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Food and Me

Saturday, October 06, 2012

I've alluded to my "changed relationship with food" on my page, and after chatting to a few Sparkers whose stories reminded me of my own, I think it's time to get into the details.

I *love* food. All food, really. Trace it back to my diverse roots if you like: I'm 1/4 Spanish-Peruvian ; I grew up in Central and South Florida; my mom has a saintly willpower over of food; some other members of my family, not so much; and I married a Thai-Irish-American guy who will literally eat *everything*. So I've had the opportunity to try a lot of food in my lifetime, was offered consistently healthy food at every mean, exposed to delicious treats and snacks on occasion, and have good and bad examples of food relationships right in front of me. Where I'd land seemed destined to be a toss up.

Food was never the center of my life growing up, but that changed in college. It's not that I had access to better food, but food seemed to appear at more emotional times in my day-to-day life. Main meals spent with friends, prepping for and relaxing after long days of classes. Snacks in my room to carry me through long all-nighters. Ice cream nights to help us "breathe easier" right before finals. Dinners out when we were having particularly bad days. I gained weight. I didn't reach for healthy foods in a pinch. French fries became my vegetable of choice. And I gained weight. Really, this story isn't so different from most American college kids.

But graduation, grad school, and adulthood gave it its very own personal twist. When I graduated, I left Florida I moved in with my then-boyfriend-of-one-year (now husband) Mike and his Thai mom and his sister. We shared a multi-family house so there was plenty of privacy and lots of meals together. After long days at work and a long commute home, I'd be dying to eat before dinner for the lot of us was actually on the table. But I didn't want to insult my future mother-in-law by eating snacks and not dinner and I wasn't reaching for healthy before-dinner snacks either. I'd sneak chips and crackers around like they were precious gold. I lied about how many I'd eaten when I got caught. I'd take huge portions of dinner hoping no one would realize that I'd been packing in the calories just ahead of time. And after dinner, I'd keep going straight through bedtime.

I didn't really understand what was going on--and I never really took the time to worry about it--until I caught myself begging Mike to help me with the dog because I needed every waking minute to work on my grad thesis. And the second he was out the door, what did I do: stuff my face with chips. I saw myself at that very moment, and I was disgusted. Who had taken over my body? I'd gained 50 lbs since high school, and I was a disappointment. But that just made me eat more.

That week, I admitted to secret snacking and emotional eating. I faced disappointment from everyone around me, but they started helping me get through it. For a while, the snacking didn't go away; I'd just admit to it after the fact or do it in plain view of everyone. I started losing a little weight. Maybe 5lbs over a few months. But it was far from enough.

It was another 2 and a half years before I really faced the root of the problem. My portion control was a mess. I made bad choices when we went out to eat and when I planned menus. I ordered take-out way too often when I was stressed. Once we'd bought our house, I tried to keep from buying unhealthy food, but often kept it around anyway. There was still a LOT of bad food in my life, and I still relied on it to make me feel better.

With a July wedding on the horizon, an international trip planned for March, and a stressful job, I knew I wouldn't be able to purposefully lose weight in 2012. So I gave myself a break. My resolution wasn't to beat emotional eating, but to curb it a touch. My rules: if 3 bites make me feel good, 4 bites make me feel great, but 5 bites doesn't make me feel better than 4, I'll just stop at 4. So every time I had the urge to eat something, I ate it. I got stressed and reached out for food, but didn't gorge myself. I took more time eating and consciously enjoyed the rush I got when I ate delicious food--whether it was an amazing salad or an egg roll. Somehow, the pounds started ticking away. And as I focused more on enjoying my food, I started realizing just why I love it so much.

I *love* cooking. And I *love* having a great conversation over an amazing meal with someone who appreciates it like I do. I'd let these things get buried under--and sometimes enable--my emotional eating. But once I'd uncovered them again, I used them to my advantage. I challenged myself to start cooking healthier food that exploded with flavor. I had the family over for dinner and defined my success by how happy it made all of us.

Whole grains. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Lean meats. Fresh herbs. They all helped me turn this corner.

I still *love* food. But I can and do say no to the same foods that made my emotional eating a toxic struggle. Now when I have a bad day at work, I reward myself with a fresh apple or carrots and hummus. I celebrate with flavorful vegetarian soups, and treat myself to complex whole grain breads.

I am no saint with foods. Put an 8" Kirkland tiramisu in my fridge, and I won't be able to avoid having a piece or two until it's gone. When I injured my back this week, I definitely broke down and had more than my fill of Goldfish before dinner. But I don't expect myself to be perfect. Sure I made bad choices, but it doesn't mean I'm a bad person. Instead, I just treated myself to a big, healthy, fruit and grain filled breakfast the next day that will stuck with me through lunch.

Learning to be flexible and kind to yourself is the hardest part out of toxic emotional eating--at least it was for me. Maybe that's not your challenge, but doubtless you have a mountain in front of you. You have to know what makes you tick, what gives you the rush when you eat and what gets you down when you don't. Those things won't necessarily go away with sheer willpower. But if you can find a way to make them work in your favor, you may find the path easier to walk. Ultimately, only YOU know what's going to work. Some of you will be able to turn off the cravings cold turkey. Some of you may be bargainers and need rewards. The means is not so important, so long as you're being good to yourself and searching out a better relationship with yourself while you're improving your relationship with food.

Getting to this point was one of many challenges in the process of making my lifestyle healthy and natural. I'm back on SparkPeople because I need community to make it through the challenges ahead--exercising, building strength, losing weight, and settling into a permanent pattern of healthy habits. I can't--and don't want to--walk this path alone.

And if you're reading this, you aren't alone. Your story is unique and your challenges your own, but you've got a community of people who can understand where you are. So make the most of it. And be good to yourself. You're worth it!
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