What to Do When You Want to Lose a Few Pounds... AKA Our Weight Loss Strategy10 minute read
I admit it: we returned from Italy a bit heavier than when
we left. Those of you who know us from our cooking classes in NYC or from our culinary
tours in Italy know that we lost a lot of weight over the years: Dino used to
weigh 65 pounds more than he does now, and I weighed 40 pounds more. So when we
weighed ourselves upon returning from two weeks of culinary tours in Puglia and
Tuscany, and a month of research in Liguria, Sicily, and Calabria for next year’s
tours, we were not thrilled to see we had gained 5 pounds each.
We went on a “mini diet” as I like to call it, and lost the extra weight in just 6 weeks without feeling deprived.
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
People usually ask us how we manage to stay thin despite the fact that our life revolves around food. The answer is that that we are quite disciplined about how much we eat, what we eat, and even when we eat. So while this blog post may sound patronizing or pedantic, or perhaps plain old depressing (especially now that the season of indulgence is upon us), we really mean for it to be helpful and inspiring. Having just embarked on a mini diet made us want to share some useful techniques for weight management with anyone who feels they can use a little help managing their weight.
Quite simply, it is not easy to lose weight, nor is it easy to maintain the weight loss over time. But we have developed a few tricks that have helped us to lose the weight initially, maintain the weight loss over the years, and rectify again when a few unwanted pounds come creeping back. Read on only if you think this post may help you. Or just jump directly to the recipe below if you want a really delicious salad that is perfect for the cool season.
MODERATION IS KEY
It is impossible to lose weight if you aren’t ready to make some kind of concessions, some kind of sacrifice. But it is also impossible to maintain weight loss if you are too restrictive and don’t allow yourself any treats. It’s not just that life is too short to deny yourself pleasure at the table; it’s that you cannot reasonably force yourself to avoid entire categories of food in the long term, without any leeway. You’ll inevitably “lose control” and over indulge. Classic case of one step forward, two steps back. Better to eat everything in moderation so you don’t feel punished and can maintain your diet as long as needed to lose the weight you want to lose.
MAINTAINING THE WEIGHT LOSS
I’ll get into exactly what we did to lose weight in a moment, and what we do to maintain the weight loss, but while on the subject of moderation, I want to point out that maintenance of weight loss is mostly about being moderate. Don’t deprive yourself of one food (be it pasta, bread, sweets, cheese, whatever you love) to keep the weight off. Just consume smaller quantities of it than you may have before the weight loss. This way you can still enjoy the food you love—in reasonable amounts.
WEIGH YOURSELF AND YOUR FOOD
A scale is essential. In fact, two scales: a bathroom scale for a daily weigh in at the same time each day, preferably on an empty stomach; and a food scale so you can weigh your ingredients in the kitchen.
When you weigh yourself in the morning, jot down your weight. We use a spread sheet, but a notebook is fine—anything that allows you look back at your weight over time so you know when it’s time to cut back a bit. We also note what we eat each day next to our weight. (A side note: while in Italy, we had no bathroom scale, so for six weeks we couldn’t weigh ourselves. That’s partly why we gained the weight.) Having a log of your daily weight will keep you motivated to stay on track and allow you to make minor adjustments as needed.
I know many people own a bathroom scale but cannot conceive of using a food scale in the kitchen. I can’t even imagine cooking (let alone baking) without a scale; it’s the handiest tool in my arsenal for weight maintenance (not to mention, the most important tool after my hands and knife to ensure my recipes come out the way I want). Before I start cooking, I already know roughly how much I am free to use of a given ”rich” ingredient. Weighing out the cheese in advance for your much-craved cheese course is one way to set a limit so you don’t over indulge. The same applies to dessert: a slice of cake or pie is a fair and well-deserved part of life; just weigh it first and don’t allow yourself to go back for seconds. We do this all the time and it simply works.
MOVEMENT IS KEY
Everyone’s metabolism is different: some people gain weight faster than others, lose it more slowly, and have more difficulty maintaining weight loss. But one thing is for certain: eat fewer calories than you burn, and you will lose weight.
So the first step is moving. That doesn’t necessarily mean in a gym. Just introduce small movements in your daily routine. Take the stairs rather than the elevator if your joints allow it, walk or take a bike instead of driving if possible, and be sure to do some sort of moderate exercise at least 5 days a week. We do High Intensity Interval Training 25 minutes each day, and take a 20-minute walk around our lake each day, 6 days a week. Maybe you prefer to swim, or jog, or walk an hour—whatever gets you moving is good. We swim in the summer, or go kayaking. When we lived in NYC, we walked 35 minutes to work and back each day. Again—whatever gets you moving is good.
THE DIET ITSELF
Just like everyone’s metabolism is different, everyone’s “downfall” is different. Our downfall is bread, cheese, and dessert. Those are the foods we need to cut back on to lose weight and then maintain our weight loss. So when we lost 30 pounds in 2006 and the remaining weight in 2013, we did it by scaling back to almost zero on these foods in the first two weeks of dieting, then we reintroduced them in small, modest amounts until we reached our goal weight. Notice we never entirely denied ourselves these foods. That would have backfired quickly because we would have felt deprived. And now we eat all these foods daily, in moderation.
So what does our eating look like when we are trying to shed a few unwanted pounds? I’ve found that a disciplined plan is necessary so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each day.
We never eat breakfast—we have always just had a nice cappuccino to start off each day. (If your body needs more, by all means, eat some fruit or a bowl of oatmeal or a slice of bread, whatever you require to start your day right.)
For lunch, since we’re usually working, we have a lighter meal. Yes, I know, everyone advises a heavier meal at lunch and a lighter one at night, but for us, that just doesn’t work. We prefer to indulge a bit more in the evening when the phone stops ringing, emails stop coming, and there are fewer obligations to deal with.
Lunch is typically a hearty vegetarian soup or salad. I am a passionate sourdough bread baker and I adore making fresh pasta—but I avoid both of these most days at lunch, especially if I we are trying to lose a few pounds. I make a big, layered, complex salad with a small amount of oil and either no cheese or very little cheese. Then lots of fresh fruit and nothing until a mid-afternoon cappuccino. We don’t snack but if we do, it's a very small piece of homemade dessert (maybe asmall slice of banana sourdough cake, or a cookie, and yes, we weigh it first).
Dinner is more indulgent: either fresh sourdough bread and soup or salad; homemade sourdough pizza; or homemade pasta and a salad or roasted vegetables. If we are in active weight loss phase, we skip sugar-added desserts and have just fruit. If we are maintaining, we always have a bit of a sweet treat about 2 hours after dinner: a few squares of chocolate, a slice of homemade cake, a piece of sourdough baguette with homemade jam and Mascarpone, whatever we want. We weigh it first and don’t go back for seconds.
THE ORDER OF FOOD MATTERS
Every meal typically includes richer and leaner foods. I always serve the lighter, nearly "calorie-free" lean foods first, them move onto the richer foods as a finale of sorts. Vegetables in our house are plentiful, lightly dressed, and count as "calorie-free" for the most part, and they are nearly always the first course before the calorie-rich foods like pasta or pizza appear.
Say for instance that you are eating a plate of pasta with pesto and a platter of grilled vegetables for dinner. I suggest you serve the grilled vegetables first, then move onto the rich pasta dish. This way your belly already has something in it before the pasta arrives and, being less hungry, you're going to be just fine with a slightly smaller portion.
This is certainly true for a cheese course, which is one of the richest, most calorie-dense treats possible. In our house, we eat plenty of vegetables first, then finish on the cheese, weighing our portion when plating it. The order in which you eat wil give you a sense of satiety that can be very helpful when trying to be moderate.
AVOID PROCESSED FOODS, TAKE OUT, AND DELIVERY
I know we are all busy and it can be difficult to cook every day. So who am I to tell you to avoid the convenience of prepared foods, delivery, and take out? I don’t know how many obligations you have in your day or how many hours you can devote to cooking. But I do know that it is far healthier (and certainly less expensive) to eat only unprocessed foods and to cook everything from scratch.
Note that “from scratch” doesn’t mean complicated dishes. A cup of frozen peas, a cup of water, and half a chopped onion transform into a fine soup in just 10 minutes; if you have it, throw in a Parmigiano rind and drizzle on some olive oil. A can of oil-packed tuna and a can of cannellini beans form a great salad, even without embellishments like capers, sliced red onions, and chopped celery leaves. Homemade food need not be complicated to be good. Just buy good ingredients, keep healthy, unprocessed convenience foods in your pantry and freezer, and you can make something healthy and delicious in the same amount of time it takes to place an order for delivery.
I can tell you that when we lived in NYC, we ordered Chinese, Thai, and Japanese take out about 3 times a week. We were both working 14 hours a day and it was just that much easier to pick up the phone and open the door rather than cook. When we went on our first diet, we stopped ordering in, and the pounds came off fast. Now that we live in a rural area, there are fewer options for delivery, but the lure of processed foods at the market is still there. I have always loved Nutella, for example—it was my favorite on baguette when I was little in Italy. I haven’t bought a jar of it in thirty years. While I miss it sometimes, I can reach for a square or two of Italian or Belgian chocolate instead and I know I’m not eating hydrogenated fats and needless sugars. I also make my own jams because I know how much sugar goes in the pot—and the taste is way better than store-bought.
MAKE A MEAL PLAN FOR THE WEEK
I have always been a planner. I enjoy being organized with my time and find that planning our meals for the week helps me to avoid food waste, gives me something to look forward to (I know when I’ll be eating my favorite pasta or bread, for example), and makes food shopping easier. And it makes cooking more efficient, because it allows me to combine similar tasks: why not boil the green beans first for my lunch salad, then boil the broccoli for my dinner soup, one after the other in the same water? No need to wait for two pots of water to come to a boil, and wash two pots, six hours apart.
TREAT YOURSELF WELL
If all this sounds restrictive, difficult, or hard to maintain, I can tell you that it isn’t once you actually start. Trust me—I love food and live for it. It is imperative to look at food as a positive in your life, rather than an evil force that can take over. Control what you eat by using a food scale, weigh yourself, move every day, and eat a little of everything, including the foods that are most “indulgent” for you, as long as the ingredients are natural. Treat yourself well, don’t deprive yourself, and you’ll not only be able to lose the weight, you’ll be able to keep the weight off.
Start with the salad below. It makes a great lunch now that the weather is chilly, and the ingredients are all in season, so their flavor will be that much better. And if you aren’t looking to lose any weight, make the salad just the same: it doesn’t taste like diet food, it tastes like delicious fall food.
FALL SALAD OF POMEGRANATE, PEARS, FETA, & ROASTED BEET
Salads are the most amazing food. What else allows you to play as freely with texture, color, and flavor? A good salad draws on the nature of each ingredient to create an amazing whole. The salad below, which has become our favorite over the last few weeks, is a prime example of how you can combine contrasting elements to create a truly spectacular dish with little effort.
Start with sweet, earthy baby beets, and roast them. Slice crisp pears, skin and all. Toast nutty pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Pop ruby-hued, tart pomegranate seeds out of their sheath. Crumble salty Feta. Line a platter with refreshing leaves of lettuce. Enjoy. Crave the rest of the week, until you make it again.
A delicious variation: swap peppery arugula for the lettuce, and toasted hazelnuts for the seeds.
Serves 2 as a light main course
- 1 large beet or 2 medium beets, about 225 grams (8 ounces), scrubbed and trimmed
- 5 grams (1 teaspoon) Kosher salt
- 30 milliliters (2 tablespoons) Sherry vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 ripe Seckel pears or 1 ripe Anjou or Bartlett pear, cored and thinly sliced
- 15 millilitters (1 tablespoon) lemon juice
- 15 grams (0.5 ounces) sunflower seeds
- 15 grams (0.5 ounces) 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
- 1 pomegranate
- 1 small head oak leaf or other curly, sweet lettuce, washed, dried, torn into bite-size pieces
- 30 milliliters (2 tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil
- 30 grams (1 ounce) French Feta, crumbled
- Preheat the oven to 350°F convection or 375°F regular. Place the beets on a sheet of aluminum foil, sprinkle with the Kosher salt, and wrap to enclose in the foil. Place the package on a baking sheet.
- Roast in the preheated for 1 hour, or until tender and easily pierced with a knife. Cool, then unwrap and remove the skins with a sharp knife or by rubbing with paper towels. Cut into thin slices and place in a small bowl. Pour on 15 milliliters (1 tablespoon) of the Sherry vinegar, and season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper. Set aside to steep for 10 minutes or up to 2 hours at room temperature.
- In a small bowl, toss the sliced pears with the lemon juice. Set aside for 10 minutes (but no longer than 30 minutes, or the pears will become mushy).
- In a small, dry skillet over medium heat, toast the sunflower and pumpkin seeds until golden, stirring often, about 3 minutes; set aside.
- Cut the pomegranate in half along the width (in other words, along the Equator line). Working over a bowl to catch the juices and stray seeds, remove the seeds from the pomegranate. Pick out any bits of papery skin.
- When you are ready to serve, toss the lettuce with the remaining 15 milliliters (1 tablespoon) of Sherry vinegar, the remaining ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper. Add the olive oil and toss again. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Divide among 2 plates.
- Top with the beets and any of their marinade, followed by the pears and any of their juices. Scatter the sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds, and Feta over the top. Serve at once, before the lettuce wilts.