Let’s talk about food.
I’ve been wanting to talk about food for a long time, but it’s always been one of those topics that finding the right words to say and the right tone to say them in is a struggle, because like many things, it’s complicated. There’s a stigma to it, and a large amount of hyper-criticism: talk about food and diets and ‘eating healthy’ too much, and you’re obsessed; say you don’t care and you eat what you want, and you get glares from the green-eyed monster and force fed chocolate cake. I could probably write pages and pages on this, but let’s start by just scratching the surface.
Food. Or food and exercise, to be more precise.
I’ve always been athletic, and while by no means overweight in the traditional sense, I’ve also always been ‘fit’. I was always slightly taller and just a little bit more muscular than the other girls. I remember seeing a photo of myself as a 4-year-old a few years ago and being struck by the fact that even at that young age, my arms still had some sort of bicep definition and looked like miniature versions of their adult state. While now it’s a bit mind-baffling in the ‘wow, as children we really are little tiny versions of ourselves’ kind of way, at the time, I was definitely self-conscious.
Somewhere in middle school I grew five inches in a few months, my muscles and body weight kindly redistributed itself, and I went from being kind of a bit bulky to lanky and lean for the first time, and somewhere in that time period I also put the connection exercise-food connection together in not the healthiest way. Without going into an extreme year-by-year recounting and over-analysis of my life and exercise and eating habits, I can summarize it as this: there were a lot of external things that contributed to this relationship, but it was warped.
I went to university in Scotland, where the view of food is totally different from the States. I lived in halls my first year, where we had set meal windows that lasted 15 minutes and were given a plate of portioned food, which more often than not, consisted 2/3 of brown or yellow carbs (I was honestly once served Spaghetti-O’s, fries/chips and mac and cheese as a meal), which was confusing to American-trained brain, which told me you a) don’t eat full portions and b) carbs are the devil. I was starving, but I was conflicted… and, here’s the kicker, I was also ‘bored’. For the first time, I wasn’t scheduled every second of the day. School was incredibly non-taxing. I had nothing to channel energy into, and for some reason, my immediate reaction was to start playing a game with how much could I exercise, how little could I eat, and how could I zero everything out. Throw in drinking and late night chips and cheese and pesto pasta, and the cycle got out of control. Then throw in that I spent the summer working at a gym where I was around people exercising all day, and it was catastrophic.
While after that summer, I combusted, that obsessive ‘I can only eat this if I work out’ cycle continued in a – let’s say ‘managed’ – capacity. Trekking the mile and a half to the gym or running down West Sands in the Scottish gales and sleet and subsisting on a diet of almost only broccoli, Special K and Shreddies (… and wine) was normal for me. I spent hours on ellipticals with biochemistry index cards, combining studying with working out to save my time. I freaked out if my workout plans got thwarted. I ran the Edinburgh Marathon during my third year, and while in a perverse way, that was actually better because I was running so much not eating wasn’t an option, I vividly remember sitting through a dinner after a 15-mile run and assessing just how much of the pork and potatoes I could eat to ‘break even’. The worst part of that? I KNEW what I was doing. I realized it was ridiculous, and I wanted to smack myself across the face, and yet I kept doing it.
This went on for years. I ate, I ran, I ate, I ran, I felt guilty, I ran more, I ate less, I ran more, I realized what I was doing and stopped until I started again… and then at some point during one of those cycles, I got sick – really oddly sick, where I was throwing up all the time and simply had no energy to run. I lost all muscle. My weight didn’t drop that much, but I looked emaciated. It was disgusting. I felt disgusting. A lot of things in my life clicked over those months, all of which centered around the realization that comes with almost dying that life is not worth living if this is the way I’m living it.
And overnight, it stopped. I stopped looking at food like it was the enemy and a bargaining tool. I stopped looking at exercise and running as an override. I stopped looking at my arms and declaring them large or fat. I stopped looking at my legs and wishing my quads would shrink. I started realizing that this was my body – it was what it was, and I wanted it to be strong. I wanted it to be able to carry me, and I needed to take care of it, by listening when it said it needed rest and acting when it said it needed fuel and trusting in biology to handle the balance.
Sometimes I think that I’ve nailed it and finally cracked myself to a point where I’m completely nonchalant about it all, but with an honest assessment, I’m not all there. The past few weeks have been horrible in a way I totally haven’t expected that is completely the opposite of anything I have ever dealt with in my complicated, EDNOS world: I cannot eat enough, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I am constantly hungry, and there is not enough food that I can physically put into my body to satiate it. Nothing tastes good. Nothing sounds appealing. I actively don’t want to eat, and I know I need to, and so I end up choking down whatever I can in a desperate attempt to stave off the hanger. I have never in my entire life not wanted to eat – in all of those years of actively not eating, I desperately, desperately wanted food, all the time. Shouldn’t it make sense that at the moment I can eat almost anything I wanted and still not even come close to breaking even with calories needed, I should be doing that with the fervor that Otis has while scarfing down his morning kibble?
I been thinking a lot about it (obviously), and the only conclusion I can come up with is that over all of these years, I’ve trained my mind with what’s ‘acceptable’ to eat, where even the slightest deviation isn’t an option. There are breakfast foods, and snack foods, and lunch foods, and dinner foods, and an order to all of the madness that manifests itself in cutting sandwiches in quarters and eating with small utensils and a whole list of other bizarre quirks I probably could list if I really tried. I don’t realize I’m doing it, but clearly I am. I’m hungry, but I’m so pre-programmed to only allow myself to subsist within the constraints of some arcane set of ‘food rules’ I defined with no basis years ago. I can’t make myself eat more, and I mentally – and therefore physically – can’t make myself be full.
I don’t have a conclusion to this; there’s no happy ending other than perhaps the ‘happy’ realization (or gut punch) that even after several years of feeling ‘okay’ and un-bothered by my perception of food and genuinely in a position where I run because I love to run (and not because I want something food-related out of it), there are still some lingering bizarre thought patterns and habits that probably need addressed and corrected if I want to keep doing what I’m doing the way I want to keep doing it, that probably starts with me addressing the root issues at their core while forcing myself to break all of those superficial manifestations.
Run to eat, eat to run… it goes something like that, right? Or just plain eat. Maybe I’ll start with just eat and see where it goes from there.