It’s time for me to talk about food. Why? Because I’m hungry! And if I’m not hungry at the moment, I will be soon. It’ll happen to you too. It’s the inescapable yoke of our metabolic system.
Not that there’s much we can do about it, but the fact that we have to consume food so many times a day, every day, for the entirety of our lives has always annoyed me. It’s this activity that will not go away! It requires constant planning, constant shopping, and constant cooking, not to mention the piles of dishes. I love food, don’t get me wrong, I just dislike feeling obligated to eat. For a long time, I let that annoyance steer me straight towards a diet of convenience. Having a work schedule that would not relent didn’t help the cause either. After a 12 hour day, I just didn’t feel like coming home and spending an hour or more preparing a meal for one that would take 10 minutes to eat and mean another 20 minutes of dishwashing. Quick fixes for that nagging hunger problem became the norm.
I didn’t eat horribly. But I didn’t eat well. I tried to lean towards the smarter choices – side salads over fries, chicken and fish over burgers and pizza, etc., but I let the options immediately around me dictate my dietary choices. On-the-go breakfasts, if I ate breakfast at all. Sandwiches. So. Many. Sandwiches. Quick , easy dinners like white-flour pasta with bottled sauce or packaged pesto with frozen peas. The myriad uses of a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken. For years, I joked that the men at the prepared foods counter at the supermarket kept me alive. It actually wasn’t funny though.
In an effort to boost my pathetic culinary skills and save some dollars, I did occasionally try to cook more. I decided if I had no time during the week then I would devote my Sunday afternoons to preparing a few dishes. I started simple, looking up some recipes for basic dishes of comfort foods that I enjoyed – things like tuna broccoli casserole, chicken cutlets, baked ziti, and roasted cauliflower. What I made was pretty tasty actually and I gave myself a pat on the back for not having burned down my apartment. But I was so focused on whether I could make it that I wasn’t considering whether I should.
I knew almost nothing about nutrition and I wasn’t evaluating my choices so I didn’t realize I was choosing pretty calorie dense recipes. Eating heavy meals doesn’t necessarily pose a problem if eaten in moderation, but if you’re one person and you cook a recipe that feeds 4-6, guess what? You’re eating it for dinner all week and often for lunch too. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that perhaps eating cheesy, starchy baked ziti 6 times a week wasn’t the best idea.
At 28 and nearing the heaviest I have ever been, I realized it was only going to go downhill unless I took back some control. I decided that when I turned 30 I wanted to be in the best shape of my life. Sure, thinness was appealing, but it really was about my health. I wanted to feel stronger and more confident. But the world of nutrition is complicated, diet crazes change like tween fashion trends, and I was up against limited free time and waning energy. Where to begin?
The key was to start small. I lacked all but basic culinary skills and if I was going to try to make sweeping changes to my lifestyle, diet, and routine I knew I wouldn’t stick with it. If this was going to work, I was going to have to take baby steps. So I started with the whites.
Out went all white flour and all white sugar. I researched the refining process a little and learned that during processing these foods are bombarded with chemicals and stripped of all their nutrients and fiber, leaving only the simple sugars that cause your blood sugar to spike and your metabolism to behave erratically. Forgoing all sugar and wheat (this was before the gluten-free craze really took off), was SO not going to happen for me. I’ve always had a sweet tooth and when I tried the Atkins diet once for a few weeks omitting bread was painful. My birthday was two weeks after I started it and when I decided to cheat and let myself have a bite of bread with olive oil at the restaurant where we were celebrating I nearly climaxed at the table like Meg Ryan. So long Dr. Atkins. Carbs and I were friends for life.
But I was noticing more options in the aisles at the market. So I bought whole-wheat pasta, switched to raw sugar, and chose multi-grain bread. I didn’t mind the new tastes and told myself that if I wanted to eat these things, these were the new rules. Now I still don’t quite understand the science behind this, but somehow substituting those nutrient-lacking refined foods with their unrefined counterparts jump-started my weight loss. I didn’t change anything else at all, diet or exercise-wise, and the number on the scale was going down and I was starting to feel better. It was the first time I clearly saw the potential for my choices to positively affect how I felt. It was empowering to witness the effects of conscious decisions I made and it boosted my confidence. Maybe I can actually do this, I thought. I was right.
I continued to slowly make small adjustments that would be sustainable while at the same time trying harder to make smarter choices when I did eat out, which I still do. I love dining out. Without a doubt, it poses certain obstacles when it comes to making dietary changes, but I became to understand that it wasn’t the restaurant or the act of dining out that was the problem. The problem had been that I was failing to see the larger context of my actions and failing to own my choices. Taking back some control over my options made every decision more intentional, and it’s harder to ignore your conscience when you’re the one holding the reins.
I traded my breakfast bars eaten on the train for yogurt, fresh berries and nuts that I would eat when I got to work. I went from 2 teaspoons of sugar and whole milk in my coffee to 1.5 tsp and 2% and then 1 tsp and 1% milk (I’ve since switched to unsweetened almond milk). Sunday afternoons remained my food-prep day of the week. I started to pre-make salads with protein like leftover chicken, a small can of tuna, or even a piece of cooked fish from the deli and pack them to take for lunch. I kept my own preferred salad dressing in the fridge at work. I made baggies of nuts, and dried fruit for mid-afternoon snacks. At night when my cravings for sugar kicked in, I ate a few pieces of dark chocolate. I made these changes one at a time and ramped up my pace only if I felt excited. These weren’t monumental changes that would upend my life, but definitely progress and I felt the difference. Making myself miserable wasn’t going to get me anywhere. It took years to get to this point, it was going to take some time to change course.
Managing my diet will always be an ongoing challenge. I still love sugar and bread. Personally, for me it’s not necessarily about depriving myself of the things I enjoy but rather fitting them into my overall diet in a healthy way. I believe in moderation, both with regards to the frequency of indulging, but also the pace of implementing change. I’ve plateaued at points, and even slipped back into old habits at times. When I do, I forgive myself and move on. Expecting perfection is unrealistic. Having patience with my own humanity seems more reasonable.
When setting out on the path to change your diet, it’s definitely tempting to aim for total overhaul. With shows like “The Biggest Loser” and stories of celebrities losing all their baby weight in weeks it almost seems normal to expect that you should lose 50 lbs in a month. But in my opinion, the road to this kind of success is best tackled in baby steps. We’ve all got deeply ingrained attitudes towards food and old habits are hard to break. It’s a pretty tall order to think that you can overhaul everything overnight.
The way I see it, going into it with expectations like that is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment and will only make sure that nothing changes at all. Giant leaps are great, but if you know you’re overreaching, ask yourself: “What’s more important? Aiming high or actually getting there?” I’m not arguing that ideals are bad, or that it’s harmful to keep your goal in mind. Just be realistic. There’s more progress within your grasp if you make some tolerable changes at a comfortable pace. Take smaller steps and before you know it you’re closer to your goal than you’d be if you keep leaping, falling, and starting all over again.