I have never felt fully in control of what I eat – and that’s something that’s always bothered me.
The truth is, I’ve spent more than 40 years having what can best be described as a sugar and caffeine addiction.
In tough – and not so tough – times, I have used a mixture of sweets and caffeine to bolster my energy and my mood.
Feeling a little sick? Eat some ice cream.
Stress? They make Reece’s Cups for that.
Celebrating a strong work week? Start Friday with donuts and, maybe, Cocoa Pebbles, too.
Want to wallow a bit because the week wasn’t so great – at home or at work? Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula and brownies, anyone?
I’ve had a nagging sense that my eating was a problem for a while now. But I grew up in a household where the focus of diet and nutrition was never on wellness – it was always on how I looked and what size I wore. So, as long as my favorite pants still (sort of) fit, I decided I was just fine.
All that changed about four months ago, when I started noticing that I had a headache every weekday afternoon at about 3 p.m. At first, I thought it was a stress-induced phenomenon. Was I working too much? Did I not like my job as much as I thought I did? Was this just one of the harsh realities of getting older?
A colleague and friend of mine mentioned in passing that she had given up soda, and I decided to do the same (again). I also cut my coffee intake back to just one cup each morning. Throughout the day, I also was intentional about drinking water – something that felt difficult, since I am in a classroom all day most of the time.
The first day, I honestly felt scared and insecure. Was this something I could do? This fear carried into day two.
By day three, all I wanted to do was sleep. My headaches were worse than ever and my body ached so much I initially thought I might be getting the flu. But I hung in there, recognizing I was likely in withdrawal. By the afternoon of day four, I was headache-free. Instead of lending the school day with a headache, I felt energized.
That one change got me thinking – if eliminating soda and scaling back coffee could make such a big difference, what would actually changing the foods I eat do? Could I feel better than ever, even in middle age?
My curiosity led me to an (admittedly) quirky nurse practitioner, who recommended a detox effort to determine what foods made me feel good, and which ones harmed my well-being. This led me to a whole foods focus. No grains (I had already given up gluten due to an allergy). No milk. No sugar. No processed foods of any kind. If it didn’t come from the ground, I didn’t eat it.
The experience reminded me – a lot – of my caffeine detox effort. On day two without sugar, I felt both achy and irrationally emotional. On day three, I honestly questioned whether it was worth getting out of bed without sugar in my day. (I knew this was completely insane but couldn’t fully stop thinking it.) Driving to my school for the day, I felt myself swinging irrationally between a sense of deep despair about my breakup with sugar and exhilaration at what this newfound discipline might bring to my life.
By day four, I could feel my symptoms subsiding. At the end of the first week, I had a strong resolve. This really could be a new way of life for me, I decided. It turned out that I actually could control what I ate, when, and how much!
Through the experience, I have identified some stumbling blocks I have had with diet before and I’ve addressed them. I am sharing these in case they might help you:
- I don’t pay attention to the scale. Instead, I pay attention to how I feel when I eat various foods. This is a more effective incentive to me because it’s clear that my dietary changes are a radical act of self-care – not something I am doing to meet the expectations of others.
- I have replaced fast food and unhealthy snacks with a new type of “fast food.” This was probably my biggest stumbling block before. I thought I didn’t have time to eat healthy. But I keep it simple. It turns out it is just as easy to throw fruits, raw vegetables and almond butter in a lunch bag as it was to throw chips and rice crispy treats in one.
- I have identified go-to meals I can eat when I go out to eat. Almost any restaurant offers salads. Chicken or (occasionally) steak or salmon are found in most restaurants, along with a basic vegetable. Once the habit is built, it doesn’t really feel that hard.
- I have let go of feeling responsible for how others respond to what I am eating. Sometimes, people can feel strangely triggered when they see someone making healthier choices. While I still sometimes recognize this discomfort, I remind myself that I was the only one who could change my choices, and it had to happen in my own time. I really don’t have that much influence over how most other people eat, so why should I worry about their reactions?
I have been living this new lifestyle for about three months now. I recognize more challenges will come – one of the reasons I waited this long to share. But right now, I am very focused on how good eating this way makes me feel. And that is an amazing reward.
What lessons have you learned about healthy eating? What are your stumbling blocks? How do you overcome them?