I didn’t always eat the way I do now. When I was 17, you’d be more likely to catch me eating McDonald’s than whole foods. I’ve always loved to eat (my grandmother will tell you I was the only grandchild that cleared her plate at every meal) and as a teenager, I ate everything in sight.
I’m naturally slim, but my eating habits caught up with me around age 16. I didn’t understand my new adult body, and I started putting on weight as my appetite increased and my activity level dropped. At the height of my weight problem, I was eating two crispy chicken sandwiches every day for lunch (public school lunches … ugh), usually accompanied by tater tots and followed by Peanut M&Ms. Between meals, I snacked on peanut butter sandwiches made with refined white bread. I’m embarrassed to say I often ate two of them at a time.
I turned to food for comfort. High school was not the easiest time in my life. I know it’s hard for most teenagers, but I didn’t deal with my emotions very well at the time. Like most kids, I fought with my parents and had self-esteem issues. Unlike most kids, I was also dealing with anxiety that had been circling me like a cloud since childhood, when I lost my biological mom.
Looking back on high school, I see now that I had a pretty low opinion of myself. Interestingly, I didn’t act on it like some teenagers do, by dating lots of people or getting into drinking and drugs. Instead, I hid from my peers by making only a few close friends (some of whom I allowed to treat me pretty badly), not investing in the social fabric of my class, reading lots of books, and eating lots of food.
During my junior year of high school, I was 5’7″ and nearly 170 pounds. I know it could’ve been worse, but it still sucked. I was a young girl, and I wanted to feel pretty. I wanted boys to be interested in me. I lacked self-confidence, and I was tired all the time … I knew I didn’t want to start college feeling this way.
Taking AP Biology had a huge impact on me. As I sat in class learning about how my body was supposed to work, I became stunned at its complexity and processes. I wanted to treat this amazing body kindly. I wanted to honor and respect the complex processes it performed on a daily basis. I knew that my binge-eating and unhealthy food choices were hampering my body’s ability to function optimally.
So on January 1 of my senior year, I decided to go on a diet. My parents had tried Atkins before and had the book at home, so I went with that. By the time prom rolled around, I had lost 20 pounds. By August, I was down to 130 – a much more appropriate weight for my body type.
I knew the ins and outs of low-carb eating because of my parents, but I made some exceptions to the rules of Atkins. I was convinced (rightfully so) that fruit was good for me, and that it’d be impossible to eat low-carb for any sustainable period of time if I gave up fruit. So I allowed myself to enjoy fruit as often as I wanted. Maybe it was because of my young age, but it never seemed to hamper my progress at all.
After I’d dropped the first 20 pounds, I started giving myself a treat every Monday. I really love bagels, so I let myself have a whole-wheat bagel for breakfast on Monday mornings. It was the only bread/starch that I allowed myself to have.
Dropping that weight made a huge difference in my self-confidence, but it also made me a little obsessive. In college, I continued a fairly strict low-carb way of eating. My ex and I even had a running joke about my reluctance to eat raisins – RAISINS – because I was afraid they’d make me fat. When you lose a bunch of weight, the idea that you might gain it all back is terrifying. Every two weeks I became convinced that I was gaining weight again.
As a college girl, my lifestyle presented me with a lot of temptations. I always found low-carb alternatives to everything my friends ate and drank. When we went out for ice cream, I got the “no sugar added” option and topped it with fruit. At house parties, I drank Mike’s Hard Light (ewww) or rum with diet coke. I often bought sugar-free candies and desserts to prevent me from eating the regular versions.
Probably drinking vodka and Diet 7up.
People often gave me the side-eye for these food choices. I was pretty and really skinny – why on earth was I worrying about my weight? People didn’t know that I’d spent ages 16-18, what was supposed to be a great time for a young girl, feeling awful about myself. I never wanted to feel that way again.
Unfortunately, most of the substitutions I was making were highly processed and full of artificial sugars and ingredients. It wouldn’t be until my 20s that I started getting into holistic eating. I did, however, discover a really helpful eating hack that I continue using today: my meat-or-carb rule. More on that later.
Around age 22 or so, I saw the documentary “Food Inc.” and began getting into environmentalism and natural living. It was then that I began getting rid of sugar-free processed foods. I began eating healthy carbs, more vegetarian meals, and less dairy … and I didn’t put the weight back on. Slowly, I was starting to develop a more healthy attitude toward diet and nutrition, and learning that eating whole, healthy foods wouldn’t make me chubby.
At 24, I got my first writing job. Most of my projects focused on health and nutrition. I began devouring information about food and its impacts on health. I reviewed studies and wrote articles about macronutrients, probioitics, antioxidants, inflammation, the low-fat vs. low-carb debate, the agriculture lobby and food system politics. Health and nutrition research became my favorite hobby. Now, healthy living was fun! More and more, I realized that health and wellness was my real passion, and that helping others feel their best was part of my purpose in life.
If the glasses are any indication, I was probably a vegetarian here.
My compassion for animals and my exposure to vegan and vegetarian food bloggers got me interested in eating meat-free. At 25, I decided to go vegetarian. I ate veg for exactly one year (January 1-January 1; clearly I’m good at New Year’s resolutions). I loved what I learned about vegetarian living, but at the end of the day, I decided it wasn’t for me. I learned that making healthy vegetarian meals takes a lot of time – time I didn’t have. I usually ended up eating bread or pasta at every meal, and it made me bloated and fatigued. Plus, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the most reliable scientific literature points to a diet low in carbohydrates as the healthiest lifestyle for humans.
This pretty much brings us to where I’m at now. I try to keep my consumption of both meat and refined carbs quite low. I base my diet around vegetables, fruits, a few whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, eggs, coconut oil, fish and pasture-raised meats. I find that this keeps me feeling balanced, prevents me from overeating, and ensures that I don’t get bored with my food choices, which can lead to binging.
I can’t even tell you how healthy eating has changed my life. In addition to simply knowing a great deal about my body and my food options, I’ve gained mental clarity, energy, a body that’s fit and strong, and the enthusiasm to live life fully. When I see people who are tired and groggy all the time, I wish so badly that I could help them. It takes a while to feel the effects of great health – I’d say at least six months – but the energy and mental health benefits are so worth it.
I certainly don’t eat healthy all the time. I’m no longer dieting in any real way, I just try to make the healthiest choices in a given situation. I still love peanut butter – I just buy the natural version and put it on a banana instead of two slices of bread. I eat stove-popped popcorn in coconut oil almost every other day. I love pizza – I just make it vegetarian and ask for light cheese. Once you’ve gotten to a place where you feel well, making the right choices is incredibly inherent. It would never even cross my mind to buy anything pre-made or highly processed, so there’s nothing to resist. And that, to me, is freedom in food.