Sunday, September 11, 2011

30 Days (Babble)

I’ve been doing a food experiment for the past 30 days.

I’ve wanted to get a better handle on how I approach food and I’ve found that trying to do something sensible like eating in moderation doesn’t work for me.  I find it hard to make good decisions about food when my schedule is full and I’m rushing between work and kids and rehearsals.  In order to pay attention to what I was eating I needed to shake things up and try something extreme.  I did a little hunting around online and came across something called ‘Whole30.’

This is not an endorsement of that specific program or whatever it sells because I didn’t go into it that deeply.  It denies it’s part of the ‘paleo’ movement, but as far as I can tell that’s what it is.  There is apparently a school of thought that from an evolutionary standpoint our bodies aren’t really designed to process things that have only been added to the human diet in the past few thousand years.  So Whole30 suggests you cut out dairy, grains, all sweeteners, legumes, and any kind of processed foods.

I was intrigued.  I wanted to see if I could do it.  But the part that inspired me was something in the pitch that said no one can make you eat something you don’t want to.  It shouldn’t matter if you are at a party or your aunt’s house or in any of the myriad of situations where you think you have to eat things you probably shouldn’t.  No one can force you to have the cake, or the pizza.  That’s always been a problem of mine, that situational eating.  If it’s a special occasion, or even just a typical social occasion, it’s easy to rationalize and hard to say no.

The other thing was that it suggested getting those elements out of your system could change how you crave things and how you view food.  That would be nice.  Refusing cake would be simpler if I actually didn’t want the cake.

But could I really do it?

Not without help I couldn’t.  I asked Ian if he would take over all the meals for the kids for one month.  He does most of the cooking anyway, but if I didn’t have to be in the kitchen at all and handling foods that might tempt me, it would make my experiment easier.  Ian said he was happy to help.

The first couple of days was hard.  I missed bread.  I missed cheese.  Ian made waffles for the kids and I had to stay upstairs until the leftovers were wrapped up and put in the fridge before I dared come down.  I love cereal, and chocolate, and rice, and thought about them a lot.

For about a week it was all just a matter of will.  I know if I were diabetic, or had allergies, or the doctor told me a bite of cheese would kill me, then I could cut the things out of my diet that I needed to and not think too hard about it.  I’d simply do it.  I’m not sure why with a more nebulous problem like being overweight it’s harder for me to make the right choices, but it always has been.  It’s easy to feel like a failure when something as basic and important as maintaining a healthy body seems out of your control.  I’m tired of feeling like a failure.

So I got through the whole 30 days without cheating.  Without licking marshmallow goo off my fingers when I made rice crispie treats for a party, or taking a bite of the kids’ leftover grilled cheese.  I survived the State Fair where I watched the kids eat funnel cake, baked banana bread to give away without sampling it, enjoyed a neighborhood cookout where no one cared if I had any chips or not, and even found something to eat in the hospital cafeteria (which wasn’t easy).

The one place I was most worried about was my parents’ house because my mom is an excellent cook and food is one of the ways she likes to express her love, and I didn’t want her to think I was being silly or picky.  But I shouldn’t have worried.  My mom is great and she was curious about my experiment and let me do the cooking and ate with me.  She was impressed with my stir fry of chopped Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, onions, asparagus, and steak with a salad on the side.  My mom even suggested my experiment was making me a better cook because limitations force you to be more creative.

People’s food quirks can start to look like a religion in some cases.  I’ve listened to people preach Atkins and testify about veganism and I’m just not interested.  There is no one-size-fits-all diet because people are too different.  I would personally like to not have to think about food very hard.  I love to eat, I enjoy cooking, but I don’t want to elevate the role of food in my life to a degree that gives it more prominence than it deserves.  It has a place and it can be wonderful, but talking about Weight Watcher’s Points even when I was doing it was boring.  I didn’t mention my food experiment to more than a few people, and then it was more out of necessity because it looks suspicious to serve food to guests and then make yourself something else.

I did discuss it in a vague way with Aden, mostly because she made a weird batch of cookies she invented using bananas and chocolate chips and I was relieved to have an excuse to turn them down.  She was concerned I was denying myself things, because I had started eating dinner at the table with them again, but having just the salad and the vegetables and the fruit.  I told her I liked my salad.  I didn’t want the spaghetti.  I don’t force my children to eat things they don’t want, and I said it worked both ways.  Just because they were having French toast didn’t mean I couldn’t make myself an egg.  I wanted their company at the table, not everything that was on their plates.  I want to be an example to my kids about good choices.  I waited to join them at dinner until I was past being mopey about what I couldn’t have, and honestly happy about what I was having.  I hope my girls in particular are able to see this as something positive I’m doing, and not draw their attention to body image issues in an unhealthy way.  I tell them I’m trying to eat food that is delicious and good for me and avoid things I know my body doesn’t need right now.  If that also brings me down to a weight that is healthier, that’s a bonus, not a goal.  I figure the better I get this under control today, the better I will be able to guide my kids by example.  That should be enough incentive to keep it up right there.

So what were the results?  Weight-wise I did lose somewhere between five and ten pounds (depending on what time of day I get on the scale and if I have shoes on, etc.), so that’s nice.  But the really nice thing is I feel like I have the power to say no to food when I want to.  I really can.  And it helps that I’m not as hungry as before.  I used to be hungry all the time, and now I’m not.

There are other results I’m still analyzing.  For instance, cutting out sugar and other sweeteners for a month has changed the flavor of things.  I’m far more sensitive to sweet things than I used to be.  A grape can now seem almost painfully sweet.  I can taste sweetness in things I didn’t used to perceive as sweet, such as walnuts and coconut.  Mona offered me a cookie at one point, and I turned it down, and I realized I genuinely didn’t want it.  I could imagine it in my mouth and the sensation in my mind was that sort of super-sugary-makes-your-teeth-cringe-it’s-so-sweet-it-hurts kind of feeling, and it was easy to say no.  I’m sure I will eat cookies again one day, but not soon.  I’ve probably had my lifetime quota of cookies anyway, so I’m not in a hurry to re-acclimate to them.

Another thing is my headaches appear to be gone.  I was having problems with something somewhere between mild migraines and severe headaches a few times a week.  I talked to the doctor about it, and did seem to notice a pattern related to my cycles, but my period also affected what I ate.  I wanted chocolate when I was crampy and I felt entitled to it because I was in pain.  After the first week, though, no headaches, no matter where I am in my cycle.  No headaches despite stress, lack of sleep, and other things that I thought were related and may not have been.  It could have been sugar.  (Or dairy, or grains….)  Not sure.  I’m just glad not to be popping ibuprofen like they were tic-tacs anymore.

I still miss cheese.  I still miss bread.  But my plan is to integrate those back into my diet a bit.  A burger with a bun is just better, and BLT night with the kids looks stupid when I’m eating it all deconstructed on my plate.  I’m going to stick with the vegetables and some meat as my main staples for a while, but I don’t want to eat that way forever.  I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid sugar, though.  Not completely, but I don’t think I want to be eating it daily anymore, and when you start reading labels you realize sugar of some type is in nearly everything.  So that will be a challenge, but I’d rather have a headache-free life than a cupcake.

My general food goal is to find balance.  I want to be able to go to someone’s home and simply eat what I’m served.  I think it’s rude to hold an arbitrary food standard higher than a person’s hospitality.  In those cases I will just pay attention to portion size.  Because I want to enjoy food.  I don’t want it to seem like the enemy or medicine.  I want to be in control of what I eat.  My 30 day food experiment gives me hope that maybe I can find that, and with luck next year at this time I will be a healthier version of myself.  It’s worth a try.

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