Figuring out how to eat for your body is a learned skill. It takes years. It takes trial and error. It takes forgiveness and grace with yourself. And most of all, it takes knowing you’re not alone. Here’s my journey with food, from the start – and it’s long from done.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that with food and your body, there is no destination – it’s all just a journey.
I treat my body like one big science experiment. I try different things, note how they make me feel, and then try something else. I repeat the things my body responds positively to, and I let go of the ones it doesn’t.
Along that journey, I found the ‘paleo’ way of eating, and my body responded well to it, so I adopted it as the way that I eat. That doesn’t make it right for you, or for Dave down the street. You have to find what’s right for you and your body.
But it took me a long time to get here, and I’m still not “done.” I’m never done, just trying different things and constantly learning. I find it helpful to hear about other people’s journey’s with food, and I’m constantly guiding others on their journey through nutrition coaching, so I figured it was time I share the story of my journey with food thus far.
Kids are cruel
The first memory I have of being overweight is 5th grade. I was 10, maybe 11, and it was 1992. Sugar cereals and processed foods were at an all-time peak. Sitting in Ms. Oliver’s class, a boy named Marc came in every single day and made a comment on my weight.
Now, Marc was no small dude himself. But that didn’t seem to stop him. A friend at the time started a notebook of everything he said to me so she could bring it to the teacher. There were days he told me I needed to go to Jenny Craig. I needed to start Weight Watchers. At 10 years old.
Clearly, he left a lasting impression. He’s the first memory I have of being self-concious about my weight and my body.
Fast forward to middle school – still chubby, still self conscious.
In high school, I started the swim team, which helped me to lean out a bit and build a bit of muscle. I wasn’t thin by any means, but I was no longer getting made fun of.
Middle school & high school years
My memories of food during middle school and high school are these:
I used to eat Fruity Pebbles or Crunch Berries out of a serving sized bowl. (Not exaggerating.) With skim milk, because it was fat free. Ummm.
I ate Kid Cuisine freezer dinners, with the little brownie square, for dinner. When my dad was out of town on a business trip, my mom would take me to IHOP for dinner.
In high school, I used to pick up my friend Fran before swim team practice. We would go through the Arby’s drive through, and I would eat an entire chicken finger meal with curly fries before jumping in the pool and swimming for 2 straight hours.
I remember being sick one time and laying in bed all day. At the end of the day I hadn’t eaten anything, and I was hungry, so I ordered a large Dominoes pizza and ate the whole thing sitting in bed.
Now I was always pretty athletic – I played tennis, I ran, I swam. But I was really more just working out so I could eat, not eating to help my body to perform better.
It’s amazing the things I did to and asked of my body in those years. I’m not ashamed of those times; if I was, I wouldn’t be sharing it with you. it’s all just part of the journey. But clearly, I was not a picture of health.
And honestly, I didn’t know what healthy really even was.
Welcome to college
College came, and all the things that come along with college came with it. I always needed a physical outlet, and I found that in crew. I rowed for the first 3 years of college, and it required me to get up at 5am, which was no joke.
It limited my late nights and drinking, although I still had plenty of those. My freshman year I was still very unadventurous when it came to food. Living in a dorm I didn’t have a kitchen, so I ate a lot of Ramen noodles cooked in the microwave, and topped them with pasta sauce.
I used my meal plan to go to the cafeteria. I would get the following on my tray: Turkey and mayonnaise on white bread, a bowl of cereal, a glass of chocolate milk, and some tomato slices drowned in ranch dressing and shredded cheddar cheese as a “salad.”
Well balanced, no?
Once I got out of a dorm, I started cooking for myself a bit, but realized I didn’t know how to cook much more than pasta and chicken, so that’s what I ate a lot of.
My sophomore year, I started training for a half marathon. My regular lunch was 2 Ball Park turkey hot dogs on buns with ketchup and mayo and 2 Keebler Rainbow M&M cookies.
It’s all in the company you keep
My junior year of college, I met a boy named Matt. Matt was a chef, and was working at a local restaurant. We started dating. When he realized how few things I actually ate, he started cooking things for me.
He would cook things INTO things and I would find that if meals had flavors that came together, I didn’t so much mind eating a few different vegetables. I was still pretty limited in my selections, but it helped, and showed me one important thing: that I was capable of CHANGING the things I liked.
Matt didn’t last, but the things he taught me about eating and food did, and at least gave me a jumping off point.
After many late nights of drinking and Saturday afternoons of pizza or burgers and fries (grease soaks up alcohol, right?) I was out of college and on my own. Well, crap. Now what?
Time to be an adult – get a job, go grocery shopping, and cook. There was still a lot of Crunch Berries, but some fruits and veggies started showing up too. Not enough to make a difference just yet, but they were there.
You’re the one that I want
I could say that I traveled this journey to a lifestyle of healthy eating by myself, but that isn’t necessarily true.
In September of 2005, I met a boy. THE boy.
One of the first times we hung out, he invited me over to his apartment for dinner with some of his friends. He cooked. He made a tomato, cucumber, and feta salad and stuffed bell peppers.
At this juncture, I only liked vegetables cooked until they were mushy and required very little chewing. I remember the bell peppers being mostly raw and crunchy. I ate some tomatoes from the salad and some rice from the peppers and pushed some food around my plate.
And if I’m being honest, I was thoroughly embarrassed. It was glaringly obvious, at least to me, that I still ate pretty immaturely.
A little of this, a little of that
Over the years, as we dated, we cooked a bit together. He teased me regularly about how little I was willing to eat, and how I didn’t like vegetables. Honestly, it’s been something my whole family has been teasing me about since I was little.
“Jess only eats mushy peas from a can.”
Which was true, at one point. But no one ever took the time to really TEACH me about food. To show me ways that I could make flavors that I enjoy, in healthy ways. No one ever taught me about the relationship between the food you eat and how you feel, and how it affects your body.
I learned most of it on my own, through trial and error.
It takes years
Legitimately, it does. Years and years to change your ways, and to adopt habits that will stick with you, and that you will stick with.
The first memory I have of us changing our eating habits was around 2012. We started CrossFit, and suddenly my body was back to working harder than it had in years. I loved it, but my metabolism wasn’t the same.
The days of downing pizza and chicken fingers before a workout were gone. Anyone that’s ever done CrossFit can tell you that those two things do not go together.
For lack of a better explanation, CrossFit holds up a mirror to what you are eating. It will show you how the fuel in your tank is working for you or against you, on a micro level. And we came to realize our food was not working for us.
So I knew, generally, that some things needed to change. But I had no idea where to start.
One night I watched the documentary Hungry For Change. It flipped a switch in me. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about this documentary, but it just happened to be the right thing in front of me at the right time.
I decided I was going to start with ingredient labels. If I couldn’t pronounce it or couldn’t buy it in the store as a separate ingredient, it didn’t belong in my body. Instead of telling my husband I was about to throw away a bunch of food, I started doing it slowly – burying one can of Campbell’s soup full of MSG in the trash can, grinding up some Cheez-Its in the garbage disposal.
If you know me, you know I’m a terrible liar and secret keeper, and I didn’t even make it a week before I broke down and told him what I was doing.
And I should have known what his response would be. He said he’s always wanted to eat healthier, I just didn’t like a lot of stuff. But I told him I was willing to try. So we started trying. One thing at a time.
Over the next 6 months to a year, we started a process of elimination. Not towards an end goal, but just to see how it went.
We started with ingredient labels. Once we knew all our ingredients, we started checking out this thing called “paleo.” It seemed kind of fad-ish, but the concepts behind it made sense. We knew we wouldn’t really survive going “all in”, so we started eliminating one thing at a time.
Soy. (Easy, didn’t eat a lot of it.)
Beans. (Also pretty easy for us, although peanuts were a bit of a loss!)
Dairy. (Hard. We ate a lot of cheese.)
Processed grain products. (Hard, but easy to see how it was a healthier choice. Nutrition doesn’t live in muffins and bagels.)
Wheat products. (Hard, but we still had some grains – quinoa, couscous, rice.)
All grains. (Yikes!)
I started to realize a few things – foods that fuel your body CAN taste good. You CAN eat healthy and still enjoy the things you’re eating. You DON’T have to give up everything you enjoy. And you CAN find a way of healthy eating that is sustainable for you and your lifestyle.
It’s not one size fits all
It’s really really easy to see someone having success with something and thinking, “well, that’s working for them, I’ll try it and it will work for me the same way.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are general things that the human body will respond favorably to, and other things it will not. But when it comes down to the finer details of nutrition, the thing that is right for you is the thing that you will stick with.
The thing that’s sustainable. That you can work into your everyday life, that you can make second nature. If there’s too much friction, if it takes too much work, you won’t do it. You’ll end up in a yo-yo of diets and fads, a vicious cycle that feels like you can never win.
You can’t out exercise a bad diet. THIS is true. You can change your entire body composition just by changing what you eat. Yes, it will be accelerated if you’re exercising, but it’s not a requirement.
The converse is not true. You cannot put terrible foods into your body, exercise a bit, and hope for the best. The food you put in your body is the gas in your tank. And with enough crappy gas, your car will break down.
The end of the road
For me, I think true food freedom came when I realized that there is no “end of the road.” There is no right answer.
There’s trial and error, there’s fits and starts. There’s breaking down because you REALLY want to eat that dessert, only to find out that the ingredients did not agree with your body and you now have cystic acne due to inflammation all over your face and neck (this has been me more than once).
There’s finding things that are too much work, that you won’t make again and again. I LOVE LOVE LOVE all of Mel Joulwan’s recipes in the Well Fed cookbooks. But her stuff is complicated and takes a long time. It’s a labor of love, and it tastes like it.
So once in awhile, I’ll cook it. But not often, because it’s not something I have the capacity or the time for, and I know that about myself.
I pay attention to my strengths and my weaknesses when it comes to food, and I try to set myself up for success. I don’t buy junk food at the store because I know if its in the house, I will eat it. (I’m looking at you, Cinnamon Toast Crunch!)
Sure, there are days when I feel terrible about myself and I respond by ordering a pizza. I know it’s not helpful, or improving me in any way. But I have a “north star” so to speak, and even when I fall off, I come back to the habits I’ve spent years establishing.
It’s not an issue of willpower. It’s just a matter of building an environment that you know you can be successful in, time and time again.
Whether you’re at the beginning or middle of your journey, or you’ve found your food freedom, above all else, remember this – be flexible.
Your life changes, your needs change, your body changes. What worked yesterday might not work today, and that’s ok. Rigidity and diets are not lasting or long-term. Your journey with food should focus on fueling your body for your life now, and you’ll be rewarded in the years to come.