Weight Loss

Obesity is our new national health crisis.  It’s been creeping up on us adults slowly, but now even a large percentage of young children in this country are overweight.

Now, skip ahead to adulthood.  Most of us are busy and we don’t take care of ourselves properly.  We are seeing skyrocketing rates of diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, and diet-related cancers.  As anyone who knows me knows, even vegans can get chubby and out of shape.

But never fear – the new year is here.  I know that I’ve been out of school for awhile, but somehow September still seems like the beginning of a new year to me.  I think most of us, no matter how we felt about school itself, loved the feeling of a new beginning in the fall.  A clean slate.  Crisp, clean notebooks with no mistakes in them yet.  Still perfect.

You can see your decision to become healthier in the same way.  Right now, it’s a new year, a new start.  I am making healthy changes for a new me, and you can, too.  And best of all, there are ways to lose weight and make your diet healthier, without going hungry.  (All you skinny vegans might want to keep reading.  You never know when this information might come in handy.)

Everyone knows that the best way to lose weight is the simplest.  Eat fewer calories and exercise more.  The problem is that our bodies are designed to conserve fat and calories, because it’s only been recently that calories have become so easy to come by.  When we cut down on our portion sizes of the same old food, we feel hungry.  It’s very hard to go around hungry and not give in to the temptation to eat something really calorie-laden.  That’s more true now than ever before.  I have been paying attention to all the places we are confronted by snacks.  When you walk into a drug store, you have to walk past displays of chips and soda and candy to get to anything.  Convenience stores are a minefield of empty calories, and it’s so easy to just grab a bag of chips and a soda to go along with that gas fill-up.  Even my favorite fabric store sells candy at the counter!  No wonder we’re all waddling around.

So what’s the answer?  Believe it or not, you can “eat more, weigh less”.  The “secret” is to eat foods that have low energy density.

“Energy density” is simply the number of calories a food has in a “normal” serving.  Foods that are high in water have a lower energy density than foods that are drier.  For the same 100 calories, you can eat either 2 cups of grapes or 1/4 cup of raisins.  I think most of us would find the grapes more filling.  The same goes for all fresh vs. dried fruits.

Vegetables are very low in energy density.  Eat more vegetables and you’ll eat less overall.  Studies have shown that people who eat a large (3-cup) salad composed of low-energy density foods like raw vegetables before a meal will consume fewer calories and feel more satisfied than people who begin the same meal with a small salad composed of fatty ingredients.

The USDA recommends that everyone eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  Aim for 9 everyday and you’ll be amazed at how filling that can be.  Mix up your favorites and try something new as often as you can.  Variety is not only the spice of life, but the way to get the most antioxidants and phyto-chemicals into your diet.

Another trick to reducing your overall calorie intake while feeling satisfied is to have a broth-based soup before meals.  The water in the soup will satisfy you more than just drinking a glass of water will.

The other major components of a healthy, low energy density vegan diet are beans and whole grains.  Eat as much of these as you need to feel satisfied.  That’s satisfied, not stuffed.  That’s the other key to reducing your caloric intake – teaching yourself to pay attention and stop before you get too full.  Until you learn what that feels like, don’t read or watch TV while you eat.  Start by placing less food on your plate than you think you want.  Start with a small serving of beans, a small serving of whole grains, and a pile of vegetables.  I bet you’ll be surprised at how satisfied you’ll feel.

Those vegetables don’t have to be plain Jane, either.  I just cooked up a wonderful Indian dinner, but cut down on the oil (from 3 tablespoons to 1), and used brown basmati rice instead of white.  The rest of the dinner was all beans and vegetables and spices.  The complex flavors helped make everything seem so much richer than it was.

You can do the same with Mexican and Italian dishes.  With those cuisines, add a bunch of vegetables to your pasta sauce or your burrito fillings.  Have a big salad and a small dinner.  Have whole grain pasta or stone-ground corn tortillas.  Skip the dinner rolls until you’re down to your goal weight/size.  You won’t miss them.

I just started eating lighter a week or so ago, and I’ve already lost over 5 pounds.  I’m adding more exercise to my life, and I hope you’ll be seeing less of me by the time the official “New Year” rolls around.  That will make it easier for me to get into some of the more challenging yoga postures (not to mention my wardrobe of vintage dresses!).

Here’s a soup you can make ahead that is composed entirely of “free” (low energy density) foods.  Keep a pot of this or any other brothy (not creamy) soup to enjoy before meals or as a snack.

Satisfying Vegetable Soup
Adapted from Weight Watchers International

2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 medium sweet red pepper, diced
1 medium stalk celery, diced
2 small zucchini, diced
2 cups green cabbage, shredded
2 cups Swiss chard, chopped
2 cups cauliflower, small florets
2 cups broccoli, small florets
2 teaspoon thyme, chopped
6 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoon parsley, or chives, fresh, chopped
1/2 teaspoon table salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, optional

Put garlic, vegetables, thyme and broth into a large soup pot. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to low and simmer 10 – 20 minutes.

Stir in parsley or chives; season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice (if desired). Yields about 1 cup per serving.

Variations:  use whatever non-starchy vegetables you have on hand.  Add a can of crushed or diced tomatoes if you like.  Or a tablespoon or two of tomato paste.  Try basil or dill instead of the parsley or chives, or in addition to them.  Use other herbs or spices to keep the soup interesting.

And here’s a delicious eggplant recipe from India that I’ve slimmed down.  Make sure to let the onions brown – they add a lot of flavor to the dish.

Bhengan Bharta (Eggplant with Tomatoes)

2 eggplants
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
pinch of hing (asafoetida/asafetida)*
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of crushed garlic
2 tablespoons of crushed jalapenos
1 tablespoon crushed fresh ginger
1 large chopped tomato (or 1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes)
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (or more, to taste)
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Dice the eggplants into large cubes and boil in lightly salted water for 15 minutes.  Drain eggplant and set aside.

Heat oil on medium heat (in non-stick frying pan or well-seasoned iron skillet) and add hing.  Add onions and cook until lightly browned or carmelized.  Add, garlic, jalepenos, and ginger and stir for 3 or 4 minutes.

Add tomato and cook for 1 minute.

Add eggplant and the remainder of the ingredients.  Mash eggplant with potato masher.  Simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until flavors have melded and vegetables are tender.  Serve with cucumber salad, lentil soup (dahl) and basmati rice for a simple, delicious, and satisfying meal.

*Note:  asafoetida or hing is a spice sold in Indian grocery stores.  It has a pungent aroma, and adds a very complex flavor to many Indian dishes.  It is often used in place of onions and garlic, but here it is used with both.  The name asafetida is related to the word “fetid” and literally means “stinking thing” or “stinking herb”.  Use it very sparingly – just a pinch is plenty.  You can simply skip it if you don’t have any available.