Pretend someone is forcing you to eat at McDonald’s.
Fact: fast-food restaurants over serve their customers. Knowing how many calories and how much sodium in each menu item when you approach the counter will help you navigate this minefield.
I have eaten at McDonald’s exactly once in the last nine years, when a dental problem made eating painful. I got my hands on a vanilla milkshake and it was darn good. Prior to 2003, I saved visits to McDonald’s for severe weekday hangovers. Those hangovers were thankfully rare.
I can’t say I will never eat at McDonald’s again, nor must I have the proverbial gun to my head to enter the golden arches. But I would have to have a severe shortage of options.
Driving down I-95 or across I-80, one of those shortage scenarios might arise. I will be headed down both those interstates next week. If I run out of food options on the road, and am faced only with fast-food restaurants, which should I pick?
Posting Calories Helps Make Better Choices
I checked the nutrition information for both Burger King’s and McDonald’s menus. Reading the long lists of calories of every sandwich variation made me numb to the calorie counts. After a few pages, 500 calories didn’t sound like so much.
If I navigate the menu carefully, I could order a reasonable meal at each house of worship. Even though the lowest calorie sandwich at both McDonald’s and Burger King is the humble hamburger, I don’t eat red meat. So that option is off the table.
I don’t do deep-fried either, so the Filet-O-Fish is also out. The cheesed-up, tartar-sauce slathered Filet-O-Fish is worse than a burger. But I ate Filets for years thinking it was a better choice. At McDonald’s, I might opt for the Grilled Chicken Sandwich (350 calories, 820 mg sodium). The grilled version is just over half the calories of the Crispy Chicken option (620 calories, 1200 mg sodium). In a previous life, I would have considered the two interchangeable.
If the sodium level of the Grilled Chicken Sandwich scares you off, try the Honey Mustard Grilled Snack Wrap (250 calories, 670 mg sodium).
Over at Burger King, the Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich is 470 calories with 1330 mg of sodium—too high. But you can save 110 calories if you hold the mayo.
Breakfast: The Most Fattening Meal of the Day
Surprisingly, fast-food breakfast meals can be much worse than the lunch fare. Judging by the name, I would know to stay away from the BK Ultimate Breakfast Platter (1450 calories, 2920 mg sodium). But the sodium content of the Southwest Burrito (1790 mg) makes a sensible-sounding choice not so sensible.
At McDonald’s, if the breakfast includes hotcakes, stay clear. The Big Breakfast with Hotcakes has 1,090 calories and 2150 mg of sodium. Here’s where the Fruit n’ Yogurt Parfait (150 calories) can be a life saver.
I may have to walk into a McDonald’s and see what’s on the menu. Or at least, see how many calories are posted on the menu.
McDonald’s announced that its 14,000 US restaurants will post the calories in its sandwiches, shakes, fries and other food or non-food products. The change will go into effect next week. The announcement may surprise people, but the decision is logical and smart.
The fast-food chain is already required to post calories in New York City and Philadelphia. Calorie counts have always been available to customers who dine in and have the strength and will to flip over the paper placemat.
But McDonald’s, as fried and fatty as most of their food is, has led the effort to provide healthier options. McDonald’s introduced salads in 1985, way ahead of the obesity-awareness curve.
ACA Mandates Calorie Posting
Yes, you cynics, McDonald’s is just getting a jump on the Affordable Care Act’s 2014 requirement that food chains post calorie information. But give McDonald’s points for accepting the inevitable and incorporating it into their philosophy.
McDonald’s is giving posted calorie counts a positive spin with signs listing “Favorites Under 400,” according to a New York Times article.
Some people are still unhappy—McDonald’s may be a happy place, but it’s still not a healthy place. But incremental change is more likely to be lasting change. Yes, McDonald’s may be milking this for some good PR, but so what? Calories are still being posted; customers are free to make better choices. Or not.
Studies have shown a minimal amount of change in customer behavior when calories are posted—from little to none. Real change is slow, and small percentages still add up to a lot less calories being consumed. Also, these studies appear to examine the behavior of low-income customers. People with low incomes are not McDonald’s only customers, nor are they the only ones fighting obesity.
If McDonald’s and other fast-food chains use their advertising campaigns to promote their healthier choices, then the needle will move faster. They deserve a break today.
We will always know it as the September 10th diet, but we stuck to it despite—or because of—how life changed the next day.
Our Diet Guide
By September 2001, I was fatter than I had ever been (no numbers, please!). I wore G’s discarded jeans every day because they were the only pants that fit. I had attempted to lose weight a few times, but I always caved at the slightest temptation.
But by September 2001, G. was ready to join me in losing weight. He found this book, 32 Days to a 32 Inch Waist, and said this was the diet to try. I said I didn’t want a 32-inch waist, but since I needed some shared willpower, I went along.
We gave ourselves one more weekend to indulge in pizza, bagels and cocktails. We would start the program on Monday.
This book must have been written in the 70s because it allowed “ice milk,” frozen, white stuff sold as diet ice cream back then. There’s a reason ice milk disappeared from the grocer’s freezer. It was nasty.
On Monday, September 10, I fixed my breakfast while G. still slept. Breakfast is 100 calories of cereal. The book suggests Frosted Mini-Wheats. One hundred calories of Frosted Mini-Wheats is THREE mini cereal biscuits. THREE.
I laughed hysterically at the sad little cereal biscuits in the tiny dish. I woke G. up to show him breakfast. He laughed too and we got through the first day.
Tuesday, September 11
On the second day, a sunny, dry Tuesday morning, two planes hit the World Trade Centers. I saw the two flaming towers when I emerged from the subway at West 4th. I walked the rest of the way to work stunned.
At the office, no one knew what to do. I sat at my desk, then I listened to the radio in the conference room and then went back to my desk again. Eventually, I walked across the Manhattan Bridge home to Brooklyn with thousands of others.
One of the first things I said to G. when I got home was “are we still on the diet?” He said he was wondering the same thing. In those two sentences, we acknowledged that the world had changed and nothing would be the same. But without ever articulating why, we decided to stay on the diet.
We spent three days watching the news ceaselessly, eating our allowance of Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast and the graham cracker-and-peanut-butter snack. We lost weight and kept it off mostly, but I never got that fat or complacent again.
Four Reasons Olympic Athletes Are Better Inspiration than Fashion Models
Forget the runway bodies in fashion magazine— it’s the bodies of Olympic athletes that should inspire awe. Watch swimmers, intense concentration on their faces, cutting through the water with eagle-like wingspans; admire photos of gymnasts captured in mid-air, defying gravity. This is art.
#1: Olympic Bodies Are Healthy Bodies
Olympic bodies are human machines trained to reach its top athletic potential. Olympians won’t win the gold medal unless they train relentlessly and eat enough calories to have the energy and body mass needed to be the best. Olympians have to eat nutritious, balanced diets for maximum energy.
Here is a fun calculator to see which Olympian body is most like yours.
Watching athletes from all over the world and hearing stories of their struggles to reach the Olympics raises global awareness. Despite being one of the fattest nations on earth, the US athletes are leading the pack in medals. Why is there such a gulf between our Olympians and the average American?
Here’s where I am on the Global Fat Scale. Where are you?
#2: Olympians Don’t Need Photoshop
Photoshop can be a girl’s best friend, but photoshopped images are not reality. Even knowing that fashion spreads are touched up, we still, in our hearts, believe that gaunt look is good and attainable.
Most of us don’t look like fashion models OR Olympic athletes. Nor are we likely to ever attain an Olympic or fashion-model body.
An 8th grader petitioned Seventeen magazine to run one unretouched spread per issue. The media heralded her when she appeared to score a victory. But the magazine did not pledge to abandon Photoshop; they pledged not to alter body size or face shape. That gives the magazine a lot of wiggle room to clear up skin, brighten eyes, smooth wrinkles (on models and clothes). A victory?
#3: Olympians Can Inspire Your Personal Best
We can’t all be Olympic champions, but we all can strive to be the best we can be. But, as much as girls are influenced by the glossies, girls and women should be more inspired by the athletes parading around the London games than the skeletons on the catwalk.
Olympians are never finished training and practicing. Athletes cannot be the world’s best if they approach their sport haphazardly or practice only when they feel like it. Athletic success is mental as well as physical.
Adopt the Olympic discipline to change they way you eat and exercise. Don’t starve yourself in anticipation of a special occasion and stuff yourself when it’s over. Don’t join a gym and exercise like mad for a month, then let your membership lapse. Just raise your game in increments you can maintain.
In the Olympics, medals are won and lost in the final seconds–even split seconds. This late-inning failure happens in diets too. When I am close to my goal weight, I often indulge in high calorie foods too often.
Finally, #4: Olympians Can Outrun a Supermodel
July 14: Sounds Worse on Paper
Don’t Allow Vacations to Derail Your Food Diary
Many people don’t take their food diaries on vacation. Most of those people never restart their food diaries once they return home.
Don’t allow vacations to disrupt your food diary, and don’t allow your food diary to disrupt your vacation.
Avoid using these excuses for abandoning your food diary during a holiday:
1) “I won’t have time to write to write everything down.”
2) “I know I’m going to overeat, so why bother?”
3) “I just don’t want to know how much I am eating on vacation.”
Excuse #1 No Time
Depending on the nature of your vacation, this may be an excuse or or it may have some basis in reality. But remember, the no-time excuse is the same excuse people to avoid food diaries in the first place.
Most people have MORE time on vacation. Will you be lying on a beach? Will you be lingering in a cafe? Will you be in a hotel room without all your usual gadgets? These are perfect times to update your food diary.
Lack of time should not be an excuse when documenting your daily consumption takes no more than five or ten minutes.
On vacation, you might temporarily change the detail level of your food diaries. Even if you fall to Level 1 or 2, you have not failed and it will be easier to get back to normal once you return home.
Excuse #2: I Know I Will Overeat
This excuse plays on the typical feeling that if the news is bad news, you don’t want to know. Accept that you are going to overeat on vacation. Make quantifying, not judging your task.
If you are digging into the bowl of mixed nuts at the Tiki Bar, just take relatively uniform handfuls and count as you go.
Yes, count them. Just counting what you eat non-judgmentally will give you a measure of control. If all counting means is you stop at four or five handfuls rather than draining the bowl, you have shown some restraint. Be satisfied with this small measure of restraint.
Excuse #3: I Don’t Want to Know the Damage
Perfectionists only want to complete a task when the outcome is what they want. Not wanting to know the caloric damage is what makes a person unable to start a food journal in the first place. If you have overcome this hurdle and started a food diary in the first place, don’t let THIS be the excuse that thwarts you during vacation.
Use your journal as a gastronomical travelogue during this period. Jot down where you were, what you ate, who you were with and make it a happy memory.
You will not have broken the number one rule of keeping a Food Diary and the ultimate goal of weight control. Do not stop.
A Page From the Book
A food diary can be kept at seven rungs of detail. The level that is right for you is whatever level you are able to maintain.
Beginning with the most in-depth, here are the levels or ways your diary may look.
Level 7: Is that OCD on Your Sleeve?
This OCDer (see image) itemizes each food very precisely, measures portion sizes and calculates calories all before a single bite is in her mouth. She also calculate how many calories she has left to eat for the rest of the day.
Level 6: Determined and Disciplined
A food diarist at Level 6 keeps the same detail as Level 7, but calculates or estimates calories after she has eaten a meal. She encounters an occasional “whoops.” When you count up the calories of a meal, you almost always find more than there should be.
Level 5: Better Have a Good Eye
A food diarist at Level 5 itemizes each food, but eyeballs the portion size and estimates–not calculates–the calories. We tend to underestimate portion sizes (thank you, restaurants of America!). Remember the classic deck of cards rule.
Level 4: On the Board, But No Bulls-Eye
At Level 4, she writes down the name of the dish (example: Chicken Marsala) rather than itemizing each food (same dish: 4 ounces chicken, 1/2 cup mushrooms, 1/4 cup Marsala wine sauce) and estimates the calories. This level of record-keeper is a C student, but sometime that’s enough.
Level 3: You’re Shooting in the Dark
This gunslinger writes down everything she eats at the end of the day and just estimates the calories. At this level, she will hear the sad Debbie Downer trombone when she sees her calorie total at the end of the day.
Level 2: Hanging By Your Fingertips
This diarist writes down everything she eats at the end of the da,y but neglects to estimate the calories. This is just a list. If a dieter can only do this much, I predict the diary will last only days.
Level 1: Take Off Your Rose-colored Glasses
Writes down what she ate today and yesterday at the same time, because she pretty much can remember everything she had yesterday. Do I need to explain the failed logic in this scenario?
When I first started my food diary, I sometimes fell to a Level 1 or 2. Not great, but falling any further than a day behind pretty much means the end of the road for your food journal. But Level 1 or 2 you can still muster the “I’ve come this far mentality that drives success. Just barely. But don’t give up! Here are some tips and tricks for keeping a successful Food Journal.
I found the key to weight loss and healthy eating.
I Heart These Journals
Write down everything you eat. You’ve heard that advice many times. You’ve started a food diary how many times now?
I had the same problem. My food diaries lasted only a day or two at best. Later, I would come across these sad, short-lived attempts and shake my head at my lack of discipline. Why can’t I do this one thing that sounds so EASY?
Two years ago, I tried again and to my amazement, it worked and I haven’t stopped. This food journal didn’t start any differently than earlier ones. I made a rule: I can eat anything I want as long as I write it down. No self-judgment; just honesty. No one sees this but me.
May 2010 had skipped days and half-hearted entries. By June 1, I realized I had something going. I started writing neater and developed a consistent entry style:
Food, comma, description, comma, quantity. Estimated calories to the left. For example:
110 Yogurt, plain, non-fat, 1 cup
Organic food gets an asterisk.
My OCD started playing the game with me. I challenged myself by adding the calories in my head and subtotaling by meal.
Once I filled the first spiral bound purse-size book, I bought a long, slim hard-bound book with a placeholder ribbon. Each page was the perfect length for a daily food list. After filling two of those, now I am working through my third Rhinestone Heart Journal.
Great EatSmart Kitchen Scale
Instead of just eyeballing food quantities, I began measuring food in earnest. I bought a food scale, an EatSmart Digital Kitchen Scale. The scale measures food in ounces, grams, kilograms and pounds. The scale comes with a booklet that gives you the calories per gram of common foods.
The food scale was a turning point.
My entries became more precise once I started using grams. Not sure who I was trying to impress. Me, I guess.
Restaurants meals are tricky and are often the reason dieters abandon their diaries. After measuring and calculating food at home, your eye learns to measure with reasonable accuracy. When you go out to eat, remember what you ate and how much. Remember the rule: you can eat anything you want as long as you write it down AND estimate the calories.
Restaurant calorie estimates are ballpark at best, but I try to estimate high and not worry about it.
I have been food journaling for exactly two years now. I have lost fifteen pounds. I keep at it because each day that I feel too lazy to log the meals, I ask myself, do I really want TODAY to be the reason I end your streak?
As in life, every day is a new page.
A Page From the Book
Why Limiting Soft Drink Serving Size is Justified
New Yorkers are grumbling that Mayor Bloomberg can’t tell them how much soda they can drink. The people have it wrong; the soda manufacturers and restaurants are telling us how much we should drink.
The proposed ban makes perfect sense if you think about if from the motives of the sellers. By increasing the default size served, the beverage industry is making money—a lot of money—and keeping us fat to boot. Customers are passive receptacles, drinking many more calories than they otherwise would have.
If you want more soda, buy two. Why are people reluctant to embrace that easy workaround? Because people want to be passive victims; they consume what they are served; ALL of it. If 20 ounces are served, then 20 ounces is a serving.
When you pour yourself a glass of soda from a 2-liter bottle, do you pour 20 ounces?
The first time a pimply popcorn seller asked me if I wanted a gallon of Coke for a quarter more than the cost of that puny cup I ordered, I was incredulous. It was illogical. It was crazy. After I recovered, I figured out that the extra soda cost them much less than a quarter. The concession stand pockets a whole lot of quarters that add up to a whole lot of dollars.
Order an omelet at iHop, and the waitress will offer a side of toast or pancakes. Toast or pancakes? How is that an even choice?
I hear the argument that the proposed soda size ban is unfair because 7-11 can still serve a Big Gulp and Carnegie Deli can serve a pastrami sandwich the size of a “cow with a rye yarmulke,” according to Jon Stewart. Normal serving sizes have to start somewhere.
Bloomberg is starting with the worst offender, a category with no nutritional value, just hollow, empty calories. Don’t argue that the initiative shouldn’t happen just because it isn’t going to happen everywhere at once.
Despite my backing of the mayor’s plan, I won’t stop calling the beverages “soft drinks” and rename them “sugary beverages.” It’s odd to me the entire media has adopted the new word choice, even the commentators who are against the ban.