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Rules for Losing Weight

Weighing in, 12/30/2009. Darn! I gained a pound over Christmas!

Here are my rules for healthy eating and sane weight loss.
*See yesterday’s DadCooksDinner Loses Weight post for an overview of how I got to these rules…

1. Eat a variety of foods. (The Marion Nestle, “Eat a variety of foods within and among food groups” rule.) The wider range of food I eat, the healthier a diet I have. There is no one way to eat; different cultures have figured out many different cuisines that are both delicious and healthy. Explore!

2. Cook for yourself, using unprocessed food, and emphasize plants in your diet. (The Michael Pollan, “Eat real food, mostly plants” rule.) If I eat at home most of the time, and do my shopping around the edge of the grocery store, then I’m on the right track.  I cook most of our meals; we reserve eating out as a treat.
*I get bonus points if I shop at my local farmer’s market, but the important part is to stay away from the processed stuff in the middle of the grocery store.  I do most of my shopping in the produce, dairy, and meat departments around the edge of the store.

To emphasize plants, I try to use meat as a side dish, not as the main part of dinner. I try to have two different vegetables at every meal (usually, one cooked side dish and one salad). I also divide my plate into quarters, and make one quarter meat, one quarter starch, and two quarters vegetables.
*Emphasizing plants is hard one for me, as you can probably tell if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time. I’m used to the big hunk of meat being at the center of the plate. I try to cook one vegetarian meal a week. With my crowd, that usually means rice and beans, or a pasta.
**While I enjoyed both Pollan and Nestle’s book, I know they’re not for everyone. If you want the simple, summary version of their arguments, read Mark Bittman’s Food Matters.

3. Practice mindful eating. I pay attention when I’m eating, taste my food, and stop when I’m just getting full. I eat less and enjoy my food more.  For me, slowing down while I’m eating is the key.  If I take my time, and savor my food, it’s easier to notice when I’m full.
*The hardest part was learning what “not hungry” felt like.  I was used to eating until I was stuffed.

**Diane mentioned another trick while reading this.  She said that it’s easy to get caught up in the speed other people eat, and that I eat very fast.  (Who, me?)  She has to make a conscious effort to slow down when she’s eating with me.

The flip side of this is avoiding mindless eating.  If I stop paying attention, I eat an awful lot of tortilla chips and salsa.  That’s where portion control comes in…

4. Portion control matters. (The “please don’t Super Size Me” rule.) While mindful eating is important, studies show that we will eat until we clear our plates, not until we’re full.  Portion control is critical to losing weight, and it’s tough for people to recognize appropriate portions.  Our mind responds to visual cues for determining portion size.*
*In a study using self-refilling soup bowls, researchers found people would eat 73% more soup if their bowl never emptied.  And they didn’t feel any more full than people who ate out of regular bowls.

I use this trick to my advantage.  Diane talked me into buying 9 inch dinner plates, to fool our brains into thinking we were eating more.  I said “yeah, right”, but bought the plates anyhow.  That was four months ago; I have lost five pounds since then, with no other changes in my eating habits.

5. Calories matter. (The anti-Atikns rule.) There is no silver bullet in avoiding certain types of food. Fat has calories; protein has calories; carbohydrates have calories. If I eat more calories than I burn in a day, I will gain weight. Eat less calories than I burn, and I lose weight. In other words: When I want to lose weight, I have to eat less. Calories can be an imperfect measurement, but they’re the best we’ve got. Less calories means more weight lost.  The rule of thumb is to eat 500 calories less than I burn a day, and I will lose a pound a week.
*Here is the Mayo Clinic’s Calorie Calculator.  It will estimate the calories you burn in a day, based on your age, height, gender, and activity level.

5a. How to cook when you want to cut calories. Since I’m a geek, I’ll explain how to cook to lose weight using an equation:

Fat and sugar > Low fiber starch > Lean protein > High fiber starch > Plants > Water

The more of my meal that’s to the right of the equation, the less calories it has. I can eat plants until my jaw is tired, and not eat many calories. But, I need some of the middle to the left side of the equation to give a meal flavor.

If I can move a meal to the right, I can cut calories. As an example, I can cut out some of the fat.  Or I can make my chili with more beans (high fiber starch) and less fatty protein (beef). Meals with a lot of bulk that are almost entirely from the right side, like soups and salads, are great for cutting calories and staying full.
*And don’t forget salt and spices, which add a big boost of flavor without adding many calories.

6. Enjoy your food. (The “don’t torture yourself” and “be a food snob” rule.) Overly restrictive diets will not last. If I try a diet that involves cutting out foods that I love, at some point I won’t be satisfied, and I will fall off the wagon. Remember: this is a lifelong change of eating habits, not a diet. Denying myself for the long term is only possible if I have an iron will. (I do not.) As I said above, plain vegetables have almost no calories, but they taste much better with a little bit of butter and some salt.

A related point: I try to be picky about my food. Smaller portions of higher quality food help me lose weight, even if they have more calories per ounce. This ties back to mindful eating and portion control – if I love what I’m eating, I pay more attention, notice when I am full, and stop eating.

7. Celebration meals are part of being human. (The “Moderation in all things, including moderation” rule.)  As Rick Bayless says in the introduction to Mexican Everyday, everyday food should be simple, healthy, and quick. Special occasions are for celebration with family and friends. I always give myself one meal a week where I don’t worry about what I’m eating. A delicious meal, with a tasty beverage and lively conversation, is one of life’s simple pleasures. Every culture has feast days and celebrations built around food. I enjoy them, and worry about being eternally vigilant tomorrow.

8. Let kids be kids. (The “kids are going to be picky eaters” rule.) Kids will prefer junk food, be very texture oriented, want all their food kept separate on the plate, avoid anything green, and will only eat things that are not “yucky”. Remember the division of responsibility at the table. Parents provide a variety of nutritious foods, and kids choose wether or not to eat them. Don’t short order cook, and try to make a kid friendly dish in every meal.
*Don’t be surprised when the kid friendly dish is suddenly “yucky”.  Don’t worry, they won’t starve to death if they just drink milk with a meal.
**Around the age of two, when kids start to pick everything up and put it in their mouths, they develop a strong aversion to anything with a bitter taste. It’s a self-defense mechanism; in nature, bitter equals poison. They’re much more likely to survive to be adults this way. But, I know from experience that it’s not much fun when a two year old suddenly refuses to eat anything other than white rice, bread and milk.

9. There is no one-size fits all answer to maintaining a healthy weight. (The “Find your own path” rule.) Consumer Reports polled their readers a few years back, asking them about weight loss and what had worked.  According to their poll, about 80% of people who tried to lose weight had gained it all back within a few years.  The ones who kept the weight off followed different paths to keep the weight off; the only constants among the group were changing eating habits instead of dieting, and regular exercise.
*The highest failure rate was meal replacement diets, ones that substituted “diet shakes” for real food.

Everything listed above works for me. Your milage may vary, and your answer to “What is healthy eating?” may be different from mine. That’s OK! We all have different tastes and preferences for food. That’s part of what makes food so interesting.*
*Particularly with the rules suggestions for kids! There’s nothing as annoying as someone who thinks they know how you should raise your kids. (Not that I’m ever guilty of that.)
**And remember that your kids have their own personalities, with their own likes and dislikes. What works for you might not work for them. (Again, not that I’m ever guilty of that…)

What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.

*Special thanks to Dan at Casual Kitchen for inspiring this post with his review of The End of Overeating.

**Extra special thanks to my lovely wife, Diane, for giving me a second set of eyes on these posts.  While I’ve lost weight and kept it off, because of our kids, she’s lost, gained, lost, gained and lost again – she’s had to pay more attention than I have, and the results are looking great for her.

Pam Anderson: Perfect Recipe for Losing Weight
Mark Bittman: Food Matters
Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food
Marion Nestle: What to Eat
Rick Bayless: Mexican Everyday
Ellyn Satter: Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family
Walter Willet: Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

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Filed under: Ramblings


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. @Daniel: And, thank you for inspiring me to write this up! It really surprised me that 9 inch plates influenced me as much as they did. But it worked, and I’m not complaining!

    @AYOTG: Thank you, and good luck – I ready your post a while back on your weight loss, and it sounds like you’re on the right path.

    @Ellyn: Aw, shucks. I think I look best in the last picture, too. I just wish I still had as much hair as I did in the earlier ones. 🙂

    To answer your question, I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall.

    Mindful eating helped a lot, but it’s still hard for me, even after all these years; I have to really, REALLY pay attention.

    And, finally – thank you for your books! They have been a big help with feeding the kids…and us.

  2. said…

    I really enjoyed this article about your trying out all the prescriptive solutions. I am so pleased the Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family helped you to learn to cooperate with your body rather than working against it. You are on to something with #3, Mindful Eating. Reread Chapter 3, “Eat as Much as You Want,” and really pay attention to your hunger, pleasure, and fullness. You will be amazed at what happens! BTW, you didn’t say how tall you are, but in photo #3 you are most handsome of all.
    Ellyn Satter

  3. I think this is a great post, and very timely. I am trying portion control and averaging lower calories throughout the day so that i have more at night (when i eat with my wife).

    i am going to make a copy of this and post in on my fridge… well written

    good luck

  4. This is a really insightful and powerful post. Thanks for putting it together, and I’m really happy to hear I helped spur your thinking.

    I love the 9″ dinner plates solution (Rule #4)–on a couple of levels. On one hand, it’s truly horrifying to know that we supposedly “smart” humans are so easily faked out by our psychology. But if it works, it works. Why not put it to your advantage rather than feel sheepish about it?

    Casual Kitchen

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