What we can learn from old nutrition books about eating healthy today

It’s too bad that the word “diet” has come to mean restricted eating.

The broader idea of a diet — all the foods you eat — is a wonderful idea. It’s our personal landscape of the tastes, smells and textures that, over a day, a week, a month and beyond, keep us alive and determine much of our physical and mental health.

But the way we use “diet” now indicates a regimen, not a canvas. Diets are a book of rules that stress us out, not the overall terroir of what we eat. If dietitian Mary Agnew could teach one thing to her students, it’s that the big picture matters much more than the plate that’s in front of you.

Agnew, who teaches nutrition classes with the Central Texas Food Bank but doesn’t counsel clients, says that habits, not necessarily cravings, are what hold us back from having more overall balanced diets.

If we always finish the bag of popcorn, we continue to finish the bag of popcorn. If we have three pieces of chocolate after dinner, we have three pieces of chocolate after dinner. If our lunch companion finishes his or her sandwich, we finish ours.

“We spend so much on diets and books, but we still have this huge obesity issue,” she says.

Agnew spent 12 years as a vegetarian until she started to crave turkey sandwiches. (Jimmy John’s is her soft spot.) A bite of a cheeseburger at Shake Shack took her off that path completely, so she understands as much as anyone how tempting “bad” foods can be.

“If you’re hungry, your body is telling you something,” she says. But if it’s 6 p.m. and you’re not that hungry, don’t make and eat a plate of food just because it’s dinnertime.

Agnew blames dieting culture for the prevalence of binge eating. “If you really love fried chicken, and you’re like, ‘Fried chicken is bad. I’m not going to eat it anymore,’ you’re going to want it more,” she says. “It creates a cycle of binge and restricting. If you have the ‘It will always be here’ mentality, you’re less likely to binge.”

Permanently eliminating foods you enjoy is not a healthful way of eating, even if we’re talking about sugary cakes and sodas. Being mindful of consumption is a big part of intuitive eating; setting up an unrealistic expectation that you’ll never have another Dr Pepper or piece of fried chicken is not.

“A lot of women have some sort of disordered eating because of the way we grow up and seeing what we ‘should’ be looking like in the media,” Agnew says. “It can manifest in different ways. Binge eating disorder was only recently added” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

If you’re in a good place, emotionally and physically, it’s easier to figure out what to eat based on what your body and mind need, but listening to your body is a skill we can lose and gain at various times in our lives, depending on the circumstances. When you’re in crisis or at the very least stressed out, you tend to stop paying attention to signals of hunger, thirst, low energy or an unhappy stomach.

If you’re unfamiliar with listening to your body after eating, try to focus on your physical body in the hours after you eat your next meal. Are you satiated? Are you hydrated? Do you feel full an hour later? Two hours later? Do you crave sweets even though you’re full?

If you think about a 3-year-old eating over the course of three days, you’ll notice that he or she doesn’t eat the same quantity of food at every meal or have the same level of hunger every day. Adults have a similar cycle, so try to think about what you’ve consumed this week, not just today, when you’re making food decisions.

Agnew and I spent a recent lunch break flipping through old nutrition books collected in the Statesman cookbook drive earlier this year.

Among recipes for microwaved roast beef and faux sour cream made with evaporated milk, we saw statistics that felt like numbers you’d see today — for instance, that 1 out of 2 adults is affected by obesity.

In the 1980s, Nathan Pritikin shared that statistic in “The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise,” a book that warned of the dangers of the Atkins and ketogenic diet — two diets we’ve seen reappear in American culture. In Pritikin’s book, I also learned about how liquid protein diets led to nearly 60 deaths that decade and that people used a hard-to-believe practice of wiring one’s jaw shut to prevent overeating.

As Agnew looked through “The Fat Free Living Super Cookbook” from the 1990s, she lamented that the fat-free decade is what led us to having so much sugar in processed foods today. “Fat adds flavor, so sugar was added to replace the flavor, but sugar is a bigger problem than fat,” she says. You don’t need refined sugar to survive, but you do need fat, not only because it makes you feel satiated but also because fat helps your body absorb many nutrients found in other parts of a meal.

We were surprised by the commonalities between today’s nutrition advice and that of yesteryear. Forty years ago, “Slim Gourmet” author Barbara Gibbons, too, was writing about eggs as a controversial ingredient, “even though it’s one of the leanest and more affordable proteins.”

Gibbons, who died in 2014, also was spot-on about not falling for marketing. “To compound confusion, many dietetic products use fanciful names that imply slimness and some decorate their labels with shapely silhouettes or other illustrations that convey the idea of weight loss. The casual shopper can easily be misled, but thanks to federal regulations, the pertinent information is usually available on the label for those willing to read the fine print.”

“Remember the word natural is no guarantee that the food is healthy for you,” Gibbons wrote, nearly echoing a statement Agnew had just made over tacos and a Topo Chico.

Food marketing is an easy trap to fall into at the grocery store, but at home, beware of the scale, Agnew says. Constantly focusing on weight as a measure of health might be the hardest American nutrition habit to break.

Agnew is among the many dietitians who are spreading awareness about why weight and body mass index, or BMI, aren’t the best measures of health and that you can be healthy at every size.

“The more people diet, the more out of control their weight is,” she says. “If you don’t find the root cause of the emotional eating, it’s not going to be a permanent change.”

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