How to Eat Healthy in 30 Years or Less: My Journey to Better Habits
Before I start this, please understand that I am in no way trying to set myself up as an authority on the matter, as you’ll see. This is just me telling my story. It is not a research article, recommendation, or sermon. It’s a description of my journey…one still in progress, actually!...and a journey I reflect on often.
(I’d love to hear yours, too!…more on that later.) Also, warning, it’s LONG.
So, I grew up eating fine, from what I can recall. I think I would describe our family’s typical menu as “comfort food”…casseroles, roasts, lasagnas, etc…plus whatever veggies my mom could get us to eat. I learned to like most veggies somewhere in my teen years, and we were pretty solid fruit-lovers. My mom was our chef, the one who made meals… and they were delicious! From what I remember, she did a good job of presenting “well-balanced” meals for our family. She almost always made things from scratch, and I came to value “homemade” as the standard…both for health and frugality; my mom was definitely frugal.
My mom, coming from the “diet” era, was always interested in learning about food and how to eat better; things like the Atkins diet, and Body for Life, and other structured eating/exercise programs came through our house and such… But I didn’t really pay close attention, and my mom was really good about not berating herself, or talking obsessively about body-image around us kids. As a teenager, I remember going through a phase where I always checked food labels for the grams of fat…and if one thing had more than another item, I would eat the lower-fat item. But it didn’t really go beyond that.
My mom got more serious in her learning about food and its effects when my littlest brother was diagnosed with autism. She began reading everything she could about how to help him any way she could. She would share the interesting things she was learning, and I enjoyed hearing about them. It was the first time I remember being fascinated by the vitamins and nutrients that food (just food!) gave us. Awesome!
About the same time we were figuring out my little brother’s struggles, I was working through post-secondary education in the field of Special Education. I was also working in a childcare facility part-time and specifically assisted several children there with special needs. It was not uncommon for these children to have diet restrictions, or things that they were not to have very much of…or avoid altogether. It briefly crossed my mind that it was interesting that the parents of these children felt food was important in managing their children’s disabilities.
As she delved more into the research on autism, my mom read plenty about how diet changes may help. She shared general lessons learned about how the way we eat affects our health in so many more ways than just “weight” and “calories” and “looking good.” In my experience in Special Education, I was learning how deeply nutrition can affect…well, just about everything, really… and cause problems that manifest in behaviours, illnesses, and overall compromised health. My sister Jocelyn was interested in it as well, and was always reading something new about healthy living. It was all pretty fascinating, and my sisters and mom and I all enjoyed discussing it at length and sharing fun things that we had learned and implemented. The idea of eating well, and carefully considering the quality of food we consumed, was one that “sat right” with us. I mean, we still ate cookies and creamy hot chocolate and all while chatting about it, so were weren’t going all cult-crazy with it or anything…but we were aware and trying, little by little, and loved talking about it together, inspiring each other.
Despite being really interested in learning about it and chatting about it with my mom and sisters, while I was in my “college years” I ate terribly! To be honest, I think it was just an overwhelming time in general, with big pressures and very little sleep…and it was just something I didn’t want to have to think about, so I just didn’t. I would eat a granola bar here and there, spaghetti noodles with whatever, mac & cheese dressed up with extra cheese and tuna, and often just open up a can of green beans and eat up…and maybe some baby carrots with ranch dressing. I was just super-lazy when it came to food! Whenever I went out eating with friends, I ALWAYS craved and ordered a salad; I hardly ever ate fresh produce on my own! I always felt crappy, but didn’t really care enough to bother with it at the time because there just seemed to be SO MANY OTHER THINGS to think about.
During this time, a friend encouraged me to try the eating & exercise program called Body for Life with her. She had done it previously and seen results…and I enjoyed exercising, and wanted to eat better…so I was easily convinced. It was the first time in my university years where I had to really focus on my meals, planning them and eating well and consistently. I learned a lot about preparation as a key to successfully eating better. Although I don’t know that I would subscribe to the program today without some minor modifications, I still look back on it as a very positive experience for me, both with eating and exercising. I saw amazing results from simply being dedicated to taking care of my body for 90 days.
Overall, I enjoyed and liked most veggies, and I generally enjoyed “healthy food,” but wasn’t super-crazy about it…until I married a man who didn’t really vegetables at all. Like, AT ALL. He kind of liked raw veggies, sometimes. Since I enjoyed veggies, I was determined to help him like them. You know when you kind of lean to one side, but meet someone who firmly leans the opposite direction…and you all-of-the-sudden are SUPER DETERMINED and kind of CRAZY DETERMINED to lean your own way even harder? Well, that kind of happened, and I was always trying to get him to “eat healthier” when, really, my only claim to healthier eating was that I liked veggies…haha!
So “eating healthier” was always on my mind, and my mom’s and sisters’ minds, especially after they married husbands who ALL weren’t really the “healthy eating type” either. We would tease our hubbies by being appalled at their dire eating habits. Maybe we still do… ;)
In my early-marriage years (who am I kidding…I’m still kind of there! Ha!), I discovered that I really liked to cook and so was always trying new recipes and ways to make my hubby luuurve his greens …but alas: no luck. I, however, learned lots of new ways to prepare veggies that I was enjoying immensely! J As I was dealing with the new ups and downs of life as a married couple AND a new “honeymoon” baby on the way, this was also the first time in my life that I would periodically experience “emotional eating.” I didn’t like it, but the pull was so strong to soothe stressed feelings with food! I gained a lot of weight that pregnancy, despite losing 15 lbs in the first trimester from morning sickness.
During this time, I also realized how seriously sugary food affected me: it was like COCAINE!…I seriously had NO natural brakes when it came to sugary foods, other than social propriety. Like, sugary cereal, for example? It would be all I’d want to eat until the box was finished. I did a three month refined-sugar fast with my sister in law, and learned how much better I felt without it (my allergies were MARKEDLY less severe! That was HUGE for me!). It was a good learning opportunity, and loosened sugar’s grip on me…kind of, a little. Ha.
And that was the point I was at when we found out that my sister Jocelyn had Hodgkins Lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system. While we followed the course of conventional medicine, with chemotherapy and such, we also approached it wholistically, learning everything we could about every other way to help her get better. It was then that all of our research and learning and chats about eating healthier became more than just fun to talk about; we got serious about letting “food be thy medicine” (Hippocrates). Naturally, Jocelyn’s eating habits changed most drastically, most quickly, in an effort to immediately give her body the best fuel that it could get in order to heal; But we were all suddenly more serious and urgent about changing the way we ate…for REAL.
Together, we learned about how amazing our bodies are, how they can heal broken bones, seal wounds, overcome illnesses. There were lots of opinions and ideas out there, and kind of out-there concepts when it came to eating better (still are!); but no matter what we read, everyone seemed to agree that we needed to eat more leafy greens, colourful vegetables, fruits...more REAL food (an apple!), less processed food (an apple-flavoured cereal-bar!). So I started there.
I know there’s some controversy over organic produce, but we felt it important to try and keep as many toxins out of Jocelyn’s (and our) bodies as possible. Organic seemed to be the bare minimum in that case. Plus they taste way better! I didn’t (don’t) always buy organic, but I started where I felt it counted the most, in the things that our family eats lots of, and that tend to be most heavily sprayed.
We learned about soaking nuts and grains so that their natural defensive enzymes would be deactivated…thus letting our bodies actually absorb more of the nutrients they actually offer. We learned about how essential nutrition is, and how our bodies usually recognize nutrients better and can use them better when consumed in their natural form, in whole unprocessed foods. We learned how our bodies are starving while we overeat, simply because the food we’re eating is so deficient in nutrients, that we never feel “fed.” We learned that some foods that our traditional western diet has deemed “indispensable” are actually better eaten in small, occasional amounts...and may even be optional altogether, like meats and dairy. We learned about how extremes in body chemistry, resulting from poor nutrition, can cause our bodies to operate at sub-par levels, making us sick…or at very least, making us more susceptible to contracting sicknesses.
A lot of what we read was life-changing, some wasn’t. It took trial and error, common sense, and comparing many sources of many differing opinions to reach our own conclusions of what we felt good and right to implement on a more permanent basis. And again, the things everyone seemed to agree on was to eat whole foods, eat more plants, stay away from processed foods.
Talking about my journey with healthy eating wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that I also happen to belong to a religion that teaches that God is still alive and well and directing and revealing, and has given us direction on how to eat in our day and age to avoid negative health and spiritual consequences... (just like in the Old Testament with the “Kosher Law”, and in the New Testament where He directed the saints not to consume the meat of animals sacrificed to idols). This means that I feel like I already have something I believe to be true (a yardstick, if you will) to hold other healthy-eating theories up against. It also means that I believe that the food we put into our bodies must be important, or God wouldn’t bother saying anything about it in the first place. Every time I would hear a new theory on eating well, I would hold it up against the Word of Wisdom and see how they compared, then go from there.
Jocelyn may have followed the course of conventional cancer treatments, but felt strongly that the way she was eating helped immensely in her recovery from treatments, weathering side-effects from treatment, and generally just feeling better than expected. She researched constantly, and became our family’s resident “naturopath” on everything from nutrition… to non-toxic beauty products. I would go to her for advice on dealing with pregnancy-related ailments in the safest way possible while prego with my third.
I spent 30 days in September 2013 doing the Whole30challenge, and it was awesome. HARD, but awesome. Jocelyn was sick again, with cancer for the second time, and I was determined to try it out for her and see if it was something she could try once she was better. She cheered me on the whole time and gave me tips. It was an awesome experience…and while it’s not the way that I would eat on a permanent basis (occasionally? Sure!), it totally changed the way I looked at food. I learned how great good nutrition feels (AMAZING!), and learned how to appreciate my fruits and veggies more, and adore their deliciously, naturally complex flavours. I learned to be more courageous with fresh herbs. I learned to rely on plant-food for satisfaction for the first time…versus relying on other, less nutrient-dense foods to “fill me up.”
After Jocelyn died, I didn’t feel like thinking about eating anymore for a while. I just ate what someone put in front of me, ate comfort foods, and snuck in a smoothie or salad when I felt like it, which was often (I liked them!), but not nearly as often as before she passed away. I definitely was eating emotionally, but I was okay with that, for now. I figured I’d return to eating better soon enough. When I’m eating emotionally, guilt about eating emotionally just makes everything SO MUCH WORSE. So I refused to feel guilty about it, simply reassuring myself that I may be able to eat my feelings now, but soon I would need to start dealing with my feelings in better ways and leave “eating my emotions” off the list of “ways I deal with pain.”
Pulling myself out of that place was a LOT harder than I expected. Eating poorly is addicting. It took forcing myself to deal with her death through writing, and running, and…let’s be honest…mindlessly watching TV shows some nights. I think eating will always be one of the ways that try to go to a “happy place.” I think in some cases, and in moderation, that’s okay! But it takes me being reeeeeally honest with myself to know whether nostalgia is a good reason…or an excuse.
I feel like I’m in a good place now. I really do crave and desire a diet that consists of whole, healthy foods; please note that that last sentence does not include “and I never crave sugar or junky food”…I do! It’s still yummy…just not in the same amounts I ate before. I feel better, think better when I’m taking care to eat well and get my nutrition from “real,” whole food. I love that feeling! I don’t normally feel guilty when I have a treat, but I honestly only really feel like eating small amounts, instead of sitting down to a “meal” of four (ten?) cookies with milk. I don’t feel restricted, and if I do start feeling restricted then I roll my eyes at myself… (because, really, it’s just me that’s making it into a deprivation situation and adding the emotional implications)… and eat a bite or two of whatever it is I’m resisting. I want to rejoice in my good health, not feel burdened by it. Plus, it almost always never tastes as good as I’m imagining it does anyways.
I feel like it’s really important to point out that my eating has slowly been changing over the years leading up to this, as have my “tastes.” I think this is important because even though Jocelyn’s cancer was a catalyst in eating better, sooner, more seriously…it was ultimately all a process. Learning to enjoy eating whole foods regularly is one that took me a lot of time and gradual changes. I don’t think I truly enjoyed eating well for quite a while…I mostly just enjoyed the fact that I was doing something I knew I should be…and I only really feel that I’m just barely at the edge of this good place, to be honest. I also recognize that learning to love whole foods can often be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process, especially in my case…but it’s progress at least!
I am passionate about healthy eating...but I never want to take myself so seriously that it becomes my “way” to be a snob (because there are a lot of ways to be a snob, amIright!?), or can’t truly enjoy a meal of comfort food rife with deliciously happy memories from time to time. I mean, what is LIFE without my Grandma’s gingersnap cookies, right!? My goal is to really learn to love, enjoy, and appreciate whole, beautifully simple, tasty food…and to make that 90-ish% of what I eat on a regular basis...so that I can live this life I've been given to the very BEST of my abilities.
I would love to hear your journey thus far! I have so much to learn from you. If you blog it, share the link with me in the comments!
How far have you come in improving your eating habits? Are you working on it right now, or in a position where it's not a priority at the moment? Where are you now, and where do you hope to be someday? What are your biggest food challenges?