My Journey to Clean(er) Eating

Much like the way anybody of a certain age (not my age, thank you, but people just a little bit older) remembers every detail of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I think a person who has lost a significant amount of weight can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing the minute they decided that they’d had enough and it was time to lose weight once and for all.

For me, it was July of 2006. I was out to lunch with some girlfriends and my favorite pair of jeans were digging into my stomach fat, causing a roll over the waistband that made me so uncomfortable and so unhappy. I came home, ripped off those jeans and announced to my husband that I was going to do something – ANYTHING – to get rid of that roll. I couldn’t stand living like that for even one more minute.


 

I grew up eating good food, but with bad habits.  There was no fast food and a trip out to eat at a restaurant was a very special occasion, but, on the other hand, vegetables were boiled into submission, then covered in cheese, and fruits were baked into pies or sprinkled with sugar or served with ice cream.  My mom cooked us healthy “meat and potatoes”-type dinners, but between-meal snacks were chips, cookies, pizza rolls, Twinkies and other prepackaged junk. There were no conversations about portion sizes or limiting sugar, because, honestly, those things weren’t really a problem in the ’70s the way they are now.  Convenience foods were still relatively new and their impact wouldn’t be felt for another decade or two, so parents didn’t think very much about what kids were eating.

My weight went up and down many, many times as a teenager and young adult and new mom, based on whether or not I was “dieting” at that time. Truth be told, I ate the exact same crap all the time (cookies and Diet Pepsi for breakfast, popcorn for dinner), but sometimes I ate significantly less of it to make the scale move in the right direction.  Losing weight wasn’t exactly difficult, but it was always temporary.  I was never the same weight for more than a year, and even though it bugged me when I was fat, I never really considered making permanent changes.

For most of my life, I honestly never gave a single thought to the nutritional value of what I was eating.  As a young adult, I remember reading diet books or magazine articles and the emphasis was always on the number of calories you could eat, rather than the quality of the food.  Sure, I understood on some level that fruits and vegetables were a good idea, but when I was looking to lose weight, I basically just took the crap that I was already eating and tried to cut it down to the number of calories Cosmo said I could eat.  (Fun trivia:  at some point in the mid- to late ’80s, Cosmopolitan magazine ran a piece called the Carb Lover’s Diet that I vividly remember.  Breakfast was two pieces of French toast made with just one egg.  I made that recipe for weeks, though I seem to recall that I didn’t follow the diet past lunchtime, and doubt that I lost any weight at all.  Go figure.)


 

It’s not that I didn’t like healthy food.  I did.  I do.  I would eat a salad if salad was offered, and I can’t picture a time when I wouldn’t eat an apple.  It was more that I just seriously didn’t think about it.  If nachos sounded good, I ate nachos (in fact, I ate nachos almost every single day for years).  If donuts sounded good, I ate donuts.  I ate food because it tasted good, not because it was good for me.  You might say that all of my eating choices were made with my mouth, rather than my head.  And certainly not with my body; I paid absolutely zero attention to how my body felt after eating crappy food.

When my kids came along, I spent a little more effort on making sure there were vegetables in the house.  And by “vegetables,” of course, I mean a can of green beans or maybe some zucchini bread. 😉  I was trying, really I was, but I didn’t know better and didn’t even know how little I knew.  I was nutritionally illiterate.


 

So, that day in 2006, when my pants were too tight and I couldn’t take being fat for one more second, what did I do?  I went to the store and I bought a case of Slim Fast.

I know you were hoping that I went to the Farmer’s Market and bought bushels of organic veggies, but no.  I did not.  I drank one shake for breakfast and one shake for lunch and then I had a sensible meal for dinner.  I took Friday afternoons off from my diet and ate whatever the hell I wanted, and look out if you got between me and the taquitos!

I was so hungry most days that I wanted to gnaw off my own arm and eat it.  But I was losing weight, and at the time that was all that mattered to me.

After about two months of painfully slow weight loss (one pound a week, never more and occasionally less), I added in a new exercise.  I had been walking about a mile or so every day for almost a year, but I had been thinking about running.  I had picked it up to a hustle a few times, but felt so incredibly stupid doing it that I stopped almost immediately.  I was still thinking about it, though.  Maybe I could run.

And then I did.  One morning, under cover of pre-dawn darkness, I picked it up to a hustle and I didn’t stop.  I made it an entire mile without dying, and – there’s simply no way to say this without sounding overly dramatic, but I promise you, it’s true – everything changed. 


 

I was active as a kid the way that kids are (or used to be), riding my bike and playing outdoors, but I was not by any stretch an athletic child, and I grew into an awkward, uncoordinated and painfully self-conscious teenager.  As a young adult, I joined gyms and lifted weights with machines or occasionally attempted aerobics classes, but didn’t exactly find my niche, you might say.  Like my eating habits, everything was temporary, and I spent very little time analyzing how I felt or what was working for me.  Sometimes I worked out, sometimes I didn’t.  Sometimes I was fat, sometimes I wasn’t.  Life moved on.

But running?  Running was different.  I could actually do running, and it required almost nothing from me but the effort and the time.  I didn’t have to go anywhere, nobody had to see me, and I already owned a pair of sweats, so I was good to go!  And best of all, I just really, really enjoyed it.  I can’t tell you why, because it certainly wasn’t easy.  But it felt good.  Deep in my bones, I knew that this was something I could do for a really long time.  This was permanent.

I wasn’t even conscious of it for quite awhile, but because I liked running so much, I started making small changes in my eating habits.  I paid attention to what I was making for dinner the night before a run.  I noticed when foods didn’t settle well and gradually phased them out.  I read the recipes in Runner’s World magazine and tried a few of them out – real meals made with real food.  It was pretty novel at the time.

My weight loss was still very, very slow, but it was steady.  When I hit the number that I suppose I would call my “goal weight,” I didn’t change anything I was doing because I felt so good.  I was still drinking my shakes, but I had added in a mid-morning (carrots) and mid-afternoon (apple) snack, so I didn’t feel deprived or hungry anymore.  I ended up losing about ten more pounds, for a total of thirty.


 

I started adding spinach and a banana to my morning shake to health it up a little, and after several years, ditched the lunch shake in favor of actual food.  But there were still sweets in the house.  There were still packaged meals.  Many dinners included cheese.

I never had one of those big “A-ha!” moments where I went into the pantry and threw out all the junk, but little by little, there were things that I just stopped buying at the grocery store.  No more Hamburger Helper, no frozen appetizers, no Halloween candy in September.  I don’t remember thinking, “I’m never going to drink soda again,” but I stopped drinking soda at some point because there wasn’t any in the house and I didn’t buy any more.

Also little by little, I became very attuned to the way my body felt.  The better I ate, the better I felt all the time and when I would eat something junky, my body’s reaction was dramatic.  Like a physical rejection of crappy food.  It made it very easy to avoid those foods in the future, because I certainly didn’t want to feel like that!

I started to read about food.  Not diet books, or magazine articles touting the latest craze, but actual nutrition science.  And reading about food made me curious to experiment.  What would happen if I ate fewer carbs? (Good things, like building muscle and losing fat.)  How would I feel if I cut back on processed foods?  (Amazing.)  Is it the almond milk that I’m drinking that’s making me feel so bloated, or something else?  (It was the almond milk.)  I became an experiment of one, taking bits and pieces of conventional wisdom and current trends and deciding how they felt and how they fit into my lifestyle.  I’m not “low carb” or Paleo or IIFYM or intermittent fasting or a calorie-counter or anything else that has a name, even though my eating style has some similarity to a few of the popular diets.  I simply eat to feel good and (maybe more importantly) fuel my workouts.

Nowadays, my daily intake includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables (often more), between 70 – 120 grams of animal protein (and, yes, I feel like this is important to point out, because all proteins are not created equal and based on my experience, I have found that eggs, fish and meat work better for me than beans, nuts or protein powders – your results might very well be different), very few grains, almost no processed foods, very little dairy and … well, I’m going to say, “far less sugar than I used to eat.”  Because I still totally eat sugar.  I feel very comfortable with my 80% healthy/20% less-healthy balance.  I don’t drink any of my calories any more.  I tend to avoid foods that come out of box or a bag, and I cook my own meals about 99% of the time.


 

Am I a perfect eater?  Naw.  But I’m doing pretty good these days, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way, which I am now – nearly 2000 words into this story – going to share with you in three bullet points:

  • It’s not too late and you’re not too far gone to turn your eating around.  If I can come from a lifetime of snacking on Cheez-Its and calling Stove-Top stuffing a meal to where I am now, then it’s definitely not outside your wheelhouse.  But…

 

  • You have to pay attention.  At some point, you will need to make your own decisions about what feels right to you, and that means you need to tune in to what your body is actually feeling, rather than listening to all that chatter in your head about how ice cream tastes good or blindly following somebody else’s diet plan.  You are in charge of your body.  So listen to what it’s telling you, because…

 

  • There are hundreds of ways to lose weight, but there’s only one way to maintain it.  Here is the one unimpeachable truth that I have learned from my journey:  to reach and maintain a healthy weight you are going to have to eat healthfully and exercise regularly for the rest of your life.  (I know.  Shocker!  You’ve never heard this information before!  Oh, wait.  Yes, you have.)  The thing is, it almost doesn’t matter how you lose the weight.  Some of us do it the not-so-healthy way.  But in order to stay at this end of the scale, you are going to have to find foods and habits and activities that you love and can live with for a long time.  There’s no way around it.

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