My Story, Part 2: Food
I don’t remember how old I was when I first started dieting, or why. I remember very clearly gaining weight in third grade and getting ridiculed for it by my classmates—and then leaning out again the following summer during a growth spurt. I remember the compliments I got for losing weight at age 10, and the triumphant feeling that produced. I felt glamorous. This may have sown the seeds for an obsession that would haunt me for years to come. I’m sure the overall ideals of thinness promoted in every magazine and mainstream motion picture also contributed.
Whatever the causes, I spent my teens and my twenties being terrorized by food: bingeing and starving to make up for it, then bingeing again in a horrific cycle. If it sounds like I’m describing an eating disorder, I am. I am a recovering compulsive eater and was part of Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step program, for a time. I truly believe that emotional eating is an addiction. Food makes us feel good, and once we’ve discovered the power of food to quell emotions such as anxiety and fear, the pull of using food to self-medicate is almost too powerful to resist.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I realized I had to stop the insanity. Starving myself wasn’t getting me anywhere except hungry and grouchy, stuck in an endless cycle of guilt and shame. I resolved never to skip a meal again if I could help it. Thus started a kinder, saner way of relating to food. From then on, I nurtured myself. If I was going on a day trip, I took lunch with me. At the airport, I gave myself permission to get lunch instead of challenging myself to go as long as I could without eating. This was around the same time I started practicing yoga, and I think the two are connected. From then on, I could rely on myself to take care of myself, like the mature parent taking care of the needy child. My inner two-year-old comes out when I’m hungry; now, instead of denying her food, I feed her.
Almost right away, I noticed myself making much healthier decisions about food. Instead of eating ridiculous things that weren’t good for me at all (like the Kraft macaroni & cheese that was my late-night study staple during college), it was easier for me to eat a sensible meal including some protein, some fat, some whole grains, and some vegetables if it hadn’t been a full 24 hours since I’d last eaten. I’d spent years beating myself up for craving candy for dinner, thinking my appetite was somehow “broken.” It wasn’t! All along, it had been my body trying to get the calories it needed.
Even after these changes, guilt and shame colored my relationship with food. I suppose it isn’t easy to escape a pattern that’s hard-wired into my psyche based on years of habits and emotional reactions! Even when eating three meals a day, at the end of a meal I almost always felt guilty for eating “too much.” I was terrified that the scale, and my clothing size, would slowly creep upward as I aged. So, I made up my mind to always eat just a little bit less than I needed and stop before I was full. But this habit never really took, and I often found myself ravenous between meals, counting the hours and the minutes until the next meal.
When I did my first 30-day fitness challenge (as a participant, before I became a coach), I was a little shocked when Bridget, the coach who was running the group, made the recommendation that we eat 5 to 6 times a day—hearty snacks and small meals, instead of three larger meals. I wondered if this recommendation was for endurance athletes, instead of someone working out 30 to 60 minutes a day, but I decided to give it a try.
I dropped 10 pounds almost immediately, even though I was gaining muscle as a result of the exercise and was, overall, eating more than I had been. (Shakeology might also have helped.) What was more remarkable was that my obsession with food lifted. I no longer thought about the next meal all day long. Most days, I plan my three meals and two snacks, and barely give it a second thought. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy food, and it still can be a loaded issue for me. When I have a chance to indulge and enjoy a special treat, it’s hard for me not to feel guilty. But I am hopeful that over time, this, too, will lift, as focus on releasing the guilt and shame and simply appreciating food for the pleasure and nourishment it provides. I am finally feeding my body enough, and it has responded by letting go of the extra supply it was hanging onto in case food was scarce!
All my challenges with food over the years give me the perspective to help people who suffer from similar issues. A health coach should not, and cannot, take the place of a 12-step group or a qualified therapist or treatment program when those things are needed. But I most certainly can contribute guidance and understanding for those who have a complicated relationship with food. As a health coach, I help people work toward letting go of the fear, the guilt, and the shame, and moving to a place of enjoying food for its power to nourish the body.
Too many of us live in a world where “bad” food tastes good and “good” food is bland, boring, and unsatisfying. I’m here to help you break down that dichotomy of good and bad, and free yourself from the tyranny of being drawn to “bad” foods and feeling as if you can’t resist them. I try not to think of any food as “good” or “bad.” There are some foods that are healthier and some that are less healthy; you could say this is just a rephrasing of the terms good and bad, but I think even this slight shift in language changes the way we think about food. Healthy and unhealthy are less simplistic and don’t have the same moral undertones.
As a health coach, I guide people in discovering a diet that is both healthy and delicious. There’s no reason food can’t be both—and if it isn’t, the diet won’t be sustainable. Food should be enjoyed. Don’t settle for anything less!
If you think you simply don’t like healthy food, don’t give up on yourself just yet. We like what’s familiar, and it’s true that when we make a change, even a healthy one, it might not feel great at first. If your body is used to handling lots of sugary and/or processed foods, it will have to recalibrate if you suddenly change your diet. You might not feel great in the first few days or even weeks, but I can almost guarantee that over the long term—weeks or months or years—you will notice changes in the way you feel. Your taste buds will start to adjust, and your body will get used to the new foods and even start to crave them. You will develop a feel for the foods that provide long-term benefit and not just short-term enjoyment.
I hate to say it, but those foods that provide only short-term enjoyment might even stop tasting good to you. Eventually, you may become so sensitive to certain foods’ effects that you can start to feel the sugar rush and crash as soon as you take a mouthful of candy, or the mental slowness from alcohol upon your first sip. This doesn’t mean you can never have these foods again. It’s just that you’ll have them sparingly, making a conscious choice with full awareness of the consequences. It was a bit sad for me when, for example, I stopped enjoying Kraft macaroni & cheese, but it’s also a blessing because that’s one craving I simply don’t get anymore!
So these are the lessons I’ve learned along the way, which I bring to my work with my clients. As of right now, I don’t follow a specific diet such as paleo or vegan. I gave up refined sugar and gluten upon the recommendation of a fertility specialist (more on that in the next post), but I’m not 100% strict about it—I had lots of desserts that were definitely not gluten-free or sugar-free on a recent vacation, for example. Mostly, I try to eat real, whole foods that are not heavily processed. I do enjoy tinkering with my diet to see how it affects me—for example, I’m pretty sure I’ll do Beachbody’s 3-Day Refresh and Ultimate Reset at some point—but I’ll always stay away from chemicals, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, etc. So, that’s what you can expect to read more about on this blog, and that’s what you can expect if you work with me as a coach.