A Childhood of Family Meals
Once upon a time, I was a skinny, quiet nerd. Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan through the 80’s and 90’s was pretty great. Grandma was nearby with oatmeal cookies. I walked or biked to school, and could hang out in the schoolyard or climb trees whenever I wanted. I could grab an after-school snack, though a home-cooked dinner was served promptly at 5 or 5:30pm most nights. I generally ate a little of everything, and more of the foods I enjoyed. Trying new or more bitter foods (like spinach!) was sometimes challenging, but my parents gave more encouragement and gentle pressure, which generally didn’t spark a food fight. Foods like chips, cake, pop, candy and chocolate weren’t forbidden. They just didn’t make a daily appearance in our home. I didn’t miss them, though I do recall spending my allowance on candy quite regularly. That was enjoyable, allowed, and quite normal in our small town. Looking back, I had quite a normal relationship with food for at least my first 10-12 years of life. If I could have done anything better, it would have been to relax on “getting my share” of extra-delicious foods, and instead slow down and enjoy it while it’s really delicious.
Then puberty hit. With it, a growing awareness of my peers’ obsession with appearance, society’s preferred body shapes, and my body rounding in alarming new ways. And through my early teen years, I started thinking that if only I was a bit more careful with my food choices, I might be happier and healthier. I bought into the myth that gaining fat meant losing health and vitality, when really all that was happening was I was developing normally.
So I decided that I’d try to avoid high-fat and processed red meat, foods like instant noodles, and cut back on sweets. Of course, I enjoyed eating those now-demonized foods. They tasted good! And I’d created a conflict for myself. If I was at a campfire cookout or BBQ, and hot dogs and cake were being served, what should do I do? Turns out the answer was eat, but maybe a bit less, and feel guilty about it. Or worry that the food is fattening even though I only ate enough to satisfy my appetite, not so much I felt stuffed. Plus, I then rebelled against my self-imposed rules. Sometimes when I was hungry, or sick of saying no out of guilt or fear, I’d find or buy even more candy, chips, or chocolate. And not wanting to be judged for my food choices, I was more likely to eat these foods in secret.
Guilt, Shame, & Confusion
There’s one occasion I recall quite vividly. After school one day, at about 13 years old, I remember going straight to a cupboard that typically held crackers. Remember Vegetable Thins? They’re still available today, and are very chip-like (salty, crispy, greasy) but with the health halo of being made with some vegetable flavoring. Anyway, I sat on the floor, next to the cupboard, with my back to the entrance of the kitchen, and had one handful, then another. I probably meant to go grab a book or another distraction soon after, but that one day is memorable because I got caught. Eating between meals was neither forbidden nor encouraged in my house. Had I said I was hungry, it would have been perfectly all right to find some food and make myself a snack. But we ate at the table, not on the floor. So getting caught eating on the floor was instantly guilt-inducing. I don’t know if my mom thought I should feel guilty – she didn’t say anything at the time. But I knew that wasn’t how to eat right.
Bothered by your habit of eating ‘junk’ food too much, too often, or just because you’re bored or stressed? Cravings getting in the way of your health goals? Join others going through the same thing, share your stories, and learn effective strategies for change in Craving Change. Held here in Regina, the workshops are held just a few times a year. Grab your spot!
Discerning Tastes of a Growing Teen
I seemed to grow out of my early preoccupation with weight and my body size fairly naturally as I got busy with other things that teens like – music, TV shows, and who knows what else. But maybe it never entirely went away.
Later, in high school, I was more discerning than other students about what went on my plate in the cafeteria line. I wished that fried dough with cheese wasn’t a weekly staple of the menu, for example, and choose fruit as a bedtime snack at least as often as I went for an oversized cookie. I don’t know if these preferences were my training in what was normal eating at home, or a low-level attempt to keep a certain size.
Certainly, when I was extra-active at a wilderness camp and happened to tone up and slim down a little, I was happily surprised. But not too concerned when I quickly lost that extra muscle tone (and gained a little weight) when back at school. I was still a growing teen, and not about to go on a diet.
It was actually only after finding Nutrition as a career path, and getting out of school into the world of work that I ever seriously tried to track my food intake for an extended period, or follow a diet or eating pattern other than the one I grew up with.
Sure, I’d done a week here or a day there of food tracking during my university days. And I knew from the labs we had done that my body fat percentage had gone up, while my weight remained in the “healthy” BMI range. I blamed all the sedentary studying, but kept partying occasionally, and generally sitting a lot while thinking about going to the on-campus gym.
Overall, during my university days, I might have compared my weight and nutritional intake to national standards every 4-6 months, realized I wasn’t perfectly “on track”, think of one or two things I might half-heartedly try, but quickly return to my usual patterns of walking daily, cooking for myself, eating regularly but also with less-healthy snacks fairly often.
Diets and “Lifestyle Plans”
Into my 20’s, I flirted with a calorie-tracking app, SparkPeople, which was alternately fun and miserable. And also tried out eating Paleo, or at least a carb-containing version of the diet. What happened? Well, I never lost more than about 5 pounds. But I did lose time, energy, self-trust, and confidence in my meal-building skills. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know what it’s like. The primary thing I can remember is being quite obsessed with the thing I couldn’t – or shouldn’t – have.
On Paleo, the stuff to avoid is most forms of concentrated carbohydrates – grains, beans, milk, and sugar. And for a meal or two, that was fine with me. But then I’d be drawn towards or justify having something off-plan that was high in sugar. If I really wanted carbs that bad, it would have been much healthier to just have some whole grains or beans. But no, deprive me and I want the quickest, easiest, most rewarding fix available: sugar.
I finally found that adapting “the rules” to work better for me meant: 1. including potatoes and sweet potatoes more often (they were sources of carbohydrate that were “allowed”), then 2. abandoning the idea of following a Paleo diet entirely. I realized if one of the main tenants of the diet is that you should avoid milk because it’s poorly digested by some people, it just didn’t apply to me. I digest milk just fine, thank you. And it’s delicious. The same is true of whole grains and beans. I missed the steady energy these foods gave me.
After abandoning the diets and continuing on with eating normally, I was lucky in that my weight stayed stable for many years. I saw a slight bump up on the scale the year I moved in with my now-husband. My routines were disrupted, he eats more food than I do and I unconsciously wanted to have my share, and I was overwhelmed by wedding planning. Fortunately, the idea of going on a pre-wedding diet held little appeal. I was already maxed out, and had learned from previous flirtations with dieting: I Did NOT need the stress of another project and it’s major drain on my time and energy. So when dress vendors asked, I was pretty clear: My size wasn’t going to change.
Annoyingly, that size wasn’t the same as the models and celebrities on TV, my more fashionable friends, or what I’d stumbled into myself at 16 while having fun at wilderness camp. But it was the body I had, and it would have to do.
Love, Trust & Respect
I’m a little further along now, from body neutrality into body acceptance, and often even body love. Leading Craving Change workshops over the past few years, and more recently studying the work of Linda Bacon, Fiona Wilder, and Ellyn Satter has helped, as well as the wonderful community of non-diet dietitians in the online world.
When I think of relationships now, whether it’s my relationship with my husband, my relationship with food, or my relationship with my body, I have a little mantra: LOVE, TRUST, AND RESPECT. It’s what a great marriage is built on. And it applies to any relationship. I can’t break up with my body, or my need to eat. So I try every day to…
LOVE: me, my body, food, tasty meals, my work which involves so much of this topic, and the ways we use food to celebrate and bring people together
TRUST: my body to signal hunger and fullness, that it will make up for mistakes I make in my eating, that I’ve done a good enough job of providing the food and nutrients that my body needs, that the care I put into eating well pays off in better energy today and better health tomorrow, and that the food I eat will generally be safe and good for me.
RESPECT: my body’s cues like hunger, thirst, restlessness and sleepiness; the work that others have put into growing and preparing my food; the qualities of food which make it satisfying or not; the wide diversity of body shapes and sizes which naturally exist and can be healthy; for other’s struggles with body image, health, and weight – knowing that my experience isn’t entirely typical.
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this post – wow, thank you! When I work with clients one-on-one, or in a group setting, I hear so many stories of past struggles with food, weight, and body shape. Often, the effects are still with us, and it’s my pleasure to support those who are ready to take steps towards normalizing their relationships, healing from dieting mindsets, and trusting that weight will take care of itself. I hope that sharing a bit of my past was helpful to you, whether or not your story is similar.
Coming up, I’m excited to announce that another series of Craving Change workshops is in the works for September 2017. So if you’d like to improve your relationship with food, I really hope you can join us. Learn more & register here.