How ‘Normal People’ Eat: Aunt Ellen

In a family in which get-togethers invariably revolve around food, Aunt Ellen’s always had a reputation among “us kids” as a health food nut.

Turns out that reputation may be somewhat undeserved.

While it’s true that Ellen’s never had an obvious weight problem compared with the rest of the family, and that she often volunteers to bring the salad, she confessed over Thanksgiving weekend that she’s just as enslaved by sugar as the rest of us.

Case in point: This past Sunday, still in feast mode during a gathering at her mom’s house, she helped herself to two pieces of pie AND two pieces of cake.

So how does she keep from blowing up like a balloon? Here’s what she had to say:

Q. How do you avoid mindless munching when you’re stressed out? With all the times that Uncle Dan’s been in the hospital with heart trouble, the rest of us would be eating everything in sight. But you don’t seem to do that.

A. “When something’s really upsetting, I don’t feel like eating. Food is for celebrating. I celebrate with food, but I don’t eat (when she’s sad or tense.)”

Q. So if you eat all these sweets, why do I think of you as a health food nut?

A. Ellen speculates that maybe that’s an impression we formed from when she was experimenting with low-fat meals after my uncle’s first heart attack more than 20 years ago. She tried that for quite a while, learned to read labels and so forth, but then “his ribs started to stick out” because he’s actually a pretty thin guy to begin with. But when she looks at food labels now, she still tends to focus on fat content.

Q. Do you have a particular weakness when it comes to sugar? How do you control it?

A. “Chocolate and nuts. I can do without pop, but not chocolate and nuts.” As far as trying to control her urge to eat them, she says, “I don’t try real hard.” She has some just about every day.

Q. What do you eat for breakfast?

A. “A little cereal, with skim milk and some almonds.”

Q. Do you ever worry about your weight?

A. Now that she’s in her early 60s, she says she’s fairly certain that she’s “at least 30 pounds overweight.” It amazes her that her doctor never acts as if her weight is an issue — probably because these days, being 30 pounds overweight is fairly normal for the average American.

Q. Do you use a scale or the fit of your jeans to monitor your weight?

A. “The waistband of my jeans is my primary aggravation.”

Q. What do you do if you feel like your jeans are getting too tight?

A. “I might cut back a little bit. Or I might not. (She laughs.)”

Q. I’ve heard you say more than once that you don’t like to drink your calories. What do you mean by that?

A. She says she doesn’t like to waste calories on pop — she’d much rather eat dessert. Other than occasional lemonade in the summer, she mostly drinks water or tea.

“But it’s mandatory to have root beer with pizza, right?”

Q. What’s your favorite restaurant meal?

A. “Oh, maybe a Whopper Value Meal.” She also mentions the pecan-crusted chicken salad at Hall’s Tavern in Fort Wayne. But she doesn’t have either very often, because she doesn’t eat in restaurants very frequently. She estimates that she has a Whopper meal, for instance, “maybe every other month.”

Q. What would you order for your final meal if you were on Death Row?

A. “I don’t think I would feel like eating, probably.”

Q. Does it bother you to get overly full?

A. “I don’t know. I really have to eat a lot to get too full!”

Q. You’ve always seemed like a fairly active person who doesn’t spend a lot of time just sitting around. But do you actually exercise?

A. “I try to walk two or three times a week.” She says she really likes the way it makes her feel, and would like to walk even more often than she does.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add?

A. “I do think I have more energy when I’m  not eating sugar.”

Given how much she enjoys eating, she says she can’t figure out why so many people are heavier than she is, or struggle with their weight more than she does. “I think people’s bodies just tend to work differently.”

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