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Laura Hout: For the Health-Conscious, Fiesta Is Not All Binge or Bust

“Here in the Real World”, as Alan Jackson sang at last week’s California Mid-State Fair, celebrating Fiesta is a real dilemma for those who practice moderation.

Laura Hout
Laura Hout

For legions of recovering binge eaters (and drinkers), it’s a confetti-strewn challenge course: tacos, tamales, taquitos, guacamole and chips, nachos, mojitos, margaritas and cold Mexican beer.

Like many women (and men), I’ve struggled with binge eating. And now that a certain pharmaceutical company is pushing its latest wonder drug to treat Binge Eating Disorder with the help of a former tennis champion, most Americans have heard of the nation’s most obvious eating disorder.

Can I just say, speaking for beleaguered binge eaters everywhere, “It’s about time!”

Yet now that binge eating has come out of the shadows — as if binge eaters ever felt they could hide their “food addiction” — there are surprisingly few practical guidelines for enjoying celebrations like Fiesta.

There’s the abstinence-based adage: “Just Say No” (loosely translated as “Just Don’t Go”).

There’s the hyper-vigilant Fitbit-crazed approach: plug every single caloric morsel you put in your mouth into a device and it will calculate how you should proceed — argghhh — we’re not computers!

There’s the intuitive eating approach — which works better for anorectics than overeaters (whose food instincts have run amok).

Finally, there’s the all-or-nothing, throw-caution-to-the-wind dissociative experience, which binge eaters know all too well leads to wanton abandon of anything resembling moderation.

So how indeed can we unleash our inner senoritas and vaqueros, eat, drink and be merry, and not fall off the proverbial wagon?

Because here in Santa Barbara we do Fiesta big: we don’t have humble two-horse wagons, we have sweating, snorting, horse-and-mule teams pulling carriages and coaches. We have flamenco and folklorico and Noches de la Ronda.

We have mercados and paseos and cantinas and cascarones — heck half the town shuts down for Friday’s El Desfile Histórico. With more than 600 fiery horses, it’s one of the largest equestrian parades in the nation. Add tequila-fueled office-and-hotel-room parties along the parade route and it’s Viva la Fiesta!

Yes, we do Fiesta “big” here, and I don’t just mean the Spanish stallions.

But years of trial and error have helped me develop some time-honored Fiesta survival tricks. Mireille Guiliano’s book, French Women Don’t Get Fat (The Secret of Eating for Pleasure), inspired me along the way. And a long stint in Europe showed me how to savor and saunter, enjoying both culinary and cultural adventures while staying reasonably fit.

» Focus on favorites. At the original Rose Café, 424 E. Haley St., I love an onion-spiked cheese enchilada; at La Playa Azul Café, 914 Santa Barbara St., I savor a chile relleno.

Instead of rice, chips and dips, I pair these cheese-heavy dishes with frijoles, following Frances Moore Lappé’s principle of combining dairy, grain and legume proteins. On a walkabout during Fiesta, I’ll enjoy a fresh homemade tamale or open-faced tacos al carbon at Mercado De la Guerra.

» Skip the chips and dips, but remember salsa is your friend. Ask for pico de gallo to get the freshest, chunkiest salsa.

» Portion control — don’t rely on restaurants! Side order one or two items (i.e., a cheese enchilada and beans), or try small plates or Tapas. For authentic Spanish flair, try the small plates and tapas’ at Milk & Honey, 30 W. Anapamu St., or Cadiz, 509 State St.

» ​Drink in moderation. Try a California rosé with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Spritz it up, adding slices of lime and orange and voila: Sangria!

Or drink a light beer, and if the spirit moves you, add a shot of premium tequila on the rocks. If a margarita tempts you, ask for it “scratch”. Avoid sugar-and-preservative-laden sweet and sour and sloshy, sloppy tourist drinks.

» Walk and dance. Nothing beats seeing Fiesta on foot. I usually watch Friday’s horse parade from numerous vantage points, starting down on Cabrillo Boulevard and ending up near Sola Street and parade’s end.

Walking is the best way to pop into office parties (sans parking hassles) and take action photos at street level. By the end of the day I’ve walked off my food and drink and I’m ready to take the bus home (or pick my car up where I left it). And locals know the hot spot for dancing is Casa Cantina in the courtyard of historic Casa de la Guerra, 15 E. De la Guerra St.

Finally, if you get a little carried away, remember a day or three of indulgence does not a binge make. There’s a reason those senorita skirts have elastic and ruffles.

One thing I learned in Europe: Italians don’t binge. But they sure enjoy la dolce vita — in this case Viva la Fiesta!

Laura Hout, M.P.W., M.A., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Barbara. She specializes in Binge Eating Disorder and Obesity Counseling, is a clinical member of the Binge Eating Disorder Association, and served on the Central Coast board for the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. A Santa Barbara native, she has been going to Fiesta — especially El Desfile Histórico — for as long as she can remember. Contact her at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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