It’s so unfair, I know. I just ate two apple turnovers, I weigh 120 pounds, and I wear a size zero. I guess I just have this “fast metabolism.” What can I say? I must have just won the genetic lottery. I have this special birthmark that indicates I am fated to always have only good things happen to me.
^^^ LIES ^^^
The only part of the above that is true is the sentence about the turnovers. I never lie about pastry. I can’t very well lie about my size, either, because that’s the picture anyone would see walking by: a skinny girl eating what is essentially half a pie. That snapshot tends to perpetuate a completely false image, in the same way that seeing me in a Halloween costume might make you think I really am a pirate. A calorie pirate!
I definitely don’t have a “fast metabolism.” On the contrary, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease when I was 23. At worst, my thyroid function has been measured at the extreme low end of normal, just at the threshold where I would have to take medication for life. At best, I’m just under the median. These are hard data with objective, numerical metrics over a timeline, and I can document them. I had an actual goiter. In a lot of ways, that feels like being someone from the historical past who walked through a wormhole and wound up in the future. A goiter. Pfft.
I also didn’t win the genetic lottery. In practice, I think that refers more to being born into inherited wealth, because a genetic tendency is not always expressed. We know that, right? There are very few genetic legacies that doom someone to a specific fate. Body weight is not one of them. My family is… classic American. To the best of my knowledge, there were no athletes or runway models in our family tree. Well, technically I was a plus-size runway model for a day, but that seems to bolster my argument.
As far as the special birthmark, I do have some moles on my shoulder that line up like the Big Dipper, but that’s about it.
So what’s the deal with the pastry? What foul manner of magic allows me to eat like that and still wear the skinny jeans?
It has everything to do with quantity, frequency, and context. What you can’t see from a single snapshot, or even a few snapshots, is a pattern that really only shows up over the course of the whole film. I really like apple turnovers, but I only eat them maybe once a year. I’ve found that they make a pretty cruddy breakfast. They’re a nice occasional treat, but they don’t have the staying power of oatmeal, which was what we had actually planned to have today. After eating something this sweet, I tend to get a sour aftertaste in my mouth. Sometimes I get a bit of a headache. I also feel hungry shortly afterward. Not a great bargain.
We ate the pastries, my husband and I, and then I looked at the nutrition label. (I read the ingredients, but the calorie count was hidden on a separate sticker on the bottom of the box). I laughed. “UHOH!” I showed my husband: 269 calories. EACH. 102 calories from fat. EACH. That means they were 38% fat. More importantly, we just ate a 538-calorie breakfast that will wear off in an hour. Our normal breakfast is 330-410 calories and feels like real food. Two turnovers are the caloric equivalent of nearly four cans of Coke, with roughly the same nutritional value. Another way to look at it is that they are the caloric equivalent of 5 ½ actual apples, with far less fiber and far fewer micronutrients. Again, the pastry is not a great bargain.
After we ate the pastry, we went grocery shopping. We came home with a package of okra chips (OKRA CHIPS!) and devoured them while standing at our kitchen counter.
I feel obligated to point out that little, 120-pound, 5’4” me ate the same quantity of food as my big, 240-pound, 6’2” husband. I used to match him bite for bite at every meal. That turned out not to work very well for me! One guideline I use is to look at whatever he’s eating and try to only eat ½ to 2/3 the amount.
That’s the sort of thing you don’t see when you see me eat. If you see me at a party, you see me eating party food. I don’t buy things like corn chips; we don’t even go down that aisle at the grocery store. We don’t “snack” unless we’re at a social occasion, because we know if we see it, we’re going to eat it. Same thing at restaurants. If you go out with us, you’ll see us eating appetizers and other things we don’t eat 80-90% of the time. There are several reasons for that, but one of the main ones is that we know we pay the price afterward. Fried food, while delicious, usually tends to give me a headache or bellyache afterward. I’ll wind up waking up several times in the middle of the night. There is a pretty long list of foods that interfere with my parasomnia problems, which I am reminded of the few times every year that I indulge in them.
There are a lot of things neither of us eats at all. This is mostly due to simple taste preference. We don’t like them. Coffee, alcohol, soda, dairy products, bacon, bagels, crackers, white bread, fast food, or basically anything that could be bought at a gas station. We used to buy a lot of soda and cookies, when we were first dating, but they lost their flavor appeal when we started eating healthier food. It turns out that learning to eat a nutritious diet makes junk food taste bad. (And look bad, and definitely smell bad).
I used to be fat. Now I’m thin. Well, I don’t think I’m thin, precisely; I prefer lean, trim, or fit. Regardless, what I learned is that it’s 90-100% diet. When I was fat, I knew virtually nothing about nutrition or the behaviors of lean people. I truly believed that certain people were born that way, while most people were born my way. Normal. You know. Not thin. Thin isn’t normal. (Not in America, it’s not!). What I learned when I started trying to learn more about fitness was that lean people won’t go anywhere near most of the foods that the average American eats on a daily or weekly basis. “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot fork.” Likewise, most average Americans don’t eat any of the foods that fit people eat every day. Make two columns. Column A contains junk food, fast food, fried food, things in packages, soda, baked goods, pasta, sweets, high fructose corn syrup, and unpronounceable chemical ingredients. Column B contains fresh vegetables, whole fruits, water, whole grains, and things that have to be washed and chopped.
What it really comes down to is that average Americans actively avoid eating anything with a high fiber content, any cruciferous vegetables, and anything with a realistic quantity of micronutrients. We don’t like chewing and we don’t like bitter flavors, but we’ll drink what is basically carbonated hummingbird food from morning to night.
I do eat pastry sometimes. I put it in the category of “race food.” What that means is that if I’m already registered for a foot race, already dressed, already hanging around the course, and getting ready to run at least 8 miles that morning, I might eat a donut or an apple fritter. (Or a turnover, if I had one). I wouldn’t eat a bagel even under those conditions. A bagel is the equivalent of five slices of bread. I don’t like them nearly enough for that hit to my pancreas. What I like the best during endurance races is a bag of trail mix and a couple of fig bars. If I’m running a distance under 10 miles, I usually don’t bring any snacks at all, or water, for that matter.
When I talk about running, people assume that I can “eat whatever I want” because I work out. I thought so, too. Then I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. I haven’t started running again since my ankle injury in October 2014; it’s been nearly a year and a half. If running one marathon caused some kind of permanent metabolic change that allows me to stay small, that would seem to be a great inducement for more people to take up an endurance sport. I know the truth, which is that I have learned how to eat in such a way that I don’t gain weight whether I work out or not.
I do actually “eat whatever I want.” What has changed is that I have more information about nutrition and physiology. I also have new information about how it feels to walk around as a lean, fit, strong, active person. (It feels EXCELLENT). When I was fat, all I knew was how it felt to be chronically ill, weak, and frail. I didn’t have the information I have now. I didn’t know how to cook the vegetables I eat now. I hadn’t adjusted my palate. I ate more sweets than produce. Now that proportion is reversed. When you see me eating pastries, what you don’t see is that I eat 10-12 servings of vegetables and fruits every day. If you see me updating my food log, where I check my fiber and micronutrient quotas for a couple of minutes a day, you might just think I was texting or looking at Facebook. Either way, you’d have no way of seeing how the apple turnovers fit into the context of everything I ate (and didn’t eat) over the last two years.
I can eat anything. So can anyone – anyone who has the means, which is something we forget. Our problems are problems of excess and abundance. Three million little children starve to death every year while we cry about our body image. It’s frustrating. That’s why I took what used to be my soda money and started using it to sponsor a student in Zambia. (She’s almost done with high school now). We’re constantly trying to reframe a problem of social justice, mortality statistics, and poor nutritional education into a problem of aesthetics and appearance. Solving the problem of how to eat in a sane way extends to solving the problem of how to feed everyone in a sane way. Learning to solve one problem helps us feel strong enough and smart enough to solve any problem.
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.