In case you don’t know me well or haven’t noticed that I find joy in writing (for free) about eating, I should tell you that a large portion of my brain devotes itself to thinking about food. As an overweight and unhealthy child I saw this as a huge disability. I felt like an obsessed food addict and had an almost constant guilt-ridden internal dialogue with myself where I regretted my food choices and thought that “if I just had enough will-power to stop caring about food, I could be healthy and thin!” Since then I have experienced many life-changing breakthroughs in my relationship with food and I now view the mental energy I am able to devote to eating as a huge advantage for my health and well-being. What follows is a brief summary of how I got to my happy place.
In the introduction to this post I noted the sad physical state of my youth. I was a normal weight baby, toddler, and primary-schooler, but somewhere around 3rd grade I started to become very chubby and then eventually clinically overweight. My younger brother was consistently thin (as he is to this day), so clearly our home food environment was not the only thing to blame for my weight problem, but our eating habits were far from ideal. Despite both of my parents being quite intelligent, educated, and even concerned with healthy eating, their busy work schedules and limited incomes got the best of them, and our house was full of processed convenience foods. Home-cooked family meals were pretty infrequent, but trips to Taco Bell or meals consisting of microwave pizzas and Top Ramen were plentiful. Just to give you a reference point to illustrate how accustomed to processed foods my palette was, I should share that I truly enjoyed a multitude of items from my school’s cafeteria. Scary! When I brought my own lunch (which was fairly rare) it included items like fruit snacks (more snack than fruit), bags of chips and Squeeze-Its (remember those brightly-dyed concoctions in the flexible plastic bottle? Oh BPA, how useful you are at turning food containers into toys!) Besides being overweight (as in I weighed more as a 9 year old than I do as an adult) I had a multitude of health problems. My asthma and foot pain got me excused from P.E., my frequent ear and sinus infections caused me to miss many days of school a year, and eventually my digestive system responded to every meal with nausea (which I treated by chugging soda afterward). But despite all of these red flags that something was wrong, I and my family, like SO MANY OTHERS, did not think my diet could really be to blame. After all, my way of eating was endorsed constantly on television. We bought the things that we were told were “a great value” and ate the way we saw others eat. It took a counter-culture to help me see that there was a completely different way to look at food.
Around the time I entered high school I was determined not to go on as a fat kid. I had endured my share of teasing for my body size and decided I had to do something. I started exercising a lot (good choice) and experimenting with diet pills and crash diets (bad choice). But I did lose weight, and started high school a much more acceptable size to my peers, but good health (and certainly a positive relationship with food) still eluded me. Just after my 16th birthday I met a friend (who sadly is no longer in my life but to whom I am forever indebted) who was a vegan. By now this term is probably more than familiar to all of you, but at the time it seemed like no one knew what it meant. Vegans are a strict sect of vegetarians who abstain from all animal products including meat, dairy, eggs and all of their derivatives. My friend’s lifestyle choice intrigued me, and during a discussion of the challenges and merits of veganism, a wager was formed. My friend bet with me that I could not go one month on a vegan diet. I accepted, and my life was forever changed for the better.
Me as a Vegan
I had no idea how to eat vegan. I knew what I couldn’t have, but had no idea what TO eat. Just to be sure I had my last fix, I ordered the two-cheeseburger meal from Mc Donald’s the day before the bet began (supersized, of course) and ate every last bite of burgers, fries and soda. Little did I know I was on a path to never again set food inside those golden arches… The next day I cooked a pot of rice and steamed a bag of frozen vegetables. I ate them with soy sauce for every meal. I was hungry the entire day. I used the bathroom about 10 times. I wasn’t having fun.
On day two I called my friend for reinforcements. She accompanied me to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, a bastion of vegan delicacies in the pre-Whole Foods era. I then discovered things like tofu, veggie burgers, and veganaise. As I found out how to incorporate more protein into my diet my meals became much more filling and didn’t just go right through me anymore. My month-long vegan challenge continued smoothly from that point forward.
Once You Go Vegan…
So before I knew it, the month drew to a close. My friend, while impressed with my success as a vegan, no doubt expected me to run to the nearest fast food joint as soon as the wager ended. I expected the same for myself throughout most of the process. But on the last day of the bet, I began reflecting. I thought about how my stomach felt after each meal now: no nausea, no need for soda. I thought about my sleeping habits: much more restful, no bad dreams. I thought about my mood and energy level during the past month: positive, balanced, motivated, comfortable… I hadn’t had a single episode of asthma. I felt… well, really good, for the first time in memory. It seemed that veganism agreed with me. So I decided the benefits outweighed the challenges and I that would henceforth live a vegan lifestyle.
My Current Eating Philosophy
Now as lovely of an ending to my story as this point would be, the truth is that I am not a vegan today. But despite what you might imagine, I have NOT given up or given in, in any way, shape, or form. I have just continued to learn about nutrition and the human relationship with food and have made small adjustments over the years to maximize my health, physically and otherwise. I truly believe that every individual who wants to live up to their physical potential needs to find what works for them, and for many people life-long veganism just works. Personally I found that as I took on new challenges (like becoming a distance runner) I needed to add more options for convenient but minimally-processed foods. I currently eat a plant-based diet (lots of fruits, veggies, grains and fungi) that also includes cheese and yogurt (full fat organic from Strauss creamery in Marshall, CA; read my fat post if you want to know why) and eggs (from Glaum ranch in Aptos, CA–best eggs ever!). I don’t eat meat, but do support the consumption of organic humane meat from known sources*. I don’t touch products with hydrogenated oils or scientific sweeteners. I cook a lot and I KNOW WHERE MY FOOD COMES FROM. This is probably the most important part of why my current diet works so well for me. When I was vegan, I ate my fair share of processed soy foods. Frankly, although vegan, these had many ingredients and processes I couldn’t pronounce, and didn’t produce the best results for my body. I now use my food-focused mind to it’s useful potential by reading about food and planning and executing healthy meals for my family. I still drink organic soy milk; I just haven’t gotten my taste for cow milk back. At various times I have added fish into my diet, but recent EPA reports on mercury levels have lead me to remove them once again.
So essentially I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian who believes in whole, local food. I also believe that the way to make healthy eating a lifestyle and not just a phase is to make it enjoyable. As a great professor of mine once said, “If it ain’t fun, it doesn’t get done!” So when I cook, I fry things from time to time, and I use butter, salt, and sugar when called for. I also eat lots of raw produce each day, but I get the best tasting fruits and veggies around and prepare them with care. When I eat out I look for organic meals and local, sustainable ingredients. I LOVE food and I expect it to always be delicious. I nourish my body well which gives me the energy to love exercising. I am thankful to say that (excluding pregnancies) I’ve maintained a consistent healthy weight for many many years without ever feeling like it was hard or took a lot of will power. That’s my happy place, and I am staying in it!