Expect a food post later today (apparently it’s not really appropriate to upload pictures of my oatmeal onto my work computer…), but in the mean time, we need to have a talk that’s been a long time coming.
Sometime in the past two years, I’ve had a revelation, one that should seem obvious, but it took a long time to appear. After getting knee deep in what’s been an on-going weight-loss journey, reading countless articles and books on nutrition, training for and running 12 road races (including one half-marathon), working out with a personal trainer and countless different workout DVDs, I’ve learned a lot. I can go through any menu and find the healthiest option available (and tell you what requests to make to cut the calories even further). I can tell you which workouts are the most effective for weight-loss, and how to accommplish the biggest calorie burn in the shortest amount of time. I can take any luscious Food Network recipe and turn it into a low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat version of its former self. All of this knowledge I’ve acquired has been incredibly valuable, however it pales in comparison to my recent understanding of one key issue…
It’s not just about being thin.
I know. Shocker, right? Two years ago, I decided that I didn’t look good anymore. What had once been a slender and toned dancer’s body had curves in the wrong places that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t like it. I set an arbitrary goal for myself to weigh 115 lbs, a weight that I remembered weighing in high school (years and many cases of Natty Light ago…). I started working out more and went on the South Beach Diet. The weight started to come off very quickly, and I became addicted to it. So what if my hair wasn’t as shiny as it used to be, I started breaking out like a pre-teen, and I didn’t have enough energy to get through an hour long ballet class? At least my ass looked hot.
While most of the weight came off when I stopped drinking, my college self decided that wasn’t an option. I discovered that if I stopped eating fruit and grains in addition to all the fast food food and ice cream I had cut out, I could still drink all the rum and diet cokes and shots of tequila I wanted to and not gain weight. In order to survive my hectic schedule, I started drinking a lot more caffeine. I had always limitted my consumption to one cup of coffee in the morning, but that wasn’t enough. Coffee was hard to transport to class and the gym, so I typically stuffed two or three diet cokes into my backpack in addition to my laptop and books, and sipped them throughout the day. My typical meal plan looked like this:
- Breakfast: Black coffee with Splenda, egg whites, and Canadian bacon
- Morning Snack: Diet Coke or Sugar-Free Red Bull
- Lunch: South Beach Meal Replacement Bar and a Diet Coke
- Afternoon Snack: 15 almonds or a whey protein shake
- Dinner: Spinach with chicken breast and sugar-free dressing or a boxed Lean Cuisine Dinner
- Evening Snack: Lots of Diet Coke or coffee to get through rehearsals and homework on week nights… or copious amounts of diet soda with clear liquor on the weekends
Gross, right? And skipping a workout wasn’t an option, although I wasn’t lifting weights very often since I noticed that the more I lifted, the harder it was to get that number on the scale down. It was almost all cardio. I remember one morning, after I had pulled an all-nighter writing a paper and preparing for a presentation, feeling so tired I was almost sick. I needed a nap before class… but I ran five miles instead. On an empty stomache. All I ate was some manufactured protein bar before going to make my presentation and turn in my paper. I felt horrible, and almost passed out in the middle of class. I got home and before I crashed, I realized that I couldn’t live like this anymore.
Being skinny wasn’t worth it if I didn’t feel well. I was exhausted. My grades were still good and I guess I looked good, but I wasn’t enjoying my life like I used to. I was going to my classes and doing my homework, but I didn’t have the energy to enjoy dancing or the books I read. I was just getting through it all. I was passing up going out with friends because I couldn’t miss a workout and wasn’t sure if healthy food would be available where we went. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually enjoyed something I ate… did I even have favorite foods anymore?
I slept amazingly that night, and the next day, I started researching recipes. That’s when I came across some of the more popular food blogs, like Caitlin’s and Meghann’s. These girls looked great and were participating in strenuous athletic events, but were eating more than I was and weren’t restricting themselves like I had come to do. I started recreating some of their oatmeal combinations and researched healthy recipes. I started eating lots of fruit and whole grains again, and was amazed at how much more energy I had. While I previously had grown accustomed to ignoring my hunger, I began to listen to the signals my body was sending me and fed it when it needed food, and rested when it needed rest. I signed up for and completed a half marathon, and began truly loving my body again, not for what it looked like, but for what it could accomplish. I started lifting weights more, and liked that instead of looking waif-like, I looked strong and powerful. I learned to cook, and discovered I had a passion for it. I learned about the importance of seasonal, organic produce. I became inspired when I realized how my choices affect the environment and people all over the world, and I felt more connected to the world around me. This journey became about so much more than a number on a scale. These choices we make affect every aspect of our lives.
Food is primarily fuel. We need to eat the right types and amounts to function at the best of our ability. This means eating as nature, not technology or pop-culture, intends for us to. Our bodies were made to eat close to the source: in-season and organic fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and small amounts of animal proteins. Enough of this cutting out carbs and nuts (they’re GOOD fats, people!). We are MEANT to eat those things. Biologically, we can’t function without a wide array of different types of foods from each of these groups. Yes, eating too much of the wrong foods will make you overweight, but not eating enough of the right foods will have negative effects as well. There are people out there who can eat whatever they want and still stay thin, lucky bastards. But just because someone is thin, doesn’t mean she’s healthy. Eating the right types of food won’t just keep you in shape, they give you energy, improve digestion, keep you from getting sick, improve the appearance of your hair, skin, and nails, ensure proper mental capactiy, improve your sex life, and above all else, give you the ability to live and function to the best of your ability.
And it’s not just about what you eat, but other choices as well. We need to drink enough water, get enough sleep, and exercise. Just because you’re thin, doesn’t mean you don’t have to work out. Our bodies were meant to move, and we need to do so to stay healthy. Don’t smoke, and stay away from chemical-based cleaners if possible. You don’t just take in toxins from food, you know. Schedule regular doctors visits and pay attention to your body. Rest if you have to. Don’t try to push through illness. Try not to stress so much, and maintain your relationships with loved ones. Health isn’t just about food, it’s about every aspect of our lives.
I could go on and on about how these changes have enriched my life. I weigh more than I used to, but my clothes fit about the same and I look good. Sure, I wouldn’t mind losing about five pounds, but trust me, that’s a result of eating too many Girl Scout cookies, and not from eating oatmeal and bananas. But overall, I’m so much happier. I’ve learned to love food again, and I’m not ashamed of it. I get equally excited for mushrooms as I do for chocolate cake. I don’t regret the occasionally glass of wine, and neither should you. I won’t pretend that I don’t sometimes feel guilty when I over-indulge. Wrestling with guilt is still a struggle for me, as it is for most people. I didn’t get over disordered eating overnight, and I’m still learning to embrace my cravings and discover healthy ways to satiate them- and if that doesn’t work, I’m allowed to give in every once and a while. Good food that’s well-made is art and created with love. Indulging in Butternut Squash Bread Pudding and Oysters Rockefeller are just part of life’s many exciting experiences. Take advantage of good things in moderation, just like you would a trip to an exotic destination. You can’t do it all the time (or at least, we mere mortals can’t), but on occasion these indulgences will enrich and fulfill your life.
If you got through that whole post, I commend you. Thank you for listening. I could go on and on about the way our society perpetuates disordered eating tendencies, but I’ll save that for another day. If you take nothing else from this post of me, pouring my guts out over the page (er… computer screen), remember this:
Do what you must do and eat what you must eat to live your life to the fullest and be your happiest.
If you do that, you will eat the right amount of healthy and indulgent foods to give you health and vitality, but also fill your life with excitement and love.