During my lunch break today, a flashy new title caught my eye at the bookstore. It was the freshly-minted Park Avenue Diet by Dr. Stuart Fischer (Hatherleigh Press 2008). The Park Avenue Diet suggests that posh wardrobes, chic hairstyles, and excellent dermatology are why Upper Eastsiders stay thin. Dr. Fischer thinks Americans can "make themselves over" into a state of skinny-ness. Really, doctor? I’m not so sure that conspicuous consumption, especially at a time when our nation is headed into troubled economic waters, is the answer.
As for myself, I’m a diet atheist, probably because most diets fly in the face of my cherished love for food. In fact, the one diet book (it’s actually more like a non-diet book) I would vouch for is French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret to Eating for Pleasure (Knopf 2004) by Mireille Guiliano. Madame Guiliano tells us that unlike American women, French women have a guiltless and sensual—not masochistic—relationship with their food. Savoring your meals while exercising portion-control, she says, is the key. I absolutely concur.
Musing about geographically-inspired diet books such as French Women Don’t Get Fat and the Park Avenue Diet, I wondered if my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could provide an interesting social analogue. Like France, the Upper West Side is home to many avid restaurant-goers, gourmands, and amateur cooks. And like French women, Upper Westsiders of both genders tend to fall toward the slim side of the scale.
But let's be clear: I'm neither a nutritionist nor a social anthropologist. I'm just a casual observer and student of my surroundings. That being said, below are some lifestyle habits that I've observed in my neighborhood.
We’re calling it the "Central Park West (Non) Diet," as a counterpoint to the Park Avenue Diet. Unlike the Park Avenue Diet, you won't have to shell out the big bucks at Barney's for a new wardrobe or a new hairdo at Privé. It's not about consumption; it's about conservation. (Yes, you'll probably even save money by following these hints.) Our points are not revolutionary but rather simple, just like the recipes on this blog.
- Eat more fish / shellfish.
- Drink coffee (black), tea (green), and wine (red, one glass per day).
- Care for a dog.
- Travel "green" (walk, bike, ride the subway, and take the stairs).
- Do yoga.
- Get 8 hours of high-quality sleep.
- Cook a few times a week.
- Savor your food.
- Balance your consumption.
- Exercise portion control.
The discussion continues in more detail below:
- Eat more fish. If you run an advanced search on Menupages.com, you will find that the Upper West Side has 49 sushi restaurants and 11 seafood restaurants but only 7 steakhouses and 10 burger joints. Sushi/seafood places outnumber steakhouses/burger joints 60:17. I'm not saying everyone has to become a pescetarian overnight. After all, I'm an American girl—about once a month, I absolutely crave a nice thick steak or juicy burger and go out of my way to indulge in one. But maybe try eating some fish or shellfish as a daily goal and save the red meat for special occasions or weekends. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been shown to help ward off high cholesterol, blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression and even cancer. Larger fish (shark, tuna, swordfish, etc.) may have higher concentrations of mercury, so try to stick with the smaller fish (salmon, sardines, trout etc.) or shellfish.
- Drink (black) coffee, (green) tea and (red) wine. Your prototypical Upper Westsider walks down the street with a coffee cup in one hand (and a dog leash or stroller handle in the other). Even though coffee has gotten a bad reputation in recent years, the press has vindicated it recently. Research has found that coffee consumption reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes. Coffee itself won't make you gain weight if you don't load it up with milk and sugar. Instead, the caffeine in both coffee and tea may boost your metabolism while also suppressing hunger cravings. Sipping a glass of red wine with dinner lowers your risk of heart disease and enhances the flavor in your food. Red wine may also slow down the effects of aging and inhibit the development of pre-fat cells.
- Care for a dog. I think it's safe to say that the Upper West Side has the highest concentration of dog lovers of any neighborhood in Manhattan. Not only does a dog provide unconditional love and devotion and happiness, a dog will regulate your metabolism and exercise habits. My puppy Dash wakes me up at the same time every morning and whimpers until he's taken out for a walk. He doesn't care if it's a weekday or a weekend or if it's scorching or snowing outside. He needs to go potty, so we’re going for a walk. I walk him at least two or three times a day and therefore walk myself in the process. If you don’t have time for a dog of your own (note: raising a dog is a serious commitment of time, energy, and love requiring careful deliberation and should never be embarked upon simply for the sake of a diet), you can always offer to walk a friend's or neighbor's dog or volunteer to temporarily foster a dog from a shelter.
- Travel "green." Given the recent escalation in oil prices, this tip makes sense for both your body and your wallet. Walk to the subway instead of hopping in a cab. Get off the subway one station before your destination and walk the rest of the way. Or better yet, instead of taking the subway, ride a bike. Take the stairs instead of taking the elevator in your building.
- Do yoga. Your prototypical Upper Westsider walks out of her brownstone wearing stretchy Lululemon Athletica yoga pants with a rolled-up yoga mat slung over her shoulder. She is probably headed to one of the 15 yoga studios in the thirty-block stretch between the West 60s and the West 90s and with good reason: The meditative aspect of yoga washes away the stress of daily living, which benefits weight loss. Yoga promotes good posture and studies show that when you maintain good posture, even in a state of rest, you’re working out your abdominal muscles and keeping your spine healthy.
- Get 8 hours of high quality sleep. Emphasis on high quality. The Upper West Side is the quiet and sleepy side of town, at least compared to the bustle and energy of downtown Manhattan. Here's the catch, though: we sleep like babies here. But regardless of where you live, you can practice good sleep hygiene. Don’t sleep with the window open (for noise and temperature control) and don’t place your bed right next to the window when arranging the furniture. Keep the curtains drawn at night so no sunlight peeks in during the early morning hours to disrupt your sleep. Use a sleep mask and ear plugs if necessary.
- Cook a few times a week. Like yoga, cooking is a meditative exercise, which helps people unwind and relax. Also, while cooking, you have a sense of the quantity and type of ingredients that go into each dish, so you’re conscious of what you’re putting in your mouth and avoid the preservatives that go into prepackaged food. When I cook, I make a detour to Fairway or Zabar's on my way home from work to pick up the fresh ingredients I’m going to use that very night. (Just think of the shopping bags you're carrying home as freeweights). Use simple, quick recipes and plate your food attractively. Turn off the television, put away the newspaper and light the candles at your dinner table. These rituals form part of the culinary art of appreciation, which in turn helps you savor your food.
- Savor your food. Conjure up memories of other times you've enjoyed the dish you're eating at the dinner table and think about the ingredients and the steps that went into its preparation. Observe its color, texture, taste, and presentation. Chew slowly, putting your knife and fork down and taking a sip of water or wine between each bite. When food is high quality, you need less of it to feel satiated. Studies also show that if you eat slower, you tend to eat less.
- Balance your consumption. If you're going to have a three-course meal at dinner at a nice restaurant, don't feel guilty about it! Simply have just a soup and salad for lunch the next day. Keeping a food journal or diary of everything you put in your mouth can build an awareness of how you may or may not be balancing your consumption. There's no need to count every calorie. Simply listing out what you’re eating or drinking is helpful, so you can detect your weaknesses or indulgences.
- Exercise portion control. You know the expression "eating for two," for pregnant women? Strive to "eat for 1/2." Don't limit the types of food you can enjoy but merely the quantity of it. More hints to exercise portion-control below:
Portion-Control Tips while Eating Out:
- Draw a "line of demarcation." If a restaurant serves overly large portions (as many do, these days), you can literally cut your entrée in half before taking a single bite. Or, as you order, you can simply ask the waiter to bring your dish split on two plates—most restaurants are more than happy to oblige. You can take the unconsumed half to-go and zap it in the microwave for dinner the next day. Asking for a doggie bag might be considered a faux pas in France, but even at the nicest restaurants in NYC, nobody really blinks an eye at this practice anymore.
- Sharing is caring. Split that entrée with your dining partner at dinner. Or forgo the entrée course entirely and order a few appetizers to share, family-style. Never eat a full dessert by yourself but always offer to share with your dining companions.
- Patronize restaurants that already serve small portions. Tapas and sushi restaurants are perfect examples of restaurants with built-in small dishes and portions.
Portion-Control Tips at Home:
- Use smaller serving plates, glasses and utensils. It's a psychological trick but this academic study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that people eat less when given a smaller plate and spoon.
- Make fewer servings when you cook. Halve or quarter the ingredients in any recipe.
Copyright Sweet & Victuals 2008. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.