If someone had told me I was going to marry a jock, I wouldn’t even have bothered to roll my eyes. The only thing less plausible would be if they told me I was going to start walking around wearing a bikini with high heels. The fact that the latter doesn’t sound all that far-fetched anymore has a lot to do with the truth of the former. I fell in love with an athlete, and then he turned me into one. Sort of like being made into a zombie, except that you gradually get better posture and start moving faster.
I gained a lot of weight in my first marriage. Most people do. Marriage is usually an unspoken agreement that “I take thee and all thy flaws as long as you promise to ignore mine.” Let’s eat nachos and chill. My first marriage was so bad that always doing the exact opposite in my second marriage seemed like it might be a solid plan. What if, instead of just steadily gaining weight together, we made a pact to try to be a little more fit every year? Like, one percent?
I always hated anything even remotely resembling P.E. If there are roughly thirty kids in every grade school classroom, and one of them is the proverbial last kid picked for every team, then there are quite a few of us out there. I’ve been smacked in the head by nearly every type of ball, and once served a volleyball directly at our gym teacher’s butt, where it bounced off and flew across the room. That was my shining moment on the sports reel. If there was an all-American Olympic team for reading while snaffling sleeves of Oreos, I’d medal.
The first it ever occurred to me to maybe lose a couple of pounds, money was involved. My husband, a mere work acquaintance at the time, had set up an annual weight loss competition that the company wound up sponsoring. When I found out that I could win cash through any means whatsoever, I was game. All I needed to know was whether I could safely lose weight, and if so, how much. I had no understanding that I was clinically obese at the time. I didn’t care, either. All I wanted was that sweet, sweet munnah. The contest lasted for three months, and I listened carefully as my new work buddy taught me everything he knew about weight loss. I wound up winning over $200 in two years. Using cash prizes as a weight loss incentive was sheer genius, and it helped me trust this guy who formerly weighed 305 pounds.
We started working out together at the gym across the street. I’m not always very gracious about patiently listening while other people teach me things, but my new friend showed me how to set up all the weight equipment at the gym without mansplaining. We became workout buddies, which was great, because we were also lunch buddies and we tended to put away a lot of chimichangas.
At some point along the way, we realized that maybe there could be something more between us. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that we’d both lost thirty pounds since we’d met.
We both gained back some of the weight while we were planning our wedding. On our honeymoon, we were sprawled out on the hotel bed after a decadent meal (with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, of course) when we saw Biggest Loser for the first time. That was our moment. Our honeymoon was the last eating-based vacation we took. Since then, we’ve planned our trips around backpacking and physical exploits.
I was the one who got us into running. I chose it as a sacrifice, the literal worst thing I could think of, because I knew if I asked for help then my honey would deny me nothing. I’d trick him into running with me! I had three angles: one, I knew nothing about running; two, I was terrible with maps; and three, I didn’t feel safe running alone at night. He came out with me for my first quarter-mile and he was still there when I got to six. It wasn’t until I started doing eight miles at a stretch that he dropped back. I had to do my marathon alone. This was the point at which I understood that I was no longer the student.
Marriage has been good to us. We’re both better people together than we used to be. From my husband, I learned everything I know about physical culture, about comfortably merging the identities of jock and nerd, about feeling at home in a gym. These things gave me a confidence and strength I never could have imagined. I returned the favor, introducing him to new cuisines, teaching him about health food and how to cook mystery vegetables. Our meals and our workouts are just backdrops to the endless conversation that is our marriage. I think sometimes we actually get through a workout while barely realizing we’ve done it, like running an errand, while chattering away about something.
The willingness to venture forth and meet someone in their world is so important to a relationship. My liking for this guy in spite of his off-putting interest in sports led me to become curious. What would it be like to feel like an athlete? What would it be like to actually enjoy this stuff? As he recognized my curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar, he stepped up and became more willing to explore my world, too. We were each other’s trainers. May we always be.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
I do it to myself just often enough to remind myself why I walk the line the majority of the time. What do I do? I relax, I push my limits, I convince myself that I’m just a regular robust person who can do everything without boundaries. There’s a grace period. Then it catches up with me. Maybe I notice when I slip into Yellow. Usually I ignore the warning signs until I’m back in Orange. Then I go into panic mode, because I still do remember what it’s like to spend every day in Red.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about chronic pain and the various oddball symptoms that I experience along with it. What is true for me probably is not true for most people. What is true for me probably also is not true for other sufferers of chronic pain and fatigue, because not all of us have the same conditions or the same symptoms. My recommendation is always to track metrics, to keep careful records, so that you can find patterns and change your inputs to attempt to mitigate your results. I think that if even .0001% of my experience can be influenced by my behavior, then it’s worth the attempt.
Yellow: I get a headache, or I stay up a few hours late, or I overeat past a 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, or my weight goes up more than 2 pounds, or I catch a cold
Orange: I get headaches more than one day in a week, or I get a migraine, or I have shooting pains, or I experience fragrance sensitivity, or my weight goes up more than 4 pounds, or I feel full-body aches consistent with my fibromyalgia days, or I start feeling chilly all the time and I can’t warm up, or I have a night terror
Red: Symptomatic nearly every day, migraines on a regular basis, night terrors on a regular basis, lethargic, dizzy spells, get sick and seem to get sick with something else days after I thought I was better, often simply bedridden with pain and exhaustion, too tired or ill to read, lose a patch of hair on my scalp an inch across
Right now, I’m back in Orange and I’m really angry with myself. Sure, I have plenty of reasons. We went on two vacations in a row, we went camping and slept on the ground in the cold, I carried 40 pounds of luggage around for a few days, we changed time zones, I got bitten by insects. These are problems that I can ordinarily correct by sleeping an extra hour or two per night for a few days after a trip.
Ah, but this time, it seems that I pushed a little too far for a little too long.
Whether it’s a cause, a symptom, or both, my body weight is perfectly correlated with my various other symptoms. It’s something I have to watch. Again, whether this is or is not true for other people is up to them to discover for themselves through meticulously tracking their own health metrics. It’s not a body image thing, it’s not a self-esteem thing. For me, for me personally, it’s a functionality thing.
We came back from Wyoming, the camping part of our vacation, and I was right at the weigh-in I had before the trip, within two-tenths of a pound. Despite all the sleeping on the ground in the cold and all the carrying of the forty-pound backpack and the fifteen-mile hike, I felt fine.
Then we went to Las Vegas for three nights. I came back four pounds heavier, and I was a mess.
How’d I do it? I Ate All the Things. In Wyoming, we were eating a lot of starchy backpacking food, but the portions were controlled and we had crucifers every day. In Las Vegas? Vegas, well. I think I had a half-cup of broccoli. Other than that, it was all stuff I almost never eat: Airport food! Potato chips! Salty mixed nuts! French fries! Hot chocolate! Cookies! Juice with HFCS! Appetizers! Huge portions! Desserts every day! We even had “chicken and waffles” with syrup at VegeNation. No schedule whatsoever. You can start to see where those four pounds came from.
Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, does it?
If you can gain four pounds and not notice, good for you. If you can gain four pounds and not feel immediate adverse health effects, good for you. That’s awesome. If that is true in your life, by all means, celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. But please don’t tell me about it. I’ve had more than my fill of conversations where other people brag to me about their resilience in these matters. I’m a fragile person and I have to walk a fine line.
I gained four pounds, and what happened?
Shooting pains from my heel to my thigh, triggering my restless leg syndrome to the point that my husband noticed from across the room
Low-grade headache every day for four days straight
Weirdly sensitive to fragrance - I smelled someone’s nail polish outdoors and it seemed like I was “still smelling it” an hour later. Then it was someone’s body spray. This hasn’t been a problem for me for about a decade.
Waking up twice a night
Constant feeling of irritability
One full day of “brain fog” in which I struggled to stay awake, much less do any work
Welcome to Orange.
I’m handling this state of affairs aggressively. First, I’m tracking what I eat and making sure my meals are consistent in schedule and portion size each day. So far I’ve dropped 1.8 pounds in a week, which means I have at least another week of Orange to go. Second, I’m eating four cups of cruciferous vegetables a day. Third, I’m taking melatonin on a schedule. I’m still waking up a couple of times a night, and waking up too early, but at least I’m falling asleep on a reasonable schedule. Fourth, I’m exercising an hour a day. In Orange, I can still get a couple of hours of blessed analgesic effect after my workout.
No naps. No anti-inflammatories.
I have strong suspicions that all of my weird symptoms are tied to thyroid function. I had a thyroid nodule when I was 23 that was thought to be cancerous. All the symptoms of disrupted sleep, parasomnia problems, migraine, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, pain, fatigue, low body temperature, and fragrance sensitivity were fully in place at that time. They’re my flags, indicating that something is off in my world. This is why I make exercise my major priority when I start to slip through Yellow. It’s the one thing that reliably seems to reverse the trend.
When I work out, I don’t feel as cold all the time, the headaches and night terrors disappear, I can sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested, and my energy level goes from a 6 to a 9. I feel like every hour I work out buys me two pain-free hours and an extra hour of solid sleep. That’s why I do it, even when I feel physically horrible and it’s the last thing “my body wants.” I push through and do it because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t.
I’m back in Orange, but I feel like I’m inching back toward Yellow every day. Here’s hoping that if I stay on track, I’ll be back out of crisis mode by the end of the month. It’s my wish that sharing my experiences might be of help to someone else in my situation who is desperately searching for answers. Track everything, be consistent, and keep holding on in the belief that a 1% improvement is always possible.
I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
What is a dessert, exactly?
This probably sounds like a dumb question. It’s something sweet that you eat after a meal, right? Duh.
The reason I mention it is that getting more precise in what, exactly, constitutes a dessert changed my eating habits in a way that nothing else probably would have. That in turn led to the complete physical transformation that I enjoy today.
I have a set of little glass bowls that I use as “ice cream” bowls. (I call it “ice cream” because “frozen non-dairy dessert” is a mouthful, and I’d rather that mouthful be creamy sweet deliciousness, wouldn’t you?). Using these bowls means that we actually get four servings out of a pint, like it says on the label. Before the acquisition of these small bowls, I used a cereal bowl, just like everyone else, and that means that my dessert used to be much larger.
If you sit down and eat a cereal bowl full of ice cream most nights, is it still a treat?
My thought is that anything done on a routine basis is just a routine. It’s not special anymore. Having “treats” so often puts us on the hedonic treadmill, searching farther afield for what used to give us a thrill. In the same way that we always find a way to spend a higher income, we are pretty good at just incorporating extra food into our bodies. I mean, speaking for myself here, if I’ve already eaten a slice of cake at dinner, that’s no reason why I’m not going to eat another slice for breakfast the next morning.
Here’s the thing I figured out about desserts. I was eating what I would now think of as a dessert at least three or four times a day. I would eat a large bowl of cereal for breakfast (or sometimes, if I had it, a slice of cake or pie or a handful of chocolate chip cookies with walnuts). I would have a soda at work (or, in college, at least three cans a day). I might have a bag of candy at my desk. I was “good” at lunch, usually eating dinner leftovers. Then I’d go home and eat dinner, another “healthy” meal, after which I’d have a little container of soy yogurt. And another big bowl of cereal. And possibly also a can of peaches or a bowl of “ice cream.”
It wasn’t until I spent a year writing down everything I ate that I started to see the problem. I was eating a lot more calories than a 5’4” frame can handle. Much of it was from various forms of sugar. I either needed to raise my activity level to match my fuel intake, or I needed to change what I ate to match my affinity for melding into my couch cushions with a book in front of my face.
A couple of years later, I managed to make another connection. I had been driving myself and my husband crazy with my night terrors, and no matter what metrics I tracked, I couldn’t seem to figure out what I was doing wrong. Finally, I realized that the trigger for these terrifying episodes was eating too close to bedtime. Blood sugar fluctuations. As soon as I quit eating three hours before bedtime, the problem went away. I’ve only had two episodes in the past three years.
As a simple guideline, look at the ingredients list of anything you’re eating. Find the section on the label that says Total Carb. If it has more than 30mg, it’s a dessert.
Or at least, that’s what worked for me.
I’m not a low-carb dieter. I’ve tried increasing my protein intake and cutting carbs, and it made me feel horrible, low-energy, headachy, and nauseated. It’s hard to find any endurance athlete who will even bother to try eating low-carb; those are things that don’t go together. Low-carb may work for weight lifters but it doesn’t work for marathon runners. The thing about that 30mg guideline is that some people eat that much carbohydrate in an entire day. I’m talking about consuming that in one single food item.
As far as the “carbs” thing goes, I don’t generally eat white bread, pasta, rice, or anything that comes from a supermarket bakery. I do eat tons of potatoes, I eat whole-grain sandwich bread most days, and I almost always eat oatmeal for breakfast. I eat gluten, I eat wheat, I eat yeast, I eat grains… I’m just not really about white foods. That’s why, when I decide to eat cake or cookies or pie or donuts or more cake, I just go ahead and eat it.
When we were in Iceland, we noted that Icelanders are about three notches leaner than Americans. Yet they have the world’s highest consumption of Coca-Cola and we saw them eating little ice cream cones all the time. It turns out their Coke has 30% less sugar that ours. It also turns out that, due to the price of imported foods, almost everything in their food supply contains only a few ingredients, all of which can be pronounced and understood, and they don’t really do added sweeteners. Most stuff we saw had four ingredients or fewer. Also, their portions were significantly smaller and food was much more expensive. About half the portion for twice the price, with none of the added sugar… and you can start to understand why almost everyone on the entire island had visible muscle definition.
I’m totally in favor of desserts. I happen to think that they should be special occasions. It’s not so special to have something every day, or several times a day. In my case, I guess you could call “running through the house screaming in my sleep” “special” - in a bad way. When I cut my sugar intake in favor of high-fiber, high-micronutrient vegetables and fruits, my sleep problems and chronic migraines resolved themselves. Having a body that functions properly and being pain-free is a major upgrade over any dessert you could put in front of me. When I indulge, I want a dessert, exactly that and no more.
Flash of insight: the humble fork is often used to symbolize our eating habits, but it's probably not stuff that we eat with forks that causes the problems. As far as synecdoche, the spoon is a more likely stand-in, because we use spoons to eat all kinds of goodies like cereal, yogurt, ice cream, pudding, and other sweet treats. It's probably what we eat with our hands that gets us into the most trouble. Forks tend to be the utensils we use when we're sitting down to a proper meal. I think fork-based meals are the sort of nourishing, emotionally fulfilling meals that can really help us get straight with our relationship to food.
I sit down for meals because I love it. I love having a table in front of me to hold everything. We have a little bistro table in our tiny apartment, and to me it's the exact size of most restaurant tables built for two. When I sit there, it speaks to my brain. It says, this is going to be a leisurely meal, just like all the times you went out with a friend and talked for an hour, almost forgetting to eat before your food got cold. Usually I eat alone, but I still have that special restaurant feeling when I sit at the table, whether it's my bowl of instant oatmeal, a sandwich, or dinner with my honey.
My least favorite way to eat in all the world is sitting in a car. I always get crumbs all over myself, and inevitably I spill something greasy on my shirt. No matter where we're going or how long the trip is, I step out of the vehicle looking like I slept in my clothes and then spent the day running a preschool. I think cars should have tray tables just like airplanes do. Why is this not a thing? Many of us are eating most of our meals in our vehicles. Cramming down some kind of baked goods or cereal bars while rushing to work or school drop-offs, hitting the drive-thru while running errands, or just feeling too hungry and burnt out at the end of the day to even think about cooking. How many of these meals eaten behind a steering wheel actually come with a fork? How many of them come with cruciferous vegetables or a nutrition label? Do we even really know what we're eating while trying not to drip on our seat belts?
Another area where we may have little or no idea of what we're eating is with snacks. I lost 15 pounds in the year after I quit my office job, I suspect mostly because I don't buy snack food at home. I was no longer subject to the easy availability of all the sodas, chips, nuts, candies, office potlucks, birthday parties, and barbecues lurking in my workplace nearly every day of the week. I knew almost nothing about nutrition or weight loss at that time, and now I realize that I could easily have been eating an extra 500 calories a day without thinking about it. I also would have had no idea what "500 calories" means in context. That's the amount I eat for dinner, or sometimes less if we're eating a very high volume of vegetables that night. Eat an extra dinner every day and yeah, you'll probably gain some weight!
The thing about this "extra dinner" of unintended caloric consequences is that it is not satisfying. A handful of cashews here, a soda there, a slice of lame supermarket bakery birthday cake here... I don't really feel like I've eaten anything. I hardly feel like I've had some kind of peak experience. It just blends into the background, part of the beigeness of the cubicle world. I might not even remember how many times I've mindlessly popped handfuls of this or that into my mouth.
An alternative might be carrying a fork around and insisting on eating everything with it, as a sort of consciousness-raising exercise. Once people see you eating a bagel or a handful of tortilla chips with a fork, their reactions may stop any kind of unconscious, unintended snacking from ever happening again!
We talk a lot about "comfort food" and "emotional eating." I think food should be comforting. It's building our cells and all our body parts and systems, after all. With each bite, I can think, "I have everything I need. There is plenty and there will be plenty more." I wonder about emotional eating, though. Food can be an incredible artistic and creative outlet; sharing meals can be warm and lovely times for connecting and communicating; pausing at least three times a day can give us time to remember who we are in the midst of the daily bustle. Are we using food to manipulate our neurochemistry, though? Is food the highlight of the day in a boring and unfulfilling life? Are we feeling any kind of guilt or shame or disappointment about our lackluster mealtimes or a disconnect between the reality and our ideal? Is emotional eating really providing any kind of comfort in the long term?
I used to hate cooking. I didn't really know what to do. It would take me like twenty minutes to chop an onion. I would start recipes without realizing that I was missing ingredients, or that I should have prepared half a dozen ingredients before I turned the burner on. My cooking was dreadful. Then I decided that if illiterate medieval peasants could cook a decent pot of soup, I could figure it out. Somehow! By the power of the Internet! I would do it, for literacy! It turned out that I was able to turn around the worst of my cooking blunders with one decision, simply to read the recipe from start to finish before trying to prepare anything. I started to make things that actually tasted good. Every now and then, something I would make would be surprisingly awesome. Just a couple of years later, everything I made was good, with a 'blah' exception maybe once every month or two, and we could handle that. Now, we'd usually rather eat at home than go out. I have the Hogwarts-power of being able to make yummy meals on command. If I really did have the ability to cast magical spells or make potions, what else would I use them on other than great dinners?
My husband and I have never ordered pizza delivery in our entire relationship. We've been friends for a dozen years now. Why don't we order pizzas? It's the 30-minute delivery window. By the time we would have decided to get a pizza, chosen what we wanted, called in the order, waited for it, and opened the box, I could have cooked an unusually fancy dinner. Almost everything I make takes under half an hour. Several things take 20 minutes, and a few take fewer than 10 minutes. If we were really that super-tired and neither of us could bear the thought of cooking a "real" dinner, we are perfectly capable of microwaving some soup and making some toast. No pizza could get here that fast. Granted, we wouldn't be using forks for either the soup or the pizza, but with the soup, we're making our considered nutritional decisions in advance.
I think that soups and casseroles and artfully plated dinners are the missing piece in most people's concept of "comfort food." What we really want, deep in our souls, is a real sit-down dinner. This is part of this abstruse concept known as "adulting," though. It seems like too much of an uphill climb. If more of us realized that we can microwave a vegetable in 4 minutes, and how little time it takes to make most simple entrees, maybe more of us would take the ladle into our own hands. We can provide this comfort for ourselves.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
Most days I don't work out. It's true. I don't work out AT ALL. This is the exact kind of thing a thin woman isn't allowed to say. Like I'm going to sit in a restaurant, throwing a giant chimichanga down my gullet and talking very loudly about how I can eat whatever I want, and then they find my body in a back alley because someone in ketosis couldn't bear to listen to another word. Anyway. The entire reason I would talk about something like this is that it touches on so many major fallacies about fitness and weight loss.
First among these is that there are "naturally thin" people. I've even been told that I am one of these fabled creatures, and I laugh because I know differently. The difference between "naturally" thin people and the rest of us is that they acquired habits early in life that the rest of us have to learn as adults. Often, they aren't even fully aware that they do anything different. They eat and move a certain way, as do most or all of their relatives, and they think what is habitual to them is genetic, or a part of their personality. Why should we think differently when even they themselves don't realize the truth?
The answer I most did not want to hear about weight loss is that it's absolutely 100% about what I eat. I had thyroid disease, and I was still able to lose weight by changing my diet, whereas I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. Work out because you love it and you want to be strong, not because you have any illusions about weight loss happening at the gym.
Weight loss doesn't happen at the gym! We go to the gym to LIFT weight, not to lose weight.
Or, of course, we don't go to the gym at all.
Don't get me wrong; I love going to the gym. I have several different workouts that I enjoy, and I'll cheerfully choose one based on whether someone is in my way or hogging equipment that I like. I'm always game for learning a new exercise or training with someone else who can teach me something. It keeps things fun. I go through phases of being at the gym for up to 90 minutes at a time, most nights of the week.
And then, of course, I get into long ruts of not going. Like everyone.
What do I do to continue fitting in the same clothing size then? I claim that it's not genetics, so what's the secret?
The secret is, like I said, that weight maintenance is 100% about food, not exercise. I can eat an extra 500 calories in five minutes - it's called 'cake' - and it would take me at least 90 minutes on the elliptical to burn it off. This is partly unfair, because I am a short person with a small frame, so the standard slice of cake is meaner to me than it is to most people. The inverse way to look at this is that, since distance running is my preferred workout, the more I run, the more cake I can burn off. OR, the more cake I eat, the farther I can run!
What if you didn't have a sweet tooth, so much as that you have a previously undiscovered mutant power of endurance sports? Worked for me. *shrug*
The other thing about not working out is that we don't think of our background activity level as "a workout," although IT IS. It most definitely is. For instance, I spent most of the day I wrote this nursing an eye injury and sitting in a waiting room in urgent care. According to my activity tracker, I walked 4.5 miles and climbed five floors' worth of stairs. I was like, "What stairs? Did I climb stairs?" We got rid of our car, so we just walk everywhere, and I don't think of it as working out. Why? Because it's not hard anymore. I get sweaty pretty easily, so if I don't break a sweat, I don't feel like it counts. It's only "a workout" if I feel like I'm pushing myself.
My background activity level is far, far different than it was when I was fat. How so?
I walk about 50% faster
I walk 4-10x farther every day than I did 10 years ago
Six miles in a day is fairly common for me now
I climb stairs faster and far more often
I "bustle" around the house
My range of motion is much broader: reaching up, crouching down, climbing on stuff
I carry heavier weights more often
I do strenuous tasks myself that I used to ask A Man to do for me
I make a point of avoiding sitting down
I sleep about 50% more
I don't use my activity level as an excuse to "earn" "treats" (if I want to eat something, I just put it in my pie hole and eat it)
I eat basically the same stuff every day, so my intake is predictable while my activities are variable
What I learned the year I ran my marathon was that it takes me 38 miles of running to burn off one pound of fat. It "should" only take 35 miles, which means either I run too slow, or I burn fewer than 100 calories per mile because I'm both slow and small. Either way, it's a moot point. I'm more interested in doing things efficiently because I have a short attention span. Also, once I get curious about what someone else is doing differently than me, I can't let it go; I have to find out.
What is it like to feel strong, fast, and athletic? I wanted to know before I die. I figured I could always change back.
Pushing my physical limits to do an adventure race, go on a multi-day backpacking trek, and run a marathon changed everything I felt about being inside my body. I now know things about my capabilities that I can't un-know. I can eyeball something and know I'm strong enough to pick it up. I look at a map and think of walking somewhere (or running) and I know from experience that I'm quite capable of getting there and back without getting tired. I do things routinely that in the past I wouldn't do under any circumstances.
I used to spend quite a bit of my time nursing a migraine or otherwise experiencing too much fatigue or background pain to do much besides lie in bed trying not to move my forehead. After losing the 35 pounds and learning to eat sufficient micronutrients, suddenly my sleep problems and the migraines just... went away. A certain amount of my background activity level is just reclaimed from former "out of spoons" days. Again, that was 100% dietary.
As a newly athletic person, I now feel that most of my chronic pain and fatigue problems came from chronic sleep deprivation, micronutrient deficiency, and general lack of physical fitness. My body composition included very little muscle. My cardiovascular fitness was very poor. Of course I felt tired and cruddy even on my best days! I get tired just picturing my own posture from that time. I try to send little love messages to Past Me from time to time, but it just annoys her and hurts her feelings. She isn't ready to listen to me yet. I try to tune in more to Future Me, the Elderly Me, and hear what advice she has. It always seems to include getting stronger, building bone density and muscle, and retaining my ability to sit on the floor. Hopefully that won't feel like a workout.
Every New Year, someone I know will make a public commitment to start making smoothies every morning. Every time, I would do a facepalm. I always tell people that smoothies are too messy, expensive, and time-consuming to make a Resolution we can keep. Also, the main reason people seem to choose smoothies is that they think drinking juice has magical weight loss powers. Like every other possible habit, juicing works in certain contexts and fails in others. For my purposes, I can now say that green juice does work.
We eat a lot of vegetables in my household. While my husband and I have both always had admirably low cholesterol, we have also had trouble getting the "good" cholesterol known as HDL, or high density lipoproteins, high enough. I just had a standard lipid panel done, and my HDL had gone from 38 mg/dL (too low) to 50 (medium). What changed? The addition of several servings of green juice every week.
I only need one good reason to do something, just as I only need one good reason to quit doing something. I wanted to increase my HDL, and I started drinking green juice, and my HDL went up. Perfection. Now, I just need to get it up to 60.
Does juicing help with weight loss? I think the majority of the time, it definitely does not. The reason for that is that most people do not have any nutritional knowledge, which is not our fault, and thus we don't know how to evaluate our food intake as a whole. By the month or year rather than by the meal or individual item. We tend to believe that adding or subtracting a specific food or category of food is the answer, based on trends and product marketing, when there is no single food that has magical dietary or nutritional powers. Adding more calories to an excess weight issue is going to compound that issue. It's pretty easy to drink hundreds of calories in just a few minutes.
When juicing aids weight loss, it's because the juice replaces an entire meal.
My husband and I did a juicing program for a week, and we did lose weight. That's because we drank juice for breakfast and lunch, and ate only soup or salad or steamed vegetables for dinner. Sure, yes, following a strict meal replacement program like this will induce weight loss. Going back to a Standard American Diet afterward will inevitably lead to regaining that weight.
People think that "diets don't work" due to pop culture. Diets absolutely do work. What doesn't work is the idea that we can eat "normally" the rest of the time. What has to happen is that we have to fundamentally change everything we eat, permanently. We have to reevaluate what we think is normal. There are so many unhealthy, obesogenic aspects to American food culture that any one element is enough to cause steady weight gain all by itself.
Excessively large portions.
Snacking between meals.
High-fructose corn syrup.
Added sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, sugars, syrups).
Drinking our calories.
Catastrophically low proportions of dietary fiber.
Chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
Eating for entertainment, identity, autonomy, and temporary mood repair.*
...and I think a certain portion of the blame goes directly to cheese.
What I've learned through my own weight loss journey is that adding more power vegetables, increasing my micronutrient intake, drinking significantly more water, and getting more sleep have all worked together to reduce my food cravings. Often, foods I used to crave taste bad to me now, especially salty foods like popcorn and corn chips.
How much more water? In my case, like triple. I almost never drank water before.
How much more sleep? In my case, about 50% more. I used to sleep 5-6 hours a night, and now I sleep 8-9.
How many more vegetables? In my case, about quadruple. Now we eat 2-4 cups of power vegetables with dinner every night, in addition to the green juice.
What do I mean by power vegetables? Mostly cruciferous vegetables. That specifically means broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens. We also eat a lot of chard, which is not cruciferous but is high in potassium.
Anything else, I refer to as "sprinkles" or "decorations." Lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, green beans, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, bell peppers... that stuff we just eat for fun. It doesn't "count." Corn is candy.
One of the things about juicing that works for some people is that it can help to disguise the taste and texture of power vegetables. If you gag on certain foods, it's going to be hard work to retrain yourself around flavor and mouthfeel, but it can be done. (I never hear people say that they love eating certain foods like ice cream or chocolate because "it's the texture;" it only comes up as an excuse to avoid eating foods that contain fiber and micronutrients). Anecdotally, all the picky eaters in my acquaintance weigh more than they want to weigh, and I think this is because they lean toward and away from predictable categories of foods. Toward soda, desserts, starches, fried foods, and dairy; away from fruits, vegetables, and all high-fiber whole foods that require real chewing. This hypothesis of mine is objectively testable.
Juicer or blender? We got a Vitamix blender because everything we put in it goes into the juice. That includes the kale stems, apple peels, flax seeds, or whatever else we want to throw in. Juicing spits the pulp out of the back, wasting most of the dietary fiber, creating less volume of juice, costing money, and making a ginormous, hideous mess. Cleaning a juicer is ten times harder than cleaning a blender, especially an expensive blender like the Vitamix that doesn't have a bunch of removable parts.
What goes in our juice?
Five leaves of kale
Two cups of ice cubes
1/2" chunk of ginger root, including peel
2 cups pre-made juice, either green or purple juice
We drink 32 ounces each most afternoons, splitting the pitcher between us. On weekends, that's what we have for lunch. Note that we don't try to fuss with it in the mornings. Too noisy, too messy, too time-consuming, too complicated. Instead it goes into a time slot when we are wide awake as well as hungry.
We'll keep making green juice, as we have done for the last several months, because it's not inconvenient and we've made it into a routine. The Vitamix sits on the counter because it's too tall for any of our kitchen cupboards. We go to the grocery store 2-3 days a week, because we don't have a car, and that makes it easy to keep buying fresh fruit and kale. Making the juice takes less than five minutes, including washing the produce. We can afford it. We like the taste. It has turned out to be a faster way to get an extra serving of a cruciferous vegetable than making a complicated lunch or doubling up at dinner. The fact that green juice has helped to increase our micronutrients and increase our HDL is now automatic to our daily routine. It's not a Resolution anymore, but a habit we can keep.
* I know exactly what I mean by this, but I realize it probably sounds esoteric and merits its own post
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
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.