It was several years ago that I first began my conversion to a healthier diet. It has been a slow process. In 2002 a typical day of my food might have looked like this:
Breakfast: Slept until 20 minutes before class, skipped it.
Lunch: (I’d probably feel light-headed and ravenous by the time I ate) Cheeseburger (made with factory-farmed meat) with ‘conventional’ (I hate the term ‘conventional’ when it means pesticide-laden and unsustainably grown and was not at all the normal thing until the last 50 years; organic growing is what is truly conventional in historical terms) lettuce, tomato, and onion with ketchup and mayo on white bun, order of fried onion rings dipped in honey mustard dressing or ketchup, 20 oz. Diet Dr. Pepper at the on-campus cafe
Snack: Super-processed cookies or crackers from a snack machine and another diet drink in an afternoon class
Dinner: Very sweet iced tea with George-Foreman grilled large chicken breast in honey mustard marinade with 1.5 cups of couscous and 1/2 c. of (also marinated) squash, zucchini, and onions cooked in lots of olive oil. (I usually cooked dinner for other people as well at my on-campus apartment.)
Dessert: 2 or 3 brownies (from a box mix) with ice cream and a glass of conventional skim milk if someone had made dessert (I would start out with one but always go back for seconds or thirds, even if it was an hour or two later); 3-5 store-bought cookies with milk if someone hadn’t made anything
If I was dieting at the time (South Beach, Sugar Busters, Weight Watchers, low-fat, etc.–take your pick), I would have tried to change my lunch to something less fattening or lower carb (but would have been sorely tempted to eat the burger and onion rings), and I would have tried to avoid the snack and dessert or eat a version made with fake sweetener instead (which sometimes led me to eat 2-3 times as much of that food looking for the satisfaction of real food). And my diet soda consumption would have increased.
(You know your life has changed drastically when you have trouble remembering how you would have eaten six years ago. I’m sitting here going, Did I drink lots of water then yet? Oh, no, I didn’t. Did I not eat much vegetarian food by then? Oh, no, I didn’t. Did I really drink as much Diet Coke as I’m thinking? Yes, and maybe more. Etc.)
The wheels of change started turning after I was diagnosed with cancer:
- While I was recovering from my first surgery, when nearly all I could do was lie in bed, I began researching what I could eat/drink and refrain from eating/drinking that might help prevent a recurrence of the cancer. I started eating organic food. Later that year, due to upset stomach, I cut out fake sugars. (No more Diet Coke!)
- Later, due to interstitial cystitis, I cut out acidic foods—which included sugary, carbonated sodas—and many other processed foods. (I was, fortunately, later able to add back some acidic foods in moderation–you don’t really want to give up tomatoes, lemons, and balsamic vinegar forever if you can help it.)
- At some point, I realized high-fructose corn syrup makes me get a big sugar rush and then crash into ravenous hunger, so I cut HFCS out, too, further reducing my processed food options.
- I read Fast Food Nation, which grossed me out of eating fast food anymore. A later reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma confirmed my decision.
- Videos and articles demonstrating conditions inside horrifying factory farms and animal processing plants further deepened my feelings on the issue; you don’t have to be an animal rights activist to be disgusted by animal abuse and to be horrified by how surrounding communities and the environment are affected by those places. Once I learned the truths about factory farming, buying meat from animals raised and/or killed in those conditions would make me feel like I was complicit in a Michael-Vick-&-friends style abuse of animals. I committed myself to cooking only meat from animals raised in humane conditions (and that information is much easier to ascertain from local, small farms).
- Then—as I had continued my reading on healthy foods, healthy environment, and other cancer/health/healthy planet factors—my husband and I started eating primarily locally grown, organically grown (though not always certified) foods for health and environmental reasons. At home, we began to eat entirely vegetarian.
- Then, starting the beginning of last year, I decided to lose weight, and I managed to flip my approach to dieting about 180 degrees. Instead of controlling and punishing myself into weight submission, I started thinking, every hour of every day, how to take care of myself. That has changed more in my life than I ever expected. 2007 was a huge year for personal growth for me.
- Then I decided if I was going to focus on local, unprocessed foods, I could make my cooking a bit less expensive and my life a little more fulfilling by growing some organic herbs myself in pots on our little apartment fire escape. So I did: I have been growing basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, lavender, rosemary, and sage. (They’re now indoors in the cold; though I’m still a pretty clueless gardener, most will make it through the winter, it seems.)
- In the summer of 2007 I was diagnosed with first major food allergies and then atypical celiac disease, so I cut out gluten, casein, soy, and eggs (along with other, less common foods, but I’ve been able to add the others back in restricted amounts). With the loss of soy, cow dairy, eggs, and (originally) some nuts, I felt hungry all the time, so we added some locally grown, pastured, organic meats back to our diet.
- I met with my dietician, Molly Paulson, to have her check my allergen-free food intake to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. She (and the Gluten-Free Goddess‘s leg-breaking incident) convinced me to take calcium supplements and incorporate some probiotics into my diet.
Whew. That’s a process–and that’s just food, not even exercise! I think I know what’s next, too: reducing my sugarcane intake further, relying more on vegan meals, and learning to grow & preserve more of my own food. But all in due time! If anyone had convinced me to switch instantly from my 2002 diet to my current diet, I would have tried valiantly, but I probably would have been entirely overwhelmed. A gradual process has gotten me to the same point much less painfully.
These days, though I could never have predicted it when I was younger, my taste buds really have changed their expectations. Again, it was not something that happened quickly, but when I stop to think about it, it’s pretty amazing. What started out requiring effort and commitment has become what is natural and fulfilling. I find a meal of good vegetables (not soggy vegetables or unseasoned vegetables, but well-prepared ones) with some grain/starch more satisfying than any other type of meal. I would rather have two or three bites of a really excellent dessert than a whole lot of something artificial or processed, and I would rather have two or three bites of an excellent dessert and stop than eat the whole thing, because I know if I eat the whole thing, I’ll usually ruin it by feeling overly stuffed. (It goes back to taking care of myself; being miserably stuffed is not taking care of myself.) Nearly all fruits and some vegetables taste deliciously sweet to me, now that I have spent over two years away from the sugar/fake sugar overload from sodas and such. If I drink a sweet tea or real lemonade with a meal (a rare occurrence), I’ll only have one glass, and I’ll recognize that I feel fuller earlier in the meal. Any more, and I’ll feel stuffed and possibly get a sugar high/crash later. If I drink a soda–and I only drink cane-sweetened, agave-sweetened, or fruit-juice-sweetened sodas these days, and I have them less frequently than once a month–it tastes like dessert; and when you think about it, a sugary drink like that should only be dessert! (Honestly, I usually don’t finish a soda these days because of how sugary they taste.) These days, I stop eating when I first feel food begin to hit my stomach; that was a feeling I at first had to be very conscientious to notice at each meal, and these days, my body somehow just gives me a mental nudge automatically when I reach that point. My eating habits are not perfect, and I would never mean to imply that they are; nor is this process always easy for me, because it requires a lot of energy and effort to plan healthy meals and to stick to exercising. But it has become part of my nature over time, and that’s very rewarding.
Here’s how my eating often looks now:
Breakfast: I do not skip breakfast, period. I believe eating breakfast helps wake up my metabolism, and I know that eating breakfast helps keep my blood sugar stable over the course of the day. On weekdays, I eat breakfast at work at my desk as I do my early morning work stuff. I usually eat a small, homemade muffin—one that would reach the top of the muffin paper but not be, well, muffin-topping over the edges—or a slice of a quick bread with a piece of fruit about two hours later. If I’m hungry on the drive to work, I will eat my fruit while I drive. The muffins I make from mostly organic, preferably local ingredients once or twice a month in one sitting (or standing, I should say) in the kitchen; I pack them into reusable containers, write the name of what’s inside on the erasable labels we use, and freeze them. I store a batch or two in our freezer at work, replenishing as necessary; and every day when I get to work, I thaw out a single muffin on low power in the microwave.
Because I am still fairly new to allergen-free, gluten-free, casein-free baking, I have not yet developed great skills at making a huge variety of muffins and quick breads. But because I don’t want to develop new food allergies from overconsuming, day after day, the foods I can still have (which is a potential problem for people with multiple allergies), I do try to vary which flours I use. I would like to develop the skills/knowledge to make more varieties of muffins/quick breads with higher-protein flours, less sugar, and more fiber. My favorite gluten-free, allergen-free muffin/quick bread recipes so far come from the cookbook Sophie-Safe Cooking (oat-based muffins and quick breads that I add extra spices to) and the blog/online cookbook Top 8 Free. I’m excited about trying the bread recipes in my new cookbook The Gluten-Free Vegan as well. I drink water with my breakfast and throughout the day. As I have mentioned previously, I tend to eat a weekday breakfast of 250-350 calories. (I don’t generally count my calories, but I do check in on my calorie count of particular foods I am consuming from time to time, because it can be easy to underestimate.)
On days off of work or on the weekends, if I have a few minutes to cook, I usually eat gluten-free oatmeal with toasted nuts, a bit of ghee, a few grains of salt, a dash of vanilla extract, and a bit of brown sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. I used to make the oatmeal with organic skim milk but now make it with hazelnut milk, hemp milk, or rice milk. Or, if we really want a leisurely brunch, my husband or I will make gluten-free, allergen-free pancakes or waffles with fruit topping and nuts. If I want a quick weekend breakfast, I might eat a serving of gluten-free granola or gluten-free cereal in a bowl with a milk alternative poured on it.
If I wake up late—which isn’t terribly common, but does happen if I’m sick or especially exhausted—I still eat breakfast, but if it’s fairly close to a reasonable lunchtime, I’ll only eat a small breakfast, such as 2 T of nuts or a piece of fruit. I know that if I don’t have some breakfast, or if I only have sugary breakfast foods, I’ll spend the whole day with the desire to graze on all the food around me, and I’ll be ravenous at meals. Making sure I eat something with nutritional value for breakfast every day is just one way to take care of myself and keep myself functioning at the highest level I can.
By the way, before I discovered that I could not eat gluten or eggs, and before I learned that I had given myself an allergy to almonds and apples by eating them nearly daily for six months (!), this is the breakfast I ate nearly every morning (credit goes to Bob Greene for the idea): a piece of whole-grain bread, toasted, topped with 1 T natural almond butter or peanut butter, thinly sliced apple, and 1 tsp. of honey drizzled on top. That breakfast, with its abundance of fiber and moderate dose of calories, protein, and fat (and with a little sweetness thrown in) kept me satisfied till lunchtime. Now that I can eat apples and almonds in moderation again, I plan to try the breakfast with the bread omitted when apples are back in season here!
Lunch: To keep my eating on track and to avoid wasting money and food, my husband and I pack up our dinner leftovers into individual reusable containers, which we freeze. Then we take those containers to work to microwave for a ready-portioned, tasty hot lunch. (Because our containers are plastic, I dump my food out of them into ceramic bowls before microwaving.) On the weekends, lunches vary, though I adore salads made from local lettuce. (I need to post about that glorious food some time soon.) If I need to eat out at work for some reason, I try to pick something reasonable off the menu (with allergen-free/gluten-free eating, I usually need to order something very healthy anyway), and then I let myself fully enjoy it. Occasionally I just eat something unhealthy and let myself indulge in it, no guilt allowed. You see, I always used to feel guilty about eating meals that were obviously unhealthy, whether or not I was on a diet. So before and during the meal, I would have an emotional/mental tug of war that would usually be won with some part of me saying, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m going to eat this meal and I’m going to eat the whole damn thing. So there.” Then I’d be uncomfortably stuffed, guilty, and miserable afterwards. Amazingly, since the beginning of 2007, I have found that when I release the guilt and just enjoy the occasional unhealthy meal, I leave space in my mind to be aware when I am satisfied–so I stop eating usually 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the entree. Allowing myself a reasonable portion of an occasional pure indulgence of, say, a grass-fed bison burger (no bun, of course, due to wheat & eggs) with grilled onions and avocado and a side of house-made fries keeps me from obsessing over missing out on foods due to that dirty d-word.
Snack: If I’m hungry between meals at times I wouldn’t expect myself to be hungry (30 minutes after eating a meal, for example), I stop what I am doing and concentrate on asking myself if food is what I really want or if it is something else. If it’s something else—for example, if I’m maybe thirsty, or if I am just feeling bored—I’ll take care of that issue and see if I am still hungry afterward. For times when I am truly hungry, I keep organic nuts, a chocolate/fruit bar (organic and high-quality, natch), and sometimes organic, flavored popcorn or something similar tucked in my desk. If I feel a bit peckish between meals, I’ll have a tablespoon or two of nuts. If I want something sweet, I’ll have an ounce of chocolate. If I want something with more volume, I’ll have a cup of flavored popcorn. I get out my serving before I eat, and then I put them away and eat the serving. I wait to see if I feel satisfied within 20-30 minutes. If I do, I stop there. If not, I consider whether I want another bit of snack or want to go ahead and get my next meal. One hint that I have noticed about myself is I am probably not actually hungry if I am only desiring one particular food; if I’m truly hungry, popcorn or whatever else is in my desk will sound good to me; if there is something other than hunger I am dealing with, it will often come disguised as a desire for a very particular treat.
I often do eat a small snack some time between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. If I don’t have a snack while I am still at work, I am usually pretty hungry by the time I get home. If we are going to eat dinner within about 45 minutes of my arrival home, then I just wait for dinner. But if we have longer than that before dinner will be ready, then I eat a small snack—something that happens to be between 100 and 200 calories, usually—to keep myself from wanting to wolf down too much dinner when it is ready.
Dinner: If you look through my site, you’ll see the meal planning for the dinners my husband and I typically eat. We eat vegetarian more often than not; I aim for 2/3 of our meals to be vegetables, though I sometimes am closer to half; I make sure that most meals have a good serving of protein; and I try to use moderate portions of fat in our meals–enough to be satisfying, but not enough to load us up with tons of calories. The focus is on sustainably farmed foods, and I limit processed foods as much as possible. I plan our meals week by week, because I find that without a plan, and without groceries in the house, it is far too easy to eat out too often and/or turn to largely unhealthy convenience foods. We eat dinner on salad plates so that we naturally eat more moderate portions than we would on dinner plates, and (usually) unless we have many guests over, we serve food from the kitchen to keep ourselves from taking seconds just because they are sitting there. We drink water with dinner most nights; 2 or 3 times a week, we might have a glass of wine. I’m a strong believer in learning about and using lots of great seasonings to keep healthy foods interesting, so I have worked to do just that. I make one meal for the both of us, always–no special foods for either of us, though I might leave the tomato off a sandwich for him if he’s lucky! (Raw, sliced tomatoes is a very rare food hang-up for him.) Spending the time to make nutritious, delicious meals for us is one way that I show love for him and for myself. (Oh, and he does the dishes since I make the food. . . . And we unfortunately do not have a dishwasher.)
Dessert: I try to incorporate small desserts into our meal plans 1-2 times a week; that way, as I think about my week’s meals, I don’t feel that sense of deprivation that dieting used to bring. Dessert may be nothing healthier than it used to be; for example, two nights ago, we had small glasses of sherry with chocolate-orange-walnut cookies. I’ve had to divorce my expectations for how much I eat from my husband’s (which took conscious effort); he can go through 8 cookies in a sitting and be fine, but if I eat that way, I’ll feel sick and then gain a pound. I admittedly ate some cookie dough while I made this batch of cookies, but then I only had one cookie when they were done. (I put the rest in a labeled container in the deep freezer.) I try to incorporate in-season fruit into desserts more often than I used to as one method of making desserts healthier. I also serve dessert to us in smaller containers than I used to use: a small plate for cookies, or a small mug instead of a bowl for ice cream. But I don’t stress myself out over my dessert consumption too much anymore, because I’ve learned that the first 2-3 bites of dessert are the most delicious, and after that, it’s more rote consumption than anything. Nine times out of ten, I’ll stop at the second or third bite these days; so that’s usually all I serve myself these days.
And there you go–those are (some elements of!) the changes in my eating habits over the last few years. None of us can avoid food, and for most of us, food will always have meaning and purpose culturally, emotionally, and socially. Food is very important to me and always will be, and I embrace that whole-heartedly. I used to wonder if I could develop a healthy relationship with food where I could enjoy (even adore) it without overindulging in it regularly. Now I know it is possible.