The Snob Diet

If I were the sum of my Instagram feed, I’d be 300 lb; but I’m nowhere near even half of that. And because there is no justice in the world, neither are the photogenic food bloggers and svelte celebrity chefs who seemingly eat a diet of butter and cake. And why not? Simple. Standards.

Another holiday season has come and gone, leaving us with a freezer full of leftovers we’ll never eat and a gut to remind us of a simpler time when every day was a feast and calories didn’t exist. Like clockwork, January 1st marked the beginning of yet another introductory 30-day fitness trial and the commitment to the diet du jour, guaranteed to make you sad long before it makes you thin. Beware the fads!

I’ve spent a good part of my life on a diet, if not on some type of extreme detox. At times I’ve even resorted to letting an online calorie counter, a food scale, and an Excel spreadsheet tell me what’s for dinner. And in my darkest times, I didn’t eat. I may not be 300 lb, but I have always struggled with my weight, be it physical or psychological.

Croissant from  Colette Grand Cafe

Croissant from Colette Grand Cafe

Needless to say that my relationship with food hasn’t always been so loving and passionate. I’ve always loved eating, but my ego didn’t. What changed this is rather bittersweet. I lost people very close to me in a short span of time, and in their last moments, each of them expressed either a regret for not having eaten more of something, or a desire to eat something just one last time. My ego was humbled and my perspective changed. Of all of the regrets to have in life, the self-deprivation of something so easily attainable is truly tragic.

I was becoming an adult; learning to cook, choosing what I eat. I became curious and learned what good food really meant. With an entry-level salary and rent I could barely afford, I had to be picky with what foods deserved my hard-earned cash.

Having made the move from Montreal to Toronto, I was also terribly homesick. I missed my buttery croissants and my Fairmount bagels; while croissants and bagels abound in this big city, they’re just not the same in my heart. This was the beginning of my selective eating habits. With tight purse strings and a “nothing else will do” attitude, it became increasingly easy to refuse second best and wait for my next trip to Montreal to enjoy my bagel.

The Best and Nothing But

Eating nothing but the best is far from a pretentious and unattainable way of life. Most people imagine an opulent place setting, dinner in a gown and pearls, and imported foie gras as the first of seven courses. In reality, it’s just about setting standards; something we do every day. People are quick to purchase the latest and greatest mobile device, but routinely feed themselves with low quality, pesticide-laden produce and feedlot meat from discount grocery stores. You might upgrade your cell phone every two years, but your body is what you’re stuck with for the rest of your days. Feed it well and it will return the favour.

In a world where fast-food counters continue to be more economical than salad bars, it’s difficult to imagine eating nothing but the best on a budget. Especially when they pile on the fries; feeding you more than you can - and should - eat somehow translates to value. Then comes the bloated and lethargic aftermath of this high-calorie/low-nutrient, ironically named “value meal” you’re now paying for all over again.

After three months of living in Toronto working long hours and getting next to no exercise, I gained close to 15 lbs - a lot for a petite girl of 5’1”. I started exercising again, consulted with a nutritionist, and found out that while I was gaining weight, I was actually short at least 500 calories a day. How was that possible? Despite being busy, I was still getting my 3 meals a day. Also, I always thought that I made wiser choices than much of my cohort, who always seemed to have chips and ice cream in the house.

Not me.

I became obsessed with researching the nutritional value of everything I ate, understanding more and more that not all calories are created equal. More importantly, it opened my eyes to what you perceive as being healthy - mainly driven by very effective marketing - and what is not. I not only read labels for their nutritional facts, but for their ingredients; if I couldn’t pronounce it and it still didn’t sound right after a quick Google search (not all chemicals are bad for you), then it wasn’t good enough for me. Soon, all of the processed and packaged “low fat” (but chock full of sugar and preservatives) granola bars and baked crackers I was buying on sale was replaced with edamame, nuts, and boiled eggs at the same cost.

Butter from  Kerrygold  (imported from the U.S.)

Butter from Kerrygold (imported from the U.S.)

I also became determined to eat food that was not only good for your health, but good for the soul. Living alone in a new city, food was the only thing that brought me comfort in those early days. With little fun money to eat out with, takeout and restaurants became a once-weekly treat, and I learned to cook all of my favourite things.

Within six months, I had the knowledge to make more informed decisions, increased proficiency in the kitchen, and I was dancing again (my other passion). I lost 20 lbs and was feeling the best I had in a long time.

This was only the beginning of my education. I continue to learn and re-evaluate what is best or better every day. And continue to become more and more discriminating.

It is no longer good enough for us to buy meat labeled as “pasture raised” and “natural” at a grocery store. Instead, we make the 45-minute trip every week to our favourite butcher, Butchers of Distinction. There, we know which farms the animals come from, what they eat, and that they were raised ethically in as natural an environment as possible. And if need be, we stick to cheaper cuts or offal. The prices, surprisingly, are competitive.

Our produce comes from Mama Earth Organics, a local and organic food delivery company, that delivers a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruits and vegetables to our door every week. Their standards, as high or higher than ours, prevent them from delivering anything that is not up to par. The cost? The same as we used to pay at Loblaws for far worse quality.

These choices are clearly not available to everyone. But you do have a choice and investing in what is best for your body and your family’s health is far more important than the next “i”thing.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

Cooking is an indispensable skill, and even more so in maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. I wasn’t born a good cook and didn’t even cook until I reached my mid-twenties. I became one by necessity and became a better one out of love for food and for myself. The need and joy of cooking is not relatable for all. To that, I say: suck it up and pick up an apron; your life depends on it.

Michael Pollan’s latest read and Netflix documentary Cooked posits that much of our poor eating habits are inversely correlated with time spent in the kitchen. More notably in time-starved corporate North America, there is no need to cook when there’s an app for food showing up at your door, instant everything, and microwaves. Cooking, for many hard-working young professionals, is a daunting task. And I know many of them who simply don’t do it and reach for their phones instead. But trusting a profit-minded restaurant chain - or  worse, a CPG - with your diet is no better than playing Russian Roulette.

I didn’t like cooking at first; I found it stressful and difficult without a recipe. But the more I excelled at it, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I cared about the ingredients. In our household, we have a policy: whatever we can make ourselves and better than a restaurant, we will not order. Nick’s steak is better than 90% of all the restaurants in the entire city. So why bother paying someone double for what I consider to be mediocre at best? I will fearlessly claim that I make better mussels, risotto, bouillabaisse, than most 4-star restaurants. Whether you agree with me or not doesn’t matter. I believe it, and I will painstakingly go through the trouble of making it for myself if that’s what I really want to eat. Chances are that my version will not only be to my taste, but, because I control the ingredients, will be better for me too.

Lead Us Into Temptation

Eating nothing but the best also applies to the not-so-good-for-you foods. No one is immune to cravings, and being picky has helped my willpower more than anything I’ve tried. Cravings are a hunger of the mind: they live in the same parts of the brain that control memories, social emotions, and the release of dopamine. It’s no surprise then, that our cravings tend to gravitate towards our favourite foods, many of which are attached to pleasant memories. My favourite things, the things I crave most, are special, specific, and sometimes a little out of reach.

Chocolate bar from  Soma Chocolatemaker

Chocolate bar from Soma Chocolatemaker

Bagels and croissants (with the exception of a very small number of local bakeries) are reserved for my trips to Montreal. It’s where I find the best and nothing else will do. After setting these standards for myself, I’ve gone from eating bagels and croissants year-round, to eating them five times per year.

Chocolate is another indulgence that gets the snob treatment. I eat nothing but premium single-origin dark chocolate. Good chocolate has all of the nuance of a fine wine or good scotch, and, at about $10 or more per bar, it’s ten times the cost of a Kit Kat. But one or two squares of rich, deep, and flavourful chocolate satisfies me more than an entire Kit Kat bar. I’ll have it once or maybe twice a week and it is made of little more than pure cocoa. One bar lasts me more than a month.

Do I ever crave anything normal?!?

Of course! Mac & cheese, buttery popcorn, potato chips, ice cream, a good cheeseburger...but that’s what cheat days are for. And you bet your ass if I’m having a cheeseburger, it’s going to be Burger’s Priest. And if I want ice cream, I’m going to walk the 20-30 minutes to my shortlist of artisan ice cream shops rather than down the street for some gas station fare.

Occasionally giving in to our cravings is actually a good way to control them. Studies have shown that people who occasionally give in to their cravings tend to have them less than people who attempt to deprive themselves completely.

To some, I may have set some pretty ridiculous standards, but in doing so, I never feel that I’m depriving myself of anything. In fact, for our last cheat day, I couldn’t name one craving that I was waiting to satisfy.

The Snob Diet is no diet at all. It’s a lifestyle and a promise to only give yourself the very best. Believing that you deserve nothing but the best is a powerful affirmation of confidence and control. And it all starts with investing in yourself and learning all about what the best really is for you.

Chocolate chip cookie from  Le Gourmand Cafe

Chocolate chip cookie from Le Gourmand Cafe

Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.