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Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Thing About Food…

In Food, Training on September 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

The first time in my life that a lot of people began asking me about my diet, I became very uncomfortable. It was right after I’d gotten sick– after dropping 30 pounds when eating became such a painful and unpleasant process that food made me anxious. It was right after my IBS diagnosis and way before I figured out what I could and couldn’t consume to avoid a beeline to the bathroom when I was out in public. It disturbed me that some friends and family (and many acquaintances) were suddenly “amazed” by my transformation. When they asked for the “secret” to my weight loss, I wanted to (and often did) tell them that the “secret” was to feel awful for three months, get so small and weak that everything feels cold and you can never stop shaking, and to spend ridiculous amounts of time looking for a g*ddamn toilet (TMI, sorry). In retrospect, I probably should’ve been gentler in my responses… but being perpetually underfed makes one a feeble, hangry (hungry+angry) cretin.

Those of you that remember my arrival in State College might (actually, should) be surprised– or rather, appalled– along with me that anyone had such a response to my weight loss. It disgusts me that we’ve so saturated ourselves with the promotion of “weight loss” that any weight loss is presumed intentional and commendable. The gym’s photo of me when I signed up as a member is pretty terrifying. I cringe every time I see it… I didn’t realize it at the time, inhabiting my own body and experiencing the (albeit very fast) “gradual” change to thinness, but I look like I could snap. There was nothing healthy about being so skinny that sitting was uncomfortable because my bones dug into the chair.

But food is a strange beast. I find it infuriating that people get so dictatorial about other people’s diets– or that people refuse to understand when an individual struggles in reforming that diet. I’ve probably said it before, but… the solution for most addictions is abstention. But we have to eat. Repairing unhealthy dietary habits requires more than sheer avoidance or “eating all the things.” A binge eater or anorexic needs to confront his/her “addiction” every day. Finding balance is so much more challenging, and means something different for every individual. For me, any unfamiliar food filled me with fear. Eating out felt like playing Russian roulette with my stomach– except all six chambers were probably loaded. I was really sick and in denial of my sickness. I wanted to be “normal” (whatever the hell that means) so when people insisted “oh just try this” or “don’t be like that, have a piece,” I did. So I never figured out what my trigger foods were, and felt perpetually ill.

I felt like I had no control over my body until I finally took charge of my diet. This required a lot of experimentation to figure out what worked for me. It required saying no to a lot of things and rejecting other people’s dietary “wisdom” no matter how right they thought they were or how well such advice had worked for them. I still have bad days sometimes, but they’re a lot more manageable. I can go out to eat now too, and have become an expert at navigating menus for the things that won’t make me sick. To get to this point, I had to confront certain things about myself– that I’m not “normal,” that the average diet wouldn’t work for me, that I’d have to sit out of the pizza parties and that sometimes I’d have to be “lame” and reject the party offerings. But, fortunately people have been pretty understanding and I can have a perfectly good time at parties without eating pizza or drinking beer. Even if it means I have to bring my own Chipotle take-out to the party.

This time around, when a lot more people in my life have come back asking for nutrition advice, I hope it’s because they’ve seen the reverse transformation– that I’m actually working my way back to health. I’m still nervous dolling out dietary advice because the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s immensely personal. A notorious example from our gym is my favorite enduro-addict who can have a tube of Pringles and a package of Oreos washed down with a Rockstar for dinner, every single night, and feel fine. He’s shredded, has spectacular endurance, and is all-around healthy. His lipid panel is apparently stellar. It works for him. But probably not for the average human.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if I didn’t have to eat the way I do, I probably wouldn’t recommend so much care for anyone else. Between the IBS and CrossFit, if I have one bad day, I can do spectacular damage to my body. I know that I’m bad at keeping myself out of the gym even when I’m feeling weak from IBS flares, so I do my best to avoid all triggers… otherwise Jo goes in to work out in a body devoid of nutrients and her body tries to eat itself and the hangry cretin comes back. I’m also (getting) better at taking it easy if I’m having a rough day.

So… now when people ask me for nutrition advice, I generally have two points to emphasize:

1) For the great majority of people just looking to get healthier, eating whole, minimally processed foods will be everything you need. If you can recognize the ingredients (if they didn’t come from a lab), they’re probably okay for you. If it lived and died before you ate it (including plant-matter), it’s probably okay (don’t eat poisonous plants, cook your meat… unless it’s sushi… or tartare… mmm tartare).

2) Beyond that, diet is largely personal. Some people function better on high-carb, low-fat, others vise-versa. Don’t use the scale to gauge your progress. Use how you feel. Do you feel more energized or sluggish? How do your clothes fit? How are your lifts? (Hopefully, you’re lifting 😉 ). How is your recovery? Give everything you try enough time to play through your system (2-4 weeks) and then reassess. Don’t listen to anyone else’s dogma. Don’t follow what Rich Froning or Michael Phelps or Miley Cyrus eats (souls? She eats souls, right?). Revising your diet is confusing and daunting– partially because there’s not a lot of concrete research in the field of nutrition (and it has a new fad every month) and partially because our bodies are so adaptive and dynamic that it’s difficult to isolate any one factor as the change. The only way to feel like you have any grasp of what’s going on is to take control of your own nutrition– make your own damn decisions and track your progress based on how you feel rather than how you’re told you should feel.

Anyway, this month’s been really rough in terms of stress-factors and… well a lot of unexpected life complications. I apologize for the tapering of posts. However, after a few recent conversations, I felt this was worth saying. It’s nothing new or revolutionary, but particularly for those beginning their own journeys towards health, I feel it might be worth hearing. You’re not broken. It gets easier. You’re not alone.

Be good to yourselves.

Jo

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