This past Tuesday I had another interesting talk with one of my mentors, a very wise older woman who often helps me see the light when it comes to, well, how I see things versus how they are. We somehow got around to discussing food and diet, which happens often, and I tried to explain how I often feel that I’m lacking focus on this blog and in life in general, I don’t know what my “culinary point of view” is and that just makes me think that I don’t know what I’m doing, what I want, what my message is, et cetera.
There are two camps I like to follow, I explained, when it comes to health and nutrition — there’s the Geneen Roth ideal that diets don’t work and you should just eat whatever you want, trust yourself, trust what your body needs, and it probably WILL end up telling you that you want and need healthy foods and that the junky stuff doesn’t make you feel good. But she doesn’t have any health guidelines, so sugar and processed foods are NOT off-limits.
Then there’s the real-food camp, which advocates eating more like our great-grandmothers, following the words of Michael Pollan, not eating anything from a box with more than five ingredients, et cetera. More strict, rigid guidelines, with a lot of health science to back up the fact that eating this way can prevent things like colds, allergies, and even cancer and heart disease.
My point is that I can’t find a way for these two ideals to exist in my world, together. I like the idea that eating only real foods could keep my son from getting croup this winter, but I also like being “allowed” to eat cookies together if we want to, and letting him try new foods, like animal crackers, not just weird melons and things that we pick up at Whole Foods. Heck, I think it’d even be fun for us to have McDonald’s someday, but this other half of me thinks that’s sacrilege. I just can’t figure out how the two can coexist, I said. It’s impossible. I don’t know what to do.
The woman stopped me and looked at me as she always does, squinting, and it was so obvious when it came out of her mouth:
“But aren’t they coexisting?”
“Aren’t you kind of doing both right now? You’re telling me you are; you’re eating cookies sometimes, and you’re also eating healthy foods. Right?”
Well, yeah, I said. But I always want to follow things to the letter. It’s my perfectionist tendencies. It’s black and white, one or the other. I feel guilty when I eat the cookie.
“You need to stop that.”
It was another moment when the light was shone so brightly on not how far I’ve come but how far I’ve yet to go. Because what IS the point of trying to allow both worlds to coexist if you’re just berating yourself every time you go against one or the other? That sucks the goodness and enjoyment out of every cookie, every bite of ice cream, every French fry on the planet — not to mention every eggplant, tomato and mushroom if you’re not in the mood for healthy whole foods at the moment. Do you think these people also follow the rules 100% of the time, every day, always? she asked. And I found myself defending them verbally (so-and-so did 100 Days of it; they even had their kids on the plan; the dad could only break the rules if he was traveling), even though I was also secretly remembering the story Pollan told about his son, at Mickey D’s, commenting on how the chicken nugget tasted more like nugget than it did the chicken.
Okay, so maybe there IS room for both in my life. Maybe the two ideals ARE already coexisting in the way I approach food, diet, and nutrition, it’s just how I’m reacting to that, this “should-should-should” mentality, a sort of rigidity and tension that just makes me feel bad, not good, about my choices in meals and exercise. Here I am, forced again to reckon with the fact that it’s a constant struggle for me, I feel like I’m just treading water, and yet I say that about so many other things in my life too — so why put all this energy into something that’s going nowhere? Other than when I have the time for writing a short blog post, networking with others with similar interests, or reading up on the subject, why spend a single ounce of energy worrying about what I’m eating or how I look in my pants? I want to be more childlike. To just know, “I don’t want to eat that.” Or “I don’t like that.” Or “All I want are raspberries and buttered noodles.” And to know that there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, this whole giant diet and fitness industry, real-food/emotional-eating camps included, often makes it easier for you to feel bad about yourself because you’re not following their guidelines to the letter. But in the end, the body knows best, and it’s better to fill yourself up with whatever foods you want and need than with feelings of guilt and shame.
I’m trying, I’m trying. I’m noticing how I’m barely hungry for breakfast these days. I’m paying much more attention to how hectic dinnertime is, and it makes me wonder if I’m hungry for dinner most days, too. It’s becoming more clear to me that I fill myself up during the middle of the day when I either eat lunch with my son and share a snack again later or I’m alone in my office, filling the void of being alone with my sandwich and fruit and dessert. And all of these little observations, while perhaps a bit mundane to the naked eye, actually encourage more fully living in the present, which is key to the entire operation: Do what you feel is right, and you will feel right!
It’s a juggle, it’s a struggle, it’s a battle, it’s a daily jumble of decision after decision after decision. I think one of the keys is to not let it suck so much energy and attention, so I’ll leave you now with a gentle reminder that if you, too, are trying to live up to an ideal or follow a set of rules or guidelines, remember that no one is perfect. We’re all fighting our own battles. You just do the best you can do for yourself and stand by your decisions. Stand up to your demons. Stand tall and stand proud, and at the end of each day, you will feel good no matter what happens.