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Archive for August, 2013

We live in a society with a largely compromised food source – something many, even most people do not want to believe. After all, everything looks fine. Our supermarkets are enormous and endless stocked. Restaurants, fast food chains, mega-supermarkets, and convenience stores make everything from a candy bar to a papaya to Cornish game hen pretty easy to come by. We can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, regardless of seasons.

Except maybe for food that is not filled with additives and chemicals. I’ve been hearing about problematic food additives for years, as I’m sure we all have – ingredients like MSG and rBGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) – but it was not until I started reading Michael Pollan several years ago that I really began to understand the extent to which the food might not be okay.

This was my first significant understanding of the idea that food could be bad to eat – not because it was making me fat and being fat meant I was bad and unlovable (not true, obviously, but still what I believed), but because it was not natural, was not healthy, and might cause long-term health problems. So I began shifting away, as Pollan suggests, from foods that have more than five ingredients and avoiding foods with ingredients I can’t pronounce.

I was reminded of the importance of this practice this week when several articles on ingredients to avoid popped up in my newsfeed. One of these, The 9 Worst Food Ingredients Your Money Can Buy, is a list of exactly what it advertises, and the descriptions of what’s wrong with the ingredients are stark and frightening.

For example, high fructose corn syrup. I routinely refer to this ingredient as “high fructose corn death,” which my husband seems to think is blowing things out of proportion. And yet… “Consuming this chemical inhibits your body’s production of leptin, which is responsible for telling your brain you’re full (leading to overeating). Moreover, it can contain high levels of toxic mercury and can damage tissue, and interferes with your body’s production of glucose and insulin – leading – you guessed it – to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and all sorts of metabolic disorders.”

Knowing that, why would any of us go near something containing HFCS? But it is so many foods, and often what’s convenient takes priority over what is good for us. And here’s how easy that can be…

Another ingredient from the article’s list is BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which “the Department of Health and Human services has readily deemed these additives as known carcinogens…BHA and BHT are known to cause hair loss, fetal abnormalities, growth retardation, behavioral problems, liver and kidney damage, issues with sleep and appetite, oh – and cancer.

Obviously, I would avoid such a terrible ingredient, except… I just looked at the label on my package of gum, a piece of which I was happily smacking – it contains BHT. To “maintain freshness” (the package actually says this), so you know… that makes it totally cool.

So that’s how easy it is. Obviously, I spit my gum out. It’s a reminder though, of the constant diligence needed, diligence that can be hard and annoying. Because sometimes, you just want to eat the thing, you know? The thing you were fed as a kid, that your parents thought was fine, the thing that so many other people are eating, the thing that’s easy to get to after a long day, for god’s sake.

But often it really is a thing, as opposed to, you know, food. And it’s good to have these reminders about what’s at stake when we don’t eat real food, why it’s so important that we take the time to truly nourish ourselves.

 

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The truth is that I wanted there to be an end point.

Oh sure, I’d say I was making a permanent lifestyle change, but on some level, my brain had an asterisk after permanent that added “for now.”

Because I thought once I did all the hard work of getting in shape, changing my eating patterns and losing about a third of my body weight I could, you know, take a break. Have a glass of wine, kick back, eat some of that layer cake. After all, I’d earned it.

The logical part of me always knew the flaw in that thinking, but it’s hard to separate logic and emotion sometimes, and it’s even harder to recognize the ways in which I can lie to myself without realizing it. I was willing to do the hard work; I just wanted to finish it eventually.

When I first started on the path of changing my eating and exercise habits, I told myself, “One month, maybe two or three – that’s all you have to keep this up for.” Because I didn’t know how else to process the idea that everything about the way I lived had just changed. Yes, it had changed for the better, for my well-being, but it was still a massive change.

I was waking up 1-2 hours earlier every day to exercise. I had been exercising maybe once a month before, and within a week, I was working out for 30 minutes to an hour every day. I had to plan more, laying out clothes the night before and going to be earlier to get enough sleep. And gone, suddenly, were the nightly walks with my then-boyfriend (now husband) to the frozen yogurt shop down the street from our house. Gone, in fact, were all sweets. One day, my diet contained 3-5 dessert items and then next it contained none. I got sick from the sugar withdrawal. Gone too was alcohol and, with it, a huge chunk of how I’d socialized for years. I had to re-imagine and recreate my life.

I could only stay with the magnitude of these changes by taking them one day at a time. Which included telling myself that it wasn’t forever, or even that long. Obviously, I was fooling myself with the idea that it would only be 1-3 months. A year later though, I started to feel ready for a break. I mean, it had been a whole year. And yes, there had been imperfect moments, but I could count on one hand the number of times I’d consumed sugar in a year. It felt like I deserved a bit of an easing off. Even though I was not at my goal, or even that close.

And thus began my long waltz with the weight-loss plateau of my own making. Which continues to this day. Because no matter how much the evidence denies it, I keep thinking I can take it easy, take a break, not work so hard.

What I am grappling with now, though, is the realization that this doesn’t stop. If I’m truly committed to being a healthy individual, then I have to truly commit to all the details involved in caring for myself. I have to decide that it’s what I want, for me. And not just for now. There is no reward (in the shape of a cookie or otherwise) at the end of this journey because there is no end to it. There is just this life – my life – and how well I choose to live it.

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So this Guardian article by former Australian Vogue Editor Kristie Clements is seriously disturbing. The article is entitled “The Truth About Size Zero” and it details some of the possibly-even-more-disturbing-than-you-might-have-guessed facts about the modeling world. It’s full of horrifying statements like:

That the ideal body shape used as a starting point for a collection should be a female on the brink of hospitalisation from starvation is frightening.

and

Girls who can’t diet their breasts away will have surgical reductions.

and

When a model who was getting good work in Australia starved herself down two sizes in order to be cast in the overseas shows – the first step to an international career – we would say in the office that she’d become “Paris thin”. This dubious achievement was generally accompanied by mood swings, extreme fatigue, binge eating and sometimes bouts of self-harming.

It is astounding to me that there is aa whole industry built around women who are intentionally starving and malnourished. It’s shameful and deplorable in and of itself that these practices exist and are accepted for the sake of presenting clothing in a certain way, but it’s even more horrifying to consider that this depiction of fashion is then used to sell an idea of what ideal beauty is.

That’s astonishingly fucked up. Women – including young girls – are inundated with images of models – model, ideal women – who cannot function because they are too weak from hunger. And yet, we are sold the idea that this is what we should strive for, this is how we should aspire to look. And so we learn to hate ourselves and constantly desire to change our bodies, make them smaller. Make ourselves, as women, literally smaller.

There’s a whole subculture of “thinspiration” blogs (which I won’t even link to because they’re so horrifying) by women, often very young women, posting pictures of other impossibly thin women with quotes to inspire the kind of deprivation that will achieve similar results. That this is the reality of our society makes me so angry because I keep thinking about how women chase these impossible ideals, using their energy, intelligence, and resources on an unattainable and unhealthy standard, instead of on doing something that’s meaningful to them or that contributes to the world. And that this quest is one that makes them feel bad. Every woman I know – every one, no matter how stunningly gorgeous – feels bad about her body in some way. And it is so much wasted energy.

I think it makes me particularly mad because *I* wasted so much energy this way. I spent years hating how I looked and judging myself, really believing that my value as a person was tied to my dress size. I felt this way before I was overweight, and in many ways, I think my mindset contributed to my weight gain. Because I couldn’t help but have a deeply unhealthy relationship with food.

And all the time I spent attempting to lose weight, so I could be thinner and more desirable? It never worked. It was only when I started truly caring for myself, caring about what was on the inside, instead of how the outside was perceived, that I was able to become healthier.

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Here’s the evidence.
I found it in the bottom of my purse, already forgotten and buried. This packaging once contained three choco-orange macaroons – vegan, raw, gluten-free, sugar free, and 50 calories each. I ate all three of them one after another on Saturday because they tasted good with the feelings I was eating.

As far as “treats” go, these are fairly reasonable: calorie count is pretty low and they’re basically a mixture of coconut, coconut by-products, cacao, and orange essence. Still… I was not eating them because I was hungry or because I was at a place or event where having a small treat was occasioned. Rather, I was sitting in my car.

And I knew what I was doing. I had just spent a couple of stressful hours rushing to get ready for a weekend trip. The hurry resulted in part from having spent a long time on the phone with my dad, who had called to give me the news on his most recent heart episode.
Or episodes rather. It seems the rapid heartbeat from last week was the fourth incident of tachycardia (rapid, irregular heartbeat) in the past two months. He didn’t notice the others because his pacemaker controlled it. My father has had a lot of health problems (5 heart attacks, 2 forms of cancer), so I have practice with digesting this kind of news calmly. It doesn’t mean I don’t worry though. He’s going to need a stress test at least and surgery at most. It doesn’t feel as dire as it could because if he has another episode, his pacemaker will whomp his heart back into rhythm. But still, this shouldn’t be happening. And of course, of course, I want him to be healthy, well, and always okay.
So when I stopped for road trip supplies, I got this treat for myself and then I ate it in quick order. And I knew I was eating it because I was stressed and worried about my dad. And I didn’t care.
So then the question for myself is: did it work? Did it make me feel better?

Well… kind of? In the moment, it did. It sent those pleasure signals to my brain and distracted me from my other worries. That moment did not last long though, and it had no long-term impact. Eating the (healthy-ish) treat didn’t make me feel better for any longer than the time I spent eating it. Once it was gone, I was right back with all the feelings I was using it to try to deaden.

So what did make me feel better? Actually feeling my feelings. Being present in the moment. On this occasion by going to the desert with my husband and my dear friend and spending the night outside, observing the stars, taking part in a fundraiser, enjoying nature, the night sky and good company. Activities that truly nurture me, that ground me in the present, and help me focus on the blessings of what’s here, now.

The Open Road and Sky

The Open Road and Sky

 

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This article, “How Carbs Can Trigger Food Cravings” from the New York Times, is really interesting to me. It’s another piece in a growing body of reading I’ve done on the idea that not all calories are the same.

For a long time, I was a believer in the calories in-calories out theory. I thought that a calorie was a calorie, no matter where it came from, and as long as I kept them to a manageable number, I would lose weight. Well… ask my four rounds on Weight Watchers and the countless other diets I did how that worked out. The answer is not well.

I think I was never successful at Weight Watchers in part because I used the point system as a way to justify living off desserts and vegetables. I could spend half my daily points on sweets and the rest on really low-calorie meals. Not surprisingly (although I was very surprised by it at the time), this didn’t work.

What I’ve learned from personal trial and error is that I have to cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates in order not just to lose weight but also to be able to maintain a healthy eating regiment without constant cravings. This is a hard reality some days, so I really like it when I read something that backs up this experience.

For example, this line in the article:

“This research suggests that based on their effects on brain metabolism, all calories are not alike,” [Dr. David Ludwig] said. “Not everybody who eats processed carbohydrates develops uncontrollable food cravings. But for the person who has been struggling with weight in our modern food environment and unable to control their cravings, limiting refined carbohydrate may be a logical first step.”

This line reminds me a lot of one of the big ideas I took away from Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat. Which is that not everyone’s bodies will respond poorly to carbohydrates, particularly highly processed ones, but for those people whose bodies do, they will gain weight from eating those foods. I recognized myself in this, as I do in Anahad O’Connor’s article. I frickin’ love bread. So much. And I hate the idea that it’s not good for me. But. It seems that part of the reason I love it so much is because “foods that are sugary and highly caloric elicit pronounced responses in distinct areas of the brain involved in reward.”

So basically it’s my drug. Which would explain both why I’ve been addicted to it for so long, and why it’s so important to change that relationship.

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It’s time for a reboot. If my previous posts haven’t made it obvious enough, I have struggled to get back on the path of healthy eating since my wedding. I have been somewhat successful, but still I have wandered and lost my focus in places. A bite of cake here, a glass of wine there, an entire weekend just eating whatever. Healthy living is a big picture endeavor, but it’s also an every day practice. Which means that the devil is in the details.

As in, when I get too loose with the details, I let the devil back in. The devil of sugar, of compulsive eating, of slacking off on exercise more than once a week. All those little details start to add up to a less healthy version of myself.

I am not content to be less healthy. I know from experience that it does not feel good. I traded in sluggishness, chronic tiredness, poor physical conditioning, and 50+ pounds for a more agile, energetic, engaged, and strong version of myself. It’s one of the best things I ever have done, and I’m not giving it up. In fact, I want to be better still.

I’m in my 30s. It’s not going to get easier to be healthy. So the stronger the foundation I build now, the better off I’ll be. I spent years being the last one to finish a hike, the one who avoided team sports. I hated feeling so incapable, but also, it was what I knew. And now I know there is another way.

It’s a path that requires more diligence. To make the time to exercise, every day, even when I don’t feel like it. To eat whole, nutrient-dense foods, even when there are other temptations. It’s important to remember that I do these things for me. To fuel my body and clear my mind. To improve my mood and strengthen my whole self. To reduce my risk for pretty much all of the diseases. It’s easy to forget how massive the benefits are – and how fully I feel them. But it’s so important and fundamental that I remember. So…

I’m getting back to it. This is what I’m committing to:
*Daily exercise
*Consistent strength training
*Eating a diet of lean protein (sustainably sourced whenever possible), whole grains (and not very many), vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats. No more sugar. No more booze. No processed carbs. And very little dairy.

This is how I want to live. It’s what I truly believe is best for me. I also know that I’m the only one who can choose my life, each of the choices, every time and every day. So I’m recommitting to making the best choices I can. To being present and mindful of what those choices are and why I want them.

 

 

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For a quick and clever summary of most of what’s wrong with our society’s relationship to food and health, read this article: DEAR AMERICAN CONSUMERS: PLEASE DON’T START EATING HEALTHFULLY. SINCERELY, THE FOOD INDUSTRY.

Written, tongue firmly in cheek, from the perspective of the food industry, it touches on some high points of what’s so disturbing about the state of eating in our country. For starters, the focus on health as a reflection on appearance rather than “outcomes like quality of life and reduced disease risk.”

One of the biggest catalysts for change in my own life was the realization that my well being and health were what was truly at stake in my fight with my weight. For years, I focused on how my excess weight led to me being judged superficially. This judgment motivated me to want to lose weight because who doesn’t want to be considered desirable and fit in? But also, it didn’t motivate me. Because it felt shitty to be judged in that way, and so I was not truly motivated to change because I was angry at a system that set such superficial standards. It was only when I realized that this conversation about beauty was not nearly as important – like not even in the same building of the lecture hall – as the one about my health and how my eating affected it.

Once I understood that what I was eating was harmful to my well-being, that it was poisoning me, I started to rebel in a new way. Where before, I had rebelled against beauty standards by eating more donuts, now I looked at all the processing and chemicals in the donuts and started rebelling by insisting on eating real food.

Because that’s not what the food industry wanted me to do. It wanted me to eat unhealthy food that it had formulated specifically to make me crave more of it, so that I would keep buying it and spending money on it, which in turn would cause me to spend money on diet plans and health care costs, so that all I was doing was spending money on crap I didn’t need when in reality, there was an apple available all along.

Statements like this one make me see red:

On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods. Consuming foods with these characteristics actually lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Who wouldn’t play upon that biological craving to increase profits?

Because now I see how I – and everyone around me – is being used. And I’m not okay with that. I’m not okay with compromising my own well-being in order to further line the deep coffers of an industry that’s only interest is in profit. Suddenly, donuts don’t really seem appealing at all. In fact, they seem fake and gross and like the enemy they are.

And statistics like the following blow my mind:

Specifically, according to General Mills, “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” So you see? If you people start eating the way the nutrition experts at the CDC and USDA recommend that you eat, that would delegitimize almost 90 percent of the products we produce!

90%! The vast majority of what is being sold to us is crap. And it’s crap that’s intentionally created to use us for profit with no concern for how much it harms us. And it harms us a lot. This is so disturbing to me and so disgusting. It is the fuel I need to walk away from the temptation of foods crafted to appeal to me. And it makes me wonder: why aren’t more people outraged?

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