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How do food writers keep it off?

anton-egoSam Sifton, the newish restaurant critic for the New York Times, has been writing and blogging about the massive caloric intake required by his job. He has even gone so far as to track his diet and exercise habits for a week and show the net calorie consumption day by day. Not surprisingly, on one day he had a net intake of over 4,000 calories thanks to fried oysters, rabbit livers and a couple of meat pies.

The restaurant critic calorie confidential seems to be turning into something of a blogging subgenre. Recently, Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner tracked her own 20-pounds-in-20-weeks “Restaurant Critic’s Diet.” Like Sifton, she kept track of everything she ate and energy expended through exercise with calorie counts. Unlike Sifton, she restricted her daily caloric intake by only taking bites of the food she reviewed and cooking sensibly at home.

I don’t know if the AJC’s Meridith Ford Goldman counts calories, but I do know she shows amazing restraint at the table. I’ve seen her enthuse about a dish, then poise her fork after three bites. Done.

I never had that restraint, which was one of several reasons I gave up that job. At the time I was carrying about 15 pounds more than I do now, and my normally stocky frame was starting to veer into fireplug territory.

With a good exercise regime (both resistance training and cardio) I was able to shed 10 pounds pretty quickly. Then I plateaued.

This is a common pattern. The New York Times Magazine recently published an interesting article (”Weighing the Evidence on Exercise,” April 12, 2010) that cross-referenced a number of studies. Most concluded that there are benefits to exercise, but without some serious measure calorie reduction it could not occasion weight loss. In fact, people often consume more calories than normal after they exercise. One study suggested that simply standing rather than sitting for most of the day might in the long run be better for you than a rigorous workout because it doesn’t trigger the need to consume.

My wife recently heard a scientific paper presented at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., that suggested a curtailed caloric intake was the greatest predictor for longevity. Exercise could improve the quality of life, but not push the needle forward by itself. In populations where extreme longevity is common, the people consume fewer calories.

So it seems we’ve entered a new age of calorie counting. This proves difficult for me — the most Type B of the Type B personalities out there. I can’t even count bus change.

But I have found a way to reduce my caloric intake and shed a few more pounds. Hunger.

Twice a day I allow myself to feel hunger — in the mid afternoon when I usually go in search of a fortifying snack, and in the evening after dinner, when I’m likely to indiscriminately pop something into my mouth.

It was uncomfortable at first, but my tolerance has increased over time. Making peace with hunger is like learning to hold your breath.

I’ve also thought a lot about the Japanese saying “hara hachibunme” which means you should fill your stomach only 80%. The first feeling of satiety kicks in around then, and you stop eating.

So, anyhow, that’s how this food writer keeps it (mostly) off.

Do any others out there embrace the hunger?

24 comments Add your comment

Sean M

April 20th, 2010
10:02 am

funny I’m actually doing that right now, for about the past 9 days or so. eating out a lot definitely takes its toll on you, so I needed to unplug for a bit. as mentioned, exercise can only do so much. the trick is figuring out how little you can actually eat without feeling really lethargic and generally irritable. but it is true, I think hunger tolerance increases over time, so at least that part is good.

I think the other hard thing to pull off is to do all of this and still be able to eat dessert. unfortunately a tasty dessert can be as many calories as your meal was supposed to be, only you don’t have any real usable fuel after that.

ugh time to move back to the suburbs where [expletive] food abounds and there’s little temptation to eat out.

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April 20th, 2010
10:23 am

It does sound a bit odd but I agree that we need to learn to feel hunger. If I go through a day without really feeling hungry at some point, I’m pretty sure that I’ve eaten too much that day and the scale usually proves me correct the next morning. I don’t think someone can really be in tune with how much and when they should be eating if they don’t learn to feel hunger. Hunger tells you when you really need to eat. And, once you’re used to it, it’s a really good feeling and you don’t feel guilty when you eat to ease the hunger (I sort of feel like I’ve earned it when I do eat). Training oneself to only eat when hungry is key to life-long weight management. I do think breakfast is an exception because I think everyone should eat breakfast whether they think they’re hungry or not.


April 20th, 2010
10:46 am

Luckily or unluckily, food is a hobby and not a profession for me. Over the last 6 months I have lost almost 20 lbs (and approx 3% body fat) by doing a lot of moderate excercise (mostly walking) and by simply not eating “crap” and allowing myself to be hungry between meals. Yes, I still enjoy eating a wide variety of interesting food but if, given the circumstances at the moment, my only option is crap food I skip the meal.

Jonathan Lerner

April 20th, 2010
11:22 am

My dirty little secret: I never eat dessert. (If pressed, I will have another lovely fat-free glass of wine.) OK, I will sometimes have a tiny spoonful of whatever my companion orders, enough to come up with a comment. When I was writing a weekly review for Southern Voice, I only had 600 words, so it was easy enough to just run out of space around dessert time and say something like, “the desserts looked yummy but we were full.” Anyway, I was blessed with the absence of a sweet tooth, and a fast metabolism. The other strategies I use are getting lots of exercise, and when cooking/eating at home, being REALLY stingy with fats.


April 20th, 2010
12:00 pm

run 20-40 miles a week.


April 20th, 2010
12:17 pm

I track the calories in the food I eat and the calories I burn exercising on a great free website called I’ve been using it for years and it’s really helped me as I’ve gone from 210 lbs. to 145. You’ve got to be dedicated enough to actually keep up with it, so being a little OCD about it like I am is helpful. :)

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Hungry Gringo

April 20th, 2010
12:50 pm

I embrace the hunger by controlling the availability. I only keep food around in meal-sized quantities, so that I physically can’t snack even if I’d have otherwise given into the temptation. I lost 25 pounds my freshman year at Tech that way.


April 20th, 2010
12:51 pm

Perfect illustration. You have to wonder at food critics who are pencil thin. You get the impression that they don’t like food overall or are picky eaters. Not sure I’d take restaurant advice from either.

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April 20th, 2010
1:41 pm

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April 20th, 2010
1:47 pm

It’s kind of like that old adage, “Never trust a skinny chef.”

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April 20th, 2010
1:55 pm

The Mediterranean style diet, based on healthy monounsaturated fats works wonders for me. I lowered my cholesteral count by 40 points. I eat an abundance of nuts, olives, olive oil based stir frys, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, chicken, legumes, very little red meat, lots of fish and dark chocolate. At first I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted one day a week ( usually Southern comfort foods ) but I found that my energy level was so great that I am hesitant to consume that type of meal now.


April 20th, 2010
2:07 pm

jimmy, I run 60-70 miles a week and I can still manage to put on some weight if I don’t keep an eye on my diet.

So, no, exercise cannot overcome overeating. However, you feel really good when you’re cardiovascularly fit so you definitely should exercise…just don’t exercise for weight loss. Exercise to be strong.

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Sean M

April 20th, 2010
2:56 pm

hey jimmy – write us back in 20 years and tell us how your knees are doing from jogging 20-40 miles per week. I’m all for running, but that much is not for everyone.


April 20th, 2010
4:17 pm

My biggest problem is that when hungry- I can’t concentrate and I turn mean, like rabid animal mean. I am trying to push it more but it get’s bad at work so I have to snack in order to get work done and not bite the hand that feeds me. Once I get home from work I go to the dog park and the work out. I get home about 8:30, gorge, then sleep. All inall not good. Looks like I might be fat for forever.

John Kessler

April 20th, 2010
5:32 pm

I wish I had a little OCD.
Steph – try counting the time you spend hungry and gradually work up. I type this at 5:30 and can tell you that my first afternoon hunger pang came at 3:30 as always. Two months ago I wouldn’t have lasted. Now, I’m used to it.


April 20th, 2010
6:39 pm

If I were a food critic, I would be the size of a barn. If I were a wine critic, I’d be a wino. Good thing I have you John. Now go eat something and tell us about it!

Donna Pierce

April 21st, 2010
10:20 am

As Contributing Food Editor for Upscale Magazine and founder of, the following mantra (shared by Judy Mazel a decade ago) helps me maintain my weight with a job based on covering delicious restaurant meals and recipe testing: I’ll just have one bite; it’s not leaving the planet.


April 21st, 2010
10:46 am

I just try to tell myself that hunger means i’m burning stored energy (fat/carbs) to run my body. Sometimes it works and I can hold it off… and sometimes it doesn’t. :)

April 21st, 2010
11:29 am

You don’t have to polish off the whole thing in order to describe how it tastes. I write about food and wine, and a few bites always tells me all I need to know. Plus, the idea of only eating when you’re hungry is a no-brainer.


April 22nd, 2010
8:04 am

Thanks John. I will try and work on it.