When you’re facing a lot of stress in life, I think it’s a good idea to develop some survival strategies so that you come out alive on the other side. Over the summer, when I was really in the thick of things at work, I decided to cut myself some slack in two areas where I’m normally very careful about my spending: food and money. In this post, I’m going to talk about how food fits into my life. In my next post, I’ll talk about my wallet.
I love to eat. I love to cook. I love to feed other people. On the whole, I think I have a very healthy relationship with food. I don’t have a dramatic story about overcoming bad habits and establishing healthier routines. As a child, I ate too much candy and cereal, disliked many foods, and my parents worried that I wasn’t getting enough protein because I was never very fond of meat. It turns out that I don’t have a meat-and-potatoes palate like my father’s. I prefer more exotic cuisine: Tex-Mex, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian. I like spice and heat and beans. Once I started cooking for myself, I was able to develop healthier habits: more vegetables, less candy.
When it comes to weight, food is half of the equation. The other half is exercise or physical activity. As a kid, I didn’t like team sports, but I was reasonably active. For years, my brothers and I had newspaper routes, so every day, we walked around the neighborhood, delivering our papers. Looking back now, I don’t know what our mileage was for those routes, but it was everyday exercise. Despite my junk-food diet, I never had a problem with weight as a kid; I was always rather small and shrimpy.
When I went away to college, I began developing healthier habits. I had more choice in the matter; when you’re living at home with your parents, your choices may be curtailed by their preferences. But in the college cafeteria, I had dozens of choices every day. By the time I started college, I had become more interested in healthy eating: more vegetables, less candy. In my final two years of college, my roommates and I were able to cook for ourselves, and we started to enjoy the freedom of being able to try new recipes and host dinner parties together. It was a lovely time in my life—I think back on those years fondly, remembering all the good food and friends I had.
When I started graduate school in the fall of 2003, suddenly I had total control over my eating and exercise. I was living in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, within walking distance of three different grocery stores. And walk I did: lots and lots of walking, all over town. In college I had run cross-country, but in graduate school, I adjusted to city life by walking everywhere. I continued to cook healthy meals, becoming very interested in soup. I packed myself lunches to take to school every day, and I learned the importance of the mid-afternoon snack, a habit I still maintain to this day.
Somewhere between 2003 and 2007, I lost 20 pounds. I wasn’t overweight when I started graduate school, but my habits did change: I was walking more and running less. I also started doing yoga and Pilates several times a week. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to say how much my diet changed and whether that was a factor in my weight loss. My weight loss was unintentional and gradual, and it scared some family and friends. It scared me a little bit too: after my family commented on my weight, I noticed that my face looked gaunt, as though its roundness had disappeared along with my 20 pounds. But when I converted my new weight into a value for Body Mass Index, I was still in the healthy range for my height. There were other indicators that my health was good, too, so I didn’t worry too much about the weight loss. Actually, what I did do was loosen up a bit in my cooking. I became more liberal with the olive oil, and I worried less about using fats of all kind in my cooking. I figured that using more fat would certainly make my food tastier, and if it happened to let me gain a few pounds back, awesome!
I tell you this long-winded story because it sets the scene for today. I’m now 29, about to turn 30 next month. I’m well aware of the fact that people’s metabolisms tend to slow down as they age, so I wonder whether I’ll begin gaining weight simply as a function of age. And yet this summer, when I thought about coping strategies, food seemed like a great candidate for dealing with the stress.
When it comes to eating habits, I think people tend to fall into three camps: there are those who restrict their eating (through food choices, calories, or both), those who binge, and those who binge and restrict (usually as part of a cycle). I don’t consider my eating disordered, though if I tend toward anything, it’s restriction. I have a ridiculous love for sugar (see above re:candy), so one of my long-term eating goals has been to eat less sugar. This summer, I eased up on that goal. I decided to enjoy dessert if and when I wanted, and if I was feeling really indulgent, I would drink a glass of wine with dinner and eat dessert. Crazy! I know. But in my mind, I’d always felt like if I was going to eat “empty” calories, I should pick either wine or dessert. That’s advice I picked up a long time ago, and it made sense to me. But for a few months, I had my cake and my wine, and I was happier for it.
I think it’s important to emphasize that I wasn’t giving myself permission to binge or to consume all my calories in the form of dessert and booze. I was still cooking and eating in a way that packed lots of nutrients into my diet: vegetables, fruit, protein, fats from a variety of sources. I still liked my soups and my salads; I was just ending more meals with a little sweet something. It gave me something to savor every day, something to enjoy, no matter how stressed I was feeling. The sweets were a little reminder to try to enjoy my life, right here, right now. They literally added sweetness to my day, and I needed that.
I had moments, of course, in which I wondered if my pants would fit once the summer ended. So far, so good: my favorite pair of jeans still fits! And at my annual appointment with the lady doctor, I found out that my weight is the exact same number as it was last year, which is shocking. But considering the number of Saturday mornings I’ve spent biking to the lab and then doing experiments, maybe it’s not shocking. Maybe I needed the calories to fuel all those Saturdays. Or maybe my body just tweaked its metabolism a bit to burn a few more calories. Who knows? All I can say is that for me, giving myself permission to sip more wine and bake more cookies helped me get through a particularly lonely and hard time in my life. And if that permission results in an extra five or ten pounds on my body, then so be it.