Making a meal like building a fire
June 25, 2013
I'd like to share my "fire story" with you again today. I originally wrote this in 2006, but there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not repeating it to someone, so I think everyone deserves to hear it again. Hopefully it will help you understand how the kinds of foods we eat affect our bodies, especially our hunger. If you apply this basic idea to your everyday eating, you will be doing your body a great favor for years to come.
To me, preparing a meal is a lot like building a fire. How well it is put together determines how long it will last. Planning ahead of time to make sure you have all of the right materials will make your fire more effective in keeping you warm.
First, I'd like you to think about the basic types of fuels we use to build a fire: paper, wood and coal. Even if you haven't personally started your own fire, I'm sure most of us have either watched someone create a fire or can imagine how these fuels burn.
I'd like to start with paper: It lights up quickly and burns fast. In the world of food, carbohydrates are like paper. Carbohydrates include grains, cereals, rice, pasta, starchy vegetables, fruit, milk, yogurt and most anything with sugar. These foods digest quickly to let us know that we aren't starving anymore. It's a good place to start, but imagine if you tried to keep a fire burning long and hot using only paper. I can only wonder at the amount of paper that would be needed to keep up a fire like that. Especially since you have access to other materials to burn like wood and coal, why put the extra work into your fire?
On to wood: It takes a while to catch on fire, but it burns slower and longer than paper. Protein, or meat and meat substitutes, act like wood on a fire. All by itself it would take a while to get going, but once it's burning you can avoid hunger feelings for up to four hours. Imagine that fire again, but your only fuel is wood. It will definitely last longer than the paper one, but a lot of your time and energy is given to actually getting the fire started. Protein takes a couple of hours to digest and take away the hunger feelings.
The last fuel is coal: Slow to start, but long burning. Coal represents the fats in our diet. They take the longest to digest and help us to feel full the longest. Take this fuel off of your fire and it won't keep you warm nearly as long as it would with it. Fats that are the healthiest are most likely liquid at room temperature and come from a plant source. A serving has about 50 calories and includes canola oil, peanut oil/peanuts, olive oil/olives, and avocados.
Now, how to tie these things together? Think of the typical American breakfast: juice, toast, milk and cereal. They're all carbohydrates, every single one. You've just started your day with a nice paper fire that will have to get you through until your next meal. It doesn't matter how well you put that fire together or how full you feel after you eat it, I guarantee that your fire will burn out before you've planned. When that happens, hunger sets in. If you have a snack planned, you can put a little fuel on your dying fire. But what if you don't? The longer that fire sits out, the hungrier you'll become and the more you'll want to eat when you finally get to have your next meal.
So let's back up: Replace one of the carbohydrates in the breakfast with some protein. For example, replace the juice with some peanut butter on your toast, or maybe an egg or a small slice of cheese. It only takes one ounce of protein to increase the longevity of your fire and keep the hunger away for a few more hours. So, when you get your next meal you won't be starving and will need less food to feel satisfied.
The final piece is the coal, or fat. We're learning more that fats aren't as bad as we've been told in the past. So don't feel bad about putting a little dressing on your salad or mayonnaise on your sandwich. You're actually helping your fire last a little longer and increasing the satiety of your meals. I wouldn't be a dietitian if I didn't remind you to moderate your portions, though. Extra fuel doesn't always burn and our body stores it for later use.
The next time you plan a meal, I encourage you to think of my little story. You will be pleasantly surprised at how you feel throughout your day. Give it a try!
Your nutrition questions are welcome — send questions to Mary C. Koch, R.D. in care of this newspaper.