Confronting Your Food Issues

Learn the how-tos of psyching yourself into cooking healthy.

5 min read

You've heard of retail therapy and cinema therapy? Now comes "culinary therapy," the philosophy of making friends with food in the intimacy of your own kitchen. With more than 60% of adults being overweight -- and most of the rest probably thinking they need to lose a few pounds -- people tend to avoid concentrating too much on food in hopes a fast or packaged item here and there will keep them from overeating.

Just the opposite is true, according to hypnotherapist Skyler Madison, director of the Skyler Madison Wellness Center in New York. "If food is your nemesis, you need to cultivate it and learn to appreciate it," she says. "Packaged foods -- even those diet dinners -- are tasteless and full of chemicals. In some cases, the portions of pre-prepared foods are ridiculous. You need to work with food in a pleasant way --fresh, nicely seasoned, beautifully presented."

Madison uses hypnosis -- in addition to cooking classes -- to help people see food as energy, rather than an evil force or "the enemy." "You need to ask, 'What is the best source of energy for my body?' rather than looking at food as a distraction," she says. "Most people have lost and gained so many times, they need a mood change."

When Kathleen Daelemans, author of Cooking Thin with Chef Kathleen: 200 Easy Recipes for Healthy Weight Loss, got a job at a new restaurant in Hawaii, she was surprised to learn it was a spa restaurant. "I was fat and didn't have the faintest idea what spa food was," she admits. But she says she needed the money, so she took the job.

Daelemans doesn't like skimpy portions. She asked a nutritionist what foods were "free" and lower calorie and built her menu from there. "I believe in real food and not in nonfat [food] and all those fat substitutes," she says. Movies stars, other celebrities, and common folk "ate up" her creations.

So how did she do it?

  • Read the recipe and challenge yourself to find ways to cut out calories that won't be missed. Ask yourself, "Do I really need 4 tablespoons of butter to sauté this, or might a teaspoon or so do the trick?" Maybe you can add a high-calorie item, taste, and then add more -- still coming in below the stated amount.
  • Pump up the "good calories." Add more veggies and scale back on the pasta or rice.
  • If you do want a steak meal, fill the plate with tasty side dishes.
  • Use good quality oils with lots of flavor. The more flavor, the less oil you need.
  • Use fresh spices and herbs. Buy only a little at a time.
  • Make only what you need. If you are baking for an event, don't make enough to keep some at home. "I say, 'Keep your cupboards 'safe,' especially if you are going through a breakup or divorce or some other stressful time," Daelemans says.
  • Don't use your children as an excuse to bring junk food into the house. If they are going to get it, let them get it someplace else, Daelemans says.

Madison also recommends making sure the makings of a healthy meal are there when you get home. After awhile, you can lose the numbers for takeout food.

Portion sizes have ballooned. You can almost go into a gourmet restaurant these days and say, "Supersize it." Sometimes you don't even have to ask. A restaurant portion of spaghetti may be four to six times what used to be recommended, Julie Miller Jones, PhD, professor of nutrition at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., tells WebMD. "We used to talk about eating a twelfth of a pizza," she adds, with a laugh.

"Ironically, even with all that quantity, chain restaurant food can leave us feeling deprived," Jones says. "You eat and eat and want more because it's not satisfying."

Jones recommends thinking of food like it's something special instead of slinging it in and trying to avoid concentrating on it. "I am into tasting as you cook," she says. "Use a toddler spoon or demitasse spoon. There is a danger of tasting and nibbling a whole portion."

Jones also recommends starting with a hot broth soup. "It's impossible to eat that quickly," she says. Sometimes putting some side dishes in separate bowls also makes the meal look larger.

Daelemans is not in to small plates with teeny portions on them, no matter how dainty they may look. "I use a 12-inch dinner plate and put on at least two 'free foods' (broccoli, greens)."

"A lot of this is about entertainment," she says. "We eat to be entertained, not just fueled. We want to hit those flavor marks -- intense tastes -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter."

Jones is also a "huge proponent" of breakfast as part of healthy cooking. She makes a week's worth of cooked cereal on the weekend and warms it up with fruit.

Daelemans and Jones gradually shed weight using their tips. "People are encouraged to think they are powerless over food," Daelemans says. "But you are in charge of your world. Ask for help when you need it. I go on [an Internet food networking site] every day and say things like, 'I feel lazy and don't want to work out.' Twenty-five people give me a pep talk! Or call a friend."

Daelemans says she believes not only in pampering yourself and your family with beautiful, yummy meals, but also in giving yourself rewards. "I love a new magazine," she says. "Or a walk around the lake not for exercise, but just to space out."

But she still gets sick of thinking about being healthy all the time! "Absolutely sick of it!" she repeats. When this happens and she is fed up with dreaming up meal plans, she turns to more workouts. If she's sick of working out, she tries a new recipe.

"You don't have to go from what you are eating now to the diet of a triathlete," Daelemans reminds us. "Just see if you can improve on yesterday."

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.