Happy Friday! So, I’ve been receiving a lot of communication from all of you out there in the blogosphere regarding feeling out of control about counting, tracking, and logging “health goals.” While the blogs, podcasts, and books make it seem … Continue reading
When it comes to the calories in vs. calories out issue, I know that there are no easy fixes. We live in a culture that sees “truths” in absolute terms so long as they’re based on recommendations by the government … Continue reading
I know that I’ve been incredibly positive, posting about my wins and making sure to tweet my gratitude daily…but I do have to admit that life after ED is not always rainbows and lollipops and warm puppy kisses. (Well, I do at least get to partake daily in the latter, but you catch my drift.)
I’ve been lucky to have had the whole summer to sit alone in my house and make peace with my disordered eating and my eating disorder; however, now that I’m back out in the world, forced to interact with real people and not just ancestral health podcasts and recovery blogs, I’m finding myself bombarded with disorder again. I don’t think people even realize how disordered their conversations are–even if they don’t actually have an eating disorder proper. But just because talking about calories and exercise and food and dieting is “normal,” doesn’t mean that it’s right.
I’ve really been struggling lately, because I’ve had no choice but to be back out in the world again, reading Facebook posts about feeling guilty for not exercising, in line at Starbucks listening to apologetic “I really shouldn’ts”, at work watching my friends check their Nike fuel, on Twitter reading HuffPost articles about calories out and super foods, in physical therapy at the gym watching women toil away on their treadmills, at rehearsal listening to my fellow actors worry about costumes feeling tighter than when we first tried them on…and it goes on.
On top of that, I often have to stop myself from even trying to explain my position on food and nutrition in public. People bristle when I try to explain that I’m eating low carb/high fat, or else they apologize for eating gluten/sugar in front of me (“I know it’s not healthy, but I can’t imagine life without it/but I only have one life to live and I don’t want to miss out on cake/but I know that saturated fat is bad for you, so I’m actually eating raw vegan on the weekends now and giving up soda every other Thursday…)
Maybe I’m just listening for it…but it seems like that’s all anyone knows how to talk about anymore.
Moreover, my physical therapist asked me to go back to the gym…to do cardio. At first I balked, but I eventually decided to compromise: I went back to do strength/rehab exercises. No cardio machines involved. I found myself finishing my workout quickly and then eyeing the cardio equipment, convinced that I hadn’t sweat enough yet. And I found myself trying to justify my desire to hop on the revolving stairs for an hour with the thought that my PT wanted me to do cardio. (Never mind the fact that he was talking about 30 minutes of non-impact exercise a few times a week.) But as soon as I neared the cardio section of the gym, I knew I had to stop myself.
Sometimes I think that going back to the gym period was as bad as asking an alcoholic to hang out at a bar. I could feel ED stirring.
Since I’ve spent the last two weeks at work and in rehearsal/in a show with barely a moment for breathing in between (especially since I got sick somewhere in there), I haven’t been able to work out at all. And even though I made it through the summer just fine, between the conversations about Thanksgiving calories and the reawakened gym rat in me, I’m struggling.
That being said, a little struggle is no reason to give up or give in. I’m just having to relearn how to be a part of this nutritionally backward culture, where we value the last box of Twinkies more than a life without diabetes or calorie counting.
I’ve had to stop myself from getting involved in peoples’ conversations or offering my opinion. I’ve had to stop myself from getting upset when people start in on me about why they have to keep eating wheat or why they have to go to the gym for sixteen thousand more hours. I’ve had to stop myself from allowing other people’s disorders trigger my own.
I’ve realized that, just as I’ve resolved to meet myself where I am each day, I have to do the same for others.
I get it. Not everyone buys the “Paleo” thing. And I get that people are leery of going low carb and high fat. I get that hours on the stairmaster seems like a necessity. I get it, because I once was there. I get it, because I see and hear just how ingrained the message is. And just because I’m learning (and trying) to disavow that kind of thinking doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world is ready.
I accept that the world is full of disorder. I accept that I am responsible only for myself. I accept that I have to respect the body I’ve been given, and I have to honor my beliefs. And I believe that following a low carb/high fat Paleo diet is going to keep me from seeking ED in times of stress and vulnerability.
And just to explain: Paleo–or, rather, ancestral health, as I prefer to refer to it, since I’m more focused on just eating real food and not following a “diet”–is a lifestyle choice. It’s not a restrictive diet (can’t eat this or that, only so many calories, no cheating, etc.).* At the core of the Paleo movement is the belief that modern disease was born with the advent of agriculture, and that human beings are genetically better adapted to a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer diet. In overly simplified terms, going Paleo means not only cutting out all of the processed foods that have come to clutter our grocery store shelves, but also cutting out foods that the human body has difficulty processing for nutrients (or foods that actively poison the human body) like wheat, grains, legumes, and dairy.
As soon as I wrote that, I could already hear you, my readership, flinching. Wait, you’re thinking, so you are cutting and restricting your food again? Looks like you’ve still got a lot of recovering to do…
And to that, I counter:
I no longer think about the foods I can’t eat. I look forward, instead, to the foods I can. I eat meat, fish, eggs, fruit, and all the vegetables I want. And the best part is, Paleo really isn’t as simple as just cutting out foods and starving for “cheats” from the bakery section. In fact, that’s why I kind of shy away from the whole “Paleo” moniker, since it’s associated with certain limitations.
This past summer, while I’ve been trapped in my house, waiting to heal and go back to work, I’ve had the opportunity to do a little research about nutrition as well as the science behind food addiction and health. And the most important thing I’ve learned is that there is no one way of eating. The only “diet” you should follow is the one that works for you, and you alone. That means that if you can tolerate dairy, go for it. If nightshades make you sick, don’t eat them. If you were one of the lucky ones who developed the gene to produce more amylase** than your hunter-gatherer forefathers, have at those carbs and don’t look back.
And when you find the foods that work for you and cut back on the ones that don’t, you’ll start to free yourself from the ugly world of obsession and food addiction, calorie counting and processed foods.
Personally, because I’m not working out very hard (or moving very much at all), I’ve found that a low(er) carb approach works best for me. No, this isn’t Atkins, and I’m not going to die of a heart attack because I’m drinking heavy cream. I’m also not going low carb, low fat, and high protein, because that actually causes calorie restriction by necessity. I eat fat. A lot of it. Maybe not enough, but I’m not afraid of it anymore. And I often don’t measure my portions except with my eyes–nor do I worry about calorie counting.
And, while I’m not able to go out for a run, I’m in good “shape.” I am happy living in my body, because my body not only looks good and healthy, it feels good and healthy. And I’ve realized that’s even more important than the image in the mirror.
I have to just remember that what I’m doing is healthy, that I don’t need ED to be loved or respected, that a “perfect” body means I’ll have to live an imperfect life. I don’t need to binge on cereal for the same reasons that I don’t need to chain myself to the treadmill.
I will find balance. I will not look for excuses, and I will not give in to triggers.
It’s easier said than done, but just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
I’m going to keep my head up and do what’s right for me. Because I respect myself. I respect my values and beliefs. I respect this body I’ve been given. And it’s as simple as that.
*Although there are plenty of people who do it wrong, and it morphs into the same cycle of restriction and deprivation that leads to yo-yo dieting.
**An enzyme released in the mouth during the digestive process that helps break down starches.
A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”
- Wake up at 4:30 am after about 5-6 hours of sleep. Raises my ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone) and lowers my leptin (the satiety stimulating hormone). Lower leptin means lower endorphins.
- Coffee with artificial low-fat creamer. Raises my cortisol, stimulates insulin response.
- Get to the gym by 5 am. Take an hour long spin class. Physical stress of intense endurance workout raises my cortisol, artificially increases my endorphins.
- Down a protein shake (dairy proteins, lactose, and artificial sugar). Stimulate insulin response with lactose and artificial sugar, irritate gut with dairy proteins.
- Get to my job, which stresses me out (because I hate my job, because I have a big project on deadline, because I hate my coworkers/my boss/my direct reports, whatever). Cortisol stays raised.
- Stomach starts growling at 10 am. Have a Greek yogurt with berries on the bottom. Stimulates another insulin spike, more dairy proteins for the gut.
- Starving by noon. Have a big salad with tofu, low-fat dressing, and a piece of whole grain bread. Snack on a banana. More gut irritation from soy (lectins and phytates and phytoestrogens, oh my!), bread (gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, etc. Another insulin spike from influx of glucose and fructose from both the low-fat dressing (added sugars to make up for the lack of fat, for taste purposes) and the banana. Promote hormone dysregulation with phytoestrogens in soy.
- Start yawning around 1 pm. Desperate to stay awake. Another cup of coffee. Cortisol stays raised, body/mind still physically exhausted.
- Starving again by 3 pm. Forage in purse of 100-calorie pack of cookies with goji berries. They’re gluten-free and low calorie so they must be healthy. Also, some doctor on the Today show said that one of the ingredients was a superfood. Superfoods are good for me, so I’ll eat more of them. Feeding my gut processed foods, feeding my liver glucose. More insulin.
- Leave work and head back to the gym because I am feeling guilty for “not working out hard enough” this morning. Another hour of weights should do it. Drink a Gatorade throughout, to replenish electrolytes. More cortisol, more glucose. Liver is pumping insulin like it’s nobody’s business. Body isn’t hurting for electrolytes, but someone tweeted an article that said I needed them, so…
- Get home and make dinner. It’s Meatless Monday, so, after weighing and measuring all my portions, it’s gluten-free pasta with soy-meatballs and beans for extra protein and canned spaghetti sauce. Pasta is gluten-free and therefore, in my mind, a weight loss food. Two helpings! More soy. Beans are primarily carbohydrate; proteins are incomplete. Also contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Canned spaghetti sauce has added sugar. Gluten-free pasta is still densely packed with carbohydrates, which will be broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body.
- Still hungry. Need dessert. Start foraging for anything sugary to take mind off of hunger. Cereal it is: one bowl–okay, two–with fat-free milk. If it’s low fat, it’s okay to have the extra bowl….right? More carbs and sugars, sugars and carbs. Nighttime binge courtesy of leptin resistance and one last wonderful spike/drop in insulin from the sugar eaten for dinner.
- Spend about 45 minutes logging all my food and exercise with an online calorie counter. Have used it every day for the last 6 months, so I already know exactly how many calories I’ve eaten, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel guilty if I don’t. May or may not have fudged the pasta and cereal amounts. Secretly hate myself because I know how much I really ate. Not a big enough deficit. Negative self talk as a result of using a calorie counter. “Staying accountable” to my disorder (and who says I have a disorder, huh?) makes me feel like I have a sense of power, even though I’ve actually just lost the last 45 minutes of my life to pointless worrying.
- Off to bed. Hating myself for the second bowl of cereal, thinking about chocolate cake. Guess I’ll have to go to the gym twice tomorrow to make up for it. Feeling depressed about it. Stay up late reading on my tablet–shut down around 11 or 12 and then toss and turn before falling into a light and fitful sleep. Cortisol levels kept unnaturally high by the afternoon coffee mean that sleep is going to be disrupted. Blue-white glow from the tablet screen disrupts melatonin production, which helps the body to fall asleep. Melatonin production also thrown off by disruption of natural circadian rhythm (staying up too late, getting up too early). Lack of sleep also promotes leptin resistance and stimulates ghrelin. Excessive exercise (stress) can contribute to depletion of serotonin, which leads to depression. Depression from lack of serotonin can lead to insomnia, which contributes to further serotonin depletion. (Vicious cycle.)
Okay. So remind me again why this lifestyle is considered healthy? Remind me why we “love” exercising and having to snack all day? Remind me why people get upset when anyone suggests that it’s not dedication but obsession?
If you’re a slave to the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you do because you believe that you’re benefitting from it, ask yourself if that’s helped you lose weight, get fit, or enjoy your life at all.
And if you’ve taken it to the “eat clean” orthorexic extreme (as I most assuredly did), then you’re definitely in the camp that believes that extreme measures are needed to stay healthy. And while I commend you for eliminating the 100-calorie packs of cookies, you’re in the same boat if you’re snacking on homemade gluten free cookies with dried goji berries instead. You’re in the same boat if you believe that you have to down a protein shake or some concoction made with egg whites and fake sugar. You’re in the same boat if you already know in advance how many calories you ate and burned because you’ve used the calorie counter for so long that it’s no longer even a necessary tool (especially if you have the mobile app on your phone because you want to log every morsel of every meal the second you eat it, so you won’t forget).
But we’ve been taught to eat less and move more for so long, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that there could be another way.
I’ll post next about some of the changes I made this summer, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your day look like?
If you have ever been on a diet, every started a new fitness regimen, done your first “couch to 5K” or started restricting one or more food groups for the sake of getting a six-pack, then you know it doesn’t, ultimately, work. Even those of us who maintain weight loss/muscle gain through any sort of extreme change a) know in the back of our minds that it’s not sustainable without restriction/over exercise and b) start to indulge in thoughts of guilt and shame over things we come to believe are cheats, slip ups, and undeserved days off.
The problem is that we’re looking at weight loss/muscle gain through the lens of aesthetics masquerading as health.
When I wanted to “get healthy” by “eating clean,” I really meant that I wanted to “get thin” and “have a six-pack.” And please don’t pretend that any of you are above conflating healthy with some fitspirational ideal. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of society now, that I think it’s just a natural impulse to feel this way. (In fact, one of my blog’s commenters pointed out how the message in the Eat-Clean Diet books is really all about saggy skin, love handles, and cellulite, not optimal performance and vibrant health, as they claim…)
As early as the 80s, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the author of Fasting Girls, noted that “a ‘narcissism based on health’ is not essentially different from one based on beauty. In fact, spokespersons for the new credo of female fitness espouse the same principles of vanity, self-sacrifice, and physical and spiritual transformation that characterized the beauty zealots of the early twentieth century. What is different is that compulsive exercising and chronic dieting have been joined as twin obsessions.”
And our culture has been so inculcated with the idea that the only way to lose weight/get healthy/look sexy is to eat less and exercise more, that we can’t even conceptualize any other solution. And because, according to this mindset, a calorie is a calorie, we have to perform a complex mathematical equation every day just to make sure we’re burning more than we eat:
Calories out must be greater than or equal to calories in. Fats contain almost twice the number of calories that carbs contain, so I’ll just eat more carbs. A stick of gum has five calories and celery has negative calories if you chew fast enough. The nutrition label on my box of cereal has a different number of calories from the one on Fitday, so I’ll make up the potential difference by running longer on the treadmill, which will, obviously, accurately report how many calories I’m burning based on the weight I enter on the machine. I’m starving, so I’ll eat less and move more and that will surely take my mind off of how hungry I am.
Brumberg notes that “[h]ow much one runs and how little one eats is the prevailing moral calculus in present-day anorexia nervosa,” but I’d argue that specialization in this form of math–and the feelings of moral superiority that it engenders*–has moved past the small enclave of anorexics who once claimed expertise and into the mental calculators of your average gym goer.
But the fact of the matter is, a calorie is not just a calorie.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection between leptin resistance and exercise addiction, where excessive exercise can actually lead to weight gain. It’s the same thing with calorie counting and restriction.
Calories out can mean that the body starts worrying about starvation and starts holding onto calories in. The wrong calories in can confuse the body into forgetting to let the calories out.
But there’s more to the story. That zero-calorie coke you’re drinking? The artificial sweeteners can contribute to sugar addiction and weight gain.
That marathon you’re running? It could be making you lose the muscle definition you’re working your butt off for in the gym.
We’ve been fed so many lies so often and with such startling earnestness that it’s almost impossible to understand where the falsehoods end and the truths begin. And, like a diabetic in a candy store, we eat up the media’s latest health announcements, experience a brief high, and suffer again from the inevitable crash–which has serious implications for our continued health and wellbeing.
In fact, just check out this infographic from Time.com . I’m going to be honest here: it’s the same crap you’ve already heard: exercise more, eat less. Eat mostly carbs. If you don’t burn more than you eat, you’ll gain weight. Track your calories so you know how much you’re eating.
(On Jimmy Moore’s podcast a few weeks ago, one of the guests said that the best way to make money is to sell a diet solution that actually makes it impossible to reach the goal. It’s really true. Because even if you do manage to live happily through the initial weight loss/muscle gain/body and lifestyle change, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to maintain it or regain it after you lose it.)
It’s time for a new paradigm, because the only people benefitting from the current ones are the people who work in the diet, fitness, and fat loss industries.
In my next post, we’ll look at one way of making the shift.
*See: “Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” et. al.)
This commercial makes me so angry–it embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with the state of fitness and nutrition in our country today. There are so many things wrong with commercial that it’s almost hard to find a place to start. So I’ll do my best to focus on the main reason why this seemingly innocuous Cheerios commercial makes my blood boil.
Looking past the fact that I no longer agree with the contention that the whole grains in Cheerios are part of a “heart healthy breakfast,” the majority of my ire today comes from the last line: “But you still have to go to the gym.”+
Now, as a certified personal trainer and an incurable gym rat, I’m happy that General Mills is suggesting that fitness is an important part of anyone’s “heart health” and “weight loss” regime; however there’s a more insidious message behind the commercial, and it contains that ugly, 7-letter “C-word.”
(If I never have to hear the word again, it will be too soon.)
The crux of this commercial’s message is: no matter how healthily you eat, if you don’t burn it off, you’ll get fat. (And Cheerios carries disordered food messages throughout much of its marketing strategy. Dr. Deah Schwartz, a Health At Every Size blogger, did a great post on the disordered implications of its “more whole grains, less you” message on Peanut Butter Cheerios boxes).
Here’s the thing: calories in vs. calories out does work. But only for so long.
It goes something like this: I start eating well and working out. I eliminate processed foods but don’t change my portion sizes. I buy a pair of running shoes and go for a 12+ minute mile jog 3-4 times a week. I lose weight. And then, all of a sudden, I plateau. So:
I lessen my portion sizes slightly and keep up with my running. I lose weight and then plateau. I get a personal trainer and lift weights several times a week in addition to the running. I lose weight and then plateau. I read some broscience forums and realize that I need to tighten up my diet. I eliminate fats (because fats make me fat amirite?*) and start working out 6 days a week. I lose weight and then plateau. Fine. Now my choices are to either make my portions even smaller or eat nothing but egg whites and tuna with steamed broccoli. I do both just in case. My metabolism slows. I become leptin resistant. I am hungry all of the time. I need to work out more. I go to the gym twice a day or do more than an hour of steady-state cardio every day, because who needs rest days?**
And in order to maintain, I have to continue manipulating my food or my workouts in an ever lessening/increasing ratio.
WHY. Why would anyone–anyone–do this to him or herself? What’s the point of spending your entire life worrying about how small, bland, and tasteless you can make your portions or how long, bland, and exhausting you can make your exercise? For some aesthetic goal? (Because it’s certainly not for health, despite what the fitspo images are assuring you. If you were healthy, you’d be able to go to a restaurant without freaking out when they cook your chicken breast in oil, or stay out late without worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to wake up in time to do an hour on the elliptical before work.)
Sorry to be absolutely blunt here, folks, but calories in/calories out is a really tragic*** way to live.
But what’s the alternative?
Well, let’s start at the beginning.
+And I can guarantee you’ve all seen this couple at the gym, too–you know, the woman sweating it out on the treadmill for an hour, lifting a light dumbbell awkwardly while reading a magazine, the man sitting on the pec-deck machine for an hour, doing endless sets of chest flyes with his neck jutting forward and taking 20 minute breaks between sets to chat with his friends…
***I was going to use a different word here, but I figure I’ve maxed out my curse word allotment for this post by using the “c” word again.
I have added a new “bad” word to my vocabulary. Forget the f-word, forget the four-letter c-word: this is a 7-letter c-word, and it’s the most heinous, stupid, useless wastes of breath I think I have ever wasted time uttering:
In fact, I am sick of hearing that word used, because I think we, as a culture, completely abuse it without having any actual understanding of what it actually means.
Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to explain how potentially ruinous the “calories-in/calories-out” mindset is, so prepare to have your minds blown (and your sanity restored):
From the moment I met ED, I had a niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that part of my miraculous weight loss was due not just to the fact that I was eating less, but also to the fact that I was exercising more.
The summer between 8th and 9th grade was spent not only eating soy-free (a.k.a. apples and peanut butter), but also biking back and forth to the gym every day, spending an hour doing some asinine combination of light weights and cardio, and then doing “toning” and “core” exercises on my bedroom floor each night. And, for a long time, that formula worked.
After my 9th grade knee surgery, I started increasing my caloric intake while sitting on my rear and healing, so I, of course, gained weight. As soon as my knee would allow it, I joined the cross country team and began doing long, slow (very slow) endurance runs. As my competitive nature kicked in and my leg grew stronger, I started running longer and faster, even on the weekends. By the time I became cross country team captain in 11th grade, I was going for a second run every night after dinner, even if I’d already run long and hard at practice that day.
Of course, the more I ran, the hungrier I got. And all of the conventional wisdom at the time pointed toward carb-loading, so I made sure to have extra helpings of french bread and spaghetti between my after school practice and my nightly training. I also made sure to down a Clif Bar before cross country every day, even though I had eaten a large lunch and a packet of peanut M&M’s less than 2 hours beforehand.
I thought it didn’t matter, because conventional wisdom also said that my exercise (calories out) was burning off the huge amounts of food I was eating (calories in). As long as I went for that second run each night, I was golden.
And yet, two years later in New York, while I was dieting and cleansing and generally miserable, I was vastly under-eating (probably about 800-1000 calories a day while cleansing, if I had to hazard a guess) plus going to the gym every morning and doing an hour of some asinine combination of light weights and cardio–and I was gaining weight.
It didn’t make sense. But yo-yo diets aren’t supposed to make sense; they’re simply supposed to continue to fuel our negative self-talk, self-hate, and confusion. If anything, we’re doing ED a favor by focusing on eating less and exercising more until our bodies are so exhausted that we can’t fight back.
By the time I started bodybuilding, I got my starvation (*ahem* sorry, eating clean) and exercise down to an art, so I started dropping weight again. By this point, even though the “transformation” I was following didn’t recommend massive amounts of cardio, I still threw in an hour on the elliptical or the rotating stairs, even after a 45 minute workout with heavy weights. The fitness models I followed on Facebook and Twitter all talked about doing fasted cardio* in the morning (which I started doing) followed immediately by weights and then a second workout in the evening (which I technically did by biking up and downtown between my two jobs while I lived in NYC). I wanted to make sure that I was burning calories all day, whenever I had the chance. The more I limited my diet, the more I exercised, the thinner I was going to be.
By the time I moved to Florida, I was absolutely exhausted. I worked out fasted in the morning and made sure to drink my protein within the 15 minute post-workout window, and then went home and collapsed onto the couch for the rest of the day (with minimal movement allotted for meal times). By this time, I was about 110 lbs. I was also incredibly depressed. If I didn’t work out, the depression went from awful but bearable to absolutely monstrous (cue: depleted neurotransmitters and fatigued adrenal glands lecture here). If I didn’t work out, I would spend the day sobbing, brooding, scowling, snapping or some combination thereof.
Worse yet, I found that, even though my diet wasn’t changing, I had to do more exercise, harder exercise, to get the same weight-loss and mood-altering affects. It wasn’t fair–but I was addicted. I was ED’s willing prisoner, and so I didn’t care.
*Cardio on an empty stomach
To read the whole series in order, start here:
Let me be clear: I was already a food addict. A different kind of food addict, but an addict nonetheless. I’ve been a food addict since I was at least 10 years old.
I can remember back to my Friday night binges on baskets of garlic rolls at Mario’s or Dominic’s, eating between three and six rolls before digging into an adult-sized baked ziti entree; my anticipation of pizza night on Saturdays with Dad, and how we’d have to buy at least two boxes from Pizza Hut because I could knock back five slices on my own–and follow them up with a huge chunk of Tollhouse cookie dough without stopping to consider hunger; my ability to eat both servings of boxed Stouffer’s french bread pizza and still want finish off the tortellini I’d cooked for me and my sister; my insistence that my favorite food–above even chocolate and candy–was bread, and my inability to stop wanting after two and then three pieces of toast for breakfast…
After the soy-free summer, my tastes changed somewhat. When I cut out processed foods, sugar, and soda, I cleansed my palate of the hyper-sweetened and -salted foods that had “nourished” my childhood. Instead, I became dependent on my breakfast cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, living for my second and third helpings of spaghetti. (And once I reintroduced soy, I reintroduced chocolate–unable to concentrate after lunch in school if I didn’t buy a pack of peanut M&Ms–not because the stimulants in the chocolate helped me focus but because the cravings became more important than anything my teachers had to offer.)
A large part of my anorexia–the part about which I was conscious and in which I was aware of my engagement–was my attempt to control my addiction to volume. The irony here is that “anorexia” literally means “without appetite.” Rarely, I think, is that actually the case with this disease. In my own experience, once I start eating, especially breads, sweets, and even fruits, I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. Even when I’m full. And anorexia, a rejection of that fullness, was the only way (I thought) that I could control myself.
“There is a very simple, inevitable thing that happens to a person who is dieting: When you are not eating enough, your thinking process changes. You begin to be obsessed with food. They’ve done study after study on this, and still we believe that if we cut back fat, sugar, calorie intake, we’ll drop weight just like that and everything will be the same, only thinner. Nothing is the same. You want to talk about food all the time. You want to discuss tastes: What does that taste like? [...] Salty? Sweet? Are you full? You want to taste something all the time. You chew gum, you eat roll after roll of sugar-free Certs, you crunch Tic-Tacs (just one and a half calories each!) You want things to taste intense. All normal approach to food is lost in your frantic search for an explosion of guilt-free flavor in your mouth, an attempt to make your mouth, if not your body, feel full, to fool your mind into satiety. You pour salt or pepper on things. You eat bowls of sugar-coated cereal (no fat). You put honey and raisins on your rice.”
-Marya Hornbacher, Wasted, a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
When I started my intensely restrictive “eat clean diet,” I thought that I was finally free. I convinced myself that I was no longer hungry, that I was sated by my 100-300 calorie meals. But in the time between meals, I thought about food. I ached for it. And not the dry turkey breast and 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli, I ached for sweet and starchy. I used stevia (a “natural” sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant and 200-300x sweeter than sugar) on nearly everything, faking out my tastebuds in order to trick my lizard brain into thinking it was satisfied by egg white pancakes. I ached for my morning oatmeal. I substituted stevia-based whey protein powder for real food in as many meals as I could justify to myself. I spent my entire day in anticipation of my stevia-sweetened casein-and-peanut-butter pudding every night.
And worse, I watched the Food Network obsessively. I subscribed to allrecipes.com and read their daily baking email. I scoured the internet for decadent recipes, reading blogs like Cookie Madness and The Picky Palate so I could live vicariously through someone else’s Pretzel Caramel Shortbread Bars and Brownie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies. I baked, constantly, so that I could at least have the smell of warm cookies saturating the air, enveloping me like an old friend.
Even as a vegan, I was still addicted to sugar and grains. It was all I ate, all I craved. Moreover, my vegan diet was just an animal-free facsimile of the bodybuilder’s regime: I inflicted upon myself the same rigid routine, eating small meals every 2-3 hours, aching with longing for the next helping. I sweetened my green juice with Stevia, and I couldn’t get through a morning unless I followed my green juice with low-sodium sprouted grain bread. Rice cakes were my midmorning salvation. My sugar addiction found a new home in extra servings of fruit,* wads and wads of bubble gum, packets of stevia poured onto anything that should taste sweet but didn’t. I still looked forward to my after-dinner peanut or almond butter (now with vegan chocolate chips added) with an intensity that defied explanation or avoidance (and I was usually so depressed about finishing my snack that I would open a box of cereal and eat that–dry–and then go to bed feeling painfully full but unsatisfied).
And through it all, the only thing I could think about was the food I couldn’t eat, wasn’t eating, wanted to eat.
*3 apples a day plus the pear in my green juice, entire 2 lb. bags of grapes in one sitting, etc.
A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself.
Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) salt.
Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting.
But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.
When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.
So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.
If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.
There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.
Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**
Let me explain:
First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.
The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.
Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.
While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).
Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).
And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.
Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.
And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.
And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:
I was a food addict.
*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…
**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…