Monday, July 16, 2012

Food For Thought

[This is another "open book" post, talking honestly about processing the ups and downs of life.]

These days, I don't have much time to think about or ponder challenges I've faced in the past.  However, every once in a while, experiences through which I walked, long ago, make their way into my present existence.

Many of you who know me are aware of my consistent desire to prepare and eat healthy food.  Yes, the positive influences of my mother and grandmother have definitely contributed to this.

Yet the reason why my compass points towards the right way of eating is rather more complex than "cooking just like my Mom".

I was born seven weeks early, and was smaller than average as a child. I remember distinctly the embarrassment of being asked if my brother [who was nearly two years younger than me] and I were twins.  No one ever guessed my age correctly [and they still don't!]  I've always looked younger.  I don't think I ever considered my eating habits until I was eighteen.  At that point, I returned from a year away from home about thirty pounds heavier than the year before, thanks to plenty of good cooking and a diet that contained much more fat and sugar than I had previously been accustomed to.

Upon my return to the land of the blond, super-thin, and tanned, I was pale; freckled; dark-haired; and chubby --at least in my mind.  It was humiliating.  I had never been very focused on my personal appearance, but was suddenly aghast at my complete physical failure to measure up to the standard of average. Back home again in southern Indiana, being white [as opposed to sun-bed orange --oops, I mean golden brown] was already eye-catching enough, never mind the Scottish meals that had mutated almost instantly into body fat, increasing my BMI to a much higher level than it had ever seen before.

I started reading labels on cereal boxes and tins, checking the ingredients of everything that went into my mouth. Sugar went onto the "bad food" list first, quickly followed by fat and anything with high carbohydrates.  Gradually, I was monitoring my food intake so carefully that the extra weight I had been carrying dropped off, and more. Fortunately, because I was so surrounded by family members, particularly a grandma who was very offended if I didn't eat everything she cooked, I was unable to restrict myself as much as I would have liked.  Anytime I consumed food from the bad food list, I skipped a meal or managed to eat as little as possible the next time eating was in order.

On a visit back to the UK, I was congratulated.  "Lost the college weight already? Well done!" and "You're looking very healthy!" I was pleased with myself, though secretly I knew that eating only a banana and one bite of a muffin for breakfast [while I crumpled the rest into a napkin] was not healthy. Or that munching through a scone with cream and jam, and then eating nothing for the remainder of the day was exactly how I'd lost all that weight.

Back at my parents', where I was living, I cooked big pots of vegetable-filled soups, completely fat-free, so I could control exactly what was going into the meals I was choosing to eat.  I told myself that this was "healthy eating".

When I contracted a sinus infection [sinusitis] my body was so run-down because of my lack of nutrition that after six weeks of illness, during which I continued to go to work, I broke out in hives as my immune system turned on itself.  My parents intervened and I ended up at the doctor's, having injections to control the hives and antibiotics to stop the sinus infection.

Without thinking it through to a great extent, I knew that I needed to start eating properly, and really focus on being healthy.  With plans in place to move to the UK for a year, I decided that once I was here, I would definitely start eating right.

I realised it was a case of changing the direction on my mental compass towards food.  Instead of the needle swinging towards "food is bad" because of weight gain or physical appearance, it needed to point to "food is nutrition".  I willed myself to stop worrying about how I looked, and instead focus on growing strong and healthy.

It was frightening to let go of my "bad food" list.  Gradually, more and more made it onto my "good food" list, until I was eating without fear.

And I did gain weight.  But I also walked several miles a day, out of necessity, and I began to feel strong and well.  One apple for breakfast was no longer feasible; I was practically fainting by lunchtime after all that walking.  I even learned to eat junk food again. The day I ate half a pack of biscuits, I fought the temptation to eat nothing for the rest of the day, and instead went home and ate a proper meal for tea.  I ate grease-laden curries in Pakistan and India, and enjoyed yummy English puddings with custard, much as I had before, during my first year in the UK.

But this time, as my mental compass towards food was rearranged, it was easier to maintain a balance.  I enjoyed treats like chocolate and pudding, but learned to listen to my instincts about feeling full.

By the time Dan and I were married, my attitude towards food had distinctly changed and many of the difficulties I had experienced with it quickly became a distant memory.

As a mother, I had a fresh motivation to keep my compass pointed towards healthy food, and that has been easy to maintain, especially when I see the effect that nutrient-poor food has on my kids.

During pregnancies, I've had to remind myself to realign my focus, as I've gained weight and my shape has changed.  However, whenever I'm thinking about my health and strength, and being able to breastfeed my babies, it is so much easier to maintain the right attitude to any changes that take place.

I'm sure that the initial poor approach I took to losing weight has influenced everything about the way I see food.  However, that influence has proved more positive than negative. I'm thankful that it ended up pushing me in the direction of educating myself about food and nutrition, because that has been long-lasting and beneficial to myself, my husband, and our kids.

A few weeks ago, on a rare shopping trip alone, I had a cup of coffee, and a small bag of almonds from Starbucks.  The only thing I felt any guilt about was the cost!  Food guilt over eating nuts [from the "bad food" list] = totally gone.

I never fully processed or understood my previous bad attitude towards food, even though during that time I was journaling every day. How about you?  Issues with eating, in our culture of more-than-enough, are so common.  Anyone have any honest insights or their own story to share?


  1. I have issues with food and my weight. Honestly, though, I never did until I hit about 23. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and didn't gain a thing all through high school and college. After college is when the weight started going on. I ate a lot of pasta and sugary foods - my grandmother made ethnic dishes from her German-Russian heritage and from my grandfather's Italian heritage. So our meals weren't big on veggies - but lots of carbs - bread, pasta, etc. And the baked goods - oh my. My mom was always baking as was my grandmother. And exercise? Forget about it. Give me a book or a pen and paper and let me do my thing!

    So after I had my daughter, botched birth control made me gain 50 pounds in a year. I had never had to lose weight before and really didn't know how to begin. A few years later, I dropped 30 pounds by radically changing the way I eat and getting into an exercise program. Then health issues interfered - I gained back 20 pounds, then lost it again, then regained it. After my hysterectomy in April, I finally went back to working out in the middle of June and was feeling great - and starting to lose weight. Then BAM. Complications from the surgery (I still have to go to the doc to see why I'm in pain) have curtailed my exercise again. And what do I do? I eat comfort foods. Not good.

    Losing weight is really, really hard. My body doesn't want to let it go for some reason. I think it's the PCOS I have (polycystic ovarian syndrome) which messes with your metabolism. And it's so frustrating. I really want to be a size 7 (U.S.) again. I made it down to a size 10 but am back in a size 12. I wish I could accept myself at this weight. My mom's side is all heavier - so genetics do play a role. But I don't want to look like this.

    What I need to do is focus on being HEALTHY and get this darn vanity out of the way. It's a constant struggle.

  2. I think what you said about focusing on being healthy is exactly the important thing, but definitely NOT the thing our image-conscious culture focuses on! We are conditioned to think we should be more worried about how we look --size, etc-- than about being genuinely healthy! It's scary. I'm really sorry to hear you've had such a hard time with your health; it sounds as if you've been through so much. I hope you start feeling better very soon... and that you find your footing with healthy eating. Thanks for commenting; it's not something many people like to talk about, and I appreciate and respect your openness about your own difficulties!


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