Health

She Wanted to Lose Weight, So She Started Cooking

Can a 28-year-old who lives off Diet Coke and takeout change her life by learning to cook? Here, the culinary education of Emily Landau

Grocery Store Health

(Photo: Chris Craymer/Trunk Archive)

Until two months ago, I’d never turned on my stove. I usually had an oversized Starbucks muffin and a Diet Coke for breakfast, drank solo Diet Coke for lunch and snacked on overpriced dumplings and fried-fish tacos at trendy restaurants for dinner. On a “healthy” night, I popped a Lean Cuisine in the microwave. The closest I’d ever come to real cooking was an attempt at spaghetti that ended after I called my mom to ask if I should boil the water before or after placing the pasta in the pot. Through a strange alchemy of ingenuity and sloth, I’d made it to 28 without ever frying an egg or chopping an onion.

In my defence: I’m single, which means I have no partner to share cooking duties or shame me for eating handfuls of Cheerios for dinner. I also work long hours as a magazine editor, so I tend to scrounge food like a raccoon, instead of preparing it like a human. I’d rather not spend my precious free time sweating over a stove.

Then, this past winter, my age caught up with my erratic eating habits. I’m as undisciplined about exercise as I am about food—and I put on more weight than usual during hibernation season. I felt sluggish and routinely napped away my weekend afternoons. My waist thickened. My legs ossified into cankles. Every morning, when I looked in the mirror, I resolved to be good that day. I’d take a walk at lunch and buy a salad. I’d stop at the greengrocer on my way home and get veggies for dinner. But as each day went on, my good intentions unravelled into bad habits. By night, I’d be bingeing on Netflix and a motley assortment of fluorescent-flavoured rice cakes, peanut butter and greasy Thai delivery. I’d go to bed feeling gross and shameful, only to wake up and repeat the pattern the next day. Breaking the cycle seemed impossible.

I wanted to get healthy—but without going on a diet. The summer I was 23, I tried the South Beach method, a medieval torture regimen that deprived me of carbs, fruits, cheese and joy. I lost 25 pounds by July but wound up consumed by fantasies of oven-fresh bread and gooey chocolate chip cookies. The weight returned by Halloween. Five years later, dietary extremism is even more popular, but now it’s cloaked in the language of detoxification—guzzling organic green juices to banish supposed poisons. To me, these puritanical cleanses seem radical: expensive and unsustainable, like a hunger strike without the social conviction.

I started looking for a more common-​sense approach and came across news about Brazil’s revised dietary guidelines. They’re dead simple: eat regular, full meals made from fresh, unprocessed ingredients, and use oils, fats, sugars and salts in moderation. It turns out even Brazil, the beachy utopia that gave us Gisele Bündchen and Adriana Lima, has succumbed to the worldwide obesity epidemic—about half of Brazilians are overweight, including 15 percent who are obese (in Canada, those numbers are 54 and 19 percent, respectively). Brazil’s Ministry of Health devised the new rules with the help of Dr. Carlos Monteiro, an epidemiologist and professor of nutrition and public health at the University of São Paulo. His research confirmed that processed foods, which are larded with ungodly amounts of unhealthy fats, salt and sugar that undermine our appetite control, had become the norm in Brazilian households, much like in North America. If Brazilians simply stop eating processed foods and switch to cooking fresh stuff, the theory goes, obesity will naturally decline. Such simplicity makes Canada’s four-tier food guide, stacked with a white bagel, a box of cereal and a can of milk, look positively Byzantine.

When Brazil announced its overhauled rubric last February, Michael Pollan, the amiable pop foodie who has been preaching “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” for years, tweeted his endorsement, calling the change a “radical new approach.”

I called Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa and the author of The Diet Fix, who also supports Brazil’s new regime. I told him I wanted to lose 15 pounds and was intrigued by the concept of simply cooking fresh food, à la Brazil. He agreed it was a good idea. “If you want to prioritize health, you’re going to have to prioritize cooking and develop a relationship with your kitchen,” he said frankly. “Boxes won’t provide you with what you need.”

Before I could even flirt with my kitchen, I had to fill my fridge like an adult woman (I usually visit the grocery store once a month for Diet Coke and cheese), so I called Joy McCarthy, a holistic nutritionist and cookbook author whose website, JoyousHealth.com, is a fever dream of diet tips and gluten- and sugar-free recipes. Her blithe brand of aspirational health has earned her a sizable cult: 12,500 Instagram followers and 19,100 Twitter disciples. We met at a grocery store in downtown Toronto, and I instantly felt like a slovenly penguin next to the svelte brunette Taylor Swift doppelgänger. She swanned through the produce department, decreeing best practices.

“I’m sure you know this, but you want to keep to the perimeter of the store. The middle aisles are full of junk,” she pronounced. “Of course,” I lied, nodding vigorously while wistfully gazing down the chips aisle. Later, when we sat down in the café, she suggested I ease myself into cooking: “Start by making all your breakfasts for a week, then lunch.” I was filled with anxiety—what would I do about late nights at work? What if I had last-minute social plans? What about the joy of spontaneous snacking? “Do you ever cheat?” I asked cautiously. “No,” she said, her hazel eyes boring into me like quinoa-powered lasers. “I don’t even like junk food anymore. When I was in university, I used to make Mars bar brownies. Now I’m like, how could I ever eat those? They’re disgustingly sweet. You’ll feel that way, too.”

Such unerring purity gobsmacked me. Gourmet gurus of McCarthy’s ilk—Gwyneth Paltrow and, most recently, Blake Lively—seem to live in a domestic Shangri-La where time is irrelevant and every cooking experience is as rejuvenating as a sunset yoga class. But they’re professional lifestylers—literally paid to eat well. How is a regular person with a 9-to-7 gig supposed to achieve that level of virtue?

The only way to find out was to try. I filled my cart with the best organic meats and produce I could afford, as well as spices and olive oil. That first bill was $200, about the same amount I would have spent on five restaurant meals.

Next, I visited Alexandra Feswick for a cooking lesson. Feswick is the chef de cuisine at The Drake, an arty boutique hotel in Toronto’s west end, who specializes in fresh, homespun food (i.e., not totally impossible for a newbie). “I thought we’d make risotto,” she said, offering me a professional-grade apron. Her counter was lined with goat cheese, mushrooms and shelled peas. She handed me an onion and showed me how to hold the bulb by the root for leverage. (At 28, I was finally learning how to dice an onion.) As we sautéed veggies, she glided through her kitchen with balletic ease, tossing in a pinch of salt here and a splash of wine there. She made cooking seem relaxing and graceful. I could do this, I thought.

That week, I called two of my friends, Karen and Courtney—the kind of junior Goops who know their farmers’ market vendors by name—to help me make a rosemary-roasted chicken. With the patience of kindergarten teachers, they showed me how to wash the bird and stuff a lemon and fresh herbs inside it. They tried not to cringe at my awkward execution, like when I attempted to slice a potato, my fingers splayed dangerously in the blade’s path. “I can’t watch this,” Courtney groaned. “It’s like a scene from Breaking Bad.” The whole thing took two hours; the chicken tasted great, but I was too tired to enjoy it.

For the next month, I made dinner as often as possible. On my first solo cooking night, I turned on my gas stove but didn’t realize I had to light it (I figured out something was wrong when the scent of natural gas filled my kitchen). I made lasagna and forgot the ricotta, so it was just flaccid noodle sheets and tomato sauce. But slowly, aided by YouTube tutorials, I started making passable stir-fries, niçoise salads and fish. I focused on foods I liked, without much thought to calories—one thing at a time, I thought. When I asked Dr. Freedhoff if this was a decent weight-loss strategy, he told me that controlling my own oils and sugars made my home-cooked meals infinitely healthier than the kinds I usually ate. “At restaurants, they fry eggs in tablespoons of butter, but when you’re cooking at home, you spray your pan once,” he says, which I took to mean “anything is better than what you were doing before.”

I expected time and effort to be the greatest obstacles to culinary excellence, but it turns out the biggest challenge was that I hated cooking. It was paradoxically boring—all the podcasts in the world couldn’t distract from the monotony of stirring and dicing—and nerve-racking. All that planning, shopping and scurrying stressed me out and left me exhausted. Every night, I fought the urge to curl up on my couch with a bag of Cheetos and my Friends box set.

Michael Pollan’s mantra, echoed by Brazil’s guidelines, is to eat how your great-grandma would have eaten. But my great-grandma never had a job, or junk food chemically engineered to addict her, or modern restaurant culture with its alluring artisanal burgers. I asked Dr. Freedhoff how to reconcile the ideal domestic life with real life. “Incorporate as many of those principles as you can into your day-to-day, but make sure you still enjoy food,” he said. “That means you’ll have an imperfect diet. But that’s OK.”

Those words were a revelation. In 2014, extreme diets are the default (at least among a certain privileged set). Every ingredient must be local, sustainable, organic or handcrafted, preferably all of the above. Every meal must be scratch-made in a sun-dappled gourmet kitchen. The gluten- and sugar-free masses cut out entire food groups with mercenary exactitude. I didn’t realize it when I started, but my original goal of cooking every night was just as radical.

Dr. Freedhoff’s advice took the pressure off. Suddenly, I felt OK about marinating my fish in store-bought sauces, using frozen peas instead of shelling my own and replacing some of my organic groceries with more affordable ones. I decided to commit to an imperfect regimen: cooking when I can—usually two or three nights a week. I still consider it a loathsome chore akin to flossing, but the results are undeniable: after a couple months, my energy level has spiked and I’ve lost seven pounds. As I write this, I’m sitting over a plate of risotto—Feswick’s recipe. It’s slightly burned and crunchy, more Quaker oatmeal than Tuscan decadence, but it’s dotted with emerald asparagus and parsley I chiffonaded without slicing off a finger. I may be back to Cheerios tomorrow, but tonight I feel good, and that’s definitely something I can’t get in a box.

Cooking by Numbers

A statistical breakdown of the writer’s kitchen triumphs and failures

Days spent learning to cook: 65

Online tutorials watched: 20-plus

Amount spent on kitchen supplies—like pots, pans and a slow cooker—before I even started: $250

Meals cooked: 35-ish

Meals ruined: 5

Frantic phone calls to mom: 2

Smoke alarms triggered: 1

Burns acquired: 12

Pounds lost: 7

Average amount spent on restaurants per week: $100

Average amount spent on groceries per week: $65

Cost of the Skippy peanut butter I used to buy: $4.50

Cost of the fair-trade MaraNatha almond butter I buy now: $10

Number of times I opted for pesticide-ridden fruit and veggies because they were cheaper: 4

Nights I flaked on cooking and ate Orville Redenbacher instead: 8

Nights I flaked on cooking and went out for dinner: 10

Number of friends subjected to my rookie culinary stylings: 5

Dishes Instagrammed: 0

photography: chris craymer/trunk archive. editor: rachel heinrichs.

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