My Journey With Food
Shrieking with all the breath my little lungs could muster, begging mercy from the rough cold concrete, my mama came rushing over to me. At the age of three, I calmed down immediately upon her embrace. I had an ouchy. My mama dusted my knee and said, “Now, now it’s not so bad. We’ll put some iodine on it. By then, a fresh batch of cookies will be outta the oven.”
I stopped mid wail. Cookies! With the promise of a fresh hot cookie, I would have crossed rivers, mountains, and fire breathing dragons. Ok, you get the drift, I was putty in her hand. In a daze, I followed her as I thought of warm melted chocolate chips, the taste of brown sugar, and butter, crispy edges, and a chewy soft center. Engrossed in my daydream, I don’t remember the Band-Aid or even going into the house. However, I do remember that cookie, and the one after that.
My journey with food began like many others. As a child, I would feel sad and my mama would offer me something warm and freshly baked; she always had something baking. Sometimes, I would get candy for a good grade or a reward for doing chores. Best of all, was getting chicken and dumplings when I was sick. Nothing felt more soothing than to be served a hot bowl of this southern delicacy. These experiences made me feel safe and loved; they had been a way to show love from generation to generation.
The problem is previous generations were not bombarded with oversized portions that advertisers led you to believe were normal. Previous generations did not have pre-packaged sugary snacks handy to eat anytime you even thought you might be hungry. Previous generations usually had set meal times. They did not have the same food challenges we face today of instant satisfaction.
Realizing this crucial generational difference was one of the steps that helped me make mindful changes in my eating habits. Part of the “instant satisfaction” had nothing to do with hunger. There was a part of me I needed to soothe and deal with. Today if I’m physically hungry, there are plenty of pre-packaged healthy snacks I can mindfully choose. Being aware of my patterns has made all the difference in my choices.
Recognizing my patterns as they related to stress was another important step. When someone is stressed they turn to something familiar or something that helps relive the pain of reality; this helps ease the anxiety. For some it might be alcohol, shopping, etc. For me, it was food. Nothing made me feel as safe as the soothing sensations of warm comforting food.
I knew I had enough to eat. How could I still be hungry after two Big Macs, large fries and a chocolate Sunday (with extra chocolate sauce)? It didn’t make sense, but I was still hungry. I was tired of always feeling hungry. Having uncontrolled diabetes did not help. That leaves you in a constant state of feeling physically hungry, but I knew it was more than physical hunger.
As soon as I stopped eating, I felt empty. It was an uncomfortable emptiness. Slowly, I would start to feel a glob of emotions-shame, guilt, or loneliness-resurfacing. These emotions led a promise of breaking me, of leading me to the edge of a cliff I was not ready to peer over. It was too difficult to face these feelings, so I avoided them.
This is my journey; I did the research, the studying, the countless trials and errors. I hope by sharing I can make your journey much easier. By assisting you with the tools that have helped me change my relationship towards food, I hope to give you a head start.
In my twenties I was not healthy. I was working two jobs, and taking college classes. My stress level was on overload. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, thyroid problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and debilitating migraines. All my doctors had stated that I needed to lose weight. I was not ready to believe this would really make a difference. I wanted to keep eating. It was familiar and safe. I attended therapy and it was very beneficial. I realized how much food was helping me numb my pain. I also learned how to tackle the hurt I was suppressing. This inspired me to obtain my Master’s in Clinical Psychology. By this time, I began to actively search for alternative ways to comfort myself.
I learned that my inner critic was extremely mean and abusive. She would say things like, “You don’t deserve to be healthy.” “It can never happen to you.” “You did this to yourself, now suffer.” Wow, talk about needing to drop someone out of your life! Instead, I learned what situations in my life created that voice. I then extended an olive branch, and began a working relationship with her. I will show you those same techniques that helped me realize it was just a scared part of me lashing out. I slowly befriended that inner voice until we ended up on the same page. It was an arduous process, but I stuck with it and practiced. It took time, but my inner critic, eventually, became my inner cheerleader.
I had always practiced mindfulness; therefore, when I learned about mindful eating it was natural to transfer it to another activity. Although some ideas were familiar, some concepts where very foreign and took extra repetition. Initially, the best ideas I took away from mindful eating were: learning how to put my fork down, how to really chew, figuring out when my body was actually physically hungry and to appreciate and have gratitude for the food I ate. I didn’t realize I had to actually learn these things, but it is amazing what habits we fall in to when eat mindlessly for years.
I then gave myself a 5-year plan. I felt I had enough tools to begin a change, but I was realistic about where I was on my journey. I was not ready to give up fried chicken or sweet potato fries. I knew if I changed my lifestyle gradually, I would have a better chance of becoming accustomed to my new way of living. For some people, this might not be the case, but I knew myself. I didn’t like change, so if anything was going to last it had to be slow. Everyone will experience his or her journey differently.
I had tried many diets: Atkins, Juicing, Protein Shakes etc. and just felt deprived. I had constant cravings till I would binge on anything I could find that was sweet or salty. It wasn’t working for me, so I decided to try a different approach. What’s that saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Well, you can be sure I was ready to get off that carousel. The first year, I decided I was going to eat the same unhealthy foods I loved, but reduce the portion size and add vegetables. I don’t know about you, but at the time French fries and ketchup were my go to vegetables. Joking? No, not really.
Therefore, I decided instead of eating 6 pieces of fried chicken with sweet potato fries and mashed potatoes and gravy, I would eat 4 pieces of fried chicken and ½ of my sweet potato fries. Then I would add a non-fried side: salad, corn, beans, etc. It was definitely not a conventional diet, but my theory was every bit of improvement I made would add up in the long run. I ate less pieces of bread when I went out for dinner. I made sure to move more during the day, and I forced myself to walk and swim.
In the beginning walking a mile was a huge deal for me. I rewarded myself with a piece of chocolate. Hey, I just walked a whole mile; I needed motivation. This is where I was at in my journey. It may seem counterproductive, but consistency is key. The first year I lost 10 pounds and kept it off. By this time, I was getting use to adding vegetables to my plate. In fact surprise, surprise, with a bit of butter and salt even broccoli tasted good.
For the second year, I decided to eat healthy for 4 days, and eat what I wanted 3 days of the week. At the time, healthy meant not fried. Therefore, I still ate things covered in sauces and cheese. I did implement portion control. I figured if the plate was twice as big as my head, I should leave some food on it. I also learned that my stomach is about as big as my fist, and when I ate too much I was stretching it out.
Other interesting tidbits I discovered are that you can eat a whole steak and still feel hungry. This is because you need the fiber in vegetables, beans, and other nutrient rich foods, to send signals to your brain that you are full. Thus, I implemented eating a pound of steamed vegetables a day. By this time, I left off the butter, and bought fancy flavored salts. Truffle salt was one of my favorites. I increased my exercise, and I noticed I was feeling much better. Having that wonderful feeling of energy led me to eat healthy 5 days a week. I dropped 15 more pounds that year.
I was elated! My blood pressure had normalized and my sugar and migraines were getting under control. This motivated me to get a fit bit. The third year, I noticed how sluggish I felt when I ate fried or heavy foods, and how good it felt if I ate steamed/grilled protein and nutrient rich vegetables. I had a hard long talk with myself and realistically decided what foods I could let go of.
I decided I could live with out cakes or pies, but I would allow 1 piece of pound cake, a small French pastry, or doughnut a week. I also negotiated with myself, that I would eat two meals a week of any food I wanted. That meant choosing healthy options the other days. This helped build a muscle I didn’t think existed. It was the “just say no” muscle.
During this transformation, my former inner critic now friend, would sometimes revert to a two year old with the worse tantrums. “My friend” felt betrayed. I spent a lot of time becoming friends with her, but now I had to take up a parental role. She was not happy! Learning to set limits and comfort my inner voice was another huge step on my journey. When it came to food she could and would have a meltdown. As I grew in my limit setting confidence, the meltdowns were further apart. My inner voice began to trust me. Sometimes, I’ll still get a pout, but most days she gives me a high five and says, “Awesome job! Keep doing you.”
Learning to say no when your friend is eating a piece of cake, or you smell pizza everywhere in NYC, is strength I have come to appreciate. There is a lot of inner work, recognizing realistic goals, tuning into your body, and creating a supportive environment that accompanies this strength. I continued to lose weight over the next couple of years and reached my health goals within my 5-year plan.
Today, I am a healthy weight and about 100 pounds lighter than I was in my 20’s. My diabetes is under control along with my cholesterol and blood pressure. I walk 5-8 miles on the weekends and go to yoga classes during the week. My energy level and mood is also much improved. I feel so different from the person I was. I have much love and compassion for the old me, but the new me is a happier and stronger person.
Everyday, I am mindful of my food and mindful of my body. I enjoy yogurt for breakfast, or oatmeal with pumpkin seed protein. I have learned to love salads (I use to detest them). Steam and grilled food taste amazingly flavorful now. My taste buds have definitely changed as cakes and pies are too sweet; I cannot eat more than a bite without feeling nauseous. Berries and peaches now have the most heavenly taste. Twenty years ago, I would have never thought I would be one of “those” people who LOVE shopping for fresh vegetables at the farmers market, but I am. In fact, it is one of my favorite places. I embrace myself my journey, and all my stages. I am happy to allow myself reasonable treats and enjoy them mindfully.
Thank you for reading about my journey with food. In my case, mindful eating and turning my inner critic into my best friend assisted me in losing weight and eating healthier. This was my goal, because my weight was wreaking havoc on my physical body. This many not be your goal. You may want to eat cake occasionally without feeling guilty, or stop eating red meat. Every journey will be unique. I welcome you exactly where you are, and look forward to being a part of your journey to a healthier you.