The worst day to start a new diet? January 1.
Immediately, New Year’s Eve’s leftovers beg to be consumed. Four weeks later, the Super Bowl party offers an array of meats and cheeses and dips and beers. Then come the sweets. The Girl Scouts start Sugar Season with their aggressive sales tactics and fructose-gluten bombs. Add Valentine’s chocolates to the mix, and by mid-February I’ve given up on healthy eating for the year.
The Experiment: Indulge in all the goodness of early-year treats, and then start a new health style mid-year. I stuck to Michael Pollan’s basics: “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” I eliminated added sugars and “white carbs” (bread, rice, potatoes), drastically reduced dairy and any caloric drinks, and stuck mostly to fruits, vegetables, eggs, and beans.
One more rule. I took a photograph of EVERYTHING I ate, from a full meal to a single “lick the spoon off” bit of peanut butter. Every single thing.
Day 1. I’ve always snuck a few bites while fixing breakfast or packing lunches for the kids, and then licked the knife of cream cheese or peanut butter or jelly or all of the above. My new photo requirement (inconvenience of getting my phone out, and the potential embarrassment of 14 cream cheese pics) changed how I ate.
At 10:30 my internal “cereal alarm” went off. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee, and noted that I might need a bigger breakfast the next day. I literally ate four times today, compared to my “snack and graze” norm. Thanks, observation bias!
Day 2. This morning I was full before I finished my breakfast, so I wrapped it up and put it in the fridge. Maybe, just maybe, I could ask myself questions in the midst of eating.
Day 3. I visited the grocery store last night, which made today feel – dare I say – exciting. Apples and bananas, peanuts and almonds, broccoli and kale! Yahoo!
Also, I scheduled a dinner with friends, so I know that’ll be a diversion from the ideal, but not necessarily a problem for the experiment. Instead of grabbing bear claws two at a time, I’ll try just one.
Day 4. Oh boy – Our family had pizza tonight. I passed, instead warming up leftover chicken soup…again.
Day 5. It is well-known by family and friends that my two favorite food groups are raw dough and raw batter. Today was a triumph in will power: I made brownies and did not lick the bowl. I repeat, I made brownies and did not lick the bowl. It was the worst day so far.
For primarily social purposes I indulged in pizza, beer, and ice cream tonight. Weekends will be tough. I definitely could have passed on some of this, but it was fun and tasty to enjoy a meal with friends.
Day 6. In preparation for my son hosting a sleepover tonight, I purchased 27 food items that I will not eat. I anticipate a rough Experiment Week 2 if there are leftover Doritos lying around the house.
Day 7. Another batter miracle. I made pancakes and once again I did not lick the bowl. I don”t even know who I am anymore. Lesson Learned: Eating with healthy rigor on the weekends is not sustainable.
Day 8. Huh, my belt has a third hole? Who knew?
Day 9. Last night I dreamed I was at a celebration dinner. I enjoyed a feast of all my favorite foods, and then I was horrified to realize I had forgotten to take pictures!
Subsequently, back in real life I forgot to take a picture of my breakfast, and then a few hours later I forgot to take a photograph my lunch. Dreams are weird.
Day 10. I woke up bored for my upcoming breakfast and ready to stop this stupid game. I really wanted carbs. Bad. So I made a bowl of muesli. It was great.
I made chocolate chip cookies and did not lick the bo…
That’s not true. I totally licked the bowl and spatula and ate raw cookie dough with a spoon and it was amazing and I have zero regrets.
Day 11. Belt hole number two – good to see you again. It’s been too long.
Days 12-13-14. Weekends are hard, but I stuck pretty close to the plan. I ate a couple Oreos and loved every bite. Another lesson: Purposeful treats in small quantities increased my enjoyment of them. I can remember every single “unhealthy food” I ate the last 2 weeks, and each was an event.
Epilogue. A couple months later I’m not photographing meals or strictly limiting carbs, but I do try to make eating fun food an experience. I pour cheap beer into a chilled glass, professionally plate chips and salsa, and garnish apple pie with a careful dollop of trans-fat-full, not-even-real-food, worth-every-bite Cool Whip.
And then I lick the spoon.
Further Reading. I used a combination of strategies from Michael Pollan, Tim Ferriss, and Darya Pino Rose, each of whom address food from a different-but-complementary angle. If you’re looking for a single book or approach, I recommend Foodist by Dr. Rose.
Also, I’ve conducted and written about a few other experiments here: