On good food and the good life

(*CW: This story discusses dieting and attitudes and shame towards food.)

Various fad diets peppered my childhood, a low-carb one making the most frequent appearance when I’d go through phases of feeling especially low about my body, especially invisible to boys, especially out of step with the other girls around me who could effortlessly slip into their low-rise jeans and bikinis. These diets never really stuck. But, they’d perpetuate a cycle of shame: shame for not being devoted enough to stick with it, shame for my clothes fitting more tightly, shame for wearing out that little space on the inner thighs of both pant legs.

I was only truly “successful” on a diet once I felt a shame deep enough to motivate me to want to never feel that way again. That summer, I lost a ton of weight. I started doing WeightWatchers and meticulously counted my points. I knew all the tricks and workarounds. Which packaged foods had the lowest points. What low-point foods could masquerade as tasty treats. How to supplement my Slimfast lunch with weight loss supplements to trick my body into feeling full. How often I could “indulge” in a banana, a comparatively high-point fruit. To this day, I can tell you the point value of most foods. There’s a saying that I’d repeat to myself often during that time, determined to stay on track: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

I went back to school for my sophomore year of college feeling great about myself. I was thin. I was proud. I was a bit cocky. I remember telling a friend how amazing it was — how amazing it was to totally change your entire life in six months if you just worked hard enough. I’d probably have told you that my mantra was right — nothing DID taste as good as skinny felt. I’d have probably also told you that the shame had melted away along with the pounds, but that definitely wasn’t true. I just didn’t really know that then.

For almost ten years, I vaguely followed WeightWatchers. I wasn’t always actively counting points, but I’d internalized many of its rules. I knew what to avoid. I knew how to swap choices. I knew which manufactured foods could give me the flavors without giving me the points. After I graduated, I went to grad school, a six-year program where I had the flexibility to plan meals as I saw fit and exercise each day. I kept the weight off. But, the internalized WeightWatchers logic created a hyper-vigilance of sorts. I was always keenly aware of the impact of a cheat meal. The point implications of a treat. The damage a “bad” food could do. I’d feel so much anxiety if I was heading out to a party or an event where I couldn’t control the food situation. I’d always pre-eat a smoothie before heading out to avoid temptation. I’d always make sure I had plenty of healthy options stuck in my backpack in case I fell prey to the free pizza offered at an event. I’d feel deep shame if I “slipped” and indulged too much. It was only much later that I realized this was not the way most people thought about food.

As I’ve written on here before, towards the end of grad school I was diagnosed with lupus. With lupus, a lot of things started moving out of my control — exercise and food being two of them. While the illness itself came with its own share of stresses, having to give up control over diet and exercise was one of the biggest ones. While I was in the thick of a flair for the first few months, I couldn’t stand up for long periods of time without getting really dizzy, sweaty, and almost passing out. My joints were all inflamed, preventing me from going on my daily runs. My face, arms, and chest would become covered in rashes if I was in the sun for too long, drastically cutting down on my time spent outside being active. Despite this lack of activity, I was dropping weight like wild. Apparently, this is what happens when your body is in overdrive and trying to stay alive. It was constantly working, constantly burning fat.

So, while I felt pretty stressed about not being able to work out regularly, I took solace in the fact that it didn’t matter — I wasn’t gaining any weight. I was weak, I couldn’t move around very much, I was sleeping all day but damn, I thought, my butt looked great in the new skinny jeans I just bought. It was then that I realized I might have a skewed relationship to eating “healthy” and working out. Lupus quite clearly revealed to me that “health” hadn’t really been my goal all along, being skinny was. Here I was, my body breaking out in hives, my hair literally falling out from how ill I had become, and I was still secretly a bit pleased that I could eat what I want, not work out, and still lose weight.

Something else happened during those first flare months. My kidneys started to fail. When that happened, my nephrologist said I had to go on a low-sodium diet. Kidneys, especially failing ones, are apparently not so good at processing sodium. It’s very hard on them and we needed to retain their function while I waited for treatment to avoid going on dialysis. On top of all the life-changing things happening (navigating doctor’s offices, understanding my insurance, fighting with pharmacies, trying to write a dissertation and teach college courses through brain fog, etc. etc.), I now had to learn to nourish myself in new ways. I had cooked some prior to that, but not a ton. Once in a while, my partner and I might try out a fun recipe but, more or less, I was existing on a grad school diet: smoothies, freezer waffles, and diet freezer meals. Things technically low in WeightWatcher points. But, it turns out, most of my normal diet was more on the “processed food” side than not and, as such, had heavy salt content.

So, I started cooking. My cooking was pretty basic then. Mostly, I’d just saute some vegetables in extra virgin olive oil and toss with pasta or quinoa with cracked pepper. While they weren’t mind blowing meals, I experienced what it felt like to not be hyper-vigilant about calories and carb or fat content. I used to hesitate to use olive oil or butter, opting for low-calorie cooking spray or diet margarine instead. Now, I used oil with abandon. Many of you might already know this but, if you were like me and had been avoiding this truth for most of your life: fat tastes great. It gives such a great flavor and texture to the food, especially to vegetables. Whereas I had only been eating vegetables once they were blended in a smoothie, I was now craving them, especially the umami flavor of mushrooms sauteed in oil on a cast iron skillet.

But, I couldn’t live on sauteed vegetables and quinoa forever. I had to start experimenting. I learned how to make a low-sodium red curry vegetable dish. I learned how to make homemade pizza crust without the salt. I made homemade hummus. Lemon chicken and asparagus. Beef and broccoli stir fry. Risotto with low-sodium broth. I started seeking out salt-free spices at high-end grocery stores and learned how far good seasoning could go.

This cooking experimentation also coincided with a time in my life where I had to stop working around the clock. Whereas academia awards 80+ hour work weeks, my body and brain had far fewer good hours in them than that. But, as a chronic over-worker, I had difficulty figuring out how to give my body the rest time it needed. I didn’t know what to do with myself. But, suddenly, I had something to do to fill that time and a space to direct my mental energy.

Within a few months, my flare began to subside and my kidneys began to heal. I was able to start eating salt again. I now had the option to go back to my old dietary habits if I wanted to. And, I kept trying to. I’d stock up on my old basics. I’d vaguely start tracking points again, especially once I started gaining the weight back. But, I’d also found this new joy in food and in cooking that I didn’t want to give that up. It was immensely satisfying to seek out recipes, to intuitively understand how ingredients worked together in order to not even look at recipes. To create. To spend evening time doing something other than work. To nourish myself, my friends, and my family. And, unlike when I was eating mostly processed foods, I was now cooking and creating with produce and lean meats and experimenting with food of different cultures. My world was opening up. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the same anxiety and guilt when we were going out to eat. At the time, I was living in Oakland and I was astounded by the delicious, creative food scene there. I was beginning to question the mantra I’d always tried to live by. Good food might indeed taste better than skinny felt.

It’s been about five years since my kidneys returned back to normal. In that time, I’ve continued to struggle with my relationship to both food and exercise. Over the last five years, I’ve had to accept the fact that my body can’t run like it used to. But, I’ve unlocked this new pleasure of going on daily hikes and walks — of being in nature and enjoying the act of exercise, rather than dreading it. I’ve also continued to experiment with food and the pleasure it brings. The same pricks of shame are there, though. Almost weekly, I feel the pull of slipping back into old habits, of turning back to Slimfasts, diet pills, low-cal substitutes. But, I can’t quite seem to resist the even larger pull of the pleasure of a hearty, vegetable-forward meal prepared, cooked in a bit of fat or with a splash of cream. The pleasure of cooking while music plays, wine in hand. The pleasure of providing for my family and having loved ones enjoy my food. The creative pleasure of seeking out a recipe and trying something new.

In the last year, I’ve begun to feel more convinced that cooking and good food are fundamental to my version of a life well-lived, even if that good life means I’ve had to give up “how good skinny feels.” In part, I credit this new conviction to Ella Risbridger. A year or so ago, I was gifted Ella’s cookbook Midnight Chicken: & Other Recipes Worth Living For. I’ve actually only made a handful of recipes from the book itself, but when I first read her introduction, my throat caught slightly. It was only then that I fully realized how meaningful cooking had been to me five years ago, when my body was literally trying to kill itself. When my will and ability to provide for myself was almost nonexistent. Because no summary of that introduction would be sufficient, an excerpt is included below:

There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken. It was the first story I ever wrote about food, and it begins with a chicken in a cloth bag hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door, and looking at the rust in the door hinges, and wondering if I was ever going to get up.

Perhaps, I thought, lying on the hall floor, I will just stay on the hall floor forever, and sink through the laminate, and into the concrete, and down into the earth.

But this is a hopeful story. It’s the story of how I got up off the floor.

It’s also the story of how to roast a chicken, and how to eat it. This is a story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story of wanting to be alive.

Whenever I think about what constitutes a life well-lived, my mind always drifts back to this story. To the importance of getting up off the floor, of wanting to be alive, and to nourishing your body. And to not feeling guilt or shame for doing that. I’ve actually never made her roast chicken recipe, but I have made her “Martial Harmony Sausage Pasta,” a slowly-simmered weekend recipe best made on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, drink in hand. I had legitimately never realized food could be that good before, or that I had the ability to make it. I’ve only made her sausage pasta a few times, though. I save it for special occasions, and occasions where I want to be reminded how good life is, and how good it feels to make things. The last time I made it, my partner sat in the kitchen with me. We were each sipping a glass of red wine, the remnants of the bottle used for the recipe. He was reading a novel aloud to me while I slowly stirred the sauce. Our single-pane windows grew steamy and we grew tipsy, waiting for the food to be done. When it was finished, we ate it heartily, washing it down with our wine. I felt full and happy and proud of what I had made.

While I still felt a pang of guilt for eating that rather indulgent meal, the same pang of guilt I get when I eat most indulgent meals, I try to remind myself of the goodness of that moment, the goodness of a life well-lived, and the goodness of being alive to enjoy it.

(For more thoughts on body image and weightloss, visit my previous post.)

PhD in English with a focus on film/television. Thoughts on lupus/chronic illness, body image, & academic/post-academic life.

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