“Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
After secreting the third 100 calorie pack into the bedroom and knocking it back like a shot of tequila I realized that I had a problem. It was 9pm and I was so hungry that I had gone into a frenzy pacing back and forth across the house. I was feeling guilty and bargaining with myself.
“Okay, so I’ll have one more pack of cookies and then go to bed and then get up early and run and run and run and then it won’t matter.”
It was pathetic really.
These frantic negotiations had been happening every night in August from the time I recovered from my first bout of illness at the beginning of the month until the time I came down with the flu at the end of the month. Since June I’d been on a 1500 calorie a day diet and was exercising five to six days a week. Sometimes I’d work out for 20 minutes and sometimes I’d log up to 90 minutes in the course of a day. On days I worked out harder I’d up my calories a bit to make sure I didn’t starve myself. Everything seemed to be okay until August.
In August I never felt full and I was weak all the time. There were several days where I let go and binged on ice cream or ate ridiculous things like bagels slathered in peanut butter and nutella. I had all sorts of “diet food” around the house too that I was eating like it was air. Skinny cow ice cream bars, 100 calorie packs in every variety, low fat cheese, and fat free jello pudding–all of which came in convenient single serve packaging.
I never had one serving though. I was constantly surrounded by tiny packages ripped open and emptied so that just the husks remained strewn about the living room and kitchen and bedroom. And I was using up all my calories on this crap while the spinach in the fridge was going bad.
When you are standing in the grocery store looking at the packages and reading the calorie content and all the other stuff thought up by the marketing team at Nabisco or whatever it’s easy to become seduced into buying. After being at work all day it’s hard to think too much about what you are really reading.
“Oh, look, this says it’s a healthy choice and it’s convenient!”
Picking up the box of 100 calorie packs feels so simple and easy. But it’s not. The box you hold in your hand represents the marketing strategies and cash flow figures of an entire corporation that has little to no interest in your health. They just want to sell you their snacks. So they tell you what you want to hear and you take home what’s basically junk food that’s fat free or low cal. Yes, junk food. There is nothing nutritious about Oreo thin crisps.
I’m guilty, very guilty, of letting these things seduce me again and again. Why? Because I’m tired. Work and day to day responsibilities have sapped all the energy out of me. By the time I’m standing in the grocery store aisle I just want to take the most convenient thing and go home and sit on the couch.
Is that really so wrong?
Yes, I think so.
Around the end of August my mother came down to visit. She rented a cabin at a ranch near my house. The place was all rolling hills and mountain scenery. What seemed like hundreds of animals, big and small, roamed around and did animal things. It was quiet and majestic. One of those places that makes you take in a deep breath (not to close to the barn) and let it out like it was the first breath you had every really taken. We rode horses and when we arrived back at the barn I didn’t want to dismount. I just wanted to hold onto the horse’s neck and breath in the air. The owner, a small woman with short cropped hair and sun-browned skin told me I should come back for the day ride where they served lunch in the woods with artisan bread and fresh goat cheese.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that bread and the ranch and the way it all made me feel so a week later I made some fresh bread. Making bread doesn’t really take that much work, there’s just a lot of waiting, and for me the process of kneading and mixing can be very relaxing. When I finally got to taste the homemade bread I felt so satisfied in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. The bread was delicious and hearty and healthy. A slice was around 200 calories, four times the calories of the sandwich bread I’d been eating, but one slice for breakfast made me feel full and contained lots of protein and other vitamins and minerals and absolutely no preservatives or chemicals.
I used to make homemade bread a lot, when I was addicted to Michael Pollan books, but I had become cynical or something and had fallen off the natural foods wagon. One loaf of bread made me want to jump back on.
Then I read Eat and Run, a running memoir written by a vegan ultramarathoner named Scott Jurek. I could identify with Jurek’s love of running and cooking. What touched me most though was his transformation from junk food junkie to health nut. In the book he stresses again and again the importance of eating a variety of plant foods for optimal health. Okay, so this isn’t news, but hearing it again was a great jolt of inspiration. I had an inkling that my August failure was due to poor eating habits but reading this book made me sure of it. I needed to simplify my diet and cut out all that processed crap.
It would take more of an effort every day to eat this way but it would be worth it. Picking and preparing food shouldn’t be the part of life we rush through or try to make more convenient. If I have to give up half an hour of TV or facebook to knead bread or cut vegetables then I should. We only have one body and life and we shouldn’t ignore it or neglect it. Our bodies and minds can do amazing things if we provide the right fuel.
So I’m on week three of homemade bread and I’m convinced I can never eat store bought loaves again. I make yeasted bread on Sunday when I’m off work and sometimes quick breads during the week. In addition to a few hearty slices of bread a day I’ve cut my diet down to fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, rice, and minimally processed dairy like milk and cottage cheese. I’m eating very little meat. I decided that if I really want a cookie I have to scrounge up all the ingredients and make it from scratch.
Eating this way takes more work, yes, it’s true. But I feel full for the first time in a while–really full–and I’m under my calories every day. I feel better overall and my body seems to be functioning more efficiently. I’ve regained some sort of primal connection with my food, making it from scratch, and this connection has led to a heightened appreciation. The best part is that eating this way is cheap. People often say they can’t afford to eat healthily but that’s not true. Everyone can afford to eat healthily. Sure “health foods” like 100 calorie packs and skinny cow ice cream bars are expensive but vegetables are some of the cheapest things in the grocery store and you can make four times the cookies with flour and sugar for the same amount of money you put into the store bought ones. And while the dollar menu at McDonald’s is tempting, consider the medical costs of diabetes.
Something else that I’ve learned is to reconsider what a meal can be. We have this idea that we must eat a certain way for it to count as a meal. But a meal can be cottage cheese, homemade bread, and a salad. A meal can be a baked sweet potato with sour cream. A meal can be a bowl of oatmeal with hemp seeds and fruit. We don’t need these ridiculous portions and big slabs of meat and elaborate meals. We need to simplify and appreciate food again. We need to mix flour and touch dough. We need to cut vegetables and taste them, really taste them, and enjoy what they are. We need to hold a piece of fruit in our hands and appreciate it’s natural sweetness and beauty.
We need to remember that food is life and treat it with the reverence that it deserves.
It’s an easy thing to forget, I know. I forget it often. But if I try, really try, maybe one day I’ll get there. Quitting junk food and releasing ourselves from the downward spiral of the western diet can be as difficult as kicking a drug habit. The best strategy is to take it a day at a time and if you fall down pick yourself back up and start over again until you can walk without falling and the next thing you know you’ll be running along like you’ve been doing it your whole life.