Archive for November, 2012

Last year at Thanksgiving, I had only been eating and living differently for four months, which meant there was no wiggle room. It was all still too new, and I was still too much in the process of learning a new way of being to have an off day or a non-sanctioned treat.

My trainer would argue that I still cannot have off days or non-sanctioned treats, and it would be a sound and valid argument. I did not believe her for a long time; I thought the idea that I could never relax my very stringent dietary standards was unreasonably strict. So I tested the idea of having the occasional treat, and I then I tested it again. And it turned out I could have an occasional non-program treat. I could drink a glass of wine or eat a biscuit or a bite of cheese or even – gasp – a piece of cake and the world would not end. But what I also learned was that I would not lose weight. I did lots of trial and error to figure this out, and as I have previously noted, I have a multi-month-long weight-loss plateau to show for my efforts.

But all that still being said and known, I decided I would cut myself a little slack this year, make a few concessions to the idea of being normal like everyone else. So I had a dessert at Thanksgiving, and I had some fried chicken (because my family can’t just have one big meal in a week – ho no). And I did not lose any weight this week. But I also did not gain any. This is because there was still much I did not eat.

Beyond the infinitude of desserts I denied, I did not eat mashed potatoes, jello salads, cranberry casseroles, vegetable casseroles primarily featuring cheese, dips, chips, rolls, gravy, honey-baked ham, bacon, pancakes, or any of the random candy scattered about.

Something else I didn't eat: These hush puppies are essentially deep-fried cornmeal and buttermilk - because that's a good idea.

Something else I didn’t eat: These hush puppies are essentially deep-fried cornmeal and buttermilk – because that’s a good idea.

Also I made, and ate, healthier versions of two of my favorite dishes. Because there is always the issue of Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey is fine and good, but after it, the list of healthy options is noticeably short. So last year, when there was no wiggle room, my mom and fiance helped me create healthy versions of my favorite dishes: namely, the yams. The yams have always been my very favorite Thanksgiving dish. My mom makes them with brown sugar and apricots in a deep, oven-safe bowl and then covers the top with marshmallows perfectly browned to be both crispy and gooey. I could just eat a big plate of them and be happy. Until I couldn’t anymore. My lovely fiance had already developed a yams-alternative for me at home, which my mom made especially for me on Thanksgiving. It’s yams, cooked and mashed, then blended with nonfat, plain Greek yogurt, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and some pieces of fig, and then baked together. And that’s it. Obviously, it tastes very different from the traditional yams recipe, but since I was no longer used to tasting sugar, it also tasted very good to me.

My mom made it for me again this year. I think I was the only one who ate it at Thanksgiving dinner, but I ate two servings of it, and I continued to eat it for the next two days. Because food can be good for you and still be delicious; it can still be a treat.

My pretty healthy Thanksgiving meal - heavy on the vegetables (yams and green beans), medium on the turkey, and light on the homemade stuffing.

My pretty healthy Thanksgiving meal – heavy on the vegetables (yams and green beans), medium on the turkey, and light on the homemade stuffing.


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During our cross-country drive, spring break of junior year of college, my best friend Abby and I came up with an expression we were quite partial to: “Gas station crap. It’s what’s for breakfast.”

It was an apt saying because, every morning of our week-long trip from my home in Texas to our college in Connecticut, we stopped for gas to begin our day and bought as much gas station crap as we wanted. I was partial to “donettes” – those mini donuts covered in powdered sugar that tasted like a promise from my childhood, so sweet they almost ached. Abby liked pie-style pastries. And chips. She’s always been more of a savory person, while I was all too eager to have an excuse to buy chocolate bars and bags of gummy candy aplenty. We drank caffeinated sodas because neither of us liked coffee. For lunch, because we were young and ignorant and our digestive systems were still lined with steel, we stopped at McDonald’s. We didn’t see anything wrong with any of this because fast food, candy, sodas, and chips were part of what made a road trip. And for years after, with Abby and with other friends, easy, delicious junk food was part of how I enjoyed long-haul driving.

The Open Road

So last week, when my fiance and I drove half-way across the country, from California to Texas and back, I had another opportunity to shift a paradigm. Clearly, there was going to be no gas station crap on this trip. Obviously, there would be no fast food. (I stopped being been able to eat McDonald’s or anything like it years before I became a true healthy eater.) And it was going to be a challenge, not the least of which because we were making the trip under a time crunch. That meant we didn’t have hours – or even an hour – to spend finding a local, healthy restaurant in whatever town coincided with meal time. So how does one eat healthy on the road?

By buying a cooler. And bringing the food along for the ride.

Here’s what we took with us: Trader Joe’s salads and wrap sandwiches, cooked chicken breasts, a loaf of Ezekiel bread, half a jar of peanut butter, two containers of plain yogurt, a bag of organic apples, a bag of mandarin oranges, 8 bottles of flavored fizzy water, a ridiculous quantity of Kind bars, mini-bags of almonds, dried apricots, and as a special treat, some Trader Joe’s lentil curls.

Some people own a cooler, but not us. We meant to buy one, but in the end, Stephen brought home a six dollar styrofoam cooler and some ice. We filled the cooler and two reusable grocery bags with supplies and wedged them behind the front seats for easy access. And it worked really well. We bought some turkey jerky and cashews at a gas station, but otherwise, we ate from our supplies all the way through Arizona, New Mexico, and into Texas. Our first night, we ate sandwiches in the car during traffic. For breakfast the second day, we had Kind bars and coffee. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop outside of El Paso, discovered that we didn’t have utensils, split another sandwich wrap, and ate chicken breasts and apples with our hands. The second night, we treated ourselves to dinner at a restaurant in Abilene because we realized we could take the hour and still get to our hotel by midnight.

The trip back did not go quite as smoothly, mostly because we had eaten our way through many of our supplies. We still had an embarrassment of Kind bars and plenty of fruit, but man and woman do not live by Kind bars alone. So we ate out for dinner both night, and we had a late breakfast at a Stuckey’s in New Mexico. The truth is that it is possible to eat well in restaurant on the road. There may not be a lot of options for doing so, and the salad may come with an unexpected quantity of cheese, but really, it can still be reasonable. At Stuckey’s, the best I could do was a biscuit with an egg, cut the cheese and bacon. It was not an ideal meal, but it was a damn stretch better than washing a McDonald’s burger and fries down with coke and following up with a bag of Skittles and half a Snickers bar an hour later.

Stuckey’s: The Road Trip Gas Station of My Youth – Revisited Again

I still felt the siren song of all that crap when I went into gas stations all through the Southwest. There’s something about buying yourself a treat as you walk around for the first time in three to four hours that makes the next leg of the drive seem more exciting and doable; it’s easy to feel like it’s a small reward you deserve. But I know the lie of that song now; I know how it leaves me washed up on the rocky shore of bloat and fatigue and that constant need for more, more, more. And besides, at this point, the dried fruit and nuts of a Kind bar? Taste pretty much like candy to me.

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Thanksgiving is a dangerous holiday. I don’t know if everyone’s families takes excessive food consumption to this level, but my family has two tables – tables! – devoted to just the desserts. There is, of course, all the savory food as well: the turkey, and the honey-baked ham, the giant tray of stuffing, the three versions of yams, the two versions of cranberry sauce, the mashed potatoes, the green beans (finally! something green), the gravy, the rolls, the appetizers. There is already, always, plenty of food. And granted, there are a lot of us; my extended family celebrates together at our family farm, and this year, we have about 25 people in attendance.

But two dessert tables? Two? Really? And that’s with overflow onto the entryway side table. I think this year we have something like five pies (butter, pumpkin, pumpkin, pecan, pecan), two cakes, a pan of fudge (and a box of store-bought fudge because, you know… overkill), a pan of brownies with fudge topping (this may be the best of all the desserts present), some errant cupcakes, and at least six tins of cookies. And that’s not counting the sweet rolls my aunt has been hiding in the closet (for some reason) or the various jello salads that weren’t “real” desserts.

As one might imagine, I find this environment… challenging. There is an abundance of sweet temptation, but more than that, there is a pull I feel when I walk into the big front room of the old yellow house where my family congregates. I feel compelled to eat. It’s visceral, a feeling so innate that I did not notice it, for years, until I started bending my will against it, by not eating the desserts.

I associate this place and the holiday with eating so much so that just walking into the room makes my saliva glands activate and I drift unconsciously towards a dessert table. All my life, I have spent the holiday perpetually eating sweets, and at some point, it became hardwired. Just thinking about being here gives me the happy sensation of post-cookie-eating endorphins. When I am here, I feel a innate pull toward the food. It takes physical action and constant awareness to keep myself from thoughtlessly eating sweets.

Before last year, I just ate the sweets all day long, taking a piece of fudge or a bite of cake, every time I walked passed a dessert table; walking over to the dessert tables all the time to get myself another bite of something; eating sweets constantly, to the point of feeling sick, and then eating them some more. It’s so hard NOT to eat the sweets. Because they are right there, and they are delicious. And maybe there is not enough else to do? Or maybe just for that moment there’s a pause? Or maybe there is no reason at all other than that it tastes good and is in abundant supply.

In years gone by, it would have been normal, over the course of a day during the Thanksgiving holiday, for me to eat six to eight pieces of the fudgy brownie, one to two slices of pie, a couple of cookies and a piece of cake. In one day! I would have spread it out, of course. And the cake and pie would have been eaten mostly in little bites, stolen over and over until they made full pieces, but it all adds up the same. And it is hard to resist. This year, I told myself I could have dessert for Thanksgiving dinner, a slice of homemade pie if I wanted it. My trainer specifically told me not to do this, so I started out thinking that maybe instead of a piece, I would just have a bite. So I did. But it was so delicious that I took another bite. And then I walked away and went back to helping my cousins wash the mountain range of dishes. But I kept going back to sneak bites, until over the course of an hour, I had eaten the whole slice of pie. It was just so hard to stop once I started. And it was even harder, once the pie was done, to turn the switch back off, to not graze on other desserts. I finally just left the house and went on a walk to avoid the temptation.

What was interesting though was that I could flip the switch. Has hard as it was, I could decide not to eat the desserts and just… not eat them. Despite the fact that, like Everest, they were there. It is still something of a revelation to me to realize that it is possible to just not eat the food. To walk away form it, to ignore it. And then to get through a whole day and find that I have lived just as well, that I am just the same as I would have otherwise been, except that I have successfully avoided consuming 2000 excess calories.

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I don’t like sending my trainer my food logs like I am supposed to. I know it’s important to do, and I know it helps my weight-loss. But it means being fully accountable, and I don’t like that either.

I am a consummate food cheater (even though I am honest to a fault in other parts of my life). But with food, I will sneak and hide and do whatever I can to get what I want. This is why Weight Watchers, which I believe is a good program, never worked for me. They have a solid system, but it is a system I learned to game. I discovered all the low-points-value sweets there are, and I used that knowledge to continue eating more sweets than anything else. It’s easy to see how my weight-loss might stall when I was still finding a way to have three to four desserts in a day. It’s even easier to see how it would stall (in retrospect of course), when I take into account all the non-counted nibbles I snuck.

The nibbles have made their way back into my life again. After a year and change of eating in an entirely different fashion, I have fallen back into the habit of having just a bite of something. Now (as opposed to then), I really mean it when I say “just a bite”; I really don’t want more. But the truth is I’m not supposed to have any. My eating habits now have helped me lose weight successfully in part because they are so strict. There are no work-arounds, just hard truths. Someone brought cake to work? I don’t eat sugar, so I don’t have the cake. End of story. The just a bite opens up a book that should be closed.

It’s like a peek, and it’s one that’s easy to take because it has a draw towards inclusion. It is annoying and tiring to constantly be left out of ways of eating. Of course, I know it is not productive to think of it as being left out, and when I’m doing well, I am able to see it as making choices that are better for me. But some days it just feels like I don’t get to eat the really yummy food everyone else is eating. Actually, it feels like that a lot of days and has for awhile now. I could say that it’s only because of that special event or this exception, but that’s the fallacy of special occasions at play. The truth is I have been susceptible to the sneak bite, the peek, the slip since spring. I have been wrestling with it all this time, and enough months have accumulated now to make it very obvious that it’s not just an occasion; it’s not an exception; it’s a pattern.

I don’t know if it was fatigue (after 10 months of living differently) or the big changes happening in my life (I got engaged in that same time period) or if it was something else I’m not yet aware of, but following my chosen path became harder. And it still is. And I don’t want to look at it. So of course I don’t want to be specific and accountable. Of course, I don’t want to tell of every morsel that has entered my mouth. I know what that truth looks like: still worlds better than how I ate two years ago but also several neighborhoods away from where I need to be.

And it shows. My weight loss has stagnated in this time. I will work very hard to avoid admitting this truth, but it’s there and plain to see: In over 5 months, I have lost just about 5 pounds. On a good day. On a bad day, that scale number starts creeping back up to where I was in May again. I can avoid this reality by focusing on what I have accomplished, how much weight I have lost: 57 pounds. It’s a lot, and it makes a huge difference that I see and enjoy. I’m resting on those laurels a bit. Coasting some. There are also all my strength and cardio gains. I may be in the best shape of my life right now; I’m certainly in the best shape I’ve been in since high school, and if I was in better shape then, it was largely by accident and the happy circumstance of youth. I continue to work hard at my fitness, and it is something I’m so proud of.

So I look at my muscles and my endurance, at the number 57, at the clothing sizes I haven’t worn since college, and I continue on my way. I exercise, and I eat mostly really well. Except in the corners. Except the little exceptions. I tell myself it’s not a big deal, but the truth is, it’s enough to grind the whole process to a halt.

I sent my trainer my food log for the past two days. They looked like this:

pc of Ezekiel bread
pc of chicken breast
post-work out snack
about 12 almonds
second breakfast
nonfat Greek yogurt with cinnamon and an apple
black coffee
salad with chicken, black beans, lettuce, and tomato salsa
a corn tortilla
iced tea (unsweetened, obvs)
another apple
delicious, beautiful salmon made by Stephen (had some kind of soy-mustard glaze on it)
roasted vegetable medley including sweet potatoes, parsnips, Brussel sprouts and zucchini

pc of Ezekiel bread
nonfat Greek yogurt with cinnamon and an apple
black coffee
three tofu tacos with cabbage
red grapes
dinner (at book club – but much better than last time)
roasted brussel sprouts – a lot of them
roasted parsnips and carrots
some duck meat
1 spoonful of pumpkin risotto (I know! But I did not eat the dessert or the cheese or more of the risotto)
2 squash blossoms

…She zeroed right in on the risotto. Of course. And she said what is true: When I’m still in goal-achieving mode and have plateau-ed forever, I have to be strict to break the plateau. “So that means no risotto regardless of what other foods you avoided.”

And that’s the hard truth of it. It’s not that I don’t get to eat as much as it takes for me to feel full, and it’s not that I don’t get to enjoy food. But there are certain food I simply can’t have. I don’t need them either. I must eat consciously and well in the way that I know will work if I want to lose weight. And I must do it without sneaks, without little bits, without exception.

It’s really hard to do.

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Today I started thinking again about my first time at my trainer’s gym, more than a year ago now, in the summer, when I weighed almost 60 pounds more than I do now and got winded walking up stairs. I was terrified that first day.

For starters, I used to hate going to the gym in general. It made me feel awkward and self-conscious and featured an annoying combination of boredom discomfort (cardio). At least at the various Bally’s and YMCAs and local gyms I had patronized on my own, I could blend in with the crowds, staying mostly invisible on a elliptical machine in some corner. But my trainer’s gym – a private gym just for personal trainers and their clients – was small and visible, and the people in it were generally in very good shape.

I felt sick to my stomach walking up the stairs that first day. What were people going to think of me? The fat, out of shape girl in the serious training gym? Would they stare and think (or say) dismissive even derogatory things? They’d definitely think them; I assumed as much. I would be watched and judged. And what about all the pain I was going to suffer? I was signing up to get my ass kicked, to do things I was not good at doing. People – strangers – were going to see me flailing and failing. Walking into the gym did not instantly make me feel better; everyone in the small pristine space was in great shape, and most of them were good looking men. It was intimidating

But the guy at the front desk, who was young and buff and cute, was actually very sweet to me and seemed excited that I was there and starting training for the first time. My trainer immediately began caring for me – telling me where to put my stuff, how everything worked, introducing me to the gym’s owner and other people she knew. And everyone was nice. Their smiles were all genuine, and instead of recoiling in horror at my out of shape slothfulness, they responded with enthusiasm about the big step I was taking and wished me luck. It was reassuring. I still stuck to my trainer like a needy puppy for weeks though. I was only truly comfortable when she was right there with me; I felt like she justified my presence in a place full of fit people, who, no matter how friendly, still felt so different for me.

Plus, she was – and still is – such a good guide. I didn’t totally know what to expect from personal training beyond that I would get my ass kicked. I had seen “The Biggest Loser” and boot camp classes in local parks, and there was always a lot of yelling. I do not do well with yelling, so that scared me. But my trainer doesn’t yell. In fact, what I have noticed from more than a year of being in a gym full of trainers is that, in general, trainers don’t yell. They insist; they push; they are firm. But there are ways to do that without being aggressive. And Pip is great at that. I KNOW she means business, and I know I had better not stop an exercise part way finished unless I have a damn good reason. But it’s not because she screams at me; she just makes me do it again. And she’s supportive. I know when she pushes me it’s to make me stronger, to move me past the limits I think I have. I know this because she’s explained as much to me.

In the early days, she was really pretty gentle. All of the exercises we did were calibrated for my level of fitness, which was low. Of course, they were all still hard as hell for me, but the “for me” was key. We weren’t working on an absolute scale of “hard” vs. “easy” – to do something like that would have done what previous bad class experiences have done – pushed me much further than I was capable of going, scaring me away forever at best and injuring me at worse. Instead, Pip kicked my ass in the range of exercises that my ass was capable of getting kicked in.

I couldn’t stay off the saddle of the spin bike and pedal for longer than 10 second the first few times I did it; I slid to the floor before completing my first wall sit; I dropped out of planks way before my count was done; I lived in terror of the second and third sets of so many strength exercises because the first set always felt like more than I could manage. But with Pip guiding me, pushing me more than I could push myself but not more than I was capable of doing, I got through squat series and chest presses and crunches when I didn’t think I could. I did high intensity intervals on the treadmill until I could manage the more intense half of the interval reasonably instead of feeling like each excruciating second was a hair’s breathe from me slipping backwards off the machine. I got stronger. A lot stronger.

And I go to the gym now and I feel so good about it. I’m still not at my weight-loss goal; I still have a ways to go. But damn, I am strong. I do plank series now. I hold wall sits for multiple minutes. I spend so much time on that stupid spin bike, and I can totally handle it. All the weights I lift are heavier. The intervals I do are more intense. It’s always challenging and exhausting but I recover now – like, immediately after it’s done instead of five hours or a couple of days later. I feel really capable, and it is one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had. I’m comfortable in the gym now. I know a lot of the people there. And I feel like I belong. Because I’ve worked for it. And I’m not perfect, but I realize now that no one is. And that no one was ever watching or judging me. All the enthusiasm people showed when I first showed up was genuine. Because they knew what I was getting into – they knew how hard it was going to be, but also how great the rewards are.

I had no idea how significant the rewards were. Because I’m not just stronger, I’m more capable. I carry myself differently, and I feel differently about who I am. I am confident in what my body can accomplish, in what I can accomplish, the ways I can shape and change my life through my own effort. I know better who I am, and it feels really good.

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Everything is a special occasion these days. It’s a holiday, or someone’s birthday, or a hard day at work, or a special meal out, or a visitor from out of town, but it’s something. It is always something.

This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned: the fallacy of the special occasion. I have lulled myself for years with the idea that “oh it’s okay just this once to have this drink/dessert/rich meal” because there’s a special reason for it. But once I took away the ability to give myself a break every now and then, I started to see just how opportunities there were to give myself that supposedly-occasional break. And I would say there are an average of four in any given week. Which makes them… not so special anymore.

I’ll give this week as an example, since it’s not like the fallacy of the special occasion has changed just because I have.

The past weekend: I was volunteering for the Obama campaign in Nevada and it was tiring and stressful = special occasion! 1. Because it’s hard, so hey – I deserve a break/cheesecake and 2. Because it’s a new and different place – it’s Vegas! Have a drink! You earned it AND it’s Vegas? When are you in Vegas? (Except all those other times you’ve been in Vegas?)
Monday: No special occasion. 😦
Tuesday: The Presidential Election! It only happens once every four years! I find it nerve-wracking as hell! Like, the kind of anxiety where I think I might need to take something to ease my erratic, pounding heart rate. Or self-medicate with a drink. Because hey, it’s a special occasion! And when my candidate won? Occasion is now more special!
Wednesday: My fiance’s students’ play. This is the culmination of all the hardest work and extra time my fiance puts into his job; it is the welcomed end of a long period of intense effort. So we need a celebratory dinner! And a drink! Because it’s a special occasion!
Thursday: No special occasion that I am currently aware of.
Friday: Work lunch! Which is never healthy and requires communal eating. But hey, don’t get the salad – indulge! TGIF! Especially since the menu is sort of limited to indulgent items anyway. And part two: going-away outing for a friend. This is a drinking special occasion.
I already have occasion fatigue and we’re just now at the weekend.
Saturday: Birthday dinner. Fancy, lots of people, food I’m paying extra for. Did I mention it’s a birthday? It’s another goddamn special occasion.
Sunday: Brunch, with my fiance’s friends/my new friends. They all drink; the brunch place is fancy. It’s a special occasion because… it’s Sunday? We’re eating together? Every Sunday for about a decade was this kind of special occasion for me, and oh, I hear it’s siren song.
Part 2 of Sunday: More birthday celebrating. This time it’s a fancy tea. Guess who wants to eat the fancy treats she’s paying $30 for along with everyone else? This girl. Yeah. Not because it’s a good idea but because it’s another motherfucking special occasion, and at this point I have decision fatigue and celebration fatigue, and I would just like to eat a nice yogurt at home. But no. This is how we live and this is how we socialize, and this, THIS is why constant vigilance is necessary.

Because it’s beautiful to have a life so rich and full of joy and love that most days are special. But really, there are ways to celebrate that amaziness without drowning it in alcohol and food.

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