From junk food junkie to health nut?
When people learn I’m vegan, most assume I have always been a healthy eater. Not true. For the record, being vegan does not equal being healthy. Although it’s a step in the right direction, vegan junk food abounds at natural food stores as well as your local supermarket. Fritos are technically vegan. Nevertheless, I’m a perfect example of how an average person can change over time and become healthier. I can’t figure out why people resist it so much. Myself included. If we know we can improve our health and well being by eating better, why don’t we? Don’t we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to take better care of ourselves?
For instance, I have been on Dr. Fuhrman’s Eat to Live plan for five weeks now and I feel much better. And yet, recently after listening to Dr. Greger speak on nutrition, I went to dinner at Handlebar and chose the Buffalo “Chicken” Wrap when healthier options were available. The wrap contained loads of salt and white flour, which I know are not good. They may not kill me instantly but still, I know better. A lot of food that doesn’t kill me instantly may kill me over time. In my own defense, I chose collard greens over french fries as a side dish — this is a big win for me. I love french fries even though fried food produces cancer-causing chemicals. (See Dr. Gregers’ 2008 Latest in Clinical Nutrition DVD.) But yeah for me for choosing well this time. Healthy eating has been and still is a struggle for me. Imagine playing tug-o-war with yourself. “I want ice cream. No, I need to eat greens!” Back and forth it goes.
As a child, I pretty much only liked food that came from a box or was fried. My middle name should have been “Picky.” My Mom was annoyed with me at most meals and rightly so. My favorite foods as a child were:
- Kraft Mac & Cheese. The best kind was the skinny blue box made with powdered cheese. Just add milk. Forget about mom’s homemade version.
- The skin of fried chicken. I liked the crispy skin (sick!) way more than the meat itself. Don’t even ask if I ate the mashed potatoes served with it.
- Frozen fish sticks or fish sandwiches with tartar sauce. French fries were a great side. Oh, and tater tots!
- Roast beef sandwiches with barbeque sauce and onion rings from The Country School — a local fast food joint.
- Barbeque pork pit sandwiches from Wolf’s BBQ — an Evansville institution.
- Mint chocolate chip ice cream from anywhere. This was my favorite green food.
- Golden Grahams cereal. I also loved Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks.
- Barbeque Grippo’s potato chips. Another local favorite.
- Ranch-flavored Doritos.
- More Kraft Mac & Cheese.
- Fried eggs sunny side up (Oh, the bright side of the standard American diet). I was particularly fond of dipping toast in the yoke.
Almost anything barbeque- and ranch-flavored were big hits with me. I found salty and fried foods delicious. And, if a dish contained green vegetables or any vegetable really, I avoided it unless it was broccoli. I have liked broccoli most of my life. I don’t recall eating a lot of fruit either. I started eating tomatoes when I was about 16 when I added a slice to my Dairy Queen burger smothered in mayonnaise. If I ate a salad it would need to be drenched in ranch dressing. My beverage of choice was Tab until Diet Coke came along. It’s like water didn’t even exist except for bathing and swimming.
This was my diet from birth to about age 17. To be fair, my mom made me eat other foods too. It’s just that I didn’t like them. Sometimes she would make me sit at the table alone after dinner was over until I choked the vegetables down. Corn was the worst. By my early teens I started cooking for myself. I was done with her nonsense. By high school I started experimenting with other foods and ways of eating, but I hung on to Diet Coke until just three years ago.
Over the years, I have played around with various eating styles. Most for weight loss but some purely to improve my physical and mental well-being. Here’s a brief synopsis:
- 1985: At age 17, I declared I was a vegetarian even though I continued to eat fish for years. So I may not have been a vegetarian, but I thought I was. This was the first step that significantly changed my relationship with food and people.
- 1987: Senior year in high school, I began starving myself after I wrote my term paper on the eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa. I did not say all my experiments were healthy, but I was fascinated by this disorder. My lunch hour would consist of cigarettes and a diet coke, and an after school snack of M&Ms before I went to tennis practice. Luckily, this experiment only lasted a few months.
- 1990-1991: Later in college when I moved off campus and was no longer eating in the dorm cafeteria, I experimented with eating more whole foods like whole wheat pasta but it just didn’t stick.
- 1989- 1991: Speaking of college, and let’s pretend I didn’t start drinking until I was of legal age, I spent many nights drinking my way through school. (Go Hoosiers!) To put it bluntly, college was more of a social experience for me then academic. My love of alcohol continued through my twenties where I spent many Sundays recovering from my Saturday night outings with friends. One day I realized how much time I was wasting every Sunday on the couch, but it wasn’t until I decided to quit smoking that I also had to quit drinking so much. To me, beer and cigarettes went hand-in-hand. Nowadays and many years later, I indulge in a glass of wine occasionally. Much improved plus I have my Sundays back.
- 2000: For reasons far to complicated to explain here today, I went back to eating meat. My Dad was so happy. Although I wish I hadn’t eaten the animals I did during this time, I also believe it was this step back that has made me the committed vegan I am today.
- 2002: As a full grown adult well over 30, I gained five pounds on Atkins. This was before I went vegan and during the three year hiatus from being vegetarian. Maybe the worst diet ever. At least my most unsuccessful.
At this point you might be scratching your head and wondering why the obsession with food? Note to all adults: Watch what you say to children. I remember two experiences, which lasted only a matter of seconds, that stung for years.
1. My childhood physician once said I needed to lose five pounds as he leaned back in his chair with his big belly hanging over his belt. “Excuse me, Sir, I think YOU do to.” I was never a skinny kid like many of my friends, but I wouldn’t say I was chubby either. And yet, this one statement has stayed with me for over 30 years. I think I’ve been trying to lose five pounds ever since.
2. In third grade, an unnamed family member suggested I watch the pooch on my belly. “You don’t want that to get big,” she said. I have never had a flat stomach. Never. And I have obsessed about it since third grade. I think about food as much as men think about sex. Okay, maybe not quite that much!
Perhaps I should look on the bright side. Maybe I would have become obese had I not been warned. Damn rose colored glasses. After talking to a friend about this recently, I’m certain that most women today could share similar experiences equally as devastating to their own body image.
- 2003: Vegetarian again. Progress.
- January 1, 2005, I made a new declaration to the world. I’m going vegan, which I had secretly wanted to do since I went vegetarian some 19 years ago. See how resistent I am to change? This was the single best decision I have ever made. It significantly improved my life in more ways than I can count.
- 2006: I lost 25 pounds on Weight Watchers after an “episode” of overeating (several years worth) and no exercise. Weight Watchers does work for weight loss, but I was often hungry, which is why I don’t believe WW can be maintained over the long haul. (By the way, is it a coincidence that this significant weight gain began when I was eating meat again?)
- Winter 2008: I ate raw food for a month. I noticed my jeans getting tighter. Perhaps from eating too many nuts. But I loved having all my meals prepared by Cousin’s Incredible Vitality. It would be so cool to have a personal chef.
- Summer 2008: I gave Kathy Freston’s 21 day vegan cleanse a go. Oprah did. No alcohol, wheat, animal products, sugar, or caffeine are allowed. I only made it 14 days before I broke down and ate seitan (wheat-meat) and drank red wine at The Chicago Diner.
- Spring 2009: I gave up wheat and ate gluten-free for three weeks last Spring. Good news! I’m not allergic to gluten. I totally feel for anyone who is because it’s in just about everything.
- And, most recently… I’m currently on the Eat to Live six-week plan which I hope becomes a habit. I’m enjoying eating whole foods. I feel super healthy and my focus has changed. It’s more important to me how I feel rather than how much I weigh. Big progress. (See previous post.)
These are the major milestones on my path to healthy eating. But what happened to me between each of these experiments or diets? This tells more of the real story. Over time my style of eating evolved — mostly for the better but not always. For example in 2007 I set a goal to eat all whole foods (nothing processed) one day a week. This seemed like an enormous challenge at the time. Now, less than two years later, I am eating all whole foods every day. It’s rare that I eat anything processed now that I’m on the Eat to Live plan. Will it last? Only time will tell. Mostly I have moved towards healthier eating over the years but I have experienced set backs. This is life. Sometimes it goes like that — three steps forward, two steps back, and so on. It’s not like I changed overnight nor should anyone else expect to do so. When I got off track, I got back on the path as soon as I was ready. Patience is required on this journey.
I didn’t get to this point in my life — being vegan and focusing on good nutrition — without a lot of effort and focus as well as reading a lot of books. An important point I need to make is that your DNA, nor mine, does not entirely dictate your level of health. Of course it plays a role, but for the average person behavior is a much bigger determinant to good health from my experience.
My DNA suggests potential heart disease at some point in my life. My paternal grandfather died of a heart-attack in his early 40’s. I never met him. My maternal grandmother died of a sudden heart attack in her early 70’s while I was away for the weekend. I was in sixth grade. My dad experienced a heart attack in his early 40’s (just like his Dad) but luckily survived. I vividly recall being a freshman in high school wearing a denim mini-skirt, argyle vest, and brown pumps when my counselor pulled me out of English class. I knew something was wrong. Scary for a kid (in pumps!).
Obviously these experiences nudged me to take better care of myself. The results of my recent cholesterol and blood pressure tests defy my heritage. My doctor said my results were excellent. My blood work indicates my kidneys and liver are working well. (What! You mean my kidneys might not work well someday? If that idea doesn’t make me take good care of myself, what will!?) Food can be medicine and eating well is key to feeling well.
Recently I watched the first disc in Dr. Greger’s 2009 Latest in Clinical Nutrition DVD. One of the best foods to fight heart disease are dark leafy greens. I’m eating a lot of them these days.
This seems to be the perfect time to state the obvious. While the U.S. is in the midst of a major healthcare debate and I agree EVERYONE should have access to affordable healthcare, I would also like to point out that there are a lot of intelligent folks out there not taking good care of themselves. If everyone started taking better care of themselves — okay, let’s at least start with those of us who know better, have access to good food and can afford it — then perhaps their would be less strain on the healthcare system. At the very minimum, less people would need to visit their doctors as often and less medication would be required.
In Eat to Live, Dr. Fuhrman mentions that although medication helps fight some diseases, we don’t really know if medication is harmful over the long term. This was an interesting point I hadn’t thought of before. Despite all the science, there’s a lot we just don’t know.
The way I see it, I can feel good or not. I get to choose based on my behaviors and eating plays an important role. Obviously I don’t have total control over my destiny, but this is one area where I do have a lot of control. There are also many ways we can take better care of ourselves beyond eating, but eating is a critical piece. As my eating habits continue to evolve, I hope I find more people on this journey. It’s not as scary as I once imagined. In fact it’s quite rewarding. If I can change, I know others can too. Small steps. That’s all. Choose greens instead of fries. Who knows, one day I might be able to say I don’t like fried food. Imagine that.