On weeks like this, I feel like I should issue a disclaimer. It would go something like this: “This is not one of those funny blog entries. It’s one of those difficult changes that inspires much introspection on my part, most (if not all) of which I’m unsure is remotely interesting to anyone else. Please consider yourself forewarned.” In other words, please consider yourself forewarned. I should probably also issue a disclaimer to myself. It would go something like this: “Think very carefully before you make this next change, because it’s going to be a tough one and it touches on a lot of nerves and insecurities and when you sit down to write the blog entry you’re going to feel both boring and exposed.” But I didn’t issue that disclaimer to myself. So here we are.
Why all the stalling and nervousness? Because this week is about food. I know what you’re thinking: Again? Didn’t she write about eating before? Not eating meat? Not eating out? Not eating sugar? And you’re right. I’ve written about it before, but since food is consistently one of the bigger areas of frustration in my life, it stands to reason that it’s also one of the areas in which I have to keep trying to make changes.
See, food is tricky for me. Not in theory. I get the idea: eat stuff for fuel, go about your business. But for me – and I think for many of us – it’s far more complicated. There are emotions involved. There is history of struggle, which I say with a straight face, as though it's on par with the Civil Rights movement. There is a deep and abiding love of food. And there is a strong attraction to – maybe even obsession for – the very foods and approaches to eating that are consistently my undoing, in more ways than one.
Let me back up a bit and regale you with lifelong tales of weight, woe and illness. I have a long and storied history with dieting. I don’t remember a time when eating and food haven’t been an issue in my life. Around the age of 12, my childhood plumpness started to balloon into full-fledged obesity. At the time, my well-meaning parents put me on the Scarsdale Diet -- which only people 40 and over will know anything about -- and it was just the first of many torturous and futile attempts that dragged my self-esteem even lower than it had been to begin with.
Like so many of us, over the years I’ve tried just about everything to lose weight. Once, I even succeeded on a massive scale. I lost a whole lotta weight in a relatively short period of time. How? What’s the magic secret? Why, folks, it’s this: insane obsession. Going from eating everything in sight to the other end of the spectrum: eating as little as possible. For months, I never consumed more than 1300 calories a day and I exercised so compulsively, I practically blew my right knee out at the ripe old age of 27.
I know you’ll be surprised to find out that, in the long run, this approach didn’t take. I probably did a pretty big number on my metabolism. I certainly didn’t developed any new coping skills, didn't deal with anything in a real and honest way. And one day, I suppose, I saw a particularly shiny donut and I was off to the races again. Back to all my old habits with full force. The weight crept back on. The damage that particular “failure” did to my ego was incalculable. Over the years that have followed, I’ve tried this and that to lose weight, succeeding a bit here, backsliding a tad there.
Then, about two years ago, after successfully dropping about 20 pounds thanks to good ol' sensible eating and moderate exercise, I suddenly put on a large amount of weight. Thirty pounds in a matter of months. Worse yet, I couldn’t seem to drop any of it using my previously-relied-upon methods. I struggled with this on my own for a bit, by which I mean I mostly berated myself and felt deep, searing shame about my weight gain. Then a host of other symptoms began to emerge, and I saw my doctor. Connecting the dots on some lifelong symptoms, I was diagnosed with a condition that has metabolic syndrome as a component.
Metabolic syndrome basically means exactly what was happening to me: you gain a bunch of weight and can’t drop it. In fact, I’ve probably had it for years, complicating my every effort – I just didn’t know it. This fell squarely into the “it’s not fair” category and, armed with this new knowledge, I adopted a super sane attitude: SCREW THIS NOISE. I’m gonna eat whatever I want since it doesn’t make a difference anyway.
So for a while now I’ve just been eating what I wanted, and I've been driving myself to an eating disorders therapist to discuss the fact that I don't wanna have to compromise, dammit! I stayed in that place for a couple of years.
Only, as I’ve noted on this blog, I’ve also been feeling like complete crap for a while now, physically-speaking. Weight issues aside, when you have a condition like fibromyalgia, there’s not much you can do to control it other than exercise and watch what you eat. I hadn’t been doing either. I decided something had to give. I needed to reign in my eating, assert some guidelines and control, aim for fuel and nutrition instead of the self-destructive feeding of my insecurities and inner toddler. I needed accountability.
I decided to spend a week making an effort to eat properly. To eat within a certain caloric limit. To track the nutrients I was taking in. To try to figure out what I always think other people know simply by instinct – how to eat a balanced, healthy diet. In other words: to eat as I’m probably supposed to.
It is an idea that – given my history of diets and battles – scares the hell out of me. I worry about keeping perspective: can I remember that the point of this is health, and not necessarily weight loss? When I say that, am I fooling myself and does my inner dieter secretly hope I’ll lose huge amounts of weight in record time? Can I manage my expectations about results? Maintain a positive attitude about making changes for me, as opposed to having limits put on me?
Well, yes and no. To everything. I spent the week meticulously tracking my calories using the free My Plate tool on the Livestrong website. (I reviewed a few of them and liked that this one allowed me to track sugar, which is an important element for me to keep under control as I have insulin resistance.) The act of counting the calories turned out to be the easy part. In fact, watching what I ate wasn’t as hard as I thought. In some ways, it felt almost like a relief, as though I'd been waiting all this time for someone to come along and take control of the situation and make me behave like a sensible person. I just didn't realize that someone was supposed to be me.
I quickly found, to my great delight, that a lot has changed since my early dieting days. I don't have the shame and guilt and pressure clouding my perspective, foiling my attempts. It turns out, I have a genuine desire to eat well, and taking responsibility for what I put in my gullet provides me with a sense of control in the face of a situation – my metabolism – where I don’t really have any.
The hard part was keeping the crazy part of my brain in check. It was an exhausting process to continuously check in with myself, to make sure that I wasn’t obsessing or starving myself or beating myself up for not eating enough, to make sure I was bearing in mind that this is a process and I’ll figure things out and there would be successes and failures and give and take and balance and I AM NOT A BAD PERSON EVEN IF I’M WONDERING WHY I DID THIS FOR 7 DAYS AND I’M STILL NOT THIN!
If I can get my mind to shut the hell up for about two minutes, what I realize is this: I feel really good about this change. I’m proud of my commitment to it. I’m proud that I had a day when I broke the bank, but that I didn’t wig out about it. (Okay, I didn't wig out about it too much.) I’m proud that I’m giving myself room to figure out what a balanced diet is gonna look like for me and accepting that I’m going to misstep. I like feeling as though what’s really driving me is a desire to feel better, and not so much a pant size. And I like that I have to forgive the fact that obsession with the latter is sort of ingrained in me too. That’s not going to go away overnight.
So I did it. Tracked it all for seven days -- every bite, every swill of a drink. It was, I think, a bona fide success story -- which, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to being the most interesting blog entry. But it’s been more than a week now, and I’m still tracking. Still being mindful. Still thinking in terms of balance and consequence. And if the goal of this whole thing is to explore the positive effect of at least trying to change, then – regardless of how long I keep this up – BOOM, BABY! Mission accomplished.