjoy it more." Which brings me to my next point...
I learned the importance of mindful eating.
"Enjoying food is the way nature intended for us to eat," says Schauster. "There have even been studies showing that we absorb nutrients better from food when we like how it tastes."
After three bites of the sweet roll at the aforementioned greasy spoon spot, I giggled in delight at its decadence and could set my fork down feeling content. I had more than enough information for my remarks, and with a base of an egg, some potatoes, and half a piece of toast, my stomach was good to go, too.
Another factor that boosted contentment: I was forced to take note of the flavors and smells of every single dish I tried so I could relay that information to readers. A practice in mindful eating. Rather than eating solely to fuel my body, I took time to register each sensation, set my fork down between bites, and soaked up the ambiance (one of three things I rated, in addition to the food and service).
"The act of slowing down and savoring can also make a meal more of an experience, increasing the satisfaction," says Jessica Cording, R.D., a registered dietitian and health coach in New York City.
My brain felt sharper.
As weeks progressed, I noticed I had way better focus when it came time to sit down and write. Turns out, there was a biological reason for that.
"Many clients are shocked when I tell them there is a core minimum of food requirements for a day. If your body isn't well fed, it thinks you're starving and metabolism slows. When that happens, the body protects itself from famine," Schauster says. "Nonvital functions like reproduction, skin and nail health, shiny hair go away so that the major body processes can continue." And deprived of fuel, higher-level skills (like say, writing) might not always feel worthy of four stars.
Even though I was at a healthy weight before I started dining out five-plus meals a week, I realize I wasn't eating enough calories overall—a mistake many women make which simply backfires and slows down our metabolism. In addition to simply eating more, I was also eating more superfoods that offer a boost in mental sharpness and memory. Win, win.
Cording tells me that one of her first steps with many new female clients is convincing them that they don't need to restrict. "There's this deeply ingrained notion that women need to 'eat like a bird.' I help them tune in to what truly satisfies and point out how much more energetic and stable they'll feel physically, mentally, and emotionally when they're fueling themselves appropriately," she says. "It also helps that they can see how much more they're able to get out of their life and work when they're nourishing their brain and body."
I caught more zzz's...
...and it wasn't all the running around from restaurant to restaurant and extra writing that made me fall into bed. Once every few months during my anorexia recovery, I'd wake up in the middle of the night with a growling stomach. What would ensue was a maddening mental angel-devil convo. "You're hungry." "No, you can wait until breakfast." "You'll get back to sleep right away if you just grab a snack!" "But you don't need the extra calories. Stop being foolish."
Sleep issues are common among those with eating disorders, and it can often take time to recover from the disturbances. So even when I was within a healthy weight range and wasn't hungry at 3 a.m., my hormones may still have been throwing my REM cycle out of whack.
"If you don't go to bed hungry or with a calorie deficit, your body is better able to rest and do that restorative sleep. Caloric restriction is a stressful situation for the body and all kinds of things don't work as well in that state," Schauster says. "Lowering the stress around meals can certainly help you sleep better overall."
My muscles and joints ate it up, too.
With the extra energy from all that sleep and finally having enough fuel, I hit the gym four or five times a week to row and lift weights. Before, I'd struggle through three grueling long runs a week—and would be sore for days on end. Pre-reviewing, I'd rarely prep meat meals at home since I convinced myself it wasn't worth the effort for just one person. Now, after eating more fat and protein, I'd bounce back nearly immediately and rarely felt muscle or joint aches more than a day or two post-workout. (Related: Easy 4-Ingredient Recipes for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery)
The stark change in the muscle healing timeline made total sense once Schauster gave me more details. "Building muscle is an anabolic process. You need to use the muscle then take in enough calories from food to build it up. When you restrict too much, your body doesn't have enough energy to support that tissue repair, rebuilding, and recovery."
Here's my number-one takeaway.
More than anything, I'm so grateful that the experience cemented my belief that no one food or food group needs to be off-limits. One year after hanging up my reviewing cap (don't worry, I'm still writing about food!), I've incorporated the eat-real-food, eat-reasonable-portions mindset into my "civilian" life and try to instill that philosophy in my friends and family, too.
Life is far too short to waste a decade—or a lifetime—stressing about "is that steamed or fried?" Plus, a spoonful of meltingly creamy, full-fat brie is far too delicious to pass up.