On Food and Eating

Something dawned on me recently.  I have spent so much time on this blog talking about running that I have neglected to talk about an equally important – and much more difficult – topic.

Let’s talk about food.

So, I want to get a couple of things out of the way.  First – I love food.  Everything about it.  Second – I am not a big fan of discussion about food addiction.  As a chronic over-eater, this is a concept that I simply don’t understand.  And not because it isn’t real, just that everybody is addicted to food.  In the most literal way, we are all addicted to food.  We must eat to live – “addiction” doesn’t mean anything in this context.

Even an addiction to certain types of food, to me, is spurious.  If I am addicted to pizza, and have pizza at least once a day … well, that’s called nourishing my body.  Poorly, maybe, but I have to eat and I could survive on pizza for a relatively long life.  Chocolate, sweets, etc., fall into this same physical camp.  Some of us are capable of overcoming special cravings better than others, though I’d argue that those cravings are as much mental as they are physical.

Now this is not to say that there aren’t “addictions” to deal with, just that I don’t think of those as addictions to food.  Perhaps I can illustrate.

The way I have always articulated it is that everybody has their thing, that feeling they chase, often to their detriment.  For some people, that thing is drugs and for some it is alcohol.  Others turn to sex or gambling … or even positive things, like people laughing while you are on stage or singing along to your song.  But I believe everybody has a thing.  So you know that feeling you get when you over-eat?  How your belly feels like it is stretching and hurting, and how you can sit down in a chair and go into a food coma and pass out?

Yeah – that’s my thing.

food coma

That has been my thing for years.  Eventually I reached a point where I sought that feeling out after every meal.  If I didn’t have that feeling, it meant that I hadn’t eaten enough.  People would ask me if I was hungry, and my response every time was that it had absolutely nothing to do with hungry … let’s eat.  The goal was to eat enough to put me in a food coma and pass out.

When I look back at my childhood, I can see how that attitude toward food grew.  I don’t blame anybody or anything, but life in the culture I grew up in pretty much revolved around food.  We gathered over meals.  The meal wasn’t ancillary to the gathering; we were not eating because we had to eat.  The meal was (is) the point.  We ate together and cooked together.  We grew gardens together, and we hunted and fished together.   Even our hobbies were about procuring food.  And being able to eat a lot was in some ways a badge of honor.

I have a relationship with food that runs deep, much deeper than mere fuel.  And I like all kinds of food – from the very healthy all the way down to McDonald’s.  I eat good food and I eat shit.  I get plenty of the right vitamins and minerals, but my caloric intake at its highest probably would have made a dietician blush.  I love the ceremony of a good meal – the tasting of the wine, the multiple courses, the conversation.   I know people who view food as a fuel.  They can eat without regard to taste or setting or anything else.  Food, for them, is somewhat like gasoline for a car, and very little else.  And I feel both pity and deep envy for those people.  Pity because food brings so much joy to my life; envy because food brings so much tension to my life.

I’m not sure when I began to realize that there was a problem.  My family will tell a story that when I was a teenager we were limited to one bowl of cereal in the morning so we wouldn’t eat the whole box in one sitting.  I got around that by using a mixing bowl as my cereal bowl.   Even then I probably knew something wasn’t just right … but I was chasing a feeling, you know?

I would have used it if I'd had access...

I would have used it if I’d had access…

Once I quit being athletic-ish in high school my body began its predictable expansion.  I was never comfortable with my body (likely at this point won’t ever really be), but I never got so uncomfortable that I stopped eating.  Probably the first time I really acknowledged an issue was when I was in business school and hit about 290 (I’m right at 6’ tall).  I got there that time by, for example, eating bags of Oreos for dinner regularly.  A whole bag at a time.  When I realized that I was out of control, I got a classmate that worked out to help me, and I lost about 40 pounds.  But that was through a diet, which is not a solution … diets are only tools.  At that point I committed to losing weight, not changing how I did things.

Interestingly, that effort was coupled with a physical goal.  I decided when I started the process that time that I was going to do a 160 mile backpacking trip on the Ozark Highlands Trail.  And that goal worked – I made the investment in the equipment and had a goal to march toward.  I would up doing over 80 miles of that trip before heavy rains and high rivers forced me off the trail.  But I was proud, and I’d done it.  And then I let it go, and my weight started a long slow creep.

That backpacking trip was in December of 2006, and I weighed about 260 pounds.  In April of 2012, when I finally realized I was completely out of control again, I hit 327.  67 pounds in 6 years – 11 pounds a year, that’s it.

Ozark Highland Trailhead, December, 2006, about 260lbs

Ozark Highland Trailhead, December, 2006, about 260lbs

Now, this time I was (and am) determined to make some permanent changes – but I have a problem.  You see, I love food so much that I’m unwilling to simply give up most of the things I like to eat.  If being thin(ner) means not eating pizza, or hamburgers, or cookies, or a whole list of things … if I can’t occasionally have those things … then to hell with that, I’ll just be fat.

And I mean that.  I’m not going to live my whole life feeling guilty because every now and then I want to eat some fried chicken.  So that means I have to learn how to eat portions that won’t choke a horse, and replace most of my food with “fuel” and plan ahead for those times when I’m going to eat whatever I want.   Learning how to get, and keep, my calories down at a reasonable level is the absolute key, I’m convinced, to meeting my physical goals.

That’s why I chose WeightWatchers for my program.   WW puts nothing off-limits, but teaches you how all of those things impact your daily intake and hunger.  WW worked for me immediately, and when I actually keep track of what I’m eating, it works for me still.  Every time.

People still occasionally ask me if I’m hungry.  And the answer to that question, of course, is that it has nothing to do with hungry.  I live my life in a constant state of hunger.  But I’ve learned what an appropriate amount of food is, and I’ll continue the struggle to keep my intake there.  I’ve coupled this effort with physical goals as well, and maybe one day I will be able to replace that food coma feeling with a runner’s high as my “thing”.

Maybe, maybe not.  In the meantime – eat well, and keep running.

Must be a runner's high

Must be a runner’s high

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