Disclaimer: I wrote this post on the airplane home, coming down off of the adrenaline rush of spending some of the best four days of my life with incredible people and after not sleeping for 24 hours straight…I’ll be back … Continue reading
A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”
- Wake up at 4:30 am after about 5-6 hours of sleep. Raises my ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone) and lowers my leptin (the satiety stimulating hormone). Lower leptin means lower endorphins.
- Coffee with artificial low-fat creamer. Raises my cortisol, stimulates insulin response.
- Get to the gym by 5 am. Take an hour long spin class. Physical stress of intense endurance workout raises my cortisol, artificially increases my endorphins.
- Down a protein shake (dairy proteins, lactose, and artificial sugar). Stimulate insulin response with lactose and artificial sugar, irritate gut with dairy proteins.
- Get to my job, which stresses me out (because I hate my job, because I have a big project on deadline, because I hate my coworkers/my boss/my direct reports, whatever). Cortisol stays raised.
- Stomach starts growling at 10 am. Have a Greek yogurt with berries on the bottom. Stimulates another insulin spike, more dairy proteins for the gut.
- Starving by noon. Have a big salad with tofu, low-fat dressing, and a piece of whole grain bread. Snack on a banana. More gut irritation from soy (lectins and phytates and phytoestrogens, oh my!), bread (gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, etc. Another insulin spike from influx of glucose and fructose from both the low-fat dressing (added sugars to make up for the lack of fat, for taste purposes) and the banana. Promote hormone dysregulation with phytoestrogens in soy.
- Start yawning around 1 pm. Desperate to stay awake. Another cup of coffee. Cortisol stays raised, body/mind still physically exhausted.
- Starving again by 3 pm. Forage in purse of 100-calorie pack of cookies with goji berries. They’re gluten-free and low calorie so they must be healthy. Also, some doctor on the Today show said that one of the ingredients was a superfood. Superfoods are good for me, so I’ll eat more of them. Feeding my gut processed foods, feeding my liver glucose. More insulin.
- Leave work and head back to the gym because I am feeling guilty for “not working out hard enough” this morning. Another hour of weights should do it. Drink a Gatorade throughout, to replenish electrolytes. More cortisol, more glucose. Liver is pumping insulin like it’s nobody’s business. Body isn’t hurting for electrolytes, but someone tweeted an article that said I needed them, so…
- Get home and make dinner. It’s Meatless Monday, so, after weighing and measuring all my portions, it’s gluten-free pasta with soy-meatballs and beans for extra protein and canned spaghetti sauce. Pasta is gluten-free and therefore, in my mind, a weight loss food. Two helpings! More soy. Beans are primarily carbohydrate; proteins are incomplete. Also contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Canned spaghetti sauce has added sugar. Gluten-free pasta is still densely packed with carbohydrates, which will be broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body.
- Still hungry. Need dessert. Start foraging for anything sugary to take mind off of hunger. Cereal it is: one bowl–okay, two–with fat-free milk. If it’s low fat, it’s okay to have the extra bowl….right? More carbs and sugars, sugars and carbs. Nighttime binge courtesy of leptin resistance and one last wonderful spike/drop in insulin from the sugar eaten for dinner.
- Spend about 45 minutes logging all my food and exercise with an online calorie counter. Have used it every day for the last 6 months, so I already know exactly how many calories I’ve eaten, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel guilty if I don’t. May or may not have fudged the pasta and cereal amounts. Secretly hate myself because I know how much I really ate. Not a big enough deficit. Negative self talk as a result of using a calorie counter. “Staying accountable” to my disorder (and who says I have a disorder, huh?) makes me feel like I have a sense of power, even though I’ve actually just lost the last 45 minutes of my life to pointless worrying.
- Off to bed. Hating myself for the second bowl of cereal, thinking about chocolate cake. Guess I’ll have to go to the gym twice tomorrow to make up for it. Feeling depressed about it. Stay up late reading on my tablet–shut down around 11 or 12 and then toss and turn before falling into a light and fitful sleep. Cortisol levels kept unnaturally high by the afternoon coffee mean that sleep is going to be disrupted. Blue-white glow from the tablet screen disrupts melatonin production, which helps the body to fall asleep. Melatonin production also thrown off by disruption of natural circadian rhythm (staying up too late, getting up too early). Lack of sleep also promotes leptin resistance and stimulates ghrelin. Excessive exercise (stress) can contribute to depletion of serotonin, which leads to depression. Depression from lack of serotonin can lead to insomnia, which contributes to further serotonin depletion. (Vicious cycle.)
Okay. So remind me again why this lifestyle is considered healthy? Remind me why we “love” exercising and having to snack all day? Remind me why people get upset when anyone suggests that it’s not dedication but obsession?
If you’re a slave to the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you do because you believe that you’re benefitting from it, ask yourself if that’s helped you lose weight, get fit, or enjoy your life at all.
And if you’ve taken it to the “eat clean” orthorexic extreme (as I most assuredly did), then you’re definitely in the camp that believes that extreme measures are needed to stay healthy. And while I commend you for eliminating the 100-calorie packs of cookies, you’re in the same boat if you’re snacking on homemade gluten free cookies with dried goji berries instead. You’re in the same boat if you believe that you have to down a protein shake or some concoction made with egg whites and fake sugar. You’re in the same boat if you already know in advance how many calories you ate and burned because you’ve used the calorie counter for so long that it’s no longer even a necessary tool (especially if you have the mobile app on your phone because you want to log every morsel of every meal the second you eat it, so you won’t forget).
But we’ve been taught to eat less and move more for so long, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that there could be another way.
I’ll post next about some of the changes I made this summer, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your day look like?
A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself.
Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) salt.
Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting.
But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.
When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.
So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.
If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.
There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.
Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**
Let me explain:
First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.
The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.
Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.
While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).
Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).
And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.
Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.
And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.
And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:
I was a food addict.
*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…
**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…
If you want to read the whole series in order, start here:
And so here I was, at a crossroads. I had committed to being a vegan. I wanted nothing to do with meat. And yet I was broken down mentally and metabolically. Worse, I was doing nothing but accumulating scars on the most visible part of my body. I agreed to at least indulge my mom in exploring another way of eating.
As I mentioned before, my mom is into Crossfit. And the people at her gym introduced her to a way of eating called the “Paleo Diet.” She was convinced that if only I started eating bacon, I’d be cured. I did not harbor such preconceptions when I suspiciously opened up Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint and started reading.
And I read the Primal Blueprint with a serious amount of skepticism. It basically told me that the lifestyle I’d been living and the diet I was following was completely wrong: my high-carb, low-fat, moderate-to-as-high-as-I-could-get-with-hemp-powder-and-brown-rice protein diet ran directly against the Primal Blueprint’s guidelines. Moreover, my sleep and exercise were, according to Mark Sisson, completely off-base and out of rhythm with my body. I finished the book in one night, and went to sleep with my brow furrowed.
I wasn’t convinced. After all, everything I’d read since becoming vegan said the opposite. How could eating meat be good for me? Weren’t egg yolks the reason for heart disease? What about the China Study?!*
It wasn’t until I borrowed Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat from the library that things started to make sense.
According to Taubes, the science behind the low-fat, high-carb diet is inherently flawed. The FDA adopted the low-fat mantra after confusing correlation with causation. The connection between dietary and somatic cholesterol has been debunked time and again, although the results of those studies have been purposely obfuscated by the government and the media, or else just simply misunderstood.
Moreover, if you look at the rates of heart disease, diabesity, and related diseases, you’ll see a direct correlation between them and the adoption of the low-fat, high-carb diet (circa the 1980s). And there are scientists today who are proving causation in study after study after study.
(For more on that, check out Taubes’ 2004 article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” in the NYT, then read the book–and if you want to get seriously serious, read Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes’ 400+ page tome on the subject.)
Anyway, I’m not here to argue about plant-based versus animal protein diets (today). Just to explain why I decided to give Paleo a try.
Now that I had at least decided to proceed with an open mind, I borrowed my mom’s copy of the Whole30 and got to work.
The Whole30 is a tough-love 30-day diet and lifestyle change meant to help you cold-turkey transition to a healthier, cleaner way of eating. For people who approach it from the Standard American Diet of processed foods, it’s a shock to the system–no sugar, trans fats, packaged anything–that probably results in weight loss and huge medical benefits (I say “probably” because the creators of the Whole30 suggest that this isn’t about weight loss but about establishing healthier food habits). But there’s a shock to the system for recovering veg*ns, too: when you shift your diet from grains, grasses, beans, and legumes to animal proteins and healthy fats, you are fundamentally changing the way your body runs and reacts.
And since I’m no stranger to 30-day diets and transformations, I figured I’d give it a go. Why not? Giving up food wasn’t new to me. Every “diet” I’d tried was about what I couldn’t eat. Even though I constantly thought about the things I was eating–trying to trick myself into looking forward to egg white pancakes or packets of “green” meal-powders–it was always within the context of the things I wasn’t eating. And god forbid I go “off-plan” and cheat–then it was open-season for ED to start shooting me down with reminders of how horrible I was for eating the things I “couldn’t” have.
I was pretty much convinced that the Paleo thing would just be another list of foods I couldn’t have. And, technically, by starting with the Whole30, it was: No grains. No beans. No peanuts, for god’s sake.** No dairy.*** No, no, no. I even went further and did an autoimmune protocol, which means excluding potentially allergenic foods that cause or exacerbate everything from autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis to acne (the latter, of course, being the reason I tried it). On the autoimmune protocol I further limited my diet by excluding “nightshades,” which are a class of vegetable that contain “alkaloids[, which] can impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function in animals and humans, and may also be able to compromise joint function.” These foods include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and any pepper, from sweet to hot.
And so this was how I found myself eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs for the first time in almost a year. (Okay, fine: scrambled egg whites. I had read and understood Why We Get Fat on an intellectual level, but ED doesn’t listen to intellect–ED only knows that there are more calories in whole eggs than in egg whites.) This was how I found myself enjoying tuna fish for lunch. (No mayo, but it’s surprisingly good with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and Italian spices!)
The Whole30 went well–in fact, while I wasn’t weighing myself, I visibly lost my vegan belly bloat.+ My acne, though by no means cured, was hugely alleviated. In fact, I was able to stop taking the doxycycline I had been prescribed during the vegan disaster.
Now that the month was over, however, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I still hadn’t completely gotten rid of the acne, still hadn’t completely committed to the idea of eating animal fat, still hadn’t moved past the 30-day diet mentality.
Staring into the abyss of “what next,” I failed to recognize that I was so busy concentrating on the foods I couldn’t eat that I had forgotten to consider the ones I could.
*The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell is the number one document to which the veg*n community turns to validate the high-fat:cholesterol connection. Denise Minger of Raw Food SOS debunks the China Study here.
**No peanuts because no legumes. Apparently, as a defense mechanism, legumes contain a indigestible anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Phytates make all of the nutrients that Fitday calorie counters tell us we’re eating unavailable to our bodies. Moreover, peanuts contain proteins called lectins, which permeate the lining of our digestive tract and wreak all sorts of havoc on our guts and bloodstreams.
***Not a problem for me, since I’d stopped eating dairy in January of 2011. I’ve since had one container of Greek yogurt (July 2011-ish, if memory serves), and I felt so horrible after eating it that I haven’t looked back.
+Ah, the dreaded bloat. My yoga-and-vegan-induced weight loss lasted until November or so…After that, I started to gain weight and lose muscle (in part due to the fact that I wasn’t able to exercise at the level I had previously due to my ankle). But even after I returned to working out (and working through the pain), I couldn’t seem to get comfortable in my own body.
I will admit to taking progress photos for the sake of the Whole30. I have not done so since, nor do I feel the need to anymore. I’m posting them here solely to demonstrate the physical change that occurred after giving up veganism. Here is what happened after a month and a half of “Paleo” eating:
There’s something I’ve been struggling with lately–struggling to live with and struggling to put into words.
It wasn’t until I started reading Caroline Knapp’s Appetite: Why Women Want that I started to formulate a way to express it:
She writes: “[a]ppetites for sex, for beautiful things, for physical pleasure–all of these can be baffling, and all of them can leave a woman confused about the most ordinary daily decisions. Are you eating that second helping because you’re hungry or because you’re sad? If you work out for an extra thirty minutes, are you heeding the call of health and well-being or engaging in a bout of self-punishment?[…] Where are the lines between satisfaction and excess, between restraint and indulgence, between pleasure and self-destruction? And why are they so hard to find…?”
I’ve been trying to navigate the borderline of the narrow crevasse between pleasure and self-destruction, and it is a particularly fraught balancing act because I am so invested in health and nutrition from an aspiration-ally professional perspective.
When I posted a picture of my National Academy of Sports Medicine personal trainer recertification on instagram, I had at least two people ask me if wanting to be a personal trainer was a good idea for someone like me.
I’ve had multiple people ask if this blog isn’t just another way of trying to justify disordered behavior, as well as if my current way of eating isn’t just as restrictive or disordered as any I’ve tried before.
As friends, family, and concerned licensed mental health professionals, they’re not wrong to ask those questions. But I don’t think they need to worry.
This morning, I had a thought: I can’t wait to get my cast off so I can get back in shape.
And then I stopped myself and asked myself, what shape are you talking about? Because I realized that I don’t really care about what shape I’m in. I care about being fit and healthy. The terminology I’ve been using is wrong. I want to be able to squat and deadlift or finally do some pull ups again. While fitting into my old jeans is nice, I’m not particularly freaked out about the size of my thighs or if my abs are visible anymore.
But it occurred to me, while I was arguing semantics with myself, that even though I know where the line is, won’t I always run the risk of crossing it? Will I ever be able to fully disengage from the voices of ED all around me–including the parts of my own vocabulary that I have yet to change?
I really do want, more than anything, to be involved in the health and fitness community. I really do want to be able to go to the gym and train clients–but not because I want to help them reach some aesthetic goal. I want to help people learn how to love their bodies and make them stronger. I want to help people understand nutrition from a scientific, individualized perspective–so that they can make choices that keep them alive and disease-free for as long as possible. And while I think that fitness models are beautiful, I know that the way they live isn’t sustainable for real people. And I’m a real person.
I know that I’m very new to this journey toward self-love and acceptance, and I know that ED and I have only been separated for a relatively short time. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to go back to how I was. That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to put in the work and learn a new vocabulary.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to go back to “trying to get in shape.”
I think that I can make a difference as a fitness professional because, even though I may be surrounded by people who live in their own personal disorders, surrounded by broscience and eating clean and low-fat high-protein supplement-and-protein-shake nonsense, I think I’m becoming fluent in the true meaning of fitness and health.
It’s going to be hard, yes, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it. Especially because I have this forum here, and all of you out there who will keep me honest.
It’s a challenge, but I think I’m up to it. My outlook, my mindset…they’re already starting to get in shape. And I think that’s pretty damn beautiful.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I was pretty committed to my relationship ED.* And I’ve also learned the hard way that ED doesn’t take kindly to cheating.**
When I first began my vegan experiment, I quickly figured out how to use it to continue to isolate myself. No, sorry, vegans can’t eat hamburgers. I’d love to join you for lunch, but they don’t have vegan food in the food court.*** I would stay out late, but I have to get up early to make my kale smoothie. Even though I was no longer logged onto my calorie counting app, I still knew exactly how many calories–and their estimated macronutrient breakdowns–were passing my lips at every meal.
So when I was asked to go out on a date, I figured it would be no problem: I could just pull the “vegan card.”
My date-to-be pulled a different card entirely:
If you’ve ever seen the Vegan Bucket List, then you are a) familiar with the nationally acclaimed Sublime restaurant in Fort Lauderdale and b) probably already a hardcore, green-smoothie-and-tempeh vegan.
He even told me about the restaurant beforehand (because ED likes to panic if I don’t know the menu before I eat at a restaurant) and gave me the option to drive myself so I could leave if I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack.
And since my date-to-be was also a really nice guy, I had exactly zero reasons to say no.
And so it was a date.
One of my friends happens to be an amazing make-up artist, and she volunteered to help me get ready for this, my first actual date in over a year. I went home to put on my dress and promptly proceeded to have a major panic attack, during which time I cried enough to do some major damage to the mascara. When I was done freaking out for no reason, I pulled myself together, put myself into a dress, put said dress and self into my car, and hauled ass to Fort Lauderdale.
The dinner was, as expected, spectacular. But that’s not why this date was so special. Food, as I’m learning, is just food. The experience is everything.
My date (by this point “to-be” become an unnecessary qualifier) was also a magician. And he asked me if I would consent to a card trick before dinner. I agreed.
My job was to simply separate the deck, one card at a time, into two piles. At one point, while I was randomly assigning cards to either pile, he hesitated and asked me, twice, if I wanted to rethink my card assignment. Other than that, I separated the cards quickly and without really thinking about it. Although “my decisions” about where to place the cards technically guided the whole trick, he somehow managed to have me separate the deck into a pile of black cards and a pile of red cards–with the exception of one: the black 8 of clubs was in the red card pile. I was nonplussed–was this the whole trick? It didn’t seem all that impressive–until he told me to look down at the bottom of the menu.
Needless to say, I liked pulling the 8 of Clubs much better than I liked pulling the “vegan card.”
Dinner consisted of decadence in the form of fake meat, simulated dairy, and many, many vegetables. I even had a few glasses of wine+ and a seriously indulgent chocolate dessert. The sheer number of calories was enough to warrant a severe punishing by ED when I went home, but I was too happy to care about ED’s reaction while I enjoyed my time with the magician.
The magician could, as magicians do, control for just about everything–the timing, the outcomes, the emotions. But life, and more importantly a life lived with ED, unfortunately demands a different kind of control. So while the magician could promise to make the moon disappear, ED’s magic was more impressive: ED could make me disappear. Going out–and especially eating restaurant food–meant introducing variables that could not be entirely controlled: I needed to know how my food was prepared, what time I’d be able to eat it, if I’d be home in time and with enough calories to spare for dessert, if I’d be staying up late enough to make me late for a workout or Bikram session, and whether or not I’d be able to leave if I started to feel claustrophobic and anxious. So more often than not, the magician came over to my house after dinner and left before bedtime.
And so, as usual, I started to pull back into myself, shrouding myself in ED’s protective, familiar, strangling embrace and away from the comfort and even freedom that my magician tried to offer.
In the end, the vegan card trumped the 8 of Clubs.
*Perhaps you can consider the dark circles under my eyes ED’s promise rings?
**If you can remember back to 2007, 2009, and 2010, you will have three of my most extreme examples of dating while under the influence of ED. I don’t recommend trying this.
***And, to those of you who are going to argue that the falafel at Maoz was vegan, I wasn’t about to shove fried food into my mouth just because the falafel guy told me it was 100% vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and “healthy.” Fried food is still fried food, just like organic gummy bears are still pure sugar.
+The first time I’d had alcohol since early March, and the second to last time I’ve had alcohol to date.
As per ED Has Two Mommies: It’s amazing how an ED can thrive on social pressure. Even under the guise of change and growth, an ED can wriggle its way underneath even your healthiest habits and cause them to decay from within. Habits that you try to change by drastic measures become the drastic measures that your resort to when life goes off the rails. And ED is there as always, waiting with a “safety net” of routine and dysfunction to catch you as you fall.
The day I decided to do my 30-Day Challenge, the day I became a vegan, was the day I chopped off all of my hair (again). It was the day that I committed to losing 10 pounds by November. It was the day that I hung a pair of black shorts that hadn’t fit me since the height of my anorexia on my wall and decided that I would wear them on my birthday.
The day I became a vegan was supposed to be the day I broke free from the strict lifestyle of the figure competitor, the day I broke free from calorie counting, eating small meals every three hours, and using cardio/resistance training as an excuse to excuse myself from social life.
I was working full time and doing yoga every day. I used my days off to do doubles, or tried to fit doubles in at 5 am and after 6 pm on days I worked the early shift. I still ate every three hours and counted the calories in my seitan-on-sprouted grain-bread sandwiches. I practically moved into the farmer’s market down the street, since I was consuming pounds and pounds of vegetables in my daily juices and green smoothies (and became more tied to my kitchen than ever for easy access to the juicer and blender). My other meals were made up of giant salads mixed with fermented tofu or in various forms (mainly tempeh)–or else I would forgo the actual “meal” and just eat a meal replacement made of various combinations of sprouted legumes, grasses, and green things.
ED was there, perhaps wearing different clothes, but meddling in my affairs all the same. And, as always is the case when ED starts to meddle, the black clouds began to roll in.
I grew increasingly defensive of my food and lifestyle choices–apparently “vegan” translates to “alien” in the omnivore’s tongue*–and I felt like I was therefore more and more justified in my isolation. And isolation, if you remember, is ED’s favorite food.
Now, before I go any further, I am only writing the following to provide context for the descent into depression and disorder that follows. Let me also say that I know that I am just as at fault for any bad juju that was stirring between myself and my roommates up until this point–ED had turned me into a depressed, shrewish hermit, and my roommates’ inability to clean up after themselves simply brought out the best of my by-this-point well-cultured passive aggression.
All of that said, things went definitively south when one of my roommates asked if one of his friends could stay with us for a couple of weeks while she searched for a job and a place to live. Okay, fine, I said. As long as it was only a few weeks.
And I won’t go too deep into the details of this invasion of my home, but I that’s what it felt like–an invasion. Instead of being ignored, my food choices were suddenly questioned and made fun of. (Ew, what is that green thing you’re eating?!) My routines were called out and disparaged. (You’re seriously going to bed now? Fine, well, we’re going out. Don’t wait up.) I felt like I was living under a microscope, with all of my deficiencies on display and my habits the subject of analysis and debate.
And the more I was analyzed and debated–the more I heard the hushed behind-my-back and outside-my-bedroom-door conversations and the second-hand gossip at work–the more I became the depressed, crazy, creature of habit that our guest was talking about.
All of this, and she didn’t have to pay rent.
As the days turned into weeks turned into months, I grew more and more despondent. My roommates grew less and less tolerant of my presence in the house. I wasn’t the cool, fun roommate anymore–far from it. I was the annoyance who was lucky I was being allowed to pay rent. But for work and yoga, I confined myself to my room or a corner of the kitchen around the clock.
And, on top of all of this, our guest got a job at my Kool-Aid store. So now I was with my roommates and their guest around the clock. Not only did I have no relief from my roommates’ presence, but my promotion also turned out to have brought more responsibility without any of the joy I thought would come of it.
My only comfort? ED. ED wouldn’t lie or disappoint me. ED wouldn’t judge me–if anything, ED would keep me on track. ED was the only thing I could think about or else I was sure I’d go crazy. Unfortunately, ED was the very reason I felt out of control and crazy to begin with.
*I cannot even begin to quantify the number of times I’ve been asked, “Wait…does that mean you eat fish?” during my stint as a vegan. No, it does not mean I can eat fish. Veganism means eschewing all animal products, up to and including the bee pollen I was mixing into my daily oatmeal. No eggs, no honey, no fish, cheese, or cows. Not even chewing gum made with shellac or other animal derived products (and you’d be surprised how many there are). And if you’re really hardcore, no leather or animal-made nonedibles either.
Okay, I know I haven’t even gotten to the point in my story where I finally give up my stance on nutrition, but yesterday’s headlines call for a little context-jumping (and a whole lot of common sense):
In case you don’t want to do the Google searching yourself, a recent study compared the nutritional content and relative pesticide/antibiotic concentration of various organic and conventional foods. In doing so, apparently the researchers were trying to disprove that organic food offers additional health benefits as opposed to conventional food. Which is stupid and fallacious. Because those are two entirely different things.
Now, unless you’re the kind of person who goes to Whole Foods and buys a bag of “Organic Gummy Bears” because he/she honestly thinks that she’s getting a “health benefit” from consuming these “organic” sugar bombs, you already know that organic food isn’t “healthier” than conventional. You don’t eat organic because you think that the health fairies have blessed your apples with magical nutrients; you eat organic because you don’t want the anti-health fairies (i.e. conventional farmers) to poison you with pesticides, hormones, or genetically modified bullsh*t (literally or figuratively).
In case you were buying organic gummy bears and believing that they (and their 100% fruit flavor claims) were somehow going to make you lose ten pounds and live forever, here is your wakeup call: all “organic” means is that “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” in the production of an agricultural product. That’s it. If you are still confused, go check out the USDA’s website on labeling and standards. It’s pretty clear.
The problem with this study is that it compared apples to apples and concluded that there was no difference between the two. An organic apple is exactly as nutritionally healthy as a conventional apple (for all intents and purposes). Except for the fact that it hasn’t been introduced to pesticides that can penetrate its relatively thin skin. Which means eating an organic apple isn’t necessarily going to make you healthier; it will, however, stand less of a chance of killing you in the long run.
So why am I so up in arms about this? Because this is just another case of the mass media misinterpreting “scientific” studies in order to generate press/page views. This is why we’re all so damn confused about what to eat (and why we’re still eating things that will kill us.**) This is why no one has any clue where he or she stands on eggs this week. (FYI: Time Magazine says they’re killing us this week.) This is why there’s a multi-billion dollar diet industry devoted to preying on our insecurities and our misinformation (which I’d call ignorance–were it not for our lack of trying). Studies like this–and they way in which they’re interpreted by the people who feed us our information–are why we don’t know how to feed ourselves.
(What makes me even angrier is that the people who write the articles end up burying the lede somewhere at the bottom. For example, in this MSNBC article the headline reads “Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Conventional;” however the real story is somewhere in the last few lines: “‘If I was a smart consumer, I would choose food that has no pesticides,’ [Chensheng] Lu [“who studies environmental health and exposure at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston”], who wasn’t involved in the new study, told Reuters Health. ‘I think that’s the best way to protect your health.’”)
And, ultimately, this is how we keep the food media industry rolling. When we’re inundated with misinformation about our food and our health, we’re not only taught to obsess about our food (because if we miss the wrong news report, we’ll eat an egg on a day when it could kill us or forget to eat an egg when they’re proclaimed healthy again), but we’re also told to eat foods that keep us unhealthily–which make us feel terrible, which make us sick, and which keep us dependent on addictive and ultimately poisonous foods.
So now, when you’re feeling bad after gulping down organic gummies like they’re going out of style or are instead wondering why you’re putting on weight or dealing with an impaired endocrine system after eschewing organic meats for their cheaper, conventional, hormone-fed cousins, you’re just reacting to the same cycle of scare-mongering, half-truth-telling that got you here in the first place.
But now you know.
And It’s up to us as consumers–of both food and media to stay as informed as possible. And that means approaching “studies” and their splashy, misleading headlines, with a skepticism that’s been proven to be healthier than eating organic. Read blogs like Eathropology or Chris Kresser. Listen to podcasts by Abel James and Sean Croxton. And question everything.
Okay. Rant over. For now.
(And if you’re trying to justify spending less money now that organic food “isn’t healthy,” please at least consider investing in grass-fed/pastured/non-antibiotic-fed meats and at least buying organic produce when you’re planning to eat the skin or leaves. Save on things like bananas, since you’re not going to eat the peel anyway…)
P.S. This has to be the best quote I’ve yet read by others who are just as p.o.’d about this issue as I am: “Avocados don’t contain any more fairy dust than Cheetos, therefore: Avocados aren’t any healthier than Cheetos!” (Looks like I’m going to have an excuse to go back to eating Cheetos…gotta get my RDA of fairy dust after all! *Blech*)
*Okay, isn’t healthier than conventional food. But that then leads us to make the fallacious jump to the next conclusion: well, if it’s not healthier than conventional food, it’s not healthy at all. In fact, I can already hear the cable news channel teasers: “New study shows that organic food isn’t as healthy as they want us to believe. Have we been wasting our money–and our health? We investigate at 11.”
**And before I write this, please understand that I’m not choosing this topic to be inflammatory; I’m choosing it because it’s a recent example of what I’m talking about. No hate mail/comments, please: A prime example is that tragedy of Michael Clarke Duncan, who died at age 54 from a heart attack. He had become a vegetarian recently, so of course there are already people on both camps (diehard veg*ns and Paleo people) ready to point fingers. I’ve already seen one comment stating that he “probably wasn’t a vegetarian long enough” to prevent his past dietary discretions from building up and killing him…but I’m of the belief (and I’ll get to why once I finish my story) that being a vegetarian certainly didn’t help him–especially if he was avoiding saturated fats, meats, and other healthful food (yes, it is healthy; no I don’t want to fight about it) and instead consuming grains, legumes, and soy (no, they’re not healthy; no, I still don’t want to fight about it). I don’t know what his diet was like before becoming a vegetarian, so I don’t know if it’s the pre- or post-diet that was to blame, but either way, neither the Standard American Diet nor a Standard American Vegetarian Diet+ is good for your health. IMHO.
+Standard American Vegetarian Diet: high carb/low fat, fake meat, processed food, grains (looks a lot like the Standard American Diet, but with less McDonalds and more Tofurky.)
After a week of crazy hospital visits and surgical interruptions, I’m sure you have quite forgotten where we were with our story. And so, a brief recap: August hit, my ankle remained a mess but life started to come back together. I became a vegan and started doing Bikram yoga. And so:
Why, you must be asking, would anyone in his or her right mind do Bikram yoga?
Why, I must ask you, do you assume that anyone who does Bikram yoga is in his or her right mind?+
I got caught up in Bikram by accident. In December of 2009, while I was home deciding whether or not to finish my MFA, I ran into a major conflict with my ED: ED wanted me to work out, and I couldn’t, because I had injured my back at the gym (something I did often) and needed to rest and recuperate.
Resting and recuperating were not a part of ED’s bodybuilding dreams, but I was afraid to go back to the gym and injure myself further. ED insisted, however: days off were not an option. Days off are days when fat turns on.*
So I turned to the internet for help. (Rarely a good idea, although Google actually came through for me on this one.)
In my area, there were about four or five different yoga studios, all specializing in different practices. Hatha. Iyengar, Ashtanga. Bikram. I made my choice not based on style or benefits but on proximity to my house. (And, you know, estimated calories burned.)
Bikram it was.
I called ahead, and was instructed to bring two towels (one large, one small) and a yoga mat, to eat very little or nothing beforehand, and to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
The studio smelled overwhelmingly of wet feet**, and I could see both men and women in various stages of undress already sweltering near humidifiers on the floor.
The first class was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. I walked out of the studio looking as though I had been thrown in a swimming pool, but I felt so clean and light on the inside that I thought I might float away.
That night, I ate an extra tablespoon of peanut butter for dinner and ED didn’t even say a word.
I started doing Bikram every other day, and my back pain quickly cleared up. I returned to the gym in the mornings (doing my hour-and-a-half-long lifting and cardio routines) and then went to Bikram at night. I felt euphoric, light, and even hopeful. It was strange. I even felt less anxiety after doing yoga, so I started going every day.
The peace and clarity of mind I felt when practicing Bikram was a large factor in my decision to return to New York to finish my degree. In the city, I found an amazing little studio on 145th street, and I incorporated Bikram into my already crazy gym-and-school schedule.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Bikram was not a complete panacea for my problems. If it were, I would not be writing this particular blog right now. But Bikram was an invitation to begin healing. It was a way to soften the rough edges of my depression and to calm the chronic anxiety I felt. It was a way to connect, if only for 90 minutes, with the inner voice that ED had long suppressed. It was a way to appease ED by taking some time for myself, because I was still burning a massive number of calories through each session.
Due to the issues of time, money, and general reality, however, constant Bikram sessions were not in my cards for the long term. First and foremost, I was overdoing it, as is generally my M.O. I pulled my hamstrings on more than one occasion, and threw out my back whenever I combined too much yoga with my ever more intense gym sessions. As the months dragged on, I went to yoga less and less frequently. By the time I reached my summer transformation challenge, I was pretty much yoga-free. (And, not unexpectedly, stewing in a pot of my own anxiety and depression.)
When I returned to Bikram for the 30-day challenge in August 2011, I was not a different person. I was still a mental prisoner of ED. I was still prone to extreme behaviors surrounding my exercise and calorie restriction. I was also injured.
The good news is that, at least for the month of my challenge, many of the symptoms in my ankle started to clear up. While I was still weak, I felt less pain. If I missed a day of yoga, I would dissolve into anxiety attacks until I was able to make up the transgression on a double day. (I even started doing preemptive doubles, just in case.)
Combined with my raw, vegan, mostly-juice diet, Bikram made me feel lighter than air. I threw myself into the practice, and the practice rewarded me with health and wellbeing.
With Bikram, I saw myself on a path to healing, and maybe even finally escaping from the clutches of ED.
*I know now that this is a lie that ED told me. Days off are days in which muscles repair themselves and grow stronger. Please make sure you’re getting sufficient rest in whatever fitness program you’re following!!!
**Every Bikram studio smells of wet feet. You get used to it.
…for a couple of random updates and thoughts:
– First and foremost, the surgical procedure was short and simple, and now my ankle has no choice but to heal. The doctor put me in a hard cast this time so that there would be less chance for reinfection. So now I’m once again hopping about on crutches, but hopefully for the last time.
– The allergic reaction also appears to have calmed down. It still hurts to run my skin under hot water, but I ate grapes without dying, so I suppose that’s a good sign.
– Most importantly, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the response to my blog. It’s funny: when I started writing a few months ago, I was just planning to share this new way of eating and living that had helped start to free me from my ED, and it’s become so much more. As I started to explain why I first ate red meat after 13 years, I fell down the rabbit hole that was my introduction to ED, and in the process, was forced to face some of my hardest truths–truths from which I’d hidden for a very long time. And that inspired me to go out and seek help.
But nothing has helped so much as your support, and your willingness to share your own stories.
And I can only hope that, as I get through my story and start sharing solutions, that you will continue to share your stories with me. I can only hope that this blog becomes a place for recovery–not just for myself, but for all of you out there. I can only hope that we can, together, find a way to stop becoming a nation of starving girls, yo-yo dieters, fad dieters, overweight-and-hating-it, calorie-counters, over-exercisers, and people out of touch with our own bodies. I can only hope that we can all work together to find a solution.
Anyway, I promise to keep up my end of that as best I can, and I hope that you’ll stay with me–and invite others–along the journey.
Thanks for sharing the love, guys.
And now back to your regularly scheduled programming!
P.S. Be sure to check out my spiritual bucket list below. Maybe it can be inspiration for one of your own?