Saturday, January 31, 2015

Food For Thought (WLC)

“I used to be a heroin addict. Now I’m a Methadone addict.”
Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Years ago, I went on Weight Watchers and over the course of six months lost about 20 pounds. I kept it off easily for a year and during that time ate a lot of fresh fruit, veggies, and lean meats, and stayed away from most grains. At the time, Weight Watchers was all about “points” and you had a limit to the number of points you could eat each day – a system that was sometimes problematic for me if I ran out of points at, say, 2 PM, which I often did.

After a year, I began to shy away from fruits as a snack. I was “spending” a lot of points on fruit and it wouldn’t fill me up for long. Instead, I would have low fat milk string cheese (2 points), Chobani yogurts (2-3 points) or Weight Watchers chocolate chip cookies, which, at the time, were only 1 point. My entire life revolved around trying to figure out how to stay full on as few points as possible.

I would make nachos with low fat cheese but could still only a small portion of them. To compensate, I ate a lot of popcorn. For the most part, I never felt satiated. Often, I would just go to sleep early because I was out of points and I didn’t trust myself to stay awake and not devour granola bars.

A year ago, I  stared  this challenge with much trepidation because I wasn’t accustomed to eating a satisfying amount of food guiltlessly. For a long time, I approached this new eating regimen as a hybrid of WLC and Weight Watchers – tenuously moving from fat free yogurt to 2 percent and still eating bananas in one-third increments over the course of several days.

In the middle of the challenge, my husband came home from a party at the yoga studio and brought with him a gluten-free, sugar-free carrot cake. Carrot cake is my favorite of all cakes and, while I didn’t know precisely what this one was made of, the two main evils – gluten and sugar – were absent.

“I don’t want any,” I said and he couldn’t understand why. For me, that cake was a slippery slope. I’d already gone weeks training myself off of a constant desire for sugar and I was afraid having an “ersatz” carrot cake was going to make me want a real carrot cake all the more.

This wasn’t just paranoia. I’d already lived it. Eating low-fat nachos on Weight Watchers, made it easy for me to say, “Oh, I’ll just have the regular awesome nachos this once.” And I do not eat small portions of those nachos; I literally cannot stop eating them until every morsel is gone and I feel like Jabba the Hut.

Cookies? Same. “Do I really like these cookies?” I asked myself when Weight Watchers raised them to 2 points apiece. They didn’t seem such a point bargain when a regular Pillsbury chocolate chip cookie was 3 points. I meted out these little cheats, counting my points, staying within my paltry point limit, going to sleep at 8 PM so I wouldn’t eat any more for the day. By the letter of the law, I ate within my point range. But I wasn’t “eating right.” It wasn’t long before I gained back much of the weight I lost and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

“I’m gaining weight!” I cried to the Weight Watchers leader.

“Maybe cut out bananas,” she said.

And, tragically, I did.

Here’s what I’m afraid of for me: if I eat “compliant brownies” and “compliant chips” every day, then when I’m not motivated or accountable to a team, I’m going to go right back to “regular brownies” and “regular chips.” I know I’ll do it because I’ve done it. That’s how I roll.

On the other hand, if  I eat all day long and it’s all fresh, compliant, non-packaged food, I don’t care how much I eat. And I usually feel really good.

When I’m eating a lot of stuff from a package – even compliant stuff – I can feel it. My clothes fit a little differently. And by different, I mean tighter.

The biggest change for me in this challenge was redefining what “dessert” is. I have (inadvertently) retrained my taste buds, so that fresh pineapple feels as decadent as crème brulee and mostly I’d rather have a smoothie that’s green and refreshing than creamy and sweet.

I know what I’m about to say is going to reveal me as the buzzkill that I am, but be careful of simply substituting compliant versions of snacks and treats for your old treats. Because when this challenge is over, you are going to have the Real Thing beckoning and no one to be accountable to. How great will it be when you want something sweet and orgasmic and instead of thinking brownie, you actually want to go cut open a mango?

For me, compliant treats are Emergency Food – and sometimes they are the only thing that will get me through a rough patch. But I know if I eat them every day, my next rough patch may require something a little stronger.

I’m talking about this now because many of you are hoping to look different 6 weeks from now – and I believe that the cleaner you eat, the more likely that will be the case. We all know what clean is. Sadly, it’s not Methadone.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Future Jessica

It’s 8:15pm as I sit to write this. I’m tired after a long day of mostly sucky activities. But I just spent 30 minutes cleaning the kitchen so it would be orderly in the morning for Future Jessica.

I don’t consider cleaning the kitchen “my job.” Or anyone’s job, really. The person who is most disgusted by the kitchen is usually the one who cleans it, and that is often not me. I have a pretty high tolerance for sinks full of dishes and general disarray. Messiness is something I can easily overlook.

But most of my sucky activities are going to continue tomorrow, and I thought that a tidy kitchen might be a nice thing to come down to when I start my day. So I rallied, cleaned the kitchen, and now feel like I have at least one thing to look forward to tomorrow.

When I come downstairs to my clean kitchen, I know I’m going to appreciate the effort I put in tonight. My problems are not going to be gone. My kitchen is going to get untidy again, starting very early. In fact, by 10 a.m., it’s likely going to look exactly as it did a half hour ago. That makes it seem a little like it wasn’t worth doing. But I know from past experience that it was. I know from past experience that when I come downstairs and see an empty clean sink, a freshly scrubbed counter and a dishwasher full of clean dishes, it’s going to make me happy. Actually, very happy.

I spend easily half my day doing things for Future Jessica. I rarely want to exercise. I meditate daily, and I never want to do that. Whatever work I have to do, I’d usually rather be doing something else. I don’t want to clean out my coat closet. I don’t want to drive to Marshall’s to return that sports bra. I don’t want to sit in a salon for 90 minutes with poison-smelling hair dye singeing my scalp. I want it all done, I just don’t want to do it.

But I say to myself, "This isn't for you (I know what you really want is to just kick back and chill) -- this is to make Future Jessica feel good."

After a day like today, what I’d typically want to do is eat a plate of nachos that’s as big as my torso and then belch my way up to bed.

But I’ve become really enamored of how delighted Future Jessica can be when I offer these small gestures – knowing that tomorrow (next week, in a month, after the Challenge) she will really appreciate the relatively small sacrifices I made on her behalf. It makes it easier to do it over and over again.

As most people, I’ve spent much of my life doing drudge-y things that were decidedly not fabulous. I’m not sure why, but declaring my intentions to make life a little better for Future Jessica makes those choices much, much easier.

Maybe for you, too?

My Big, Fat Whole Life Challenge Blog Post

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Comfort and Hunger (WLC)

My comfort zone is frighteningly small. Sometimes I imagine an actual zoning board reviewing my parcel and I can see them shaking their heads that anyone would want to inhabit such a miniscule area. If my comfort zone were an actual place, it would be a sliver of land with no bugs, no extreme temperatures, and little wind. Only two or three people would be allowed there at a time and they’d need to be extremely nice people – well-meaning, with no hidden agendas.

Like many people, I do not really like stepping out of my comfort zone. This is not something I’m proud of, it’s just a simple fact. And that was probably my biggest concern when I first did the Whole Life Challenge in January 2014.

I have a very low tolerance for discomfort of any kind and when that first challenge started, the thing that soothed me most reliably was chocolate. I was completely freaked out at the idea of giving up chocolate…I didn’t think I could go one single day. I prepared in a way that might horrify many: I bought some very good chocolate and put it in the cupboard so it would be there at a moment’s notice, in case something rocked my small world and I needed to calm myself immediately. People with teeny weeny comfort zones need their security blankets very close by at all times.

Some may consider sugar addiction laughable, but The New York Times came out with an article over the past year that basically said sugar was as, if not more, addictive than heroin – partly because it acts on so very many pleasure centers in our brains. So whether I write about chocolate, or wine, or bagels or the Zappos box that’s sitting in my foyer, I’m writing about the same thing: that "thing" each of us turns to when we think, “Good God, am I actually going to have to endure an unpleasant feeling?”

Chocolate soothes me, and it’s not just in my mind. I eat chocolate and I can literally feel my vital signs change. So a big part of this challenge, early on, became exploring what it feels like to be uncomfortable for a little while and not grab onto the first thing that numbs me. Sitting with boredom, frustration, fury, sadness, fear, anxiety – you name it, I’ve sat with it. And, I’m not going to lie – it’s not ever pleasant.

But the other secret I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t usually last very long. The truth is, feelings pass. And they’re going to eventually pass whether you eat a Snickers bar or not.

We are going to have some very shitty days during this 8-week challenge – because that’s life…sometimes things just suck for a bit. One thing we can do is see what happens – just once – when we sit with the suckiness, rather than mollify ourselves with food.

This suggestion I'm offering is one I continue to struggle with. When things get too unpleasant, I still run for food – even though it’s now compliant food – and even though I don’t hate myself for mainlining chocolate, I’m not crazy about the fact that I’m still fundamentally unwilling to spend much time noticing what the unpleasantness is full of – what it really feels like – and trying instead  to figure out what I really need or want in that moment. I believe that most of the time what I'm really hungry for is not chocolate. And when I say "hungry" here, I don't mean the sensation in my stomach. I mean the craving in my heart.

Every time we choose to observe rather than react – to just notice what’s going on rather than reaching for that “thing” we always reach for to calm ourselves – we increase our capacity (even if it’s only a smidgeon) to do it again. And that makes our comfort zone the littlest bit bigger. Soon, our “thing” we’ve forever grabbed at doesn't seem necessary in quite the same way anymore.

Every single person who talks to me about this challenge tells me what she is afraid she can't live without. We are all in exactly the same boat; our cravings are often not about our "thing"at all.

It amazes me to this day that the chocolate I bought exactly a year ago, “just in case,” has remained on the shelf, untouched. I look at it every day. Many days I still want it. But it no longer owns me.

My Big Fat Whole Life Challenge Blog Post

Friday, January 9, 2015

No Wine. No Whine. (WLC)

The Whole Life Challenge begins again January 17th and there have been several changes in the nutrition guidelines – the most controversial, it seems, is that wine has gone back to one glass per week rather than one glass per day.

I know I am wholly unqualified to write about wine consumption, as I rarely ever consume it, but I just gave up coffee a week ago so I feel like that entitles me to something.

I gave up coffee once before, in the winter of 1993, I think. I’d been seeing a chiropractor (professionally, not romantically) who said he thought coffee might be a contributor to my chronic back trouble. I drank at least four cups a day at that time, and I loved it.

I still love coffee. I’m sure I love it as much as you love your wine.

Detoxing from coffee in 1993 was horrible. Besides my grief from giving up something I loved, I fell asleep at my desk at 3 p.m. every day for a long time. Months. Then, eventually, my body relearned how to keep itself awake through an afternoon of work and I was back to my old, cheery self.

I started drinking coffee again only a few months ago and was plunged right back into that old love affair. It tasted great. I got more done. It made me happy. Every night during those months, I would go to sleep and think: Only a few more hours until I can drink coffee again!

But I gave it up 12 days ago because I got sick for a few days before New Year’s Eve, lost my taste for it, and then came to the terribly sad conclusion that it’s really not good for me. Caffeine and I do not make good bedfellows. Caffeine makes me anxious. Even when I sleep. I can feel the muscles in my face pulled taught through the night.

I’m not saying coffee is bad. In fact, I think it’s common knowledge that it has many benefits. Just as wine does. But I’m pretty sure wine is considered a “food that causes inflammation.” And the Whole Life Challenge eating guidelines are about eliminating or greatly reducing those foods. 

I’m not going to tell you that you should or shouldn’t have wine, or that you do or don’t deserve it. (Of course you do!) I’m going to say this: All the stuff in my life that I thought would be a deal-breaker to give up was really not as hard as I thought it would be. No one is saying: No Wine Forever. They’re saying: Move out of your comfort zone (even if it’s only a few inches) and see how it feels for you.

Is my life so unfun that having a half a cup of buttered coffee every day is my main highlight? Sadly, yes. But the truth is, after a few days worth of headaches, it really wasn’t anywhere near as dreadful as I thought it would be.

If you’re doing the Whole Life Challenge and you’re trying to pick a level, I offer this:
If you’re a reasonably healthy eater and you think you’d benefit from the middle level (Lifestyle), play at that level, and if you want more wine than once per week, have it. Take off the points and enjoy it. What this will do is force you to make your wine-drinking decision anew every day. You will choose to drink wine because of conscious desire rather than habit. That alone will make your wine-drinking experience lovelier. Some days you may choose to forgo and notice it’s not all that bad. Or that it’s awful, and you’ll look to discover why. Those are all good scenarios. No one cares about your score. The Whole Life Challenge is hard. We are pushed to inspect all the things we do mindlessly and decide if they serve us. If you’re worried about having to give up wine, then, in my opinion, this is exactly the level you should be playing at.

And no whining.

(My Big Fat Whole Life Challenge Blog Post #1)