Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Starve It or Stuff It

I’m a sucker for health and weight loss tips from industry experts. Most of the advice has been pretty standard for the last few years, of course weaving in and out based on the latest trends. But here’s a good one: After dinner, place a sign on your kitchen that says “Closed after 6pm. Water is open all night long.”

Holy wanting what I can’t have, Batman. It’s kind of like someone telling you not to blink.

Just as for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, for every diet there is an equal and opposite binge. Going on a diet, instructing your body to consume less than it requires to function adequately, is like letting your mind write cheques that your body can’t cash. And there is a nasty surcharge to be paid - your body will eventually break free and drive you to over-consume. Remember when you went carb-free for two days and on the morning of the third day you got a speeding ticket on your way to the Cheesecake Factory?  Or was that just me?

As I've said before, I've been around the block when it comes to diets. The Eat Clean Diet, developed by fitness model and author Tosca Reno, and one of the most dynamic women I’ve ever met (I trained with her in Toronto in 2006), is the closest thing that I’ve found to a sound diet plan. There is no calorie counting and there are some really good healthy tips and recipes. However, the message that hits you on the head at every turn in her beautifully laid out books is that in order to keep your ‘furnace’ burning, you must stuff an entire chicken breast, a cup of brown rice and a pound of broccoli down your gullet every three hours, whether you’re hungry or not. She advocates bringing your meals with you everywhere in a mini cooler, even while traveling. Been there - while I was training for my show, I traveled frequently for work. I used to make low-calorie soup and drag it with me across the country, lugging it from home to taxi to airplane to taxi to hotel to office. People thought I was either incredibly efficient or incredibly crazy. As I reflect on this, I'm leaning heavily toward the latter. All of this focus on eating only the perfect foods made me a slave to the kitchen, the grocery store, the plastic container aisle at Walmart and the neurotic corners of my mind.  And of course I was inevitably 'on' or 'off' the plan.

I used to be so focused on "eating clean" that I would berate myself for even the tiniest slip. A story about toast and peanut butter: the only two times that I've given myself permission to freely eat toast with peanut butter in the last eight years was in the hospital, the morning after I gave birth to each of my children. These were the circumstances in which I figured I deserved it. In my brain, in order to "stay on track", I should only be having plain oatmeal and boiled egg whites for breakfast (or juice in the case of the juice fast, or nothing in the case of the fast). If I was eating toast and peanut butter (arguably not the worst thing you can eat!) outside of just having given birth, I was 'off' my diet. I was always either on or off the rails, all or nothing. Nothing but the cleanest of foods, or everything that the pantry, refrigerator and drive-thru had to offer.

I wish someone had told me earlier that there was a kinder, gentler, more effective way. Hey, I would have settled for just more effective! To know that I could have begun trusting myself and feeding myself appropriately at my very next meal, without spending so much time feeling guilty (or spilling soup all over the floor of my taxi). If only I had known that by listening to and acting upon my hunger and fullness signals, therefore eating only what my body requires, I could quell the noise, retire my cooler and lose weight naturally over time.

Since I've begun treating myself this way, there has never been a day when I was 'off'. There have admittedly been days when I have eaten cake for breakfast, melted cheese in the microwave (delighting as the gooey mess slid down my throat) and tucked into a plate of two hot dogs PLUS a hamburger (with buns) at a barbeque, because that's what my body was craving as far as heartiness, texture, temperature and flavor. Not that I'm tracking that closely, but I've also melted off close to ten pounds, way faster than I ever did by chasing a chicken breast with a chia shake because I had just climbed a flight of stairs (hang on to that fat-burning muscle!) and the three-hour metabolic time bomb was ticking.

Where did the trust go?

When you are on a 'plan', you surrender the bodily wisdom and trust you would otherwise be exercising when it comes to eating. Do we really believe that without guidelines and restrictions that we will eat ourselves into oblivion? What about sleeping? Given the freedom, would you really keep sleeping past the point of doneness, into the next week, perhaps? (Well, I might). Would you ever willingly put yourself on a sleep diet, or a water-deprivation regimen? You know that when you deprive your body of these needs, it will rebel.

Some of these diet books are so convincing (your body has been evolutionarily programmed to go through periods of fasting, cavemen only ate meat and vegetation and they were lean mean machines, etc). You hear the excitement in someone's voice as they give you the 'skinny' on their latest dieting adventure and how it's really all about the science behind such and such and your intake of blah blah blah...

It all comes down to plugging your body with less food. And how to go about this? You can eliminate carbs so that your cravings for sugar eventually subside, you can eat tons of animal fat and a few vegetables, dress like a cave man and hope for the best, or you can start eating only when you are hungry, being present while you are doing it and stopping when you are satisfied.

Geneen Roth speaks of the difference between commitment and discipline. Discipline is usually harsh, short-lived and occurs in fits and spurts. With true commitment comes self-respect, inner strength and a call to action that can create lasting change.

I believe that this commitment calls for us to stop doing what doesn't feel good and to start doing what does. Your body does not appreciate or deserve to be starved OR stuffed.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Ode to Sleep

Believe it or not, there is something I am more obsessed with than food.

Some people have a zest for life; I have a zest for sleep. I've always enjoyed my sleep and require more than the average person to function, it seems. I used to come home from kindergarten and beyond, begging my mother to let me have a nap. Give me a pillow, some soft music and a long drive and I'm in heaven. I also kind of like the sound of a lawn being mowed, not next door, but maybe a few houses down, as the afternoon light shines through my window. It's as if to say "Other people are hard at work, but not me. I'm taking this time out, and it is delicious!"

Enter children. Of all the things I miss, I don't just miss sleep - I mourn the loss of it. It pains me to even hear second hand about someone having a hard night with very little sleep; it actually makes me squirm in my seat just thinking about it. And it bothers me greatly to see new mothers at the mall with their tiny little pink babies, snoozing away in the stroller. I want to scream "You should be asleep too! Why are you doing this to yourself???"

Since I've had my second baby, my focus on sleep has increased tenfold. Besides the fact that the baby still gets up twice to feed, I am plagued with physical and mental torments all night long. The only way to ease my back pain is to place a pillow behind my back, one under my arm and another between my knees. 
Never knowing what kind of night we're going to have with the kids, I brace myself for the worst case every time. Obsessive thoughts consume me, mostly about not getting enough sleep, which prevent me from sleeping. Determined to block out all disruptions, I wear an eye mask, ear plugs and I use a white noise machine (I hope someone is listening for the baby!). I have a pillow over my head, a quilt on top of the pillow (the claustrophobic in me does not enjoy this, but the crazy person in me believes it is necessary). Panic sets in if the clock reads anything after 11pm.  I take a prescription sleep aid and an anti-anxiety pill. In addition, I have to be alone in the bed when it's time to go to sleep, lest my husband wriggle around or snore or even breathe too loudly. In the middle of the night, after the last feeding, I trudge down to the basement with all of my supplies to my ‘sleeping nook’ – the spare bedroom - for the remainder of the night, just in case I have trouble falling back to sleep in my own bed.

My poor, dear sweet husband – can you imagine?

I recognize that this is irrational behaviour, but this is coming from a girl who also hoards old bottles of antibiotics in case of the apocalypse.

Sleep and food are inextricably linked, at least for me. We all know that feeling – you’ve had a rough night and the next day your body cries out for fatty, carby treats. Research tells us that there is a definitive link between insufficient sleep and cravings for these foods, and an increase in hunger in general. We’ve all read that losing weight is harder when you are sleep deprived, or if you sleep at odd hours, have a job that requires shift work, etc. Having kids is like shift work without ever having a day off. I did not need any more chemicals in my brain driving me towards high-fat/high-calorie foods, or more food in general. And I prayed - Please God, don’t make it any harder for me to lose weight.   

I used food and sleep interchangeably - whichever one I could get my hands on first - to get away, to retreat from the aggravations in my life, and as a reward. In the first few months of my son’s life, during the excruciating every-two-hour-feeding process, I would go to the kitchen to get his milk with thoughts of – What is in this for me? Surely I get something for being up at this ungodly hour. And so I would partake: cookies, crackers, chips, chocolate, yogourt. 

I finally decided to inquire into this feeling.

Question 1: Why was I letting sleep and food dominate my thoughts and behavior, instead of simply observing my God-given signals and acting accordingly? Why was I mixing one with the other – eating when what I really needed was sleep? Well, it was because I had a new baby. And it’s reeeally hard to get even your most basic needs met during those critical first few weeks and months.

Question 2: In reality, what was going to happen to me if I had a sleepless night? Was I going to die? No. Should I listen to The Voice (essentially a high-pitched whine these days) when she said that I going to gain weight because of this? Maybe so, if I chose the cupboards and refrigerator over acknowledging the physical truth and allowing myself to feel my arms and legs. They were still there, no matter how little sleep I’d had.

Some things have changed. Thankfully, I’m not up as much in the night for feedings. The anxiety pills are gone, as are the refrigerator raids. As for the rest - the pillows, the mask, the earplugs, the sleeping nook – it’s a journey.

There are two things I've stopped keeping track of since the inquiry began: how many hours/minutes of sleep I got the night before and how many calories/points/carbs I ate. There is freedom in this. And I'm still here.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Taking  Care

(The inspiration for this post came from reading When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair by Geneen Roth.)

If eating is the only way that you practise self-care, the only way that you fill yourself up, you are likely to run into trouble with food and weight.   What else can you do every day to take exquisite care of yourself? One’s first instinct is to think – hmm…it should be something that doesn't require too much time, effort or money.  Stop for a second - what is wrong with taking some effort to throw a little kindness in your own direction? What would make you feel alive, celebrated, cared for? There is a big difference between self-indulgence and self-kindness.

When you're rushing to the finish line without stopping to be mindful about what you're doing, you often end up feeling hollow, as if your body is somehow uninhabited. You find yourself wondering where the day went and how you arrived at the drive-thru window when you don't even remember leaving the house.

What are you passionately in love with? A flavour of coffee, a bright colour, a soft robe, a favourite quilt? What says "I was here"? My mother was known for the colour purple (the actual colour, not the book) and for ladybugs. If we came home to find a wall freshly painted mauve or a charming little ladybug stenciled onto a stool, it was evidence that "Mom was here." 

I know that you have two kids, three dogs (yikes!), a  full-time and an extra part-time job, relatives to visit, emails to send, medications to refill, lists to make and laundry to fold. But here are some suggestions for practising self-kindness. Keep in mind that the point is to perform a mindful activity and remain focused on it, for as long as it takes to ‘fill up’.

·         Burn some candles (careful with those dogs!) and bask in the soft light
·         Have a hot mug of tea
·         Put a warm compress on your belly or a warm washcloth on your face
·         Take a bath (try epsom salts!)
·         Take at least five minutes to meditate (There are tons of simple ones to pick from. I'm currently working on one where you focus on the area three inches below your navel and count to 20. Start over when your mind begins to wander.)
·         Put ice on your back (this is where you'll find me most days)
·         Pet your dog (this is not where you'll find me most days)
·         Smell your baby's head
·         Sketch, paint or embroider something
·         Give yourself a foot rub with a tennis ball
·         Stretch

I had a Zen teacher once who tried to teach me about mindfulness and taking care. I get it now - it's not that happiness is out there if and only if you go after it - by losing weight, getting a better job, getting pregnant, finishing the basement or buying new shoes. It is what it is right now, if you stop to sense your arms and legs, to show up. It’s about landing in your own body, exactly where you are and telling the physical truth, instead of letting your thoughts overrun you. Geneen says that when you are fully present, nothing is missing.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Satisfaction Factor

Have you ever had a non-fat, sugar-free latte? They suck. The fake sugar in the syrup makes your stomach hurt, and the skim milk leaves something to be desired. And more often than not, you drink it, then prowl around the coffee shop or the mall or your kitchen wondering what’s for dessert. What if you had consumed what you actually wanted? I’m not saying the 16 ounce frappuccino with extra whipped cream, but a nice, fully flavoured, syrupy, latte with some real milk? I’ll tell you what would happen – you would feel satisfied. And you might feel satisfied after drinking three quarters of it, half of it, maybe even after a few sips. The body is superbly intelligent. It tells you if you need a glass of water (I know, I know, we’re taught to believe that the minute you experience thirst, you’re already so bloody dehydrated that your kidneys are failing).  It tells you, if you listen closely enough, when you need nourishment and when you don't, even if it means stopping mid-slurp or mid-munch.

Who is to say how many calories you need and what the correct portion size is for you, at this very moment? Is an envelope of dry miso soup (my obsession du jour) the right size? A cheese string? A box of Kraft Dinner? An apple? Some say that Mother Nature got it just right: the size of an apple is perfect for a snack. But how does Mother Nature know how long it’s been since I've eaten, how much muscle I have on my bones, how much activity I've done today? She doesn't.  There is a communication between these components of my life and my belly, and only it knows for sure. And I’m learning to trust it.

Here’s a concept I once fell for, but now I can’t stand it: “It tastes just like real {insert decadent food that was put on this planet for our physical senses to enjoy, but that our minds have convinced us is a cobblestone on the pathway to hell}. Fat-free frozen yogourt, bean-laden brownies, cholesterol-free margarine, no-sugar added Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. For heaven’s sake! Tell me who is eating this without falling into the following traps:  “I can have six of them because they’re healthier/lower in calories/fat/carbs than the real thing”; and/or an hour later “In retrospect, those brownies tasted like shit. Screw it – let’s order a pizza.” The dreaded "real thing" could have been savoured and thoroughly enjoyed, the resulting satisfaction lasting for hours. The alternative leaves a void waiting to be filled.

The severity of it all, the torturous nature of the deprivation that we put ourselves through is staggering.  I went to a children’s birthday party a few years ago where I met a 40-something lady for the first time. I had been warned that she was a serial low-carbist, that she had even renounced all fruits, and had stuck to it for years.  Yes, she was thin as a rail, but I could see that her mind spun like a top. She hung out at the food table the whole afternoon, hovering, watching everyone else (there’s the wonder and envy disguised as scorn I mentioned earlier). Then, when the rest of us adjourned to the living room to open the presents, she began picking. First she would take a piece of watermelon. She didn't even stop to look at it; she popped it into her mouth like it didn't even happen. Then she walked away at lightening speed, busying herself in the kitchen.  Next, she came back for cantaloupe.  Same thing, only this time her eyes were everywhere, praying that there were no witnesses. She went on and on like this. The expression on her face – I could see that she was already imposing a penance, all of this for fruit!  

One of my husband and my favourite places in the world is Reykjavik, Iceland. These people do it right. One day I tried to order a large, low fat latte in a cafĂ© downtown.  Guess what? There is no low fat, and there is no large. Have your creamy little coffee, hell, add a pastry, relish it, fill up as needed, then go about your day. Walk around the breathtaking city for a few hours! There is so much more to life than denial and punishment. 

Not only does your mind know that that latte at Starbucks was ‘skinny’, so does your nose, your tongue, your taste buds, your eyes and your ears (“Skinny caramel macchiato for Sally, ready at the end of the counter!”). Poor Sally. She’s gonna be hungry later.

Friday, 9 August 2013

What about health?

Does eating what you want - what your body desires at the current moment, - put aside the health quotient?

After my mom died of cancer, I became obsessed with health.  Why had she gotten sick? How could I and everyone I loved learn from this and keep from getting it?

So I did some research. They (you know, the ubiquitous “they”) said:
·         Sugar causes cancer; avoid it at all costs. I went sugar-free (well, except on the ‘off’ days).
·         Sugar-free products, such as aspartame, cause cancer. I stopped the sugar-free gum, “no sugar added” pudding, chocolates, ice cream (man, the sugar alcohols contained in these were killer on the stomach!)
·         Meat causes cancer. I went vegetarian.
·         All animal products cause cancer. I went vegan.
·         Foods cooked at high temperatures, and cooked foods in general, are not good for you. I went raw.
·         Absence of whole grains and fiber in your diet is bad for your intestinal tract and colon. I went back to rice.
·         Fish eaters in Japan get less cancer. I put fish back in.
·         Mediterranean people don’t get cancer. I ate Greek yogourt.
·         Excess weight is the ultimate culprit. Do whatever you can to eat less – maybe try high protein, low carbohydrate. Back in goes the meat, out goes the rice. Also, it’s all about calories in, calories out. I went to Weight Watchers.
·         Man didn’t die of cancer a million years ago. I went primal.
·         Gluten causes lots of problems, maybe even cancer. Bring on the potato flour.
·         Juicing can cure a host of diseases, including cancer. I bought a juicer. Oh, and make sure the juice is consumed immediately, before it oxidizes, and the produce should not only be organic and grown locally, but also in your own garden, in compost soil.

Is anyone else as exhausted as I am???

Signe Darpinian, a marriage and family therapist with a certificate in eating disorders, runs a clinic in San Francisco counseling people in mindful and intuitive eating.  She wrote “Knock Out Dieting”, a useful workbook for shutting out the noise and putting the teachings of people like Geneen Roth into practice.  She says that you should eat for the health of your “future self”.  She believes that if you present yourself with a smorgasbord of choices, you will ultimately gravitate toward healthy foods. But she says to start out by considering every food to be equal on the nutritional playing field, as in broccoli = cake.  She actually advocates keeping a stack of chocolate bars on hand at all time, and purposely bringing your “off limits” food into the house.  The thinking is that once you know they are there, that you can have them if you want them, they lose their power. Interesting. I did start buying my favourite cookies again, and take great pleasure in having a few every day.( I can’t see me keeping carrot cake on the counter, though.)

Here’s the difference I have found. I now go past the BK drive-thru and say to myself – you can go there if you want, if you are hungry and desire this food. The other day I had my usual (chicken sandwich and cheesy-fries), but I only had about half, because I was full, and because I know that I can go back tomorrow if I really want to.  A few months ago I would have driven by, fiercely berating myself as I remembered my past offenses.

I once had a trainer (I've had a lot of trainers) who told me the following about the two foods with which I've been having a love affair for years – cheese and peanut butter: Do not let cheese or peanut butter pass your lips. Do not let them into your shopping cart. Do not even go to the aisles that contain them at the grocery store. If you see cheese or peanut butter, run immediately in the other direction. If I hear that you've been eating cheese or peanut butter, you're in trouble.

I was living with my sister at the time. No, I did not keep any cheese or peanut butter of my own. But I sure did bust into hers every chance I got. Like, way too much.  She used to get quite angry. She wanted me to just buy some of my own, but I knew that I “couldn't be trusted”.

I like this one: Signe also says that no food is ‘bad’, unless you hit someone over the head with it. Mindful and intuitive eating means eating to nourish your body. We all know what nourishes our bodies - fruits and vegetables, whole grains, proteins, healthy fats. A mindful eating practice lends itself to better nutrition on the whole, as we pay attention and act upon how foods make us feel. 
What are you married to?

(Names have been changed for identity protection)

The poet Mary Oliver says that when death comes for her, she wants to be able to say that she was a bride “married to amazement”. What a brilliant concept. And it’s catching – Geneen says that she wants to be married to amazement, and now so do I. (You probably think by now that I’d like to marry Geneen, but my husband will do just fine. More than fine. J)

I was so sure that amazement would come from having a stunning physique. When I achieved this in preparation for my fitness show seven years ago, I couldn't wait to start receiving the bounty that had been withheld from me for so long. Love, happiness, a wage increase, enlightenment. Why not? I walked around downtown, shouting inside my head – do you people see this? I've arrived!  I have starved, punished and tortured myself.  I have prevailed!

Hmmm. People who knew me were amazed; I had after all, completed a dramatic transformation. But I was still alone in my basement apartment every Friday night, staring at myself in the mirror, flexing in my bikini. I would have given anything in the world to have what I have now – the love of my life, two beautiful children, a cozy home.

What are you married to? I was married to obsession, to suffering, to self-hatred, to frustration.  What I failed to realize for so many years is that I was put on earth for a purpose greater than losing those last few pounds. I was put here for two reasons greater than any other – a little girl named Grace and a big boy named Ollie. Will I be seen as deficient in their eyes if I have a less-than-perfect body? Did I consider my own mother to be any less for it? Absolutely not.

Amazement, transportation to a blissful realm, will never come from cheesecake, or cheesy-fries, or thinness. These things are fleeting.  Sanctity, contentment and blessedness come from fulfilling your needs, the needs of your family and from perpetuating love and kindness.

But can’t I have it all?

Of course I can! I still want to be the best me possible. That’s why I've jumped aboard this train. I will not likely see that stunning physique again. The ghost of it haunts me often. You did it before, you can do it again! Just get angry enough! Angry at what? For having two sweet, healthy babies?  No way; it’s a worthwhile trade-off. But moving forward, I am refraining from dieting and quick-fix solutions that were never really solutions to begin with.  I am not fixing myself (for I am not broken).  The best way for me to achieve a natural weight and to quiet the storm in my head is to listen to my body - not my mind, not The Voice and not the 'amazing' pictures from seven years ago.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

But can one really lose weight by just eating mindfully?

Geneen says that it took her a full year to regulate to her natural weight, 80 pounds down from where she began after she stopped dieting and started eating according to her body’s needs. She has remained at this weight for 30 years.

What else is there? Trying another diet, another plan, cutting out another food group, hiring another trainer? I once had a trainer who suggested that I eat a little under 800 calories per day, sticking to his precise meal plan and work out daily for an hour and a half.  I mean, how badly did I really want this? Enough to do what it takes? (How many could stick to this without giving up on the second day? Surely they run stats at these gyms to track the success of trainers’ clients!)

I’m saying that this is not what it takes. I have lost 56 pounds since the birth of my son 6.5 months ago. Let’s say that about 10 of that was baby and placenta, 15 of fluid (they apparently removed 2.5 canisters worth during the C-section, where normally they remove half a canister).  I probably got 10 of it off with Weight Watchers, and the rest has been from eating less and moving more;  eating less is from eating only when I am hungry, stopping when I am satisfied. This may take me a while, say a loss of a pound every few weeks, but how long was it going to take by yoyo-ing? Forever.  And I would never have given up the fight.
Will I look like GI Jane from eating intuitively, walking (with my back and leg problems, I can only walk on flat ground for about 10 minutes, twice a week), playing with my children and a few 8-minute yoga sessions per week? Likely not. Was I going to get there by working out like crazy, restricting my diet on my ‘good’ days, trolling for cheesecake on the ‘bad’ days, getting injured and hopping myself up on green tea supplements? Also likely not.

The dieter in me wants to amp this up a bit, hoping that the application of a little more strictness might produce better, faster results. Like increasing fullness on fewer calories, tricking the body. I could drink a glass of water before a meal, use child-size plates and utensils, bulk up on fibrous foods like raw fruits and vegetables and add soup before, after or during a meal. Apparently there is a supplement called acacia powder that you can sprinkle on all of your food to increase fullness. Some of these might be worthwhile pursuits, I guess, but it’s easy to see where I could get back into old patterns.

We are wired to want what we cannot have. I read a study that said that participants ate more when the packaging for the product they were eating was thrown away, instead of sitting there in front of them; as in they ate more Fig Newtons if the wrapper was not in front of them, and less if the rest of them were sitting on the table in the package. Pretty counter intuitive – usually they say to take a couple, then put the package back in the cupboard so that you won’t be tempted (because of course we cannot be trusted). The participants in this study apparently didn't feel deprived, knowing that they could always have more if they wanted, so they weren't inclined to overeat.

I easily have 20 pounds to lose. It’s not a given that I will achieve it. But I hope and expect that I will regulate to a point somewhere near there within the next year, instead of struggling with these 20 pounds for the next 20 years. That would be awesome, yes?

What’s worth it to me is what I've gained from leaving behind this humongous time-and-energy suck that was my obsession with dieting. Oh, the things I can see, the things I can do! And the energy I have when I address my needs, knowing that I never have to face another hungry, stressful night putting my kids to bed on a ‘fast’ day (that one was horrendous), or worry about what to eat at the upcoming baby shower.  I used to worry that if my husband traveled for work, I wouldn't be able to handle two kids, mostly because I wouldn't have enough energy due to my diet. I would have to go ‘off’ while he was gone, would gain weight while he was away, and he look at me differently when he returned.

Geneen says how you eat is indicative of how you live. If that’s the case, I was frenzied, unbalanced, uptight and often downright irrational. There have been times when I narrowly (OK not so narrowly) missed the garbage bins at the end of the driveway because I was focusing on getting to the DQ drive-thru.

I’m not out of the woods – my postpartum anxiety overtakes me some days, causing mild panic attacks and insomnia. I’m also on a ton of meds for my pain. But here’s what helps:

·         Paying attention to what I feel, that is not related to food. A walk around the house, a warm bath, a cup of tea, a talk with a friend, an ice pack for the pain - many times my appetite is for something other than physical sustenance.

·         Knowing that I can always have what I want when the physical appetite in the heart of my belly cries out for it.

·         Coming back to myself (or as my husband describes it “getting your head out of your ass”). I run through these stories in my head, I listen to The Voice. They are just stories about what you think may happen, about what you think people are saying about you. Turn them off. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Crime and Punishment

I was just re-reading some of my old Oxygen magazines; I have a collection of about 100. There was once an article written by respected bodybuilder, fitness magnate and publisher Robert Kennedy (may he rest in peace) where he says that you should strip down, get in front of a mirror, and upon careful inspection, proceed to be utterly and completely disgusted by yourself.

This is the kind of flawed (and dangerous) idea that leads to distorted thinking and disordered eating. The point is that if you loathe yourself enough, are disgusted by your very being to the highest possible degree, if you hit rock bottom like an addict who loses it all, you will ultimately have no choice but to turn the corner and somehow generate actions that will bring about fitness, thinness and therefore greatness. This is the kind of thinking that led me to not eat in front of anyone for almost a year, to sit on the corner of my chair at the kitchen table during a meal, as if to say – don’t worry, I’m not really going to eat, I’m not committing to this food, I know that I don’t deserve it, I know that I should be outside running sprints instead.  Never mind looking at myself in the mirror, getting my picture taken or letting anyone else see me without the requisite covering (see Ninja Suit).

The collateral damage from this fruitless battle can be catastrophic.  And what a community of practice - others, like me, are more than a little twisted and obsessive about it. Some of us have developed whole friendships based on commiserating about losing that last 20 pounds, the untruth that “I cannot be trusted around cream cheese icing”.  We fit in by hating ourselves.

Anyone would agree that the nature of a diet, the proverbial yoyo – being either ‘on’ or ‘off’ - is damaging to the psyche.  I have friends whose current diet plan is immediately obvious from the minute we step into a restaurant. They’re either ordering a naked salad to go with the protein shake they've stashed in their purse, or a triple-stacked bacon burger, sandwiched between two buns made of bacon, with a side of bacon. And don’t even ask them if they want to split a dessert. ‘On’ means eat your naked salad, watch everyone else with wonder and envy (disguised as scorn), ‘off’ means eat anything that doesn't eat you first. Who do you know who has successfully won this war, anyway? Who has dieted and made lasting changes of more than six months, a year? Why play a game that is not winnable?

Geneen says that we should end the war with our bodies once and for all, and come back to ourselves, come back to love. We should stop trying to fix it - the body is not broken.  It has an innate, intelligent ebb and flow of hunger and satiety, if only we were to listen.

Now that I know this, I cannot unknow it. Obsession and awareness cannot co-exist. Here’s my bottom line:

Yes, I’m eating lunch. And it’s over when I say it’s over. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Mindful and Intuitive Exercise

I am a former fitness competitor; I have walked the walk.  Years of running, stairclimbing, circuits, high intensity interval training, jump lunges, pop squats, Body Pump, 100's, drop sets, super sets, box jumps and step aerobics have landed me on the table of chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists and surgeons. I have disc protrusions, sciatica, SI joint problems, pinched nerves and extreme tightness in my hip flexors and hamstrings, all of which cause me incredible amounts of pain, with still no end in sight after 5 years of therapy. I believe, at least for me, that sustainable, lifelong fitness will be centered around gentler movements, such as walking, yoga and playing with my children.

My Ninja Suit

I have a ninja suit for every occasion: work, home, parties, funerals, weddings, sleep. These ensembles are perfect – they are black, slimming, comfortable and allow me to slink around, not so much as to go unnoticed, but to make damn sure that no one could ever point out anything on me that doesn't belong, as in “Did you see her stomach hanging over those pants?” or “People that size should definitely not wear yellow.” or “Oooh, patterns like that only accentuate her {insert offending body part here}.”  

Geneen Roth refers to the aforementioned thoughts as “The Voice” and that you should give it a name, corner it in the kitchen, and tell it to fuck off.  
Baby steps to furthering my mindfulness practice

Anyone who knows me would tend to agree – I am the least mindful person around. Hence the six fender benders.  Also, at about 7 months pregnant, I was rushing my daughter to the car in the daycare parking lot and tripped over a curb, landing belly-first on the snow and ice. Two times I've stumbled over my son’s bouncy chair on the floor, sending him flying.  Don't buy me a mandolin for Christmas, or get me to light the candles on the birthday cake. Always in a hurry, rushing to the finish line - that’s me.

Mindfulness is a journey. I have begun with eating, but I’m now starting to apply it to the rest. Lately as I've been rocking my son to sleep, instead of buzzing in my head about my meal plan for the following day, how many Weight Watchers points I had consumed on this day, or even my general to-dos, I've been listening closely to the little snorting noises he makes, watching his tiny hands grasp the bottle, reading the sayings on his pajamas ("Imagine all the people"…so cute). Taking this time doesn't take away from anything else and doesn't get me to the finish line any slower. 
How I got here

My mother died on a Friday night. By the time I got to the hospital, she had passed. I had been there an hour before, all night, all week, all month. I had said goodbye a hundred times. Was it enough?

At first I couldn't look at her, let alone touch her. Then I was all over her, stroking her face, kissing her. I never wanted to leave that room.  That sweet, sweet woman. That’s what I told her. And that I would ask God to take his very best care of her until I could be with her again.

I had a two-year old baby, a three-month old marriage, a 33-year old fat body and a whirling mind. It seemed that I could never concentrate on anything for a reasonable amount of time. I could never get my thoughts together before they came spilling out of my mouth. I could never get enough sleep. Sometimes, many times, I couldn't get enough air.

It started a long, long time ago, but to take a point in time, I’ll begin with Sharlene. Sharlene was a 55-year old-waiting-to-retire systems analyst who was contracted to work with our team. I was placed in a suffocatingly small room with her for four months doing analysis work. No windows, no phone, no Internet, no personal space, and again no air. The woman looked me up and down every morning when I came to work, commented on the amount of bags I was carrying, wondering aloud if they all contained lunch provisions or was I going to the gym today and did I remember when I was working out three hours a day training for my show and boy, was I tiny then and did I think I’d ever get back there, and was I worried about losing the weight I needed to lose to fit into my wedding dress and how many calories was I eating these days anyway?

Holy shit. A normal person (I've always considered myself to be somewhat abnormal, a mutation of the general species) would have shut her down right away. But she was senior to me and sort of ugly, with nothing else to talk about and I felt sorry for her. Probably a part of me felt a kinship with her too, a sister in obsession.  So I bought into it. I was at the whiteboard one day, a month before the wedding, when she commented on my ever-present black pants and asked again how I was going to lose enough weight to feel good at my wedding. I said, “I don’t know Sharlene. It’s on my mind every minute.”

Stop. It’s on my mind every minute? I had a child to care for. The cancer had at this point made its way into my mother’s bones, all too quickly taking from me the person I identified as the other half that made me whole, my way home, the constant grounding force in my life. I was trying to have my wedding in time for her to be there. I was struggling to keep my job. Was I really preoccupying my time and thoughts with the size of my arms and belly? Yes. It was one more thing, but it seemed like everything. If only I could get that under control, I could deal with the rest.

For spending so much attention and effort on something, I was getting nowhere. And Sharlene - if I had a nickel for every time she told me that she only eats 1500 calories per day, I would not have to do analyst work. Where had all of her obsessing gotten her? She was easily 60 pounds overweight.

I was a girl with endless insecurities, who had a baby, a back problem, food issues and then her mother died. She was closed for so long, locked in a box with a spreadsheet, a Vegetarian’s Guide to Getting Your Life Back and a soupbowl of instant coffee. After trying everything, saying everything, reading everything, doing everything, writing everything, thinking everything to death, I needed to emerge - not necessarily expecting to be fully enlightened, but for the most part able to enjoy my life, my children, my husband, my job and friends, and see myself for the capable mother, wife and woman I am.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A Journey to Mindfulness

Only kindness makes sense. Anything else is excruciating. That’s what Geneen Roth says, and she’s referring to how we treat our bodies. Instead of judging, punishing, shaming and restricting – we should be inquiring, listening, giving and loving.  This does not mean accepting your ‘fat self’! I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't about weight loss. But it’s also about sanity, and quieting the noise in my head.

This is not another Mommy blog, another rant about how hard motherhood is, the devastating effect it has had on my lifestyle, body and mind. With that I could fill a series of books.  A weekly talk show. Let’s say a daily talk show.

It’s just that particularly after you have endured the fallout from the fruits of your labor (pun intended) your self esteem, inevitably tied to your size, is one more thing that plagues you while you try to get sleep, feed babies, nurse fevers, find a babysitter and work a job. Did I mention get sleep? Another talk show.

Eckhart Tolle says that you are not your mind.  At first I thought, how on Earth could I not be my mind? But it’s true. You are not your mind. Your mind says crazy things, tells you all that you are not and will never be, all of the bad things you are and from which you will never break free. 

I am using mindfulness and intuitive eating to help my body regulate to its natural weight. Not the weight I was when I was a fitness competitor, not the weight my husband thinks I should be, not the weight of my neighbor who is 3 inches shorter than me.

Geneen Roth is a woman I’ve never met, and probably never will. But what she has given me and many women around the world is freedom. She has validated what I was already starting to suspect – that the more you obsess about your body and the food you put in it, the exercise you do to get rid of it, the more you let your mind control your body - the fatter and crazier you get.

For so many reasons, our minds tell us that we must diet, restrict, withhold, keep track, dissect into components and calories. But our body just wants to be fed when it needs to be, and not when it doesn't. 

What if I just love food?
If you really love something, you take your time with it. This was not the case as I sat in the Burger King parking lot, inhaling a deep fried chicken sandwich (extra mayo) and cheese-loaded fries.  Then there's the issue of disposing of the evidence, hoping no one I knew was watching me. Was this love?

Have you ever watched a kid eat an Oreo? They break it apart, lick the middle, the sides of it, then finally bite into it. Have you ever watched a woman who has been dieting eat an Oreo? It’s not even like a one-bite brownie. She can cram two of them at a time into her mouth as if  it were a contest.

The Guiding Principles
As per Geneen Roth (and as per the universe, I'm starting to believe), the following are the guiding principles to restoring balance in your mind and body and achieving your natural weight.

1.       Eat only when you feel hunger (about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being ravenous, 10 being completely stuffed). This means that you do not have to eat just because it is lunchtime, because there is still half a sandwich on your plate, because you're worried you might be hungry later, because it has been three hours since your last meal and the latest issue of MuscleMag tells you that your metabolism  will screech to a grinding halt if you do not. Also not because you are tired, your back hurts or the kids won't sleep. Also not because you miss your mom, you have work to finish tonight or (heaven forbid) you're going on another diet tomorrow, so eat up! 

      I have embarked on every diet on the planet, including Weight Watchers, The Eat Clean Diet, South Beach (which I not-so-lovingly refer to as 'South Bitch', due to crankiness experienced while deprived of carbs), The Fast Diet, Paleo/Primal, vegetarianism, veganism, raw food diets and several juice cleanses. I have found that no matter what, I end up bingeing and starving.  Even though it’s not supposed to be a ‘diet’, it is inevitably something you are either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Only on the days when I truly allow myself to address my hunger, to listen to what my body (not a plan) is telling me, I eat a normal amount of food, feel nourished and have no guilt.

2.       Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This refers to the habit (mostly of women) to nibble while cooking, pick off of plates while cleaning up, snack on leftovers as we put them away in the fridge and eat in the car.

3.       Eat without distractions. No reading, music, television, and (hopefully) no crying babies.

4.       Eat what your body wants. Eat to nourish yourself and to provide yourself with energy. I believe that most people are smart enough to know that you should consume whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and tons of fruits and vegetables. It is the minute that we decide to cut down, only eat certain items from this list, or go on a ‘plan’ that we seem to get into trouble. 

5.       Eat until you are satisfied (not full). It has been said that ‘satisfied’ is much more subtle a feeling than ‘full’. You should take a breath, chew your food slowly, pause before reaching for more and try to determine if you truly are still hungry.

6.       Eat with the intention of being in full view of others. This addresses the habit (again, mostly of women) to sneak or hide food. 

7.       Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure. Of course!

In her books, including Why Weight? and Women, Food and God, Geneen has taught me to feel your feet on the floor, your clothes on your skin, the yogourt on your tongue. To finish one mouthful before you pick up your fork to get the next one.  To look at the colour, explore the texture, feel the temperature of your food as you eat it. to be aware of how your body feels before, during and after a meal.  To eat when you are truly hungry, by checking in with your physical self, in the heart of your belly. To eat what your body wants, what nourishes it. And to stop when you are satisfied.

And that everything tastes better when you’re hungry.

It may seem obvious, but she also points out that you can never get enough of something you didn't need in the first place. I have learned to recognize that I eat when I'm tired, when I'm stressed and when I'm in pain. Geneen invites you to inquire when you have a feeling, seemingly a need to eat. Is the answer that you're truly hungry, or is it a desire to satisfy something else? She instructs you to find the physical location of your feelings in your body (for me, it's usually anxiety manifested as a fiery red ball in my stomach) and to do the hard work of embracing that feeling, scary as it might be.

Geneen has another book called When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair. I've been there - standing at the cupboard, slathering butter on a bread roll, just wanting something to make me feel better. But I only felt better for a split second, then much worse for having done it.