I was 13 years old when I ate my first “diet meal.” I had somehow convinced my mother that the traditional foods from her native Iran were going to make me fat and that the only hope for my future health was to eat food with clearly marked calories and fat grams. After much needling on my part, she agreed to buy the meal of my choosing: shrimp marinara, an offering from the Weight Watchers Smart Ones line.
Let me paint a picture of this entree, circa 1996: When defrosted, the teensy shrimps turned to rubber and the angel hair pasta became a soppy mess in tomato sauce. I vaguely recall the word “zesty” emblazoned on the small red box. The contents were about the size of a deck of cards.
But the questionable flavor and texture took a back seat to the meal’s convenience — 2 minutes and 10 seconds in the microwave — and its “nutritional” value (i.e., low calorie count). With its 190 calories and two grams of fat, it was triumph in each bite.
In the decade and a half that followed, I, like any good dieter, became intimately familiar with a bleak landscape of diet foods.
There were the low-fat frozen meals and veggie “burgers.” There were the meal-replacement bars, meal-replacement shakes, meal-replacement cereals and countless 100-calorie snack packs (which, let’s be honest, taste best when eaten in multiples).
This list might sound extreme, but it’s no exaggeration. And it’s not unique to me.
Roughly 75 million Americans are on a diet, according to the independent market researcher Marketdata. Many turn to sources outside their own kitchens for help, and the weight-loss marketplace is booming for businesses promising that magic equation of health plus convenience. In 2010, meal-replacement products raked in about $2.65 million while diet food delivery grew into a $924 million industry.
But as the supply of weight-loss products grows, so does the problem that has created the demand for them. More than a third of American adults are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one-third are overweight.
For my part, I somehow managed to gain about 50 pounds while dieting, eating what I thought were the “right” foods in the “right” amounts. Each success on the scale was short-lived: I jumped between plans and pant sizes for about 15 years. In hindsight I realize my 13-year-old self was a perfectly healthy size. But in my personal quest to outsmart obesity, I had developed a weight problem.
I inadvertently broke this cycle in the fall of 2011. One of my friends said she wanted to try losing weight by “eating clean” — cutting all processed foods — and she needed a buddy for support.
At the time, I was fully entrenched in the membership-only Jenny Craig program, which featured a variety of frozen and shelf-stable meals, weekly meetings with a consultant and numerous celebrity endorsements. I had seen great success with the program. I was maintaining a healthy weight, and my cholesterol and blood pressure were “perfect,” according to my doctor. I was running half-marathons and fit into clothes I’d previously only dreamed of. Life was good, all thanks to about 1,200 calories a day and my trusty microwave.
I grudgingly agreed to abandon the safety of my pre-packaged meals with their trusty nutrition labels — and what I thought was control over my eating — for one week only.
For the first time in years, I found myself in the kitchen preparing a meal from scratch; I started by roasting a chicken.
Every day for seven days, each of my meals was home-cooked. I had omelets for breakfast, salads for lunch, grilled meats and roasted vegetables for dinner. It wasn’t hard or especially time-consuming, and it was really fun.
Seven days turned into eight, which eventually turned into 495 and counting. The slow-cooker is my savior; turmeric and cumin, my spices of choice. Now I not only eat the Iranian food of my childhood, but I am slowly learning to cook it for myself, a true test of patience as I reconnect with my family’s heritage.
I have even developed a taste for organ meats; my final frozen meal delivery, well past the expiration date of even preserved foods, still sits in my freezer, taking up space next to a grass-fed beef liver that I guarantee I will eat first.
Despite my fear of life without pre-portioned food and nutrition labels, I didn’t “lose control.” I didn’t regain all the weight I’d lost or do irreparable damage to my health. If anything, I’m even healthier now. Whereas I used to suffer from migraines and insomnia, low iron and low vitamin D levels — all attributed by my doctors to stress and a fast-paced lifestyle — I now sleep through the night, can donate blood without issue and don’t remember the last time I had a headache. My weight is still healthy, my bloodwork still perfect.
I don’t mean to vilify any of the diet plans or products out there, as each of the ones I tried taught me valuable lessons about portion control, hunger cues and cravings.
Nor am I trying to say that my way, an approach that values real, whole foods more than nutrition labels, is the best way. If anything, my trial-and-error experiences helped me understand that there is no single perfect diet — no one-size-fits-all way of eating. The beauty of taking back control of the food I was eating is that I was able to figure out the right solution for me.
Good health doesn’t reside in the plastic tray of a frozen meal the size of a deck of cards. And it is possible to jump off the diet food train unscathed.
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