A Diet by Any Other Name

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A Lean Diet with Cooking Utensils by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Human beings often have a complex relationship with food. We need it to survive, we (often) enjoy it, it brings us together socially, and it figures into religious and cultural observances in many ways, either by being forbidden (pork, for example) or by being venerated (Catholic communion). As a result, food inevitably makes its way into our control issues, and sometimes it becomes our primary control issue.

All modern fad diets are basically elitist, in that only the wealthy can afford to adhere to them. It doesn’t matter what the diet is:  vegetarian/vegan, low-carb, low-fat, high-protein, raw food, Paleo, or even gluten-free. The premise of any such diet is that you have ready access to specialty foods at any time of the year, and the means with which to procure it. I am not trying to knock the inherent worth of any one diet, but it is a fact that the starving will eat whatever is available and put in front of them. They can’t go to Whole Foods Market and buy specialty goods that are shipped thousands of miles to the store. If a major disaster were to occur and commerce were to be disrupted in some way, most such adherents of specialty diets would have a hard time sticking to their diets. They would have to eat whatever was local and available.

We have had our own adventures with food and diet over the years, and I think we have finally arrived at an understanding with it.

Convenience Food to Whole Grains

I spent the first part of my life on the typical American diet of junk food and heavily processed “convenience” foods. Eventually, my mother had a change of faith and threw out the white bread, white rice, and the sugar, and thereby began my first adventure with diet. The change was a radical one for us, although some things did not change. My mother did not buy organic, and she still preferred frozen produce to fresh. But sugar and white flour were the devil, and this became my mother’s primary control issue. Her inflexibility and need to proselytize her new faith—often informing people who invited us to their dinner table how they should be eating—became symptomatic of her broader mental illness, and in some cases, extreme diet can become an addiction. All addictions derive from the need to control something, particularly when you feel out of control.

Vegetarian to Whole Foods

In college, I became a vegetarian for a time. Technically, I became a pescatarian, because I could never let go of seafood. Vegetarianism irritated my mother because my new control issue (avoiding meat) did not mesh with her control issue (avoiding sugar). My own method of vegetarianism, however, wasn’t really healthy. I just ate more cheese and generally ate a lot of the same unhealthy processed foods as before. Eventually, I went back to meat for the simple reason that I enjoyed it.

When some health issues surfaced in my late 20s, I began to read about diet from the perspective of Chinese medicine. At that point, I ditched the margarine in favor of real, natural butter, and I said goodbye to sodas forever. I began to buy and prepare fresh produce. This was a good change. The only problem may have been that I made the change too abruptly, and I had some interesting healing responses as a result. Lesson learned:  change is good, but radical change all at once can be too much.

During these years, I gained weight and was heavier than I wanted to be. I knew that the primary issue was eating out too much, but my husband at the time had his own set of control issues that said, basically, “I will resist eating anything you prepare.” It’s not that my cooking was bad; I’m a great cook. In fact, after our divorce he would join us for dinner and marvel at how I had suddenly become a good cook. The same cook that I was before…

Weight Watchers and Low-Fat

After our children were born, Ahnna and I decided that we were going to do Weight Watchers. Yep, another diet. Another radical change. There are two wonderful things about Weight Watchers:  1) it works, you really will lose weight if you stick to it, and 2) it makes you very aware of what you are putting in your mouth and how much a portion is. We both lost weight. I went back to a size 12, which I had not seen since my college days.

My primary reservation about what is an extremely low-fat diet was that we ended up purchasing more processed food than we had before. Low-fat dairy products, vegetarian breakfast links, low-fat mayo, low-fat anything is not only heavily processed, but it has more non-food ingredients than the original whole food does. Companies do this to increase shelf life and to try to match the consistency and taste of the food you are replacing. So this change concerned me.

After three years of maintaining our Weight Watchers habits, I put on another ten pounds that I couldn’t quite shake. I found myself craving afternoon snacks, and I began to bake carbohydrate-heavy treats, which satisfied. Ahnna was also having some cravings and weight gain. What was up? Part of what was up was perimenopause in my case and the beginnings of actual menopause in hers. Older women need a certain amount of fat in their diets, and we probably weren’t getting enough, so we were compensating with the wrong thing:  carbohydrates.

The Paleo Diet

Ahnna came across a book about the Paleo diet, which asserts that humans did not evolve eating carbohydrates and therefore should avoid them. Now, this is not the same as the Atkins diet, which is a high-protein, low-carb diet. In the Paleo diet, most of your calories should come from healthy, natural fats (including animal fats), a small amount of meat, and mostly vegetables. It is important to eat a high-fat diet if you are following this, or you will literally starve your body and harm your health. So, in a way, this was the reverse of the Weight Watchers diet and what most western medical doctors recommend. Also, in a strict Paleo diet, you are supposed to avoid things like chocolate, alcohol, and even potatoes.

After my years of diet adventuring and experience with food control issues, I was not interested in strict anything, and I’m still not. But we decided we would follow it in as much as the carbs go, to see what would happen. We did not eliminate alcohol or chocolate (which we don’t eat a lot of anyway), because what’s the point in living if you can’t enjoy a drink or a chocolate bar now and then? Our first challenge was in figuring out what to cook when you take the carbs away. No pasta, no rice, no bread, no potatoes. I figured out how to make a sort of bread from non-grain “flours:”  almond meal, flax-seed meal, and garbanzo bean meal (which is technically not allowed in the Paleo diet). The first thing we noticed, however, was how good the fat tasted. For about two weeks, the high-fat foods that were not allowed in Weight Watchers were better than sex. Seriously. Avocados, nuts, butter, BACON. I realized then that my body had literally been starving for some fat.

We did notice two health benefits right away with the Paleo diet. For me, my sinuses were better. My allergies were less problematic. Apparently, I had been eating too much gluten-containing foods (namely wheat flour), and yeast was apparently an inflammatory agent in me as well. In Ahnna’s case, she spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and since she can’t walk the way most people do, her legs retain a lot of water because she lacks the musculature to process it properly. When we reduced the carbohydrates, her edema got better. In addition, she had been having higher than normal blood pressure. After some weeks on this diet, her blood pressure went back to normal levels.

After awhile, we began to introduce the occasional carb back into our diet. Organic potatoes once or twice a week. Real wheat-flour biscuits maybe twice a month. What we are finding is that these things are not a problem in small amounts, but that they figure so prominently in the daily American diet that we are, perhaps, eating too much of them.

In terms of weight, I’m currently a size 14 and 20 pounds heavier than my lowest point with Weight Watchers. I’m still trying to balance fats so that I’m getting enough, but not too much. I honestly feel better eating whole foods (whole-fat milk and Greek yogurt, for example), and so do the children. Our son used to plow through three large glasses of low-fat milk every morning, but when we switched to regular whole milk (always organic), we noticed that he was satisfied more quickly. Both children drink less milk than they did before, and as a result, we are buying less milk each week.

Unprocessed Foods:  The “Clean” Diet

We have arrived at a diet that isn’t really a diet. We strive to eat whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible (and this has a label, actually:  a “Clean” diet). No more low-fat anything, fresh produce, reasonably low-carb, and a mostly gluten-free diet with occasional gluten products. In short, we are striving for balance. We drink alcohol, and I’ll still bake a good dessert occasionally. I tend to prefer honey for everyday sweetening, but will pull out the sugar when it’s called for.

It’s true that our medical establishment advocates a low-fat diet, and this is promoted as heart-healthy. But the heart is a muscle that needs some fat for energy, and recent generations may be starving themselves with processed food and making up for it with excess carbohydrates. While I can’t speak for everyone, this is the lesson my body told me. Interestingly, my bloodwork this year was as good as it was last year on the low-fat diet. Everything normal.

Reflections in this Mirror meme

This meme has been floating around the Internet

As long as I’m conscious about what I’m eating, my weight is staying fairly stable. Exercise is necessary. I recognize that I am still battling my mother’s vision of what is beautiful. She is quite thin—too thin, really. I look in the mirror and see her mother’s physique, which was heavy and substantial. I am aware that my inner child internalized our society’s preference for shapeless, practically prepubescent body types (breasts aside), and of course my inner child still hears all of the commentary from friends and family about how I can’t be beautiful unless I’m slender. And I’m not slender. I’m not unhealthy, either. I rather suspect that this is what my healthy weight looks like, and it’s my job to accept it and love it as it is, instead of passing judgment on it daily. That’s not helpful. Loving and appreciating the sacred vessel of my spirit here on this planet is.

Asha Hawkesworth

Asha is passionate about enjoying life and making the most of what she has. She is a writer and painter and enjoys being with her family. She has written children's books and a book about the inner child (www.imaginalovemedia.com), as well as other blogs at brighthill.net and ashahawkesworth.com.

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