This is definitely the hardest blog post I have written since I started two years ago. I have been thinking about it for over a year, debating with myself about whether to share this story with you. After building up my courage with some consults with several wise women, and listening more closely to my own intuition, here I am, writing this.
I want to share my food story with you in the hope that it will help some of you to develop a better relationship to food. (Composing and recomposing this, reflecting and re-reflecting has helped me already, personally and in my parenting.) To tell my food story in integrity, I need to share with you what used to be a shameful secret: I had bulimia in high school. It was a secret until fairly recently, when I was compelled to share it in the hope that it would help someone close to me. I do wish I had had the courage to share this years ago, particularly when a friend of mine was suffering from bulimia. Maybe it would have helped her in some way - to feel a little less alone, perhaps? What I know now, from hearing Brene Brown speak earlier this month in London England at the International Coach Federation Conference, is that shame can only exist when it is unspoken. When we tell someone about our shameful experience, it can no longer be shameful. So, I want to transform this story from a shameful one to a helpful one. I think and hope that this food story I am sharing with you will be helpful in that you will see where I came from and how I got to the place where I am. I am happy to say that now, I have a very healthy (not perfect! :)) relationship with food.
Where I am at now, essentially, is that I see food as fuel for my body primarily and, as a far second, as something delicious, to be shared, experimented with, etc. This mindset, combined with the fact that I am determined to get plenty of exercise every day and sleep well too, is what keeps my relationship with food healthy. If I don't exercise enough or get really overtired, then I start to eat more unhealthily. Those three elements, exercise, sleep and eating, are all very closely intertwined for me. If I am really tired, I still always exercise, because I know I will sleep better the next night and also eat better too. I am really proactive about the exercise because I know how much it helps me. It's taken me a while to get here to this healthier place and I think what might be helpful to you is to hear what some of the milestones/aha moments were.
As I have been trying to write this thing, I have realized how so very complex our relationship to food is. When I try to overlay this story with my blogging theme of managing energy not time, I realized that choosing food, preparing food, eating food, even growing food, and so on, can touch each of the four types of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. (For new readers, managing energy, not time, is a topic I have been blogging about for over a year. It has been an overarching theme. I think this is a critical approach to be aware of, for all of us, including the busy professional woman for whom there is never enough time. Here is a link to my first post on the subject.)
Part of this story and my background is rooted in the historical and cultural context of meat, potatoes and a "veg" upbringing in Southwestern Ontario in the 1970s and '80s. That was the norm, though in my family we did branch out from that quite a bit. My Mum made lots of homemade food and my parents were highly conscious of food as nutirition (my Dad is an endocrinologist who has spent his career focusing on the challenges of diabetes, so there was plenty of knowledge in the house). But I was growing up to be a striving perfectionist and, despite those relatively solid foundations around food, in high school, I began this habit of binging and throwing up after school, totally in secret. I got into a habit of eating whatever I could get my hands on and/or concoct, watching the "Y&R" and then throwing up. I was really stressed in high school in those first couple of years, trying to fit in (not unusual, I know). I was a bit younger than most and also the first-born child, so a little sheltered, and not so savvy. My body, being the resilient organism that it is, didn't really seem to be much affected by this harm I was inflicting upon it, so I don't think I fully appreciated the seriousness of what I was doing.
Somehow, I managed to stop that damaging habit before I hurt my body more seriously. At this point my memory is quite vague as to how or when I stopped exactly. I think the habit seemed to fade out of existence over the period of a few months. I think the fact that I became a bit more sure of myself socially at school, and the fact that I felt that I belonged to a group outside of school (a downhill ski racing team), was enough to bolster me back up. I know that when I gained significant weight during a 3 month exchange in France in grade 12 (a chocolate croissant a day at recess will do that), I relied on diet and exercise to get back to my healthy weight and I did not fall back on bulimia. My confidence and self-trust grew tremendously with that experience too, which must also have helped keep me on a healthy track. (I can write more about self-trust and food in a subsequent post if it's going to be helpful.)
Moving out of high school to university at McGill for undergrad and then U of T for law school, I do recall some of the "Freshman 15" creeping on, but I was getting more exercise, feeling better about myself, learning a ton, and having a lot of fun, so things were looking up. I do remember stocking my desk drawers with oreos and smarties and eating a lot of those when studying, which was obviously not a healthy approach. (I know now that those kinds of "snacks" need to be at least three feet away from us to lessen temptation.) During that time I also ate a lot of "kraft dinner" and other not so healthy foods, just because I could (they weren't in our house growing up) and they were cheap. I know this is pretty typical. The focus on plain white pasta continued for me into my early working and married life. I drank diet coke almost every day while working and tried to eat low fat and low sugar - meaning I ingested way too many chemicals at that time. When I was posted to my law firm's Hong Kong office for 3 months in 1996, I gained extra weight since I tried every kind of food offered to me (except chicken feet :)). I realized what was going on and increased my exercise while I was still away. This shift helped me to continue to enjoy the adventure I was on food-wise while still remaining a healthy weight, so that was an important learning experience for me.
So, all in all, at this point, as a young adult, my relationship to food was ok but not great. I could have been eating a much more balanced diet with much more emphasis on fruits and vegetables and whole grains and good fats, but really didn't realize this at the time. I know part of this is because we were not as well informed then as we are now, due to more recent advances in nutrition research and food labelling.
The next big shift happened after I had my first baby over 14 years ago. Of course, during pregnancy, I saw and felt my body grow larger. At times, I confess, I did feel fat and somewhat out of control, which I know is normal. Someone else was sharing my body temporarily. I did my best to eat well for two and get exercise, though I was a little nervous about over-exerting myself, understandably. I did consume a lot of hot chocolate/decaf coffee and jujubes at work in the afternoons to fuel myself, not really realizing that I could have been making better choices if I really wanted to be productive at work. My baby was born very healthy and I was grateful. And I was in awe of what my body could do, both during pregnancy and then after, as I was able to nurse him and then slowly lose the weight I had gained while pregnant. While women get pregnant and give birth every day, I am nevertheless in awe of what our female bodies can do!!! This feeling of awe has definitely helped me treat my body better than I did when I was younger, and helped me in my two subsequent pregnancies and recoveries. I think this feeling of awe is accessible to us whether or not we ever have children. Our bodies are really amazing organisms. Period.
When my first son was one, I joined a wonderful organization called Metro Mothers' Network ("Mumnet", for short). Mumnet turned out to be a critical part of my development in so many ways - definitely enough for the subject of another post. For today, the relevant part is the fact that sometimes we had guest speakers and, shortly after my daughter was born, around 2001, we had Mairlyn Smith come to speak to us. She was hilarious; she is a comedian and a cookbook writer and Mumnet alum. Her latest book, then called The Ultimate Healthy Eating Plan That Still Leaves Room for Chocolate, co-written with Liz Pearson, became my bible after that morning with her. It was exactly what I needed. I had been feeling a little lost and overwhelmed with the responsibility of providing a healthy diet for my family, day in, day out. Half the book was nutritional information and explanations as to why we should eat good fats, whole grains and even why a little chocolate and some wine could be good for us. The other half was all the recipes that put that wisdom into action. All of the sudden I was empowered and felt fantastic about what I could make for my family that would be healthy and delicious. Since that time, my commitment and interest in healthy eating and how it relates to us personally, our children, and now our planet, has continued to grow. (I have pinned more of my favourite cookbooks here.)
So, as I said above, I am focusing on how this story relates to managing physical energy. I have found that if I appreciate, and am even in awe of, my body every day and fuel it with food that is going to provide long term fuel, preferably food that is both healthy and delicious, I am able to manage my physical energy very well. That is, very well, if I am also getting sufficient exercise and sleep , as I have alluded to above and blogged about. Though, often my sleep is interrupted because I am a mother of three. Even when this happens, if I exercise, I do still eat pretty healthily. Sometimes I rely too much on coffee though.
What about you? If awe doesn't work for you, what other positive mindset could you put yourself in to help cultivate healthy eating habits? Love and compassion for yourself? What also helps me is to remember how badly I need my body to be healthy so that I can accomplish all those wonderful items on my very long to-do lists. Also, I have found my body to be a great refuge from my mind, an escape from my mind chatter (see this blog post). I really value having that escape and want to keep it open as an option as long as possible by maintaining healthy habits.
So, in conclusion, to maintain what I consider to be a healthy relationship to food and manage my physical energy, my advice to myself is this:
- eat food that is predominantly healthy fuel for my body and also preferably as delicious as possible;
- keep the health of the planet in mind too and eat local, organic and lots of vegetarian meals as often as possible
- exercise every day so that I crave healthier food and it tastes even better
- aim for a good 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep a night (this often gets eroded due to children's exploits!)
- sit down to eat and focus on my food (This is a hard one for me and I will discuss it more in relation to mindful eating; I tend to eat as I am preparing food.)
- keep the sweets to a minimum and really savour them as I am eating them
- encourage my family to take a similar approach
I am not a food expert so I am not giving this advice to anyone but myself. I am, however, a coach and coaches work with questions more than advice, so...
What about this post helped you?
Have you experienced something similar? Different?
What would you like to hear more about?
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