Writer Maggie Fazeli Fard on the choices and pitfalls in dieting

Feb 14, 2013

Maggie Fazeli Fard is a Washington Post staff writer and former diet food junkie. She'll be online to chat with readers about her journey to healthful eating, chronicled in this week's Local Living section. Submit early questions now and join her Thursday at noon!

Read more about nutrition and fitness at washingtonpost.com/wellness.

Hi everyone! I'm Maggie, the writer of the essay "Confessions of a Diet Food Junkie." I'm humbled by the great feedback I've received so far. Several people have reached out to say that they related to the feeling of being stuck when it comes to eating and health. Some have found a lifestyle that allows them to thrive while others are still on that journey. It is very inspiring for me and others to hear your stories, so please feel free to jump into this conversation! I'd like to note that I am not a doctor or nutritionist, and I am not by any means qualified to give medical advice. But I'm more than happy to share my own experience, so ask away! We've got some great questions and comments in the queue already, so let's get started...

Did you consider changing up your eating habits before your friend suggested going "unprocessed" with her? Or was it her sole request that pushed you to join her?

I hadn't really thought about my diet in terms of processed/unprocessed before my friend brought it up. For many years I equated "healthy" with "good for weight loss" -- in my mind that meant low-fat and low-calorie according to clearly marked nutrition labels. I lost weight this way and believed that was the only way I could maintain the loss. Even when my friend suggested cutting out the processed foods, I in no way planned to give them up forever. The pre-portioned foods, the labels, etc. were definitely a crutch for me; I didn't really believe that I could live a healthy life without them. I'm not sure if that makes sense or if it answers your question -- please let me know if I can clarify more.

May not be? My go to snack is Trail mix (peanuts, cashews, Almonds, rasins and M&Ms). I get a small 2oz or so package and it seems to hold down the hungries. Good? Bad? Yogurt Parfaits - Flavored Yogurt (mine is vanilla), with a few slices of strawberry and some granola tossed on top. This is what I have when I don't eat eggs for breakfast and want protein. Good for you? No? Let me know.

It's hard for me to say "yes, this is healthy" or "no, that is not healthy." I've learned that foods that work for one person might not work for someone else. In the case of the trail mix, it sounds delicious! I don't really eat snacks so I don't see myself incorporating it into my life, but if it works for you and your goals, that's awesome. Yogurt parfaits don't work for me simply because I don't enjoy anything sweet for breakfast. It's just a palatability issue for me. But again, if you enjoy it and it gives you energy, keeps you full, etc., that's great. If I could make one comment, I'd suggest not thinking about food in terms of "good" or "bad." I believe is something to be enjoyed, that it can make you feel great (while you're eating it and afterward), and that it can support your goals. Thinking about food choices as exactly that -- a conscious choice -- can be very freeing.

I agree. 15 months after learning I had a high blood glucose level, I stopped all white flour and white foods (sugar, potatoes, pizza, pasta, suishi, corn, diet coke, corn syrup, etc.) and now only eat whole grains, Low salt mixed nuts, lower fat cottage cheese and yogurt. Stopped eating all added sugars and refine sugar. No more fruit juices. Just water and fresh fruit (occaional wine or vodka). Anywho, it worked. For the first time in my life i was able to lose weight. Exercise helps. I see no alternative

Wonderful! It's great to hear that you've found habits that work for you.

Hi, I read your great article about your change into clean eating. Not only was I excited about it but even more so since I am half Persian myself. I wanted to find out how you tackle eating out and social drinking. I am a 32 year old single female and have been eating clean/paleo for five months now but my hardest struggles are outside my own kitchen. Thanks, Patty

Hi Patty! This is a great question, and something a lot of people struggle with. I guess my question for you would be this: Is socializing difficult because of temptations? Because you feel pressured by the people you're out with to eat or drink something you don't want to? Because you don't want to draw attention to yourself or what your eating? Because you don't trust that food at a restaurant or a party can be modified for your preferences? (That's more than one question, I know.) My point is just that there are a lot of different factors at play when you leave your own kitchen; identifying the one that pertains to you can be really helpful. My best advice isn't any more complicated than other advice you've probably read/received: Plan ahead by checking out a menu online or calling the restaurant ahead of time to discuss modifications.  Don't feel like you need to explain/defend your food choice -- whether that's the choice to order a salad or order a piece of cake. At the end of the day, socializing is intended to be FUN. It shouldn't be a source of stress or worry. I'd also suggest finding non-food/alcohol-related ways to go out with friends or celebrate special occasions. Some friends and I recently tried indoor rock climbing! An acquaintance in NYC recently celebrated her 30th birthday by taking her friends to a SoulCycle -- the stories that came out of that are hysterical and memorable. I hope this is helpful!

How many books would be sold if someone came up with a diet that said to eat a balanced diet in moderation, get some exercise, and try to avoid too much dessert or alcohol? Not many. But when someone came up with a diet that said to replace whole wheat bread with sausage and bacon, it became an instant fad. Some people get what they deserve.

I suppose "moderation" isn't really that sexy, but moderation can mean different things for different people. Some people thrive on a diet that includes animal products, while others don't. Same goes for whole wheat bread. In my experience, there's no magic formula that's going to work for everyone. I hope this helps inspire people to explore what works for them instead of just following a "fad."

So how do you find healthy recipes? Do you just make them up yourself? Or do you have a favorite source?

Most of my meals are not based on recipes. I honestly don't have the time or patience for it. That being said, I love cookbooks and there are some great resources online that I go to for inspiration; I'm also a huge fan of the Food Network and Cooking Channel. Usually I can figure out a way to modify recipes to suit my needs, if something that isn't "healthy" strikes my fancy.

Hi Maggie - I found your article to be very inspiring, as getting rid of processed foods is something I am working on. I'm always confused about dairy though. USDA seems to recommend it, whereas I'm always hearing about people who cut it out and feel so much better, lost weight, etc. One of the sidebars on the Post article even mentioned cutting it out. What did you do as far as dairy? Did you cut it out or continue to have it?

I don't think dairy is good or evil, and I'm wary of anyone who classifies any food as good/evil. If you tolerate dairy and enjoy it, fantastic! If you don't feel well eating it or if you simply don't like it, that's another story. I personally don't like most dairy products, apart from ice cream and the world's more pungent cheeses, which are not a part of my daily (or even monthly) diet. I definitely don't stress about dairy either way.

In reference to three meals a day, which one should be the main meal ie largest, dinner?

Oh boy, there are a lot of conflicting thoughts on this. I think this is something that is going to vary from person to person based on your goals, your schedule and your personal preferences. Some people might do really well eating a large dinner after working out, for example, while others might have trouble sleeping if they eat a lot in the evening. Some people like a hearty breakfast, while others can't stomach food for a few hours after waking. I'd suggest experimenting with different meal sizes/times to see what you prefer. You might find you like 3 equal-sized meals.

Cut out processed foods and eat them in small portions. I lost 30 pounds that way and a friend lost 35. I also have a friend who lost 10 pounds just by cutting out diet sodas. It turns out they were actually making her hungry. But in every case it seems like you just have to find what works FOR YOU. I'm on a high-carb, high-fat diet myself but lots of other people need lots of protein. Every body is different so through trial and error you can find out what works for yours.

Absolutely! Glad to hear you found what works for you. I like that you mentioned trial-and-error -- sometimes I joke that I feel like getting my eating and health on track feels like a big experiment.

For the person who wanted resources for healthy recipes: I think Real Simple is amazing. The recipes range from basic, to a little more complicated if you're looking for a challenge. They're also easy to amend if want to include different ingredients or make more vs. less. Like Maggie says, being able to substitute healthy items for less healthy ones is a great option and I'm able to do that quite a bit from my Real Simple cookbook

First of all, good on you! I changed my eating habits last July, and while I still indulge every once in a while in something less clean than I should, I'm pretty proud of myself for what I've done - who knew I could cook?? My question - any advice for how to keep up the clean eating when the significant other is less than excited about it? Its been good to realize that certain things bother me, because then I can avoid them. But the ones that don't bother me are much harder to resist, especially when he insists on keeping them in the house!

First off, congrats on not just changing your eating habits but for finding a new skill, cooking!

The situation with your SO is a tough one. I wish I had some personal advice to share, but I'm single and live alone (which makes the whole process much easier). I assume that while he isn't on board with these changes for himself, he's not actively undermining your choices either. One tactic that friends of mine use is to set aside one or two cupboards, pantry shelves, etc. for foods that your partner or roommate eats. Hopefully he wouldn't mind an area of the kitchen devoted just to him -- and if the foods are out of sight, maybe you won't be as tempted.

I'd love to open this up for suggestions from anyone who is following along. Any advice?

I think we all have a general idea of what "eating clean" is (avoiding processed food, etc.), but there can be different understanding even of that one term. What do you use as your general guidelines? (i.e. no refined grains? no grains at all? no added sugar? no artificial sweeteners? limited red meat?). I know different people feel best on different diets, but I'm just curious if there is a book, eating plan, or website that has shaped your personal interpretation of clean eating.

I totally agree -- clean eating does mean different things to different people. I've been chastised for eating baby carrots because they undergo an industrial process to make them "baby." (Note: I still eat baby carrots.) I can't really point to a plan, book, etc. because I haven't seen anything that perfectly matches the style of eating that works for me. I try to eat food with minimal or no packaging. If it has a package, I look at the ingredients and make sure I recognize everything on the list. I once heard or read that a good way to look at an ingredients list is to ask yourself: "Would my great-grandmother have recognized this?" Something to consider... I hope this at least somewhat answered your question!

Last year, I joined WW and lost about 28 pounds. I got to within 5 pounds of my goal. Since then, I've gained fourteen pounds back and am just completely stuck. I'm eating exactly the way I was eating when I was losing, but no longer losing. I'm trying to add in exercise, but any other advice about how to get off this plateau?

Oh, I totally relate to this! I flip-flopped between different diet plans because something would work for a time, then suddenly not work anymore. It took a long time to realize that what my body needs will vary from day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year. I would suggest that you not try to replicate what you were doing last year, but try to figure out what your body's needs are now. If aspects of your lifestyle have changed (new job, different sleep schedule, more exercise), the nutrition that your body requires might have to change too. My response to you makes me cringe because if someone had given me this "advice" when I was in your position, I would have been disappointed by the lack of specificity. But just remember that you live with your body, you know it better than anyone else (definitely better than me).

You hit the nail on the head! Learning to cook properly is the key to healthy eating. It is also considerably cheaper after a minimal investment of time and $$ for knives that cut and a frying pan that does not burn. I think as a nation we have been brainwashed to think that food preparation has to be "quick and easy." when non-cooks follow "quick and easy" recipes they end up with food that tastes a lot less appetizing than it s on the photoshopped picture and pick up their cells to order pizza, the go to food of most obese Americans. I wish your article appeared in the FOOD section which, as a public service, should start "Cooking school" column that would teach basic techniques starting with salad dressing and chicken stock. Needless to say I have thoroughly enjoyed your article and I am forwarding it to a whole bunch of my friends. Thank you.

Thank you! That is very kind, I'm thrilled that it resonated with you. By the way, I LOVE the idea of a cooking school column.

Ah, I've just been informed that we are out of time. Thank you everyone for your questions! Please feel free to contact me via email at fazelifardm@washpost.com if you have any follow-up q's or comments. Have a great afternoon!

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Maggie Fazeli Fard
Maggie Fazeli Fard is a Washington Post reporter and producer, and a former diet food junkie.
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