I like to think my obsession with food is a healthy one. But sitting here, pondering the secrets of perfect sourdough and the merits of homemade ricotta cheese, I realise that the "healthy" part of my love affair with food came only after many years of trial, error, gains and losses. Some of that was body weight - I'm 40 lbs less than I was 10 years ago - but the rest has been learning how to live in way that makes me feel good about myself and comfortable in my own skin.
The more I learn, the more I realise that food should be enjoyed, not feared; exercise should enrich the mind, not just the body; and most of all, there's nothing healthy about worrying about being healthy.
I don't have it all figured out, and I never will, but with each day, week, month and year, I think I'm getting closer to some kind of a truth. Here's a run-down of how it's gone so far, where I've been, and where I'm going.
I've always loved food.
I thank my family for instilling me with an almost religious appreciation for a “good meal”. Food was always an instrumental part of our celebrations, with my relatives giving as much care and attention to the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie as they did to their growing adolescent children. And like most American families in the 70's and 80's, our daily food habits were heavily swayed by the marvel of modern convenience: frozen pizza, Campbell's tomato soup, hot dogs, kraft mac and cheese (Velveeta Shells and Cheese were a special treat).
All of the women in my family have struggled with their weight.
As a result, I grew up worrying about my own potential fatness. I knew I didn't want to spend my whole life fighting the bulge (not to mention diabetes, high blood pressure, etc), but I also didn't know what to do to prevent this from happening. Thus, I continued to lunch on grilled cheese sandwiches and Kool Aid.
The first time I started thinking about the quality of the food I eat was when I became a vegetarian.
My reasoning probably had more to do with my desire not to eat my pets than to eat healthy food, but it did set me on the path to thinking about what I DID want to put in my body. Unfortunately, this also set me on a path to eating lots of pasta and cheese. This trend continued well into my college years.
We’ve all heard of the Freshman Fifteen.
Mine was more like the Fresh-Soph-Junior-Senior Thirty. In college, I discovered beer, cigarettes, quesadillas and Easy Mac (just when you thought mac and cheese couldn't get any easier, Kraft pulled out all the stops and made this marvellous meal microwaveable).
I started going to the gym.
Even though I had a college education behind me, and a whole three years of grad school ahead, I hadn’t made much healthy progress since my early adolescent worries of getting fat. So, without much of a plan, I started going to the gym regularly. I was still eating mass quantities of cheese, drinking too much beer, and smoking half a pack a day, but at least I was exercising.
I quit smoking and started running.
My boyfriend inspired me to quit smoking, and we inspired each other to start running. I also started lifting weights at the gym and learning how to use free weights. After a while, I started to feel almost strong.
My eating and drinking habits finally caught up with me.
No, I didn't have a heart attack or get burned by a flaming hot piece of cheese. But it occurred to me that I didn’t feel altogether “well”. As much as I was pleased with my running and exercise, I was tired of feeling lethargic all the time, sacrificing sleep for parties, and Saturday for hangovers. I wanted to feel healthy.
My food diary turned me on to the startling realization that there were days when 50% of the calories I consumed came from alcohol (and the rest from cheese enchiladas, nachos and pizza). So I started making some changes, one at a time. First, I limited my intake of alcohol to once a week. Then I set a twice-a-week budget for eating out. Then I cut out processed foods. Then the domino effect started: veggies replaced mac and cheese; omelets replaced quesadillas; I was learning to cook; and the food diary kept me honest about my portion sizes and helped me make sure I was getting a balanced diet. Meanwhile, I kept an exercise journal to keep track of my running and strength training. Knowing that I ran five miles one week made me want to run five and a half the next. I started adding interval training and hill running to my plan. I signed up for 5k and 10k fun runs. For the first time, my exercise plan had goals attached to it. I was making progress, and actually having fun.
I quit the gym.
I’d been a regular since 2002, but in 2007 I threw in the towel. I wasn’t in the fitness game to burn calories; I was in it to enjoy the journey. So I quit the gym and made myself a new goal: to maintain my fitness holistically. That is, to transition exercise from something I did at a gym to something that emerged naturally from my other life choices. In effect, the goal was to stop exercising altogether, but instead to be active in my day-to-day life. I was already a cycle commuter, but soon after quitting the gym I discovered the pool. This was my most rewarding find of 2007. Sure, swimming made me fitter and stronger, but it also taught me patience. There is a meditative quality to swimming laps; I came to rely on this as a way to relax and gather my thoughts. Swimming also became a template for finding patience and solitude in other areas of my life.
Losing weight was never the whole plan.
I just wanted to feel good. But now, years after starting on this “journey”, I find myself radically transformed in mind and body. It is still a shock to me when I look at the scales and realize that I’ve lost forty pounds over the last five or so years (that’s almost 30% of my bodyweight!). But what surprises me more is how much my eating and exercising habits have changed. Learning to cook has amplified my love of food immensely. And learning to cook with REAL food has made me enjoy what I eat more than ever before. I now see that food needs to be good to THINK as well as good to EAT. And knowing exactly what goes into my meals makes their enjoyment that much more pleasurable. I don’t feel like I’ve had to give up anything. I still eat fat and carbs, only in smaller portions and with high-quality ingredients. I also eat piles and stacks of fruit and vegetables. Again, knowing how to make veggies taste good makes all the difference. “Exercise” is now a term I try not to use, because I’ve learned that fitness doesn’t have to come from slaving away at the gym; fitness can be a natural result of every day life. When I stopped “scheduling exercise” and started being active through cycle commuting, swimming, staying on top of the chores and playing outside with my friends, I actually got stronger and lost more weight than I did during my years at the gym.
There's no right answer.
The thing about health and fitness is that it’s a never-ending process of discovery. There’s no “goal weight” or “goal time” or “goal distance” out there on the horizon that marks the finish line when I can stop thinking about my health and go back to a life of pasta and cheese. Instead, I have to keep learning and adapting. I’m still getting to grips with food – should all of my food be organic, should all of my food by locally-sourced, should I be 100% vegan, is there really anything wrong with a bit of butter once in a while? When it comes to fitness, there’s always room for improvement – I want to be stronger and more flexible, I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I want to finish a triathlon. But I’m fine with all of that. Life is about learning, and I don’t want to ever stop feeding my brain, or my body.
Anyone who's ever lost weight knows that gaining any of it back feels like a major blow, even if that weight gain is good. Last year, I said I wanted to be stronger. That want grew into a need as a running injury necessitated I do some physiotherapy tp gain some muscular strength in my legs. Rationally I know that gaining muscle requires gaining weight, and muscle weighs more than fat, and that there's no point in pushing myself to be stronger if I'm not going to eat to support the strength. Still, it's been a total mind trip getting past that, and a shock to myself: I mean, I always say this isn't about numbers; this is about feeling well. But let's face it; I worked hard to lose the weight, and any slight gain makes me riddled with fear that I'm falling off the "wagon". The only way around this is to be rational: I'm doing a good thing here, and my jeans still fit. Why should I worry?
The same rationality has played a major role in my thinking about food recently. Over the past couple years I've overcome many misguided ideas I used to believe about "healthy food". For example, my former self was a slave to egg white omelettes, purely out of fear of fat and calories. Now I wouldn't thinking of discarding a yolk - to do so would be wasteful of food and nutrients, and a total disrespect to the animal it came from. In fact, I'm even starting to question my own vegetarianism, particularly when, as a freelance writer, I meet such fantastic meat producers in the UK who have much more respect and commitment to animal welfare than some vegetarians I know.
I feel like after all this time spent worrying about weight and fighting my body, I'm finally at a point where I can rediscover food again. It's becoming less about "health" and more about "real". Because real food is healthy food. Except maybe for those times when I over do it after a few glasses of wine with my foodie friends. But isn't that healthy, too?
The answers come. It just takes time.
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