Food: A Love Story
In the first of a series of articles, MFF Super Ninja Stella Kaufman explores the “re-entry to orbit period.” Once a Ninja achieves epic fitness glory and success… then what the fuck happens?? If you’ve had some success with your health and hotness goals but are struggling to find your way back to moderation, Stella’s perspective (and success) will be super helpful!
So, it turns out, 60 pounds lighter, much leaner, a lot stronger…I still love food. There. I said it. All who have known me and seen me on this journey, from beginning to end, are now saying, “Yes, but you don’t eat that kind of stuff anymore.”
I can only sigh and say, “Not really. No. Not on a regular basis, anyway.” Ok, hardly ever. For almost a year, I have been eating that way — hardly a “treat” and almost never in the city where I live. (That would be NYC, by the way, home of the BEST food.) And certainly NEVER in my apartment. (Visibly shudders at the thought).
So herein lies the question. For a lover of food-even with the desire to maintain the weight loss and increase the fitness level – is this sustainable? Or even realistic? When food is like a partner to you in many ways in your life, and you decide to give up some of your favorite tastes, but are still in love with them, do you mourn the loss, or allow the occasional indulgence? For someone who does not have that attachment to food, the answer comes without thought: Have the ice cream sundae once in awhile. No one ever got fat from one ice cream sundae. And they are right, at least from a scientific perspective. But what about for someone who looked to food for comfort, for celebration, for stress, for boredom? The occasional indulgence won’t hurt them either, scientifically speaking. We know this to be true. Yet…we are terrified. TERRIFIED. Of a cookie? An ice cream? A cheeseburger? No. Well, not entirely.
I suggest that we are afraid of ourselves, more specifically, of our behavior patterns. Many of us have taken years to perfect these patterns. I know I did. Salty and crunchy for late night movie marathons, pizza for relationship breakups, and sugary sweets along with all of those, and also for everything else. These foods are a part of our personalities. I’ll go even further to say they are some of the fun parts of our personalities. Giving them up seems like it will mean giving up some of the best parts of ourselves.
Addiction? Maybe. People have suggested that this sort of “addiction” to food is just like any other addiction. I say, no. Maybe some of the thought processes and the brain activity is the same. But we need food to live. We have to eat. But for some of us, we get lost somewhere between what we need to eat, and what we think we need to eat to live a quality life. It goes beyond eating for the enjoyment of the taste and texture of food, and straight to eating for eating’s sake, where the act of eating is the emotional go-to for boredom, sadness, stress and celebration.
How did we get to be this way? Who knows. Maybe we learned through the millions of messages, obvious and subliminal, we received about food growing up. Oh sure, it’s easy to blame our parents for using food as a reward, promising an ice cream for good behavior. I say bullshit. I know lots of people whose parents did that who have no food issues. I also know lots of families where food is a big part of the culture. I know people who were raised by parents who never let them eat sugary foods, and became bingers. And I know I people raised the same way who have no food issues. I have decided, regardless of research, scientific or observed, that, while immensely interesting, it really makes no difference. It just doesn’t matter. For me, I have concluded, as a result of my decades of living—let’s just call it “self-observed, self-reported, personal research”—that I am just wired that way.
Wired? You mean, as in permanent? Honestly, I don’t have a clue. For me, the scientific analysis portion of how I got to be this way is officially over. We’ll call it a loving union of environment and genetics. Now that I have finally accepted that this is who I am, I can give myself a big hug for being adorably flawed, and move on.
Let’s be clear. Accepting who you are does not mean deciding that it’s too hard to deal with this food issue, or that behavior change isn’t possible. In fact, it’s liberating. Your mind is now your bitch. You have a starting point for lasting change over what you can control—which is just about everything else. Does that sound too easy? Let’s review. After realizing who you are, you need to come up with a plan for that keeps you at a healthy weight, physically fit, yet allows you to enjoy food without the craziness that brought you to this place to begin with. Damn! (Just thinking about it makes me want to sit down with a box of Cheez-its!)
The key, I believe, is to make a plan for life. The terms “Diet” and “Weight Loss Program” imply a temporary change in our food behavior, and therefore a temporary change in mindset. And I propose that this is precisely where all eating programs, weight loss programs and diets fail us. They take us along for a couple of months, have us eating in a different way than we were/will be eating, (some even providing us with pre-packaged meals), often leaving us out of the choice and preparation process of the foods themselves.
Here are some of the steps that have me back on a road to food sanity.
Step 1: Own who you are.
Yeah, it’s worth repeating. OWN WHO YOU ARE. I think this step is the most necessary and the most difficult. With this self discovery comes responsibility….to yourself. It can mean finding out some things that are embarrassing to admit, even to yourself. For example, I learned that I am someone who believes that all pre-packaged snacks have only one serving per container. As in, 1 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz. are all one serving. The only exception to this rule are the 100 calorie snack bags, which are so small, that at least two bags are required to make up one serving. So, any size bag/box of anything will likely be empty if handed to me. Also, certain foods, such as M&Ms, were meant to travel in packs. I don’t even understand the concept of 1 M&Ms.
Figure out who you are and where you stand in terms of food. It’s a place to start. You can’t route it out on Google maps without a starting point.
Step 2: Choose a Food Plan that you can live with
As any experienced diet pro knows, all “diets” work. What?? That’s right. They all work. It’s all math and science. Create a calorie deficit, lose weight. The science hasn’t really changed.
Since the goal is to engage in new patterns that will offer short term success, and prove to be sustainable as a lifetime way of eating, you can probably rule out any plan that involves pre-prepared meals that live in your freezer. From those plans, you will learn how to use a microwave, and possibly the best way to heat a frozen low-fat enchilada. If you follow that kind of program, you will lose weight, but what do you when the box isn’t an option? Weaning yourself off packaged food when you have been at a calorie deficit for several weeks, and may already be feeling a bit vulnerable in terms of food, seems like a recipe for trouble. I would also think twice about a diet that has you eating the same foods all the time, or special cookies or cereals or bars for meals. Of course, if you eat a bowl of Special K for two meals a day, and a “sensible dinner” you will lose weight. And as for the cookie diet and the meal replacement bars, aside from the obvious health aspects, are you planning to eat those bars forever? Prrrrrobably not.
The way I see it is that the only difference between the way you eat during the weight loss phase and the maintenance phase should be the amount of calories you are eating.
Think about it. If you are going for a change in behavior that you plan to do long term, then why eat something different during the weight loss process? The foods you choose to eat while losing weight should be the same as the foods you will choose once you’re done. For those of us who need to change our patterns, to restore sanity to our relationship with food, I would also suggest considering a plan where you choose the foods you eat. If you are not accustomed to thinking for yourself in terms of food choice and preparation, figuring out what to eat may be more work at the beginning. But, if you are looking to break a cycle, to find a way of eating that you can maintain and, dare I say, enjoy, then you will need to learn a little bit about what foods you should include.
Choose foods you like to eat. I know that sounds obvious, but so many people feel that delicious food is synonymous with junk food or food that’s “bad for you” —- and then there’s everything else, “diet food.” Again, think lifetime. Choose healthful foods that you like, that you would choose to eat anyway. (I promise there are some.) Suggestion: Go to the supermarket, and look around in the sections where the real foods are. Produce, nuts, (real) cheeses, eggs, meats/fish/poultry. Hint: Ask yourself this question: Once I reach my goal, will I still eat these foods? If the answer is no, then you may be setting yourself up for a difficult time.
If you are choosing foods that someone else has chosen for you, such as many weight loss programs prescribe, and that you don’t necessarily like, then there will be little opportunity for you to make choices that you will want to stay with once you have reached your goal. Why have to worry about two food plans – one for getting fit and one for after? That seems like extra work.
Step 3: Prepare For Re-Entry
When astronauts return from space flight, there is a short, but risky re-entry period as they return to the earth’s atmosphere, a trip that, while only moments in length, is extremely delicate and dangerous, and would lead to certain death if not carefully planned for. Like the astronauts, we need a plan for re-entry into a world that includes real food and real food “situations.” Yet, sadly, so many of these programs leave us to crash and burn.
Now, I confess to having no background in nutrition or psychology. BUT—I have a lot of experience with trying “diets” and food programs. I have decades of reading and following the evolution of the diet “industry,” the same one that has left us to burn up upon re-entry. This experience, including countless conversations with fellow dieters, has led me on a journey to food sanity in a way that includes no more than some planning and common sense. For the first time I feel that I am on my way to a sane place in terms of food. Yes, that place does exist.
Think again about the astronauts. Maybe you’ve been diligent about sticking to your calorie deficit, meeting your calorie, protein and carbohydrate goals for weeks now. Maybe there is something you can’t wait to have. You may need, for psychological purposes, to be able to have that margarita/hamburger/cupcake at some point. As you approach your goal, make sure you prepare for re-entry into the world’s food atmosphere. Allow for what you are going to do to enjoy some of your favorite foods sometimes, while not burning up all your progress on re-entry.
Step 4: Have a Support System
Do your homework. Or, (and I can’t believe as an ex-teacher and a mom I am saying this), find someone who can do it for you. I suggest seeking the help of someone who promotes the goals you seek. Are you looking to lose fat, or to gain muscle, or to lose fat and gain muscle? Ask for help with the science of the actual food program if you need it.
If you don’t know who to trust in terms of all this information—and it’s a lot—a good start might be to check out some blogs from well-respected fitness and nutrition gurus: Mark Fisher, Neghar Fonooni, Clifton Harski, Martin Berkhan, Leigh Peele, Alan Aragon, Alwyn Cosgrove, to name a few.
Surround yourself with people who are supportive of your change. I was lucky enough to fall into the loving arms of Mark Fisher Fitness, where there is an entire Ninja army of support. I realize that this is a unique situation, so if that doesn’t exist for you right now, find a friend or a friends who have similar goals and support each other.
“Oh jeez. I thought this was going to be easy.” While the solution is simple, it isn’t easy. But it’s a thousand times easier than dealing with fear and self-loathing every day, and thinking about food every minute in the process. Promise.
I seriously encourage anyone who has issues with food to consider making a life plan for how to live with food, rather than just going on another diet. Expect that you may change along the way as you discover more about yourself, and as your tastes for less healthy foods begin to diminish. (Yeah, that happens.) Ideally, as you heal from your damaging relationship with food, you will be able to incorporate certain foods back into your life in a more realistic way, eventually enjoying a peaceful coexistence. Pay attention as you go along your journey. As you get closer to where you want to be, think about what your long-term goals are for health. This takes thought, especially at the beginning. Be patient. It likely took you a long time to develop the patterns you have. And be forgiving of yourself.