Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Food Whisperer

One thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that I will never be short for topics to write about as long as that little voice in my head never stops blabbering. I know you know what I’m talking about because we all have that little voice. I suppose it’s possible that other people experience it differently, but for me, that voice is mostly a scold. Every day she tells me that I’m not good enough. Not good enough for what, you ask? Whatever it is I just did, am doing or am planning to do, that’s what! No detail, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, escapes the purview of my inner shrew.

As you might guess, Little Miss Picky is quite a food critic. She is extremely opinionated also, at ease with passing judgment on every morsel to pass my lips. To make matters worse, she has a photographic memory and provides me with vivid images of the less than stellar food choices in my past. She seems to delight in reminding me of those many nights, too many to count, spent on the couch with a comforting bowl of macaroni, butter and cheese. Or the endless broken promises, the times I swore that I would eat just a few potato chips, only to realize later that I had eaten the whole bag in a salt-induced frenzy. Even when I’ve done well by any objective standard, eaten in a way that is low-fat and chock full of fresh fruits and vegetables, even then my inner nag won’t shut up. She points out that the piece of grilled chicken I ate today was a bit large, wasn’t it?  Was there a piece of skin left on it? You do know how much fat is in chicken skin, don’t you? It’s enough to drive a girl insane.

This is the main reason that I am skeptical about whether mindful eating could work for me. I’m afraid it might be playing right into Little Miss Picky’s hands. I can picture it, my new health-conscious self trying to get in touch with nascent cravings for leafy salads dressed with lemon vinaigrette, when the old finger-wagger butts in and says, “You really think you crave salad? Ha! That’ll be the day!” And then, after she finishes humiliating me, she turns on the charm, cooing softly in my ear, “Don’t feel bad honey. Just have a big square of that nice, gooey, cheesy lasagna.” Yes, she does seem a bit bi-polar at times.

Before I started losing weight, I thought the change was all about my body, but I’ve discovered it’s really been more about my head. Even though establishing new diet and exercise habits has been hard, it’s been a cinch compared to establishing new beliefs and attitudes about food. And so far, I haven’t silenced Little Miss Picky, I’ve just become more adept at ignoring her. I look forward to that day when she gets tired of being snubbed and decides to go torture someone else.

By the way, Little Miss Picky has a comment on this post. She says she can’t leave because she’s not really a voice in my head, but a part of me that I refuse to recognize. Oh boy, she’s pretty devious, isn’t she?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Fear of Flying

For most of my life, I was on automatic pilot when it came to eating. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think about food. The truth is, I thought about food all the time, but here’s the catch: I didn’t allow any of those thoughts into the space between the impulse to eat (call it the itch) and actual eating (call it the scratch). As soon as the vague notion of, say, cheddar cheese made itself known, I simply went right to the fridge and got myself a chunk. Or two. Or six. In the thirty seconds it took for me to accomplish that culinary dash, no brain cells were required to break a sweat.

The last five years have been the opposite of autopilot. I’ve found that I’ve needed to rethink just about everything having to do with food, every day, every meal, every minute. To be honest, it’s been exhausting and I often wonder whether this is something I can continue to sustain for the long term. The one thing that keeps me going, believe it or not, is my complete disdain for clothes shopping. It’s a habit developed, I suppose, from decades of being unable to find nice clothing in my size. Yet even now that I have many choices of outfits that fit and look good on me, I still find clothes shopping to be a chore. The thought of having to go out and buy a new and larger size wardrobe is a powerful incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.

It occurred to me recently that perhaps a large part of the stress of the last five years has been due to a belief that I should be able to develop a new kind of autopilot. In this healthier version of mindless eating, I train myself to eat sparingly and replace those cheddar cheese cravings with longings for broccoli. Peaches. Perfectly poached filets of salmon. For some reason I have this idea that eating should a natural impulse, something I should not have to think about. It should as simple as itch, scratch. I often wonder if other people who struggle with weight feel that way. Doesn’t it seem preposterous that such a simple act as eating should require so much forethought and planning?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about mindful eating. This concept seems to exist somewhere in the middle of the continuum between autopilot and the obsessive-compulsive dance I’ve been doing with food. As I understand it, mindful eating is about being more aware of the messages your body is sending and then acting on those messages. Such as eating when you feel hungry and not eating when you don’t. Being in tune with how some foods make you feel good and others make you sick, or jittery, or fatigued. It sounds like a good idea, but I don’t know that I have what it would take to pull it off. It seems that mindful eating would require the ability to relax and silence that infernal voice in my head, skills that are not among my strong points.

Well, I guess we each have our own path and our own struggle. For now, I just have to muddle through the transition as best I can, hoping that maybe someday I’ll be able to sit down and enjoy a meal without so much angst and premeditation.

Then again, maybe not.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Adventures of Diet Wonder Woman

Every time I talk about how difficult it is to maintain a large weight loss, someone inevitably tells me not to worry, that things will get easier. I suppose time will tell, but I’m not as optimistic as those around me seem to be. And why should I be? When I consider my genetics, a lifetime of bad habits and the general culture of food working against me, it’s a wonder I’ve been able to pull it off at all.

It is a tempting vision though. I imagine myself as a healthy eating super-hero, who knows intuitively the perfect food for my body at any given moment, and more importantly, who is immune to the allure of the gooey, cheesy, chocolaty devils that perpetually plague we women of a certain weight. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is. For just as every Superman must have his kryptonite, the substance against which he is powerless, so must every Diet Wonder Woman have her double-fudge brownie sundae. But no matter, I am no super-hero. I’m just a girl who used to be fat and who has somehow managed to fool Mother Nature for about five years now.

Here’s a question. If all of this did get easier, would my life be better? Would I be happier? Or would I just find something else to get all worked up about? I sometimes think that I’m not really obsessed with food, but rather, I’m obsessed with being obsessed with something. I may have replaced worrying about my ever increasing weight with worrying about why it is that I can’t go to a business seminar without being assaulted by copious amounts of bread and macaroni salad at lunch. What if I stopped expecting my eating life to be a cinch and adopted a more detached stance? As in, oh look, someone at work brought in brownies. Again. How interesting.

What if this is all about entitlement? I was reading Debby’s post the other day about counting as it relates to food intake and it struck me like a thunderbolt. You see, if I get to the end of the day and realize that I haven’t eaten everything I’m allowed to eat, I make sure I eat whatever is missing, whether I’m hungry or not. Because I can. Because I’m entitled to eat it. Because it’s not right if I get less than I’m allotted. It’s almost like I’m six again and raging because I think one of my little brothers got a bigger piece of cake. How dare they get a larger slice! It’s not fair I tell you! Not fair at all!

It all comes back to this, doesn’t it? On the outside, I may look like a competent adult who’s got her act together, yet that’s not quite a complete picture. It’s true that I hold down a responsible job. And I own a house, I vote, I pay my taxes and do all those other things that grown-ups are wont to do. But perhaps I’m still that little girl who is pissed because she suspects she might have gotten a raw deal. She just wanted her cake and size ten pants too. Is that too much to ask?

The main thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that nothing is what it seems. You think it’s just about learning how to eat better, how to take care of your body better, and suddenly you find your entire psyche up for grabs. Not easy. Not even close.

Hey, is there a super-hero in the house?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

All In

Why is it that, when it comes to eating a healthy diet, we are either all in or all out? And I include myself in that statement. It seems that there can be no middle ground in our quest for the right way to nourish ourselves. We believe that we must not only eat the foods that are optimal for human health, whether you define that as low-fat, low-carb, ancestral, or some other approach, but we must eat them 100% of the time, without fail. If one stray cookie, one spoonful of Rocky Road, one slurp of pasta crosses our lips, then all bets are off and all hell must break loose. We’ve failed. We were weak. It was inevitable. Everyone knows that diets don’t work in the long run, right? Might as well just have brownies slathered in bacon grease for the rest of the day.

This describes what goes on in my head a fair amount of the time. I am forever berating myself for some dietary slip. And I can really take it to a scary place when I get going. A serving of grilled chicken that is five ounces when my nutritionist says it should be three? Off to the gallows with her! So you can imagine how bad it gets inside my cranium if I eat a piece of cake at an office birthday party. Or have a potato and a slice of bread with dinner in a restaurant. It’s a regular horror show.

Sigh. So exhausting. Why do I do this? Surely it should be possible to eat a generally healthy diet most of the time with an occasional “bad” food thrown in. Surely eating one slice of pie at Thanksgiving should not have to mean that it’s all been for naught and now I should just quietly accept that I have to regain the hundred pounds that I lost. I say “surely” in a desperate attempt to convince myself, by the way. What makes this whole thing so terrifying for me is that each time I eat one of those “bad” foods, I see the effect on the scale immediately.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why so many people are unable to maintain a large weight loss. If you embark on a new healthy lifestyle, which will necessarily feel strange and somewhat foreign at first, and you think you have to do it perfectly, with nary a misstep, then what do you do when the first lapse occurs? If you’re trapped in the “all in, all out” mind frame, you might decide to give up. I’ll be honest here. There have been many times in the last five years when I’ve been tempted to give up. The little voice in my head says things like, “It’s too hard.” “You’re too busy to spend all this time fussing over food.” “Relax, it’s only a cookie.”

One of the reasons why I write this blog is to answer that ninny in my brain. Slap her up the side of the head even. Yes, it’s hard, but “too” hard? Yes, I’m busy, all the more reason to stay healthy. Yes, it’s only a cookie, but remember that one cookie often leads to another. That dialog is what saves me – even if it means that I have to spend a lot of time talking to myself. Another way to look at it could be that being “all in” doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, but that you keep going even when you screw up.

It’s so reassuring when I agree with myself.

Friday, September 14, 2012


It’s been a hectic week and I’ve been hard-pressed to find the time to blog. It seems that the pace always picks up quite a bit in September. Despite that heady sense of the return of busy-ness, this is a good time of year for me. It’s a kind of in-between time. The summer is over, so I can enjoy a reprieve from the press of potato and macaroni salad. And it’s still a few months to the national gorge-fest that takes place from late November through early January. There is that little blip at Halloween, but I’ve never been a big candy person, so I expect I’ll make it through that holiday just fine. This is a lovely season, perfect for long walks on cool and sunny afternoons, with few food temptations.

I’ve been noticing how much more relaxed I feel when there’s no major food event looming before me. That’s actually kind of funny. For most of my life, food was relaxation. I liked nothing better than to kick back with a big bowl of something gooey, all the upsets, the frustrations, the irritations of the day melting away along with the ice cream in my mouth. After all, who needs Valium when you’ve got Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia? You know. Chill, baby, chill. So to find myself dreading any situation that involves my former favorite foods, well, that’s a little weird.

How did food get so cozy with my notions of calm anyway? Even though it’s different now – food has become the antithesis of calm – it’s just two sides of the same coin. What I really want is to find a way of life that doesn’t focus so much on food, whether as salvation or damnation. Trading an obsession with eating for an obsession with not eating doesn’t seem like a particularly good trade.

But what other options do I have? For the time being, I need to be hyper-vigilant about my diet. I’m all too aware of the statistics about weight regain – heck, I’ve lived it – and I don’t want to undo all of my hard work because I feel a tad stressed out about eating sometimes. I keep telling myself that eventually it will get easier. I thought perhaps that would happen when I hit the one-year anniversary of reaching my goal weight. But it didn’t. Then I thought it might happen at the two-year mark. Nope. I’m approaching the five-year mark, but still I fret. What if I never get comfortable around food? Can I live a life of continual unease and still maintain this lower weight? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.

But for now I will enjoy this little autumn oasis between seasons of gastronomic indulgence. Just don’t offer me any cider donuts please.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

That Old-Time Religion

In a recent post, I talked about getting outside of the food culture. As I noted, the food culture is a sneaky little beast, hard to see or hear or smell. It’s like the air that surrounds us: we take it in without much thought. In fact, the only time we generally think about air is when it’s absent. Which I suppose explains much of the distress in my life these last few years!

It’s not easy to get yourself free of the food culture’s grasp, partly because of its invisibility, but also because it’s so ingrained in us. Our beliefs about food are not conscious choices, deliberately debated and chosen, but notions that have seeped into the deepest folds of our subconscious brain from the time we came into being. How many of us recall crying as a small child and being offered a cookie to make it all better? And before that, everything you learned pre-memory, being held and comforted by your mother as she fed you? Is it any wonder that food is so strongly connected to feelings of love and comfort and an unshakable sense that all is right with the world?

In many ways, the food culture is like a religion. Think about that for a minute. A religion asks you to have faith in a set of beliefs about how the world works. It explains what is right and what is wrong. It gives you rituals to celebrate and observe that which is sacred. Doesn’t this describe much of how we relate to food?

The beliefs of the American food religion include things like the Food Pyramid and its obsession with whole grains. That ice cream, cakes and pies are acceptable foods as long as they are eaten in moderation, perhaps as an occasional treat, without ever defining what is meant by “moderation” or “occasional.” That chocolate cannot be resisted. What is right? Why a “balanced diet,” whatever that means. And what is wrong? Being hungry. Or worse, being a food radical, as in someone who rejects mainstream foods, you know, those pesky “picky eaters.” The food religion even has a sacred trilogy, those Gods of Good Taste, whom I like to call The Three Little Pigs: fat, sugar and salt.

Giving up the food culture feels a lot like abandoning your religion. You feel excommunicated. Banished. A deserter. And also bereft, for what can replace the cavernous void left behind?

The last five years of my life have been an attempt to answer that question. I’ve had to create a new set of beliefs to live by, in other words, a new religion. I guess that explains why I seem like a convert, even a zealot, at times. My new creed doesn’t quite have the power that the old one did. Not yet at least. But, all things in good time.

It’s not all gloom and doom, by the way. My dinner plans for tonight include poached salmon, a salad, maybe a few asparagus spears, and fresh strawberries for dessert. By golly, I’m starting to feel a religious fervor already!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


There seem to be two camps in the world of food beliefs. One says a calorie is a calorie. The other says all calories are not created equal. I’ve been in the second camp for a while, for as God is my witness <holding clenched fist in the air>, one hundred calories of say, ziti, do not have the same effect on my hips as one hundred calories of say, spinach. I don’t have any science to back me up on this, but I do see the evidence that shows up on my scale. Yet, if I were to get into a heated discussion with a “calorie is a calorie” person tomorrow, I would not be able to convince them of my position even if I brought a two-foot stack of peer-reviewed clinical studies with me. When it comes to food, we believe what we believe and no one better try tell us otherwise.

Here’s another dichotomy. Some people eat to live while others live to eat. Again, I’m in the second camp on that one also. In fact, that’s much of what this whole weight maintenance journey has been about for me, trying in vain to become an “eat to live” person. As opposed to what I have been for most of my life, which is someone who reacted with extreme shock and dismay at the discovery that all of the ice cream was gone. It’s just so darn hard for me to see food as nothing more than fuel. Regarding food as simply nutrition seems a lot like living in a world that has been scrubbed of all color until all that’s left are muted shades of gray. Gray food is not appetizing at all. But then, now that I think of it, maybe that’s the point.

Another twosome: you do know that some people are cooks and others aren’t, don’t you? In other words, there are those who get goosebumps at the thought of buying a new paring knife. Just as there are those who’d rather all the messiness was kept behind the kitchen door, a perfectly delicious meal magically appearing before them. Actually, I am both of those people at different times. When I’m tired, at the end of a work day perhaps, I want my dinner and I don’t want to know about all that slicing and dicing nonsense. But sometimes, on a weekend or a day off, I can really get into cooking. I’m not a baker at heart and I don’t care much for elaborate recipes. What really excites me is when I have a bunch of leftovers that I find a way to make into a particularly tasty dish. That’s how my husband’s favorite chicken sausage and zucchini soup was born.

There’s another thing about cooking. When I cook, the experience of eating is better. It’s not merely the obvious, that when I prepare a dish, I can control what’s in it – think home-made stir-fry versus Chinese takeout. It’s something else, something intangible. I feel more connected to the food. The food is more satisfying. It’s not just something to be consumed, but something worth spending time with, something to celebrate. I don’t think there are too many calories in the celebration part of food.

Which brings me back to my original point that a calorie is not a calorie. And food is more than food. I’m a pretty logical person and the muddle of all this drives me crazy sometimes. But perhaps I protest too much. For while good nutrition is clearly necessary for survival, a meal savored, in all of its meaning and mystery and paradox, is crucial to any life worth living.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Attack of the Fat Monster

I often wonder how I have managed to maintain a hundred-pound weight loss when everything I know about weight says that I shouldn’t be able do it. Of course, I’d like to think that I’m some sort of exceptional person, but my life provides daily evidence to disabuse me of that silly notion. And don’t forget, I’ve lost weight many times before, only to regain it all (and then some), so what’s different this time? Well, I got lots of help this time. I didn’t assume that I knew best because the sad story of my life before this last weight loss proved that I didn’t know a damn thing about how to eat and exercise. I was extremely public this time also, so much so that I started reading personal essays on the radio about my struggles, even going so far as to announce my weight on the air! Were those things enough to make the difference? Certainly, they helped, but I think there may be another factor. This time I did something that I never was able to do before. This time, I got outside the food culture.

Getting outside the food culture is similar to seeing the forest for the trees. If you are just beating yourself up for not eating enough vegetables, you may feel like it’s all about you and your deficient willpower – that’s a tree. But if you get outside the food culture, you will see that many people don’t eat enough vegetables, in fact, you may observe some people who never seem to eat vegetables at all. Then you can begin to understand how your eating habits have been influenced by the environment around you – that’s the forest. It might seem like an obvious distinction, but believe me, when you’re in the middle of a fight to the death between your mouth and a brownie, it can be a life vest.

The food culture is a sneaky thing. At times it can seem like a fifty-foot monster, but I think that’s the way it wants to be seen. After all, if a huge beast threatens you, you can marshal all of your defenses for a head-on attack. What’s more dangerous is what you don’t see, don’t expect, don’t anticipate. To me, the food culture is more like an odorless vapor that seeps its way unnoticed into every crack and crevice. It’s the little voice that never stops cooing, “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.” It’s that persistent craving for cookie dough ice cream at midnight. It’s the soothing song playing over and over in your head, telling you that you deserve something greasy and gooey and m-m-good. If you’re not aware that this is the way the food culture speaks to you, you might think it’s your voice. And as hard as it is to maintain a large weight loss, it’s even harder to constantly argue with yourself. Maybe you can do battle with yourself for a few months, but eventually you begin to feel wounded, and that’s when the weight starts coming back.

Maintaining a large weight loss didn’t become easy just because I managed to get outside the food culture, but in my opinion that’s when it became possible. I feel a bit discombobulated, because now nothing is automatic – I have to think about everything. Is it any wonder that I feel unnatural and awkward and anti-social so much of the time? But it’s better now than it was five years ago, or even one year ago. Now, instead of seeing the food culture the way I used to see it, as just the way it is, I see it for what it really is, a fat-inducing fog that I’ve been getting lost in for most of my life.

But not anymore.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I got a lot of feedback on my last post, in which I discussed the darker side of losing weight. While I’m encouraged at the upbeat support offered by friends and family, I have to say that I already knew most of what they said. Yes, I have done a really good thing. It probably will get easier as time goes on. It’s true, I just need to hang in there and focus on the positive. Please understand that I didn’t intend to portray myself as wallowing in self-pity. The reason for talking about the hard part is simple: it’s reality.

When a person who’s lost a lot of weight is presented in the popular media, the emphasis is always on the happy stuff. How much better they must feel. How proud they must be of their big accomplishment. Life after weight loss is often portrayed as a perpetual party, an emotional high that never winds down.

Except that’s not the whole story. For all of the truly good things that come to those who lose, there are also many difficulties. I think it’s a lot like marriage – so many of us focus on the joy of the wedding and the hope for unending happily ever after. But then one day you realize that you’re stuck with this really annoying person, who hogs the blankets, leaves the toilet seat up, and watches the same World War II documentaries over and over and over again. That’s when marriage really starts, in my opinion, on the day when you no longer feel giddy at the sight of your beloved. And that’s when life after fat really starts too, on the day when you think you’ll go insane if you have to eat one more salad with grilled chicken. Or explain one more time to your cookie-crazed co-worker why you won’t be trying one of their famous chocolate chip creations, thank you very much.

So imagine you are an unsuspecting previously pudgy person, embarking on a new thin life, expecting all things bright and beautiful, and doncha know you start hitting post-fat speed bumps. What are you to think? You’ve been told that life after losing weight is a non-stop joyfest, yet you are feeling something distinctly other than joy. You might think that it has something to do with you, maybe you’re to blame, or you’re deficient in some way. Perhaps you’ll start to feel discouraged, wonder if you just aren’t up to the challenge of keeping the weight off. You’ve certainly heard how everyone regains the weight they lost eventually, so why not you too?

That’s why I talk about the dark side. Because it exists. Because pretending it doesn’t exist makes it even more powerful. And forewarned is forearmed. If you know there will be moments when you will wonder whether you were nuts to ever think you could do something this audacious, when you will fear that you just may not be up to the task, then perhaps that knowledge will be the tipping point that gives you the strength to weather the storm for one more day, one more minute, or one more cookie.

We formerly fat folk need all the help we can get. Platitudes need not apply.