Food Fight: Finding balance with healthy food

Last night I had Chinese food takeout for the first time in over 2 years. I’m talking fried and greasy takeout. If you’re thinking “congratulations?? Why is that a big deal?” I get it. To most people it really wouldn’t matter. For a lot of people getting Chinese food takeout or swinging into a McDonalds drive-through is a commonplace action when it comes to fueling the American diet. Don’t take that as me judging, I used to eat an unbelievable amount of greasy takeout food (especially through out college) so I’m just like everyone else who craves a deep-dish pizza at 11 PM.

Food is tradition

I grew up in an Italian family where you had to make sure you were eating meals that “stuck to your ribs.” Trust me, a side salad was a tiny afterthought to lasagna, baked ziti and Italian cookies. I was never the kid at school who had a bologna sandwich and chips; I’d show up with left over chicken Parmesan and spaghetti. None of the kids would trade their Lunchables and Oreo cookies for that (sigh).

Okay getting back on track, my point is that I never learned healthy eating habits. My family wasn’t purposely trying to steer me in a bad direction; I know now they really had no idea about healthy nutrition. Even now, my parents sometimes balk at the idea of replacing comfort foods with healthier versions. This is because to many people “healthy” has become synonymous with “bland” or “gross.”

Now that you understand my previous knowledge on nutrition, I think you may relate to where my health journey has lead me to today when it comes to food.

Please not another meeting

I always struggled with my weight and food choices were truly at the crux of that issue. But having never been a thin person, I’d been trying to diet even from a young age. I saw my first nutritionist when I was about 11 or 12 because I was overweight for my height. I was so embarrassed and it ended up being a really bad experience. Every medical professional I remember talking to never spoke about health and happiness; it was “lose weight” and “don’t eat that.”

As I got into my teen years, I even tried calorie-counting programs and went to some programs where you have group meetings. I found the counting and measuring stressful (plus I hated math) and having to show up to meetings made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Now, I’m not trying to put down those options. These programs can be really beneficial and motivating to people. So if you think that kind of structure would work for you, talk to your doctor, then give it a try!

These just weren’t my thing, plus being a teenager I was already self-conscious and the idea of talking about weight or food was anxiety ridden. Looking back, my mother did the right thing by bringing me to those doctors and programs but she had no control over what they said or how it would impact my view of myself.

So as I progressed through college and grad school, I had this “no f#&%s given” mentality about what I ate. I mean I had always been overweight and, whether I dieted or not, it never made a difference, so why not just eat what I wanted? That was not smart . . . not. at. all.

No it’s not the flu

By the end of grad school and entering into the work force I failed to notice that I had gained about 40 pounds. I’d always been at least 20lbs over a healthy weight so that’s a total of 60 pounds over (at least I got the math right!). When I say, “failed to notice” I guess I should say “didn’t want to deal with.” Truthfully, I hadn’t been eating any worse than usual so the weight gain seemed inexplicable but I was “too busy” to deal with it. It wasn’t until I caught what I thought was the flu and was having trouble eating and breathing that I went to the doctor.

That’s when the bomb was dropped that I had a severe thyroid disorder and had 9 nodules (similar to tumors) on my thyroid gland. The Endocrinologist informed me that this problem had most likely been slowly getting worse for years and was missed in my yearly physicals. Also there was a high risk of cancer. I was 23, living alone and nearly 1,000 miles away from my family. That news was earth shattering and terrifying.

This lead to an emergency lifestyle change: I needed to go on several medications because my resting heart rate was dangerously high. I was restricted to no travel, no working and nothing but walking for exercise. My digestive system was like a yoyo, I never knew what food I could keep down and I was immediately restricted to a certain diet. This was all so I could get to a place where it would be safe to operate to remove my thyroid because there was no saving it. I would be on medication for the rest of my life.

I was lucky that after surgery the results came back that I did not have cancer but my life would be forever changed: I would be forever changed.

Supermarket meltdown

The stress of having all this happen in a period of months put my body through some serious shock. I now had to continue to lose weight, and learn a whole new way of looking at healthy food. I didn’t have a choice because my body was still reeling from the disease and there were foods I could no longer eat (and still can’t eat to this day).

I wasn’t sure how to deal with those emotions and I let anxiety take over. During my long recovery process, I manifested that fear into control over food and exercise. That wasn’t healthy for me either because I was afraid to eat or miss an exercise session. This lead to anxiety and self-loathing, which could have meant a one-way ticket to a full-blown eating disorder.

I used to have panic attacks about eating. Yes, paralyzing, fear filled panic attacks. Probably the worst moment was when I was visiting a friend and she took me grocery shopping. My friend took me to the health food section because she knew about my new lifestyle and was being unbelievably supportive. There in front of me was an endless array of options, which you would think I would be thrilled about. But instead I started to pace and feel completely overwhelmed then I just burst into tears.

What if I picked the wrong thing and got sick? What if I picked something unhealthy and gained weight again? It was totally irrational but that was just the way I was feeling. Luckily my friend handled the situation with such poise. She calmed me down and told me something extremely important that day. She said “progress isn’t linear there will be peaks and valleys.” She was right. When it came to food all I could do is make the best choice I could and when I slipped up I needed to forgive myself.

Climbing out of the valley

It’s taken a long time for me to climb that mountain and slowly feel freer about balancing food choices. Here are some ways that I learned to cope with this anxiety:

  • Make cooking enjoyable. I download apps, buy cookbook and pin new recipes constantly. It makes it challenging and fun to try new food that I know is made with ingredients I can eat. I especially like taking my favorite comfort foods and making them into vegetarian and vegan dishes.
  • Being upfront with my friends and family. I told them about what I can and cannot eat. I’ve had a great response from all of them, they’re great about choosing meals or restaurants that have options for me too.
  • Treat yourself. If I want to eat something that’s not in my nutrition plan I make it into a once in a while treat. But I choose the healthiest option possible so I don’t get completely off track. That’s how I ended up eating the Chinese food takeout yesterday and not beating myself up for it.
  • See a nutritionist. Yes even after my bad experiences I searched for a registered dietician that I felt comfortable with. I’m so glad I did this. My doctor didn’t make me count calories or make plateaus in my weight loss was feel like I failed. Instead, she talked about portion size and food journaling. That worked for me, but talk to a registered dietician to find what works for you!
  • Use meditation and yoga. These activities keep me grounded so I don’t feel so high strung about food. I listen to a 5 to 10 minute relaxation session and do 20-30 minutes of yoga before I start my day. This helps me to stay focused on what’s important, not irrational worry.

If you’re dealing with food anxiety some of these might work for you. They may work for you even if you don’t have anxiety and are just struggling to keep up the balance of everyday life and healthy eating. No matter what you do, remember that healthy food can taste amazing and eating those foods can be fun. Now that I’ve changed my lifestyle I’d never want to go back to fast food everyday. But I’ve also learned that when I slip up it will be alright because I know how to make good food choices.

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