The idea for this post came from an early morning conversation in October 2016 with R, my friend and fellow traveler off the treadmill. The push to write after ages also came from her, so thank you R!
I texted R that I had a blissful, slow breakfast of Chai with toast and jam. My trip to Austria in 2016 had rekindled my love affair with jam and I had brought back jars of rose apricot and garden berry. “We never have jam at my house because of my poor self control,” I wrote to her like a greedy child eating a tasty snack at a neighbor’s house. “Why do you have jam rules? Eat jam and donuts and cake and chips. Deprivation does not work.” she said.
I couldn’t agree more. I had started 2016 signing up for a service called Rise. The concept was that you would be paired with a nutrition coach and they would critique your meals and give you feedback on what to change and what to improve. What I didn’t take into account when I signed up for this service was:
(1) I grew up on a grain based diet and I have no desire to give up my typical Indian way of eating. It was not sustainable in the long term. And making cheat Indian food like a coconut flour naan? No thank you. I would sooner starve and die.
(2) My relationship with food was never healthy to begin with. I used food in a punitive way and over time I’ve begun to feel powerless against food in moments of emotional overwhelm. No amount of critiquing ones meals will fix the void that pushes us towards shutting out our feelings with food.
(3) Like many people with ADHD, I knew what I needed to do but I couldn’t get around to doing it. It’s a common state of mind only exacerbated by our cognitive deficits such as poor working and prospective memory, lack of time awareness and tendency to hyperfocus, often on things that were not productive.
When I first signed up for the service, a nutrition coach was assigned to me. I had the option to change my coach but I chose to stick with her. She was a yoga practitioner who lived in California. She seemed to check all the right boxes and was kind and supportive. What I didn’t take into account was that while I had an unrealistic dream to make my body look like hers I had no desire whatsoever to adopt her lifestyle or her style of eating. I love Yoga and would love to have a typical limber Yoga body that could contort itself but I couldn’t eat a low carb diet and salads for the rest of my life. It simply wasn’t feasible. A better pick would have been someone who understood the Indian diet, someone who lived in a cold city like I did (there is nothing more depressing than eating a cold salad in sub zero weather) or someone with my lifestyle. It wasn’t her or the service that was my problem. It was the fact that I was looking for help in all the wrong places.
Being completely blind to all the obvious signals I continued on excitedly like I typically do when I start something. I cut the carbs, I ate Indian curries without rice or bread, I quit the snacks and I even evangelized about the low carb diet to anyone who would listen. (something I feel deep levels of shame for today) It started to look good for a while. I went from a size 6 to a size 4 in no time. It was shocking because I had been a consistent size 6 for 3 years. Inside though, the deprivation had made me sad, angry and resentful. I started to stay in bed much longer in the mornings. It didn’t help that I was going through this phase in February when it’s already awfully cold and dull in Chicago. I’d cheat on my meals with a self-congratulatory air and rant angrily to my husband about the nutrition coach.
After a few days of patiently listening to me, PK did what he always does unfailingly – call me out on my bullshit. “Listen”, he said, “this is not working. You need to stop before you go to a bad place.” With stunning accuracy, he smoked out all my demons and showed me why I had chosen the wrong way to go about this process of getting healthier. The clouds began to part and I wrote to my nutrition coach that I wasn’t going to be renewing my subscription. She offered to take it down a notch and try again but it was too late. I was spent.
Despite it’s utter failure, I am so happy to have experienced this. It taught me that it’s important to try things out because you can learn about yourself in the process. It may not work out the way you think it will but at least you won’t spend your life convinced that the solutions to your challenges lie outside yourself. I’m now working on striking the right balance when it comes to changing my relationship with food. It helps that I know for sure that deprivation doesn’t work for me. It works for a lot of people – It doesn’t work for ME. I need solutions that respect that fact.
Here are a few I am working on and finding success with:
Learning to respect my boundaries and trust myself
I’ve also recognized how my body has it’s limits when it comes to food that doesn’t love it back. Every few days, despite the ease of ordering take out or eating unbalanced meals, I’ll take the time to cook myself a meal that feels nourishing. The more I ease up on myself the more times I see this happen.
I’m also watching out for all or nothing behavior that takes over in matters of health and fitness. All or nothing behavior is a classic symptom of perfectionism and does more harm than good in the long run. Forgiving the occassional missteps, taking inventory of what changes to make and making it easy to make better choices seem like the better solution to me.
Watching my stress levels
I’m also noticing ever more the impact of stress on the way I eat. It’s hard to ease up on yourself if stress is lurking around. I realized this when I watched myself eat wonderfully balanced meals during our vacations, a time when I could be binging on anything. I make better choices when I am not stressed out.
Not being stressed isn’t an option, however. It continues to be my effort to notice my stress levels climbing and recognizing what situations contribute to it. Setting boundaries (defining what it is acceptable and what is not and identify what my personal limits look like) and de-escalating high stress situations (by leaving the room, drinking water, deep breathing, getting a walk) can do a lot. It requires being watchful.
Moving my body
I never forget the time I fainted in the gym. It was embarrassing and I felt completely powerless. Since that day I am very careful about eating before a workout or a yoga class. I eat something nourishing 2 hours before and it usually helps me have a great class.
It doesn’t even have to be a Yoga class or the gym. It can be any kind of movement (a dance class, a performance class, group sports etc.) and it creates a responsibility in me to eat right to fuel my body.
Planning my meals, Stocking up my fridge
The part that I am now working on is becoming better organized so I can put together a meal at home quickly.Whether that’s a healthy meal or an unhealthy one – It helps to be prepared so that when the body says something, I’m able to listen and act on what it needs. Watching out for all or nothing behavior here is very important. If I don’t I’ll trick myself into believing that I can cook a meal from scratch every time or that I can do without helpful meal starters like canned beans or frozen vegetables or pre-cooked rice. Also, having choice in my meals is very important to me and if I don’t stock up on groceries and snacks I will most often make a bad decision. This doesn’t mean I have a pantry full of chips and cookies. I just have a few I like and surprisingly they last much longer when interspersed with healthier snacks.
I come from a community of people who, without a doubt, live to eat. I love my food and it’s nourishment but at times it’s also comfort, access to my culture or a portal to my childhood. Awareness about what I’m eating and why I’m eating it is slowly bringing me to a different place in my relationship with food. It’s taking time but I am getting there.