When I was three years old, I was at my Grandmother's house one day and looked down at my chubby little toddler forearm. It was the first time in my life I had this singular thought that has stayed with me ever since:
Now I’m 40 and I still think I’m fat. I still am fat.
Since about age 8, I have been “on a diet”.
Here’s the part where we make harsh judgements about my mother and strongly refute the notion of being on a diet versus embracing healthy blah blah blah... But that’s not what this is about.
A little over a year ago, I started working out with fitwit regularly and adopted the paleo diet. For the first time in my life, something is working. Yes, it’s amazing, but that’s not what this is about, either.
From age 8 to age 39, for a sum total of about 31 years, I was trying to achieve something and chronically failing. That’s quite an impressive track record. Those should have been the most vital, vigorous, fun years of my life. Maybe they were. But I was out of shape the whole time.
Don’t get me wrong, I had brief successes, and I had some very active times. My life was never ruined by it. I had lots of other achievements, a great social life, lots of meaningful experiences, all in the face of being fairly unhealthy.
At age 39, upon adopting paleo as a way of eating, I learned that almost everything I thought I knew about food was wrong. I was born in 1972, during the height of the “war of the macronutrients,” when the grand debate between sugars vs fat was in full swing. By the time I started dieting around 1980, dietary fat had long since been declared the enemy. As it turns out, fat was declared the enemy primarily for political and economic reasons, and as it turns out, that declaration was completely wrong. Sugar is the enemy.
For 31 years I ate high-carb faux foods and as little fat as I possibly could, and I was starving, and it wasn’t sustainable, and I failed. Over and over and over again. Now I’m forty years old, and it is wonderful that I am healthier than I ever have been, and I’m excited to build on it and get healthier and in better shape and stronger and faster and more flexible than ever!
But G**D***IT I wish I had known this twenty years ago.
So, I could wallow in regret, like everyone does from time to time, and I could throw away all the time and effort that was invested in my stupid health efforts for the past 31 years while I was doing everything wrong, but the reality is that failures ARE opportunities, no matter how cheesy and motivational-poster-y that makes me feel to say. I am not going to “forget everything I ever knew about diet and fitness.” Maybe it takes a special kind of stubborn to cling to old ideas so tightly, or maybe the only way to stay sane is to realize that I was actually doing something right in there amidst all the wrongness. In any case, there are some important lessons that I learned that I think stand true no matter what health and lifestyle and fitness changes one is trying to make. Almost none of these were my original thoughts, by the way, but they are all personally tried and true.
1. Fitness is not an intellectual matter. If I lost 1/100th of an ounce for every hour I spent analyzing and stressing over my weight, I would have wasted away long ago. It is not a puzzle that has to be unlocked. It is not a mystery to solve. In fact, the less you think about it, the better you get at it. You just have to do it. You have to be a robot. You need not have internal conversations about whether you should or should not exercise. You must set aside time to chop vegetables. Making habits is not about motivation, it’s not about thinking or remembering, it’s not about depression, it’s not about liking it or hating it, it’s not about shoving your mother-in-law’s face in it, and it’s not about how awkward your Dad makes you feel about your hip circumference. It’s about doing it. Brushing your teeth is not about any of those things either. It’s just about doing what you’re supposed to do. You want your car to work? You get the oil changed every so often. You want your body to work? Do what you’re supposed to do.
2. If you don’t have a glass or bottle of water within reach, panic.
3. Any kind of exercise is good exercise. Some kinds are better than others, some are more crucial than others, some are more enjoyable than others, and some are more sustainable than others. They’re all better than sitting, standing, or lying down.
Those are probably the most important ones, but there are others.
“Going paleo” is a huge, massive undertaking and a radical change in lifestyle. The challenge is NOT in eating the foods. The foods are delicious, and there’s something in there for everyone, believe me. The challenge is partially in giving up the foods that are bad for you, sure. But the biggest challenge is in reconciling your current lifestyle and the paleo diet as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
Let’s say you currently work until about 7 pm and then have dinner and cocktails with friends at a restaurant every weeknight. How likely are you to switch to going home at 7, preparing and cooking food for up to two hours, eating alone and then going to bed? Maybe you would try it for a week or two, but in the end it would prove too radical a change to be sustainable. You have a lifestyle you enjoy, and changing it completely will not work for you. Notice, however, that this paragraph says nothing about food. Going paleo means changing what you eat. At first, it seems that the only way to do that is to also change your lifestyle radically, but that just doesn’t have to be the case. Go out to restaurants every night after work with friends. Order steak and a salad. Get club soda with lime juice and mint. Get a glass of red wine or two every so often. Done.
Personally, as a busy working Mom, one thing that I have always relied on heavily is what I call the “Work Pantry”. The Work Pantry is a place - sometimes a drawer, sometimes a cupboard, where I have things I need to eat at work. It serves two purposes. First, it has condiments that I might need. Second, it has emergency snacks for when I get super busy or forget to pack something or when I have PMS or whatever the case may be. The Work Pantry keeps me from saying, “oh f*** it, I’m going to McDonald’s.” The Work Pantry is one of those things that has ALWAYS helped me to stay on track with my diet, no matter how misguided that diet may have been. (And a misguided diet is still better than McDonalds, IMHO.)
The Work Pantry has always had, and will probably always have:
Paper plates and bowls
Salt and pepper
Medications I may need at work (pain reliever, neosporin, cold medicine, stomach relief, etc.)
The Work Pantry used to have things like:
Packets of grits
Fat free chips
This is my current Work Pantry:
Almond butter - for apple slices!
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar - to dress salads
Pepper sauce - favorite condiment since going paleo
Now, real quick, before you say, “Oh you lying b**** those dried fruits have added sugar and that vegetable juice is a nightmare!” let me just remind you that the Work Pantry is partially about preventing yourself from making horrible decisions. It’s emergency food. You plan to eat after your 11:00 am meeting and then notice you are booked with meetings until 3 pm. Should you nibble on almonds and dried fruit and sip on vegetable juice until you can properly feed yourself? Or should you show up to your 1 pm meeting five minutes late with a Happy Meal?
Which reminds me:
4. Some bad decisions are much, much better than others.
30 Day Song Challenge
Day 17: a song that you hear often on the radio
Stealer's Wheel, "Stuck in the Middle With You"
One of my all-time favorites, with one of the best bass lines ever.