Food is an important part of a balanced diet.
~Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life, “Food for Thought and Vice Versa”
Count Chocula was my favorite cereal. I’d save the marshmallows for last.
Our cabinet was loaded with sugary cereal—Quisp, Honeycomb, Sugar Pebbles, Frosted Flakes. But Count Chocula was my favorite. The marshmallows soaked in the milk while I ate around them. Their mushy texture at the end was such a treat, washed down with the sugar-laden chocolatey milk. Great start to any child’s day!
You can do a lot for your diet by eliminating foods that have mascots.
Lunch was typically white bread with Jif peanut butter. Occasionally a hard boiled egg. And a Twinkie or Ho Ho. My drink of choice was Coca-Cola or root beer with milk. And cookies for dessert. Homemade or Double Stuff Oreos. Gasp!
A mid-afternoon snack was typically more cookies or a sleeve of Ritz or saltine crackers. Maybe a slice of good old American cheese. Meat and potatoes with overcooked vegetables or iceberg lettuce was typical dinner fare. And always a humongous bowl of ice cream drowning in Hershey’s chocolate sauce for dessert while the family sat down to watch The Love Boat.
In high school, I wasn’t really as hungry for breakfast, so I’d drink a Carnation Instant Breakfast. Our milk was raw, straight from the cow. I used to love the chocolate kids sold for charity so I’d buy a huge caramel filled chocolate bar and consider that lunch. Maybe I’d buy a chocolate milk. There were vending machines that sold soda so I’d be sure to get my fill of grape soda—one or two cans a day. I’d return home for some—you guessed it—cookies or crackers. And then back to the usual meat and potatoes and ice cream dessert.
I was “shy” growing up. But maybe I was just anxious and depressed.
I could not even begin to open my mouth to talk to a cute boy. I also found it hard to articulate in general, even if I was comfortable with someone. (Was I ever comfortable?) I had extreme dental problems that didn’t help my confidence.
Surprisingly, I was not fat. (Can you believe it?) I couldn’t get over a hundred pounds in high school and friends would ask me why I was so skinny. I was a late bloomer with a stick figure. That and the fact that I was mute meant the phone was not ringing off the hook with boys in hot pursuit. I had no concept of “exercise” or even being fat or thin. I tried to gain weight when I was a high school senior by eating McDonald’s for lunch. That didn’t work.
When I went away to college, food choices expanded greatly. The buffet in the dorm cafeteria was exciting to me—such variety and I could pick anything I wanted! I partied practically every night, attempting to keep up with my friends who were more used to drinking and typically weighed more than I. There was pizza delivery to the dorm! That was soooo cool. There was no pizza delivery in the small farm town where I came from. So Dominoes made its way to our dorm room at least once a week after a night of imbibing on cheap beer. Or we’d head to Spud & Sub at midnight, where they served baked potatoes drenched in butter and other fabulous toppings. I loved how the melted cheddar cheese would stretch as I shoveled each forkful into my mouth, finishing every last bite.
In general, mankind, since the improvement in cookery, eats twice as much as nature requires.
I had a boyfriend or two (not at the same time), acquired during parties where I was suddenly able to talk, thanks to beer. I would get wasted! And I continued to engage in late night—and overall very poor—eating. The fact that I gained weight (finally) really didn’t bother me. Even though it gathered at very odd places—my face and knees mostly. (I burned the photographic evidence from those years.) But I didn’t really care. I wasn’t conscious of extra weight being a “bad” thing. I also wasn’t familiar with the reason for exercise. Activity had always been a normal part of my life with gym class at school, riding bikes, general running around and swimming in the summer, shoveling manure on our little farm.
My best friend from high school did sit-ups sometimes while we talked on the phone. I didn’t really understand the purpose of it. In college, a group of us would meet in the dorm lobby occasionally to do a Jane Fonda workout and one of my friends emphasized the importance of squeezing the butt muscles when walking around campus. But, again, I really didn’t give it any thought. I was just happy I had finally put on a few pounds (more like 25 or 30).
I don’t recall why, but I decided to eat better—well, less—the summer after freshman year. Maybe I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I’d start out the day by eating a not necessarily healthy breakfast. Skip lunch. Then eat dinner. No ice cream!
Then I met a guy. At a bar. Yes, I was drunk.
We fell in love. My first real love ever. I had never even told a guy I loved him before this. We were inseparable all summer long. I continued to skip lunch. Maybe even breakfast. I wasn’t really hungry because I was, after all, in love. He thought I had a fantastic body—I did look damn hot in a bikini.
I just remembered that, after junior year of high school, a guy from my class came up to me at the beach and said, “Wow! I didn’t know that was you. And that you had such a great body!” I had spent most of my high school years wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down jeans so my body was hidden. This is turning into a therapy session!
My confidence—something I never possessed—escalated. By day, I still had a hard time talking to this boyfriend. Come to think of it, we didn’t really talk much. We made out a lot.
And then summer ended and we had to say good-bye. Our colleges were six hours apart. It was heart-breaking.
I returned to school and fell into a deep, deep depression. I also returned to eating. Binge eating myself into a wallowing state. Specifically I remember enjoying my roommate’s Hamburger Helper (gag me!). Did I mention I continued to party every night?
My boyfriend surprised me with a visit and he acted, uh, less infatuated with me. He told me I wasn’t as cute without a tan. And noticed my weight gain. He actually used the word flabby. What a jerk, right?
You thought I was depressed before!
I stopped eating. I’d walk to my morning art class with a diet soda. Have a package of gum balls at lunch time (weird, I know). Sometimes I’d eat an apple. Dinner would consist of soup or popcorn. I lost weight. Lots and lots of weight.
I’d wake up hungry in the middle of the night and and snuck up to the apartment above us, where I they had Honeycomb (their pantry was outside their door at the top of our shared back stairway). I’d make my way all the way back downstairs with the box, fill a bowl and return the box. I was a stealth cereal snatcher and I’m guessing to this day they wonder where all their Honeycomb went. Couldn’t have been me—I was sooo skinny.
My best friend began to tell me I was getting to thin. She was worried about me. I’d laugh it off, telling her I’d always been skinny.
My boyfriend returned for a visit. This time he was mad at me. “You better not have anorexia. My last girlfriend had that,” he said in so many words. I denied having any problem and he continued to act less than loving. In fact, I think he left earlier than he was supposed to when I was still sleeping.
At one point, I decided to eat again (donuts and other crap). And exercise so the weight would go back on in the “right places.”
After gaining some weight, I finally hopped on the scale. Ninety pounds.
After gaining some weight, I finally hopped on the scale. Ninety pounds. Keep in mind, I had gained weight. Not only that, but I’m five foot six and a half. In the meantime, my long-distance relationship with that nice boyfriend was deteriorating.
I wasn’t returning back to “normal” weight-wise or otherwise.
One night, after an exceptionally filling dinner, my roommate and I were kidding around about how full we were. Oh, how sick we felt. It was worse than Thanksgiving. Then she let me in on her secret. Throwing it up was her answer. She’d been doing that since junior high. And off she went to purge, laughing about it afterward. She suggested I try it. “It’s easy.”
There’s nothing I hate more—to this day—than throwing up. I hardly ever got the stomach flu. Yes, I had thrown up after drinking too much beer and eating far too many hot dogs freshman year in college at a party, hugging the toilet in the frat house bathroom swearing off hot dogs for the rest of my life.
But I did it. I purged. Because in the back—make that the very forefront—of my mind was the fact that my boyfriend didn’t love me as much because I had gained weight.
And thus began my journey with bulimia.
I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say, I’m pretty sure I could have died. I had hallucinations. My ears rang. Food was my enemy.
It lasted for three years.
I knew it had to stop. I devoured articles and books about health and food and fitness.
One time, someone noticed me binging on food and said, “I think you might be a fat woman trying to get out of your skinny body.” I may not have been super skinny when she made that comment since purging doesn’t rid your body of every single ounce of calories you’ve inhaled.
The truth was probably more like: I was trying to physically fill a painful hole in my soul.
And a need that never got met because what I really needed was proper nutrition. That was probably the case all along going back to the days when I thought sugar was a staple. What goes into the body has an effect on how you feel. It’s not just calories as fuel, it’s vitamins and minerals (duh!). Early on, the high levels of sugar was a form of self-medication. It fed my depression and I’d enjoy a temporary high only to crash in a spiral that could only be thwarted by more sugar.
I remember as a young child, climbing on the counter when nobody was around and sneaking a spoonful of sugar from the cabinet. Also vanilla extract. Later, I snuck Popsicles and ice cream bars when I was supposed to be in bed. And, like many children I’m guessing, I’d take sugar packets from restaurants and eat them on the way home in the back of the station wagon. That might explain a lot of my cavities.
I can’t explain how I did it without some serious therapy, but I quit. It was a gradual process with the occasional set-back. While I hadn’t completely figured out the right combination of nutrition and exercise yet, my bulimic period came to an end when I was on my own, living in Chicago in my 20s.
My bread transitioned to mostly wheat—but I was’nt yet aware of the importance of whole grain. More salads made their way into my meals. Bran muffins I decided were good for me (compared to breakfasts of my past, they were a definite improvement). I drank a lot of coffee and still imbibed in alcohol socially. I decided in my late 20s/early 30s that no fat was a good idea which, of course, it wasn’t. No protein whatsoever with lunch I could later attribute to my fatigue. And binging on Hershey’s chocolate and Bit-o-Honey and/or ice cream during the peak of my PMS cycles was not unheard of.
In my mid-30s I had the opportunity to work with the sports nutrition company EAS and learned the philosophy of its founder Bill Philips who also wrote the New York best-seller “Body for Life.” That was a turning point for me. I learned to eat more frequent “meals” which was supposed to consist of an equal combo of protein and carbs (he recommended a fist size portion of each, six times a day) with one day each week of eating whatever the hell you want in any quantity. The change in my eating habits alone resulted in a higher and more stable energy level that lasted throughout the day. I felt better than I had ever remembered feeling.
I adopted a form of Bill’s exercise program which I use to this day (outlined at the end), which includes a combination of strength-training and cardio. I learned proper form from the EAS physical trainers who also trained some of the Denver Broncos. On the downside, I took the EAS creatine—a powdery, synthetic version of a substance created in the liver and kidneys which increases muscle mass—and my muscles transformed into high def. The stuff was free and, fortunately, I only ingested it and some of the other processed and probably very unnatural supplements for about a year. Hey—I was still learning (and still am)!
While my depression/anxiety overall had improved tremendously, I still suffered from PMS. It was getting worse (my husband refers to me as the tarantula) with age. The fact my body had been pumped full of hormones for six consecutive rounds of in vitro fertilization during my early 30s probably threw my hormonal balance off-kilter. Someone recommended the book Prescription for Nutritional Healing—an A to Z reference to drug-free remedies using vitamins, minerals, herbs and food supplements. Who knew I was supposed to be eating whole grain foods?
Fast forward to today. I just turned 49 and am basically a health nut (some might argue that being such a health nut is its own form of eating disorder). I look healthy, not emaciated, hovering between 115 and 120 pounds. I eat and I eat well. I have a nutrition packed smoothie every morning, eat loads of nuts and whole grains, tons of fruits and vegetables, fish, free-range chicken, cage free/free range eggs… and most everything is organic. I eat all meals—breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, another snack before bed. It’s rare for me to eat red meat and I keep sugar to a minimum (although I must have ice cream, it’s only once a week). I would eat more sugar, believe me, if it made me feel spectacular and/or did not cause wrinkles.
I feel great. Sure, I still suffer a bit from depression and anxiety. But it’s not as extreme or frequent. Though whenever I eat crap or drink more than one glass of wine, I feel completely off the next day.
I should mention that I’m on a small dose of medication to reduce depression and anxiety, although I’ve tried really really hard to be medicine free. Believe me. I’ve been on and off the stuff over the last few years and blown loads of money I don’t have trying to find the right combination of holistic remedies. If I didn’t eat right, my meds dosage would have to be increased. The good news is, I’m not numbed by the medicine—I feel icky when something bad happens like anyone else. But I digress.
And while I limit the junk in my house—absolutely no Count Chocula—I love food. It’s my friend, but not an obsession. I allow my 12 1/2 year old son to purchase junk food with his own money and am teaching him that food is fuel. I’ll admit, I lecture him on all the bad chemicals and other nonsense that’s in the junk food any chance I get.
My relationship to food continues to evolve—I’m ashamed to admit that processed foods like the oh-so-convenient chicken nuggets and Trader Joe’s microwaveable burritos occasionally end up in my shopping cart and follow me home. What can I say?
There’s a lot of peer pressure to eat junk—when I turn down that brownie, I get a look and a “You can afford it!” Not to worry. I get my pint of Ben & Jerry’s every weekend—sometimes a Culver’s (gasp!) large concrete mixer with Oreos—and you can bet I eat cheese and douse things (not my ice cream) with olive oil.
Limiting the crap might make me “weird” to some, but it makes me a happier person. Please just accept that.
Oh yeah. Here’s what an average workout week looks like for me:
Sunday—run four to five miles
Monday—strength training for legs plus abs
Tuesday—brisk walk for one hour
Thursday—run three miles with interval training (five minute warm-up, switch off running fast one minute then slow one minute, five minute cool down)
Saturday—Pilates with strength training for arms
Originally published on elephantjournal.com.