As a young teenager, I truly didn’t see a relationship between what I put in my body and how I felt, apart from my immediate emotional reaction. My idea of happiness was consecutive bowls of cereal with milk, giant bites of cheerios with slices of sweet banana. I loved the indulgent feeling of taking a huge bite of food, filling my mouth completely with the twin sensations of texture and flavor. My family ate fairly healthfully, but I didn’t particularly enjoy many vegetables, though I would choke them down on command. My ultimate nemesis was broccolini.
I wasn’t obese in high school, or even clinically overweight, but as an aspiring ballet dancer I felt insecure about my body’s seemingly immutable softness. I had muscles from dance, but I didn’t look as much like a dancer as I wanted to. I tried to watch what I ate, but the social nature of food meant I often felt I had to choose between eating right and fitting in. Needless to say, as I attempted to navigate the social circles of public school for the first time, I often chose the latter.
When I left home for Manhattan, I was confronted by a way of life with many more options and far fewer rules than I was used to. I was also often quite lonely, and would use food to reward myself for accomplishments or just for getting through the day. I would eat as little as possible in the mornings so that I could reward myself by sitting in front of the TV at night with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of cookie butter, and a jar of raspberry jam lined up on the coffee table, dipping a spoon into each and savoring the salty-sweet richness. I kept track of my caloric intake religiously, but allowed myself to pretty much eat whatever I wanted if I had budgeted the numbers for a treat. I still felt little to no connection between the nutrients (or lack thereof) I was ingesting and my feelings of wellbeing. For me, diet was still a numbers game. Calories in vs calories out. I was constantly trying to lose weight, and while my set-point was lower than it had been in high school, I remained, for better or worse, within ten pounds of my starting weight.
When my dad got sick, I began to read about diet’s role in health. My roommate at the time, a cancer survivor himself, gave me Keith Block’s book, Life Over Cancer. This was my first serious exposure to the power diet can have to harm or heal us. I learned that sugar is a primary source of sustenance for cancer cells, and decided to go dairy-free based on Dr. Block’s cancer-preventative dietary guidelines. I made large batches of kale with oranges and sliced almonds, packaged them up, and sent them home to my dad. It was soon apparent that he was beyond the help of food, and his cancer beat my best culinary intentions. But the importance of diet’s role in health stayed with me, and I began to experiment with my own eating habits. Food became more than a momentary pleasure; I felt that my very survival was at stake.
Still, it wasn’t until anxiety hit with a vengeance that I started really looking at my own food-mood connection. The hypersensitivity that led to (or perhaps resulted from) my anxiety also allowed me to learn what foods were affecting my mental state, and how, and when, and why. I’ve been many “things”, dietarily speaking, some more fashionable than others: Dairy-free, Vegan, Low-Carb, Vegetarian, Paleo– but none of the prepackaged diets stuck, and they certainly didn’t make me feel better. Why? Because I resisted above all the notion that diet, like all other forms of self-help, is an individual practice. This year, after months of experimentation, I have started assembling a diet that actually works for me. It’s based on a combination of nutritional research, self-observation, defining my values, and trusting my gut (yes, literally). I’ve learned that sprouted-grain bread does in fact keep my blood sugar much stabler than flour-based bread, that dairy makes me feel bloated but full (and I’m currently questioning the humaneness of even the most well-meaning dairy farms) and that, despite the “caveman-approved” rhetoric of Paleo, human beings actually aren’t evolutionarily adapted to be carnivores, regardless of whether or not the planet can sustain a meat-based diet and an exploding global population simultaneously (it can’t). Most importantly, I avoid sugar as much as humanly possible, and don’t generally drink alcohol or caffeine, as these spike my blood sugar in a way I find unpleasant. I eat lots of nuts and seeds, and I love baby spinach and kale, though eating kale raw is a little tough on my digestive system. My love for eggs is passionate and enduring. I also believe that exceptions to my own rules are not cause for guilt: if I’m offered a unique opportunity to try a new food, or join in a social situation by eating a few bites of something I normally wouldn’t, there’s room for spontaneity. My ultimate goal is to consume food in a way that fulfills both my responsibility to myself and my responsibility to tread lightly on this planet, and doing everything I reasonably can to work toward that goal makes me even happier than being a member of a fad-diet community. Above all, choosing food is just another opportunity to get to know myself better, and eating I diet I can defend with my values and my sense of wellbeing is another important step toward becoming the person I want to be.
How has diet affected your life? Are there changes you want to make/have made that have significantly affected your physical or emotional wellbeing? Please share in the comments!