Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
I bought $20 worth of Thin Mints from some Girl Scouts. It's true. I did it, even though I was a Camp Fire Girl. Then I ate an entire box of the chocolatey minty wafer cookies in a week. I'm not ashamed! It's more than just a cookie; it's a charitable and educational event. Right?? That's why, ounce for ounce, they cost a lot more than store-bought cookies, and a mega-lot more than homemade cookies. I have to remind myself that I'm not literally eating money, I'm only metaphorically eating money.
The first time I successfully lost a bunch of weight, it was because I was flat freaking broke. I mean, so broke I had to go to the Laundromat and ask people if they could spare some lint so at least I would have something in my pocket. My major goal at that time of my life was to convert money into food as quickly as I could. The connection between the two goes a lot farther for me than the realization that so many foods are coin-shaped. (Pizzas, donuts, potato chips, burgers, most cookies, banana slices, OMG MIND BLOWN)
When I was in college, my stated goal was to get a job that paid well enough that I could eat every meal in a restaurant. I basically did that when we were on our honeymoon, and that is why this is no longer a goal for me. I can gain a full clothing size in under two weeks. I've done it at least twice. If there was a TV show about me, it would be called 'Biggest Gainer.' I can basically look at a picture menu and gain three pounds. I sometimes wish I were ten inches taller, so I could eat more, although if that actually worked I'd be a redwood tree by now. The result of my love affair with cookies and restaurant food has been a cost of thousands of dollars in fitness equipment, gym memberships, race fees, gym clothes, running shoes, and a stint with a personal trainer, not to mention the various health issues.
When we're trying to get out of debt and move toward financial stability, much less financial freedom, we can't ignore the issue of what we spend on food. There is an extremely interesting relationship between food and finance that is very reflective of our attitudes toward scarcity and abundance.
I am in a place of financial comfort now where I can afford basically any food I want, anywhere, at any time. I could pick up my phone and have a wide range of steamy goodness at my front door within twenty minutes. What has been instructive to me is that I no longer eat the vast majority of 'comfort foods' I used to love. I lost interest. I used to stand at the vending machine in my office longer than most people stand in front of the Mona Lisa when they visit the Louvre. The beautiful mystery that is food packaging! I calculated recently that I spent at least $300 a year on vending machine snacks at a time when I really could have used that money for other things, like a new winter coat. I also could have had triple the calories for the same price by buying healthier foods at the grocery store, or I could have acknowledged my habits and gotten the same snacks in bulk at Costco. At the time, I was framing this habit as a not-habit, as a one-time splurge multiplied many times, as a "treat."
A "treat" is a band-aid on a disappointing life.
My real issues were an unfulfilling job, an unsuitable relationship, a conflicted relationship with my body image and physical health, an objectionable commute, and a climate that almost never suited me. No bag of vending machine snacks or pro-social cookies was going to help with that.
Health food is expensive. Well, yes and no. I will never stop pointing out that a bunch of organic kale costs the same as a modestly-sized bag of chips from the convenience store. A five-pound bag of potatoes costs the same as a Big Mac. At least some of the cost of healthier groceries can easily be offset by changing our purchasing habits. Vending machines and convenience stores are expensive! I've been to the discount grocery store, the one where they have half-off frozen foods, and discovered that it's still significantly cheaper to buy bulk goods and cook from scratch. That process can feel like such a depressing, exhausted, onerous chore from a position of scarcity, though! Cooking in a tiny, scuzzy, outdated kitchen with dubious pot handles, dull knives, and poor lighting. Bleah. There's a reason why upscale homes always have ginormous foofoo kitchens.
When I was poor, I hated to cook. I was tired, I worked on my feet a lot, I commuted on the bus, and when I got home I was wiped out. I didn't understand the connection between my dietary habits, my energy level, and my quality of sleep. Now that I have nice pans, a vast spice cabinet, and a dishwasher, I love cooking. We can our own produce, soup stock, jam, and pickles. It's really weird that I have probably triple the energy as a middle-aged person than I did in my twenties. This is definitely linked to the optimism that comes with prosperity. I suspect this works both ways, although I can't go back in time to prove it.
It helps to reframe the way we think about treats. Is it really a treat if I feel physically icky the next day, like when I overdo it at a buffet restaurant? Is it really a treat if I've been trying to get off medication? Is it really a treat if I feel like my weight is out of control and I hate the way I look and feel? THIS IS NOT ME is not a treat kind of a feeling. Does what I've been doing lately fit with my vision of Future Me in a thriving career and a super-awesome personal environment? Are my habits leading toward greater abundance and fun, or am I trading my future for momentary pleasure? Would I feed my pets the way I feed myself?
That one tends to stop me in my tracks. I would never let my beautiful fluff-babies eat the amount of sugar that I do. If someone tried to feed my parrot a cookie, I would slap it right out of their hand. Meanwhile [crams stack of cookies in mouth].
What would a happy person do? There is this idea that impulsive decisions and living for the now are the happier choice, but only young people really believe this. Once we pass the age of thirty, we start to feel it more. Yeah, I used to love to party and stay up late, but then I got tired. Domestic contentment is an abiding form of happiness, one that is reliable. When you can be happy on an average day at home, in full acceptance of your current situation, then you've won the game. Part of this domestic happiness includes financial stability and part of it includes the elusive sensation of "loving the skin you're in." It's much easier to appreciate these feelings when you've attained them after years of not feeling either. Believe that these feelings of peace and satisfaction truly exist and that they are possible.
It's been a week, so I think it's safe to say that I dodged it. I didn't get my mom's cold. She was coming down with a sore throat and a cough when I got to town a few days before Thanksgiving. We spent a week and a half together. We hugged. We sat together at meals. We sat together on the couch. I went running in the rain and cold. I came and went via two international airports and sat on four planes. I touched doorknobs. I rode several buses and trains. Every opportunity came up for me to get sick, but I didn't. Past experience has me convinced that this is because of reasons, which I will now share.
I used to come down with everything. It felt like I had a runny nose at least three months out of every year for my entire life. I had to get an inhaler once because I had a respiratory infection and wound up coughing up blood. Over the last few years, it seemed that every time I got even the most minor cold, it would go straight to bronchitis. I figured I just had "weak lungs" or something.
Then I decided to question this idea. I have an immune system, don't I? It can theoretically be weakened or strengthened, can't it? There's no cost to trying to strengthen it, is there?
There are four changes I have made, to which I attribute my stronger resistance.
Sleep. I have a parasomnia disorder, so I never felt that my sleep was within my circle of influence. Learning to sleep a solid eight hours a night has revolutionized my life. I used melatonin supplements on a timer for several years, and now I can sleep without assistance.
Vegetables. When I started tracking my micronutrient consumption, I was very surprised to discover that I was low in a couple of nutrients. How could I possibly be eating as many as 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and still be short on anything? The secret is that each fruit and each vegetable has a slightly different nutritional profile, and they are not interchangeable. I learned to plan meals around what I was missing with the help of the MyFitnessPal app and some careful research. (Example: foods rich in potassium) I did a ten-day juice fast last month. Oh, and I started drinking a mug of hot water with the juice of one fresh lemon in it several mornings a week.
Washing my hands a little longer. I decided to time myself washing my hands. My default wasn't as long as recommended, so I decided to spend 20% longer scrubbing with soap.
Not touching my eyes or nose. I asked a coworker once why he never seemed to get sick. He promptly responded, "I never touch my eyes." I had never thought of this as an issue before, and I started to realize that I rubbed my eyes all the time. Now I am very aware when I am in public places that this unconscious habit is a quick route for germ introduction.
The first two of these changes affect my immune system. The second two affect my exposure to the human environment.
The thing about health advice is that everyone knows what to do. We just don't like doing it. We're never going to tell ourselves, "Oh, I know I should be going to bed earlier, but I'd rather stay up playing this game and just get the cough that will last three weeks." Or, "Getting a cold is totally worth not having to eat anything green most days of the week." We accept illness as fate.
The other thing about health advice is that we aren't always aware of things that our doctors might assume we know. For instance, I never knew that the spleen plays a role in the immune system until I started researching how to get sick less often. I did know that the spleen does not like processing sugar or fat. It makes sense to me that switching more of my food intake to vegetable matter would also reduce the amount of sugar and fat that I eat. Vegetables are valuable for what they contain, and also for what they displace or drive off our plates. Cabbage, not rice; kale, not pasta; chard, not breakfast cereal; cauliflower, not bread; sweet potatoes, not bagels.
To get into the world of woo-woo a little, not everyone wants to be well all the time. Getting sick is an escape hatch. Especially for people with poor boundaries who get little privacy, a bout with a cold can be a way to be alone, catch up on sleep, and maybe do a bit of reading. Being ill gives us a chance to be waited on for once, rather than waiting on other people all the time. Being the strong one means you get stuck with more than your fair share of drudgery. I've always tried to be really conscious of this with my husband, who has only been sick a couple of times in the decade I've known him. No matter how sick I might be, I still put my clothes in the hamper, put my trash in the wastebasket, and put my dishes in the dishwasher. The worst case scenario at our house is that the bathroom doesn't get cleaned for an extra week. But then, I make my own schedule, and I see getting ill as 100% unpleasant and unnecessary.
To toss one other idea out there, I think there's more to dust than just dust. My clients tend to get sick and stay sick, with the adults and kids coughing and sniffling for three to six weeks at a time. Sometimes this happens several times each winter. There seem to be three parts to this: the "I don't feel like cooking" diet, the lack of schedule/solid sleep, and the coating of biofilm on every surface. Squalor means living with mold, mildew, dust, cardboard particles, and usually a lot of pet hair and dander. My clients tend to resist dusting or vacuuming because "it stirs up the dust!" (And "the cat hates it.") I cut back on my home visits because I would always have sneezing fits during jobs, and sometimes my eyes would get all red and puffy as well. If I'm having respiratory reactions within minutes of walking in your front door, how are you breathing in there night and day? The risk of acting on this hypothesis is quite low. If you deep-clean the entire place and still get sick, it didn't cost anything and at least the house is clean.
First, do no harm. I'm certainly no doctor. I'm just an average person who used to get sick a lot and now does not. As I get older, I feel like I'm aging in reverse. I'm healthier and more energetic than I was twenty years ago. It feels worth sharing my ideas for other people to test or to disregard. There are no real downsides to getting more sleep, eating more vegetables, washing your hands slightly longer, avoiding touching your eyes, or deep-cleaning your house. The downsides of having a cold don't necessarily feel all that bad unless you're in the midst of one. Maybe that's why so many people go out in public and cough all over the place. Here's to not being one of those people.
We finished our ten-day juice fast. The experience was different than I thought it would be. It was easier to do, and we also didn't lose as much weight as I expected.
I lost three pounds and my husband lost six. This makes sense, because we were eating the same meals and he weighs twice as much as me. (I am short and I have a small frame). I didn't really have any weight to lose, and it wasn't my intention, but there was nothing exactly frightening about three pounds. It's the difference between tight pants and comfy pants.
As to pants, it works like this:
**0 to **3 pounds: comfy.
**4 to **6: fits.
**7 to **8: have to wrestle them on.
**9: do not fit no matter how hard I try.
Most people could get dramatic wardrobe results by dropping two or three pounds. It's enough of a difference to bring old favorites back into circulation. It's definitely enough to make tight clothes more comfortable. At this time of year, what matters to me is that it makes it possible for me to wear thermal underwear under my pants and still be able to button them.
Back to the juice.
The big drawbacks to juicing are that it's expensive, messy, and time-consuming. Anyone who has an attachment issue to washing dishes or cooking is going to struggle committing to a juicing program. We were constantly washing knives and cutting boards and emptying out the compost bucket. We also wound up going to the store three times as often, because we were going through fruit and bags of kale much faster than we had anticipated. Juicing turns into your major hobby during the days you're doing it.
The benefits, though, were better than anticipated. I found that I slept better and slept more. My husband cut his caffeine consumption by about half. We couldn't manage all the meals on the plan, because it was simply too much food, and we didn't need it. (This would probably be different for someone with a lot of weight to lose). I found that my energy level was higher than normal, and that I was getting more done. Using the blender started to feel easy and natural.
In particular, the plan included "hot water with lemon" first thing in the morning. A lot of people swear by this, but it always sounded depressing and gross to me. I was picturing a cup of hot water with a tiny trickle of lemon juice in it. In reality, the juice of a whole lemon in hot water is more like warm lemonade. I love it. It didn't occur to me until I'd been drinking it for a week, but I'm certain not to get scurvy! It makes me wonder whether all this extra vitamin C will affect whether I get a cold this winter or not.
Now that we're done, I plan to keep making juice in the morning. I'll just eat normal meals the rest of the day. We're in the fortunate position that our rental house came with productive fruit trees, and we have more citrus fruit than two people can handle. That includes tangerines, grapefruits, and of course lemons.
I have a historic tendency to gain weight rapidly when I travel. That includes family visits as well as backpacking trips and foreign travel. It's really frustrating. The first time I went overseas, I couldn't button my pants by the time I went home. Most people aren't tuned in to this, but life is easier and cheaper when you stay in one consistent clothing size. You don't have to store several sizes worth of clothes in case of weight fluctuation, and you don't have to buy new things when your old stuff gets too small. Now that I know that juice fasting is an acceptable way to drop three pounds, I'll definitely try it again if my pants start getting tight again.
If you're like me, you're still eating Halloween candy. I start my holiday weight gain season in mid-October and I like to keep going through the end of December. I mean, I have to assume that I like it because that's what I always do. First the Halloween candy. Then the fall foods I can't make through most of the year because it's too hot to use the oven. Then the Thanksgiving bacchanalia and the leftovers. Then the cookies and cocoa. Then Christmas. Then something fancy for the New Year. By then, it's impossible not to notice that all my waistbands are tight. Unless someone gives me a muumuu for Christmas, I'm going to be forced to acknowledge, in the midst of my New Year's Day food hangover, that I either need to change or I need to buy bigger clothes.
Bigger clothes it is, then.
The trouble with gaining one pound is that it keeps wanting to stick onto previous pounds. When my clothing size crept up, I chalked it up to inconsistent size charts. When my weight crept up, I compared it to what it was a few months ago, not a few years ago. When I crossed the line from average to overweight to obese, I didn't feel or see it happening. I always felt like the same size, and I never once thought of myself as "A Fat Person." The average American gains about a pound a year, and I can tell you from experience that I can do this in one meal. And keep it. The figures are skewed because heavier people tend to gain more than a pound a year. Almost all of us gain our annual weight over the holidays. It's like a gift. A package of cookies turns into a nice little pair of love handles. Or perhaps some saddlebags or a muffin top.
We're never going to stop, though. Turning down a cookie during the holiday season must be a form of psychosis. It's demented. Who would do that?? Not eating holiday sweets is exactly, exactly like slapping someone in the face. Not eating the holiday sweets is like self-harm. It's like canceling Christmas. It's like spending Thanksgiving locked in a closet. There is absolutely no way we could ever tolerate the feeling of Holiday Food FoMO.
It's okay, though. It's much easier to adjust to weight gain and the perpetual search for clothes that don't pinch than it is to handle The Feels. Those left-out, crushed, disappointed, deprived feels. How can it be the holidays without a tub of butter cookies? (For starters?)
So the question is, how much do I want to gain this year? Am I on track? I should be gaining at least as much this year as I did over each of the last five years. Maybe there's something in my closet from that time period that I can hold up to make sure I'm sticking to the plan. Because if I'm not gaining, I must be missing out on something sweet somewhere.
There actually is a way to over-over-over-indulge and still not gain weight. It takes a certain amount of planning, and that takes self-knowledge, imagination, focus, and awareness. I CAN Eat All the Things and maintain an intentional fitness level! I CAN fit all my favorite yummies into my favorite tummy and still fit into my favorite jeans, too! I can if I plan.
Look, I know myself. I know I have no willpower. I know that because, as I often state, there is no such thing as willpower. What I do have is a lot of self-discipline and about 19 sweet tooths. They co-exist peacefully inside me, because I am a mix of passionate and determined. What I know is that when I'm at a party or meal or gathering, and I see my favorite foods, I will eat them. I will eat them all. There is no decision involved here. So I have to plan around all the times during the year that I am *not* at a special celebration.
I eat well, as a rule. My husband and I eat vast amounts of cruciferous vegetables. For instance, we routinely finish off a head of broccoli or a head of cauliflower between us at dinner. This practice essentially eliminates food cravings. Getting sufficient micronutrients and insoluble fiber makes sweets and processed foods taste yucky. Getting enough sleep and hydration helps regulate appetite, as does strenuous exercise. We also tend to switch to more soup in the fall and winter. When we stay on track for the first nine months of the year, we can only do so much damage to our poor organs in the last three months.
That's not much help, though, to those of us who've spent most of 2016 drinking soda, eating appetizers and restaurant portions, raiding vending machines, and snarfing gas station food. What do we do if we don't like where we are right now, and yet we still can't bear missing out on the holiday saturnalia?
This is what I do. If I know I'm going to a gathering with a lot of food, I eat lightly earlier in the day. This generally involves delaying breakfast by an hour and skipping my afternoon snack. We usually overeat at these occasions to the point that we're still full when we wake up the next day, and the very thought of throwing breakfast down there sounds painful. Skipping a snack and a breakfast, in my case, adds up to 500-600 calories. Tacking that on to the amount I normally eat at dinner is doubling my normal meal. That's as much as I can eat without feeling actual physical pain. Believe me, because I always push that limit.
Learning about the Hunger Scale was really helpful to me. Fortunately, it doesn't involve trying to grab weapons out of a cornucopia and hunt the other invitees down with a crossbow. The Hunger Scale is an estimate of how full or hungry you feel. A "one" would be passing out from hunger, while a "ten" would be full to the point of acute nausea. "It's wafer thin!" Ideally, on a normal day, we'd eat when we're at a three and stop when we hit a five or six. My tendency was to eat until I hit a seven at normal meals, an eight when I went out to dinner, and a nine on holidays. I've been at a ten a few times, and hated myself for it. I try to remind myself now that I really, really don't like the physical feeling of going past a seven. I pull up vivid memories of myself claiming I'll "never do this again," like the time I went to the County Fair, drank 32 ounces of soda and ate about 4 cups of curly fries with a half-cup of ketchup (plus a burrito), and then spent the rest of the night curled up into a ball and moaning. I want to enjoy myself and enjoy the delicious food, not make myself sick. Past Self, can you help me out here and give me a little recall?
Another way I have dealt with my intense drive to pound food down my gullet with a funnel and a plunger is to couple it with my other intense drive. That is for endurance running. I love to run, I love to run up hills, I love to run up hills in the mud. Fall and winter are the best times for running in my climate, and this works out pretty well. When I'm putting in thirty miles a week, I can burn off quite a bit. I can plan a long run either the morning before a party, or the afternoon afterward. It turns out that I have a lot of extra energy and some pretty great athletic performances after massively overindulging. This has not failed to escape my attention! The only problem with this has been that running seems to have switched off at least a few of my sweet tooths. I no longer really enjoy things like donuts or Oreos. I used to eat Nutter Butters during my training runs, but now I can only really handle nuts and unsweetened dried fruit. Oh well. It tends to feel worth it whenever I catch a glimpse of my awesome new thighs.
I've spent at least a year in each of eight clothing sizes. It always felt natural, except for the part when my stretch marks turned red and purple and started itching constantly. I believe and know that I have the power to change my body through my daily habits. I also believe that there are many connections between my daily habits and the amount of pain and illness I experience. Beating chronic pain, fatigue, migraine, and sleep problems means a lot more to me than not being obese anymore, but they all go together. I will probably never stop going crazy over holiday food, but that doesn't have to mean I am fated to be a certain size or to have certain health issues. It's a false dilemma. I choose both wild indulgence and an intentional physical form.
We're a couple of days into our first juice fast. I'm going along in solidarity with my husband. This project is what I refer to as a Fact Finding Mission; it's one of many that I've undertaken out of a spirit of curiosity. I prefer to find out what something is like for myself, based on direct experience, rather than my inner sense of resistance. I'm not a true believer, not yet anyway. I thought our experiment might provide useful information to both skeptics and the hesitant.
The first thing to share is that in no way could I have guessed what fasting felt like from observation. We've both been on diets, generally not at the same time, and it's similar. It's similar to other ordeals, such as Finals Week or caffeine withdrawal, which may have been undergone and then largely forgotten. It's a human failing not to have much sympathy for others, whether they're suffering something we have suffered and overcome or something with which we're unfamiliar. Doing this fast together helps us to remember that we're both struggling.
The second thing to share is that it's not really as bad as all that. We're hungry but functioning. The big thing is to remember to start preparing the next juice, soup, or salad on schedule, because delaying by an hour or more turns into crashing. We're doing about double the food prep that we do for ordinary meals. My husband has to make his next day's pitcher of juice after dinner, as well as packing up his breakfast and lunch, so the first day was front-loaded with extra effort.
I used to have a second-hand juicer, which I eventually gave to a friend. It created a great deal of pulp. We went out and bought a high-end blender, which is technically a different beast. It is about ten times easier to clean than the juicer and there's no pulp afterward. This was a good decision.
The juice itself tends to look scary and taste fine. This may be because it IS fine, or it may be because we eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables already. I'm really not sure whether a picky eater who hates vegetables could get behind this. It's not just the juicing part but also the vast salads and the vegetable soups. You're literally eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, herbs, and a little salt and oil, so if you hate those things, it probably won't work out. (But then, consider whether your default is working out...)
On the second day, I walked five miles, went grocery shopping, did three loads of laundry, moved some furniture, and made four separate dishes. This surprised me somewhat. When I went on a strict calorie-cutting diet, eating the same number of calories as on the juice fast, I felt lethargic and mopey. There is definitely something to be said for ingesting massive amounts of micronutrients and fiber, as opposed to subsisting on tiny portions of more ordinary fare. (A packet of oatmeal, a tiny sandwich, a single piece of fruit, and a dinner salad or other measured, minute quantity).
Fasting has a gendered aspect. A big, hockey-playing, chainsaw-wielding man such as my husband, who has an advanced degree, can go on a strict fringe diet and make it look like little more than an interesting athletic challenge. Such stamina, such dedication! A small-framed, delicate flower of femininity such as myself sends more of a message of insanity, body dysmorphia, or narcissism. All I can say is that I know my own mind. I've done all sorts of things out of curiosity, from riding a mechanical bull to jumping over open flames. What I've found is that my own physical limitations have yet to be reached. Every time I try to do something, it turns out that I can do it. That includes running a marathon.
Concern in our culture over excessive weight loss is so strong as to approach hysteria. Perhaps this is because 70% of us are overweight now, and even 25 pounds overweight looks small. Perhaps this is because most of us don't like contemplating at what age we will develop diabetes, if we don't have it already, and so we turn our focus toward health problems at the opposite end of the spectrum. This taboo aspect of physical transformation is part of the fascination for me. So few people know about the experience of being not-fat now that it's become alien and alarming. Perhaps a bit of reassurance is in order. According to the charts, I would have to lose a full 15 pounds to be underweight, and that's not happening in such a brief time period. Even if I did drop a dramatic amount of weight, say from food poisoning, I can gain a pound a day without even trying. This is not a project that is likely to result in permanent harm, or even short-term harm. My goal is not to lose weight or to look a certain way, but rather to share an experience with my husband. Although, when my goal was to lose weight, I did it and have maintained it for two and a half years. No crazy was gone.
Athletes do it all the time. Actors do it all the time. Spiritual practitioners from most, maybe all, religious traditions do it all the time. Pre-Industrial people of every culture did it every winter, and do it still, in an unbroken chain that goes back before human history, before human prehistory, and undoubtedly all the way back to the beginning. Animals in the wild cannot rely on steady access to a standard amount of calories every day, in all seasons. Occasional, unintentional fasting is the way of the world for all life forms. Occasional, voluntary fasting is a common cultural trait.
Both of us are over forty. We look around and see that almost everyone we know in our age range relies on pharmaceuticals to live. We have a dozen friends who rely on medical appliances, either for diabetes or for sleep apnea. There always seems to be someone we know who is going into surgery or recuperating from it. This is nervous-making. My husband just filled out a questionnaire for his health insurance at work, and it included the question, "How many medications are you on?" There was an option for "5+." Neither of us have been prescribed anything. Our blood work has come back in the healthy range the entire time we've been together. Deviating from the Standard American Lifestyle seems to be working out pretty well for us so far. The older we get, the more we start looking for healthy role models who are rocking it at our age or older, and the more willing we are to make habit changes.
Our initial commitment to this juice fast is for ten days. I will of course report back on the results.
Thanksgiving in T-minus 15 days! This is a great time to start clearing space in preparation for the great Thanksgiving Fridge Tetris Tournament. We need room in the refrigerator, we need room in the freezer, and we need all the food storage containers, too. Anything in there that is trying to evolve into intelligent life needs to get its spore-covered self out of there. Otherwise, where are we going to put the PIE?
I've started a new tradition, which is that on New Year's Eve anything left in the fridge gets emptied out. I have found five-year-old mustard in the door before. Those shelves are like the kind of cavern where a shepherd stumbles across lost ancient manuscripts. Except those jars are priceless and mine are pointless. Why do I have two jars of capers? Now that I'm asking, why do I have seven flavors of salad dressing? Hopefully the stockpile in my fridge won't take more than two months to consume, but November and December are such busy holiday months that we should be able to do it. That especially includes the perishables.
Cleaning out the produce bins can be an exercise in guilt. Aha, so this is why I can't button my pants. The ice cream is at eye level and the vegetables are down by my shins. Come on. Whose idea was this? I solved that problem by breaking the rules. The lowest produce bin is for the goodies. The middle section is for the fresh produce, including the Watermelon Shelf. The eye-level shelf is for stuff that Needs to Get Eaten Up (a top frugality concept). Whenever I meet people who claim to "hate leftovers," I know for a fact that they have debt and money troubles. If you hate leftovers, you're not eating the right stuff, because a lot of things are best on the third day. Pot pie! Lasagna! Soup! At this time of year, if you claim to hate leftovers, well, that's just not even patriotic. What kind of American doesn't prolong Thanksgiving at least through Saturday? Leftovers are the reason for the season!
The other thing about the scary produce drawer is that it has hidden lessons. I need more recipes for this vegetable. I need to make a meal plan. I need to pack a lunch and snacks. How is it possible that I can spend so much at the grocery store, let most of the produce spoil, and then waste all this money on vending machines and drive-thru? The secret behind this depressing pattern has to do with blood sugar levels. When we're hungry, our minuscule amount of willpower becomes entirely depleted and we can no longer make decisions. We fall back to the default. Then we reward ourselves for bad choices and quit taking any calls from Future Self. "Hey, Past Self, what are you thinking? You're already in debt and your freaking pants won't fit, and so your big plan is to spend money you don't have on junk food? Nice. Thanks for nothing." This is why I think we need a national plan for nap breaks and an official high tea. I mean, at minimum. At my house I have both second breakfast AND second lunch, and that's why I work for myself.
Thanksgiving tends to make me go a little nuts. I will cook for three days. I've been known to prepare more dishes than there were guests. This is why I've pushed back my planning time further and further. I can't bear having to make (and eat) the same menu every year, so I do a deep dive into my vast cookbook collection and try to narrow it down to my top 25 picks. I have a steamer table, a set of extra burners, an ice cream maker, and a crock pot that all wind up getting put to use. Seriously, it's out of control, and that's not even including the trifle. I know I'm going to need every cubic inch of space in my fridge, and that's why I'm starting to clear it out now. That way, when I start hearing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, I'll know I'm going to win the Fridge Tetris Tournament.
I read The Good Gut with keen interest. The gut microbiome is only beginning to be studied and understood in the context of human health. Anyone who has multiple, seemingly unrelated health issues would do well to read up in this area. This book would be a good start. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg are married PhDs who are raising two kids based on their gut research, and the tone is relatable and relaxed. Let your kids play in the dirt, let the dog lick their face, quit using antibacterial soap, and eat some vegetables. The advice is simple and straightforward, and the book has a selection of recipes at the back.
"What is the Microbiota and Why Should I Care?" That's the name of the first chapter, and it's a good place to start. The Good Gut is focused on the basic science of gut flora. By the time we get to the personal dietary recommendations, a solid foundation has been laid. It makes sense when connections are made between gut health and antibiotic use, asthma, eczema, obesity, serotonin levels, autoimmune diseases, and possibly even autism. The connection with inflammatory bowel disease is more obvious. A skeptical attitude toward commercial probiotic products prevails, and I agree. Why not just eat vegetables like our ancestors did?
Gut problems are the secret that can't be named. People are understandably mortified to talk about these issues, even with a doctor. It surprises me, though, how incredibly common they are. The reason it surprises me is that it's not a problem in my world. I'm 41 and I've never had food poisoning. I accidentally drank a glass of tap water in Cancun, and all that happened was that I felt nervous all evening. When I pick up something, such as a norovirus that went around my office for a week or so, I lose my appetite and sleep more, but that's it. The difference between me and most people is that I eat a high-fiber diet and I haven't eaten meat since 1993. I've been vegan since 1997. (I was also delivered naturally and breastfed, two factors that, according to the book, are relevant to gut health). When The Good Gut mentioned the American Gut Project, I decided to participate later this year. The question of gut flora is testable. We can obtain objective, measurable data and compare them to other samples. I am very curious to know more, just as I'd like to know more about my DNA.
My one issue with The Good Gut is that almost all the recipes rely on dairy products. It's been my observation that my acquaintances with the most digestive issues tend to be heavy dairy consumers, and this seems to be supported by research indicating that not everyone has the genetic ability to digest milk into adulthood. What a weird idea anyway; no other animals besides humans eat the milk of another animal, or consume it past infancy. Anyway, the book's recommendations to eat a high-fiber diet are clear and frequent.
He had me at “Rejecting Middle Age.” I’m still doing that whole turning-forty thing, wondering where I’ll be at age 80, wondering whether I’ll even make it that far, and looking back regretfully at my lazy, confused, inconsiderate youth. Past Self! Why did you spend all my money! Past Self! Why don’t I have more muscle definition! Past Self! Why didn’t you learn to cook sooner? I found Finding Ultra inspiring and illuminating. I’ve already run my first marathon and developed a passion for endurance sports that was far from self-evident when I turned 35. I think, though, that this book would be a compelling read even if running or doing a triathlon is literally the last thing you think you would ever do. (Abducted by aliens, maybe; eat a bug, maybe; voluntarily go for a run, heck no!).
Finding Ultra begins with Rich Roll sitting in front of the TV, eating a plate of cheeseburgers with nicotine gum for dessert. He was a late-stage alcoholic when barely 30, and blacked out immediately after checking into rehab. While he was maintaining his sobriety, he fit the standard picture of a middle-aged dad in every other way: fifty pounds overweight, living on fast food, and sprawling on the couch. The book details his journey, courageously sharing dark details about his battle with addiction and the way it stole his college sports career, destroyed his first marriage before it had really begun, almost wasted his professional career, and easily could have taken his life. It’s the comeback story of a lifetime.
This is all really hard to believe from Roll’s photograph on the book cover. He’s a lean, mean, triathlon machine, listed as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.” Like me, he doesn’t really have any pictures of himself from his top weight. Before I got into endurance running, I neither understood nor cared what kind of milestones were reached by these weirdly sporty masochists. I read Dean Karnazes’s Ultramarathon Man when I could barely run a mile, and burst into tears on the treadmill when it finally sunk in that this stuff is humanly possible! Karnazes was describing a 100-mile footrace. Impressive, right? Rich Roll and his friend Jason Lester did five ultra-distance triathlons in under a week. That’s 70.3 miles a day: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and finishing with a full 26.2-mile marathon, for a total of 351.5 miles in six days. Okay, when I did my marathon? I had to pick up my own thigh and lift it over the 2” threshold of the shower stall, walk backward the rest of the evening because my hip flexor failed, crawl on my butt up the stairs, and sleep about 15 hours the next day. I couldn’t walk to the mailbox, much less get my leg over a bike. If I’d tried to swim I’m sure it would have ended with an extreme close-up of a lifeguard giving me mouth-to-mouth.
One of the features of the book is Rich Roll’s conversion to plant-based nutrition. In that respect, he joins the ranks of other elite endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. I don’t write about this often, but I have been vegan since 1997 and vegetarian since 1993. I’m one of the very few 40-year-olds in my acquaintance who doesn’t need medication, has healthy numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, and also weighs in at the recommended amount for my height. Most of us would be glad to be able to sit on the floor and get up again without our knees cracking or without having to grab on to something. I ran a marathon and completed a mud run with a 20-foot rope climb. Now I’m looking for my next physical challenge – I want to run a 50-mile race for my 50th birthday. I believe absolutely that my commitment to plant-based nutrition is the major difference between my health and fitness, and what is supposedly “normal” for other women my age. Eat meat or not, hey, whatever. But please do track your micronutrients for a few weeks and ask whether you’re taking your body in the direction you want as you move further toward maturity. Middle-aged athletes like Rich Roll (at the elite end) and myself (at the hilariously slow end) are proof that anyone can make a major physical transformation at any time.
A common issue with basic self-care is that it seems selfish. It can feel like spending any time or focus on taking care of ourselves takes away from what we owe to others. Our mates, kids, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and random strangers on the street somehow seem more deserving of our attention than the source of that attention. This source of attention is, of course, a self. A single individual heart. We are each like candles, our inner light illuminating those around us. When we let that candle burn too low, the light begins to fade and gutter, until finally it is snuffed out. The better we are at tending this little flare, the brighter it can burn and the farther into the darkness that light can shine.
Hangry. Why is this a word? It’s a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry.” Like “adulting,” it’s a concept readily understood across society. It’s a part of modern life. Why would we do this to ourselves, though? By the time we reach adulthood, surely we’re aware that going too long between meals makes us grumpy, irritable, distracted, clumsy, thin-skinned, and hard to be around. The first question is why we would do this to ourselves. The second question is why we would do it to others! Why would we inflict our hangry, snappy selves on others around us? It’s like voluntarily turning into the Incredible Hulk, except with no villains to crush. A friend of mine named her irritable alternate persona “Snarla.” Maybe we can’t bring ourselves to eat a proper breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack for our own sakes. Don’t we owe a bit more consideration to the people around us, though? If we know we have this tendency to let ourselves down, deprive ourselves of basic nutrition, and perform poorly all day, don’t we then have a responsibility to plan around that?
Another area where almost everyone collapses under the burden of modern life is that of getting enough sleep. Sleep procrastination is a real problem. The more tired we are, the less likely we are to want to go to bed early enough to get a good night’s rest. The key factor behind this is the desire for High Quality Leisure Time. We’re looking for an uninterrupted block of a specific amount of time so that we can unwind. If we’re partway into our HQLT, and it’s interrupted, the clock starts over. Especially for parents, getting that critical time block feels almost impossible. We’ll stay up hours later than we should in the quest for peace of mind. The cost is that we’re perpetually an hour or more deprived of sleep each day. This is a lot like cashing out your retirement to buy scratch-off lottery tickets. It robs the future to pay for a temporary burst of hope that never really pays off.
When we’re chronically exhausted and burned out, we have nothing left for anyone else. We wind up with barely enough energy to vent about things that are bothering us. We can’t reach the threshold where we feel capable of taking action to change anything negative in our lives. That might be a terrible job, a wretched commute, an energy vampire, a bad pattern of communication with a specific person, a health issue, or financial problems, among other things. Not only do we wind up going through life feeling like positive change is impossible, we feel defeated and unhappy. That means it probably doesn’t cross our minds that we also don’t have the energy to pay close attention to the people in our lives. How can we listen deeply and be emotionally present when we’re exhausted and annoyed by life? Can we even realize and take in the fact that others are doing their very best to be there for us? Are we receiving support and affection graciously?
Another area where most of us impact others around us without realizing it is in organization and time management. When we’re burned out and overextended, we also tend to drop details. We rush from commitment to commitment, sometimes late for every single engagement for years on end. (Guilty as charged, Your Honor). We can’t manage to fit in time to organize our belongings, so we’re constantly searching for things we’ve lost. That can be a major root cause of chronic lateness, too. We may have personal possessions spread across every room of the home, we may lose track of important documents and files at work, we may miss recording appointments, and our attention may be spread so thin that we can’t even remember where we parked our vehicles. Guilt and shame are not helpful here, assuming they are ever helpful anywhere. What does help is to see better organization and time management as gifts that keep on giving. When we take care of the details of life, we can be present and fulfill commitments. We can show up prepared and ready to engage. We can stop causing concern, distraction, or frustration to others. The fact that we can also stop annoying ourselves is just an extra bonus.
Being well nourished and well rested creates a place of stillness in the room. Others who interact with us can feel the difference. We’re relaxed, responsive, and able to be attentive listeners. Our peace of mind can spread and soothe others, who may be under stress we can’t begin to imagine. Being organized and a few minutes early allows others to go through their day and complete their work without any interference from us. If everyone did it, how easy everything would seem! We can give so much more to others when we take care of ourselves first. We can be fully present. Sometimes, we can even be leaders and role models, inspiring others to take better care of themselves as well.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.