It’s January. Are you dieting yet?
You are? Sigh.
Let me explain.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at a coffee shop, trying to work while Lu was at her little school. I say trying to work because I’m an inveterate eavesdropper. When there’s something fascinating being said to the side of me, I may keep typing, but I’m listening instead. That afternoon, two beautiful young women, probably juniors in high school, sat on the couch talking together. They were catching up, asking about the holidays, families, friends. Girl talk. I started listening when one said this, “I know. January 1 I am giving up all food but carrots and cottage cheese. I mean, look at me!”
The other one commiserated, saying, “I know. Look at my arms.” And she grabbed her own arm and shook it, like a drunken jerk shakes a baby in anger.
They then proceeded to point out all the parts of their bodies that they hated. HATED. They grabbed their own bodies and clearly wanted them gone. And their solution? Deprivation in January, for as long as it took, until their bodies were perfect.
I cringed. I remember that feeling, all too clearly. I wanted to go talk to them and tell them to quit it. (I’ll never stop being a high school teacher, in some ways). Mostly, I just wanted to give them both a hug.
They had no idea how lovely they were.
They’re not alone. Raise your hand if you have thought of food as your enemy, something that must be controlled, slapped down, and taken away. Raise your hand if you thought your life would be so much better if you just weighed five pounds less.
You know it doesn’t work, right?
I’ve written about this struggle of mine so many times, on the blog and in my first book, that I don’t want to go on anymore about how diets are about deprivation, about negation, about denial and feeling like we’re not truly alive until we’re the right size.
I just want to ask this.
What if January were the month we all owned the fact that we ate cookies and cinnamon rolls and rich dishes and too much food at parties because we stood at the table nibbling while talking to friends, even though every health magazine told us not to do that? What if January were the month we walked into a room not pulling at our shirts to cover the extra three pounds we gained in December and threw out our arms wide instead, and shouted, “Hey everyone! I’m here. So happy to see you!”
What if January were the time to say, “Wow. I survived another year. And I’m alive. Hell yeah!”
What if January were a fresh start, a chance to quiet the guilt and nastiness to ourselves, and in the silence we had the chance listen to our bodies and hear that they just want more vegetables, please?
What if it was as gentle as this?
We made a lot of cookies in December. We made more than showed up on this site, because we tested and tried them all before deciding on the ones we like best. I must have made 20 batches of cookies and holiday goodies from December 1 to December 22nd. That’s a lot of butter and sugar. I don’t even want to think about how much butter and sugar.
And by the day after Christmas, I realized I didn’t feel that great.
Since that I wrote Carry That Weight in April, there was a seismic change in my life. I felt buoyed by all the letters and comments so many of you sent. I also went running or for walks with you in my head. (You helped kick my ass. Thanks.) I didn’t change the food I ate, since we eat pretty great food already. I just stopped eating out of the refrigerator when I was stressed. I sat down at the table every time I ate.
One day, as an experiment, I put all the weird nibbles I was tempted to ingest onto a plate, then sat down with them at the end of the day and gave myself permission to eat the cookie dough, the hunk of cheese, the half of a bread roll, the crappy candy that I didn’t even like but it was there. I looked down at my plate and realized I had no interest. I threw it all away.
I chose my food consciously, as a means of celebrating instead of negating. The other day, Lu shouted out, an hour or so after breakfast, “I love FOOD!” I want her to always feel that way. We know she has learned this from us, by our playing and gratitude. I don’t want to lose that. So I moved instead. I ate when I was hungry instead of when I had a deadline I worried I wouldn’t meet. I ate with great relish (literally and figuratively).
Since I wrote that piece in April, I’ve lost about 25 pounds. You haven’t heard me talk about it because the numbers don’t matter to me. Do I have more to lose? Sure. But it’s not a should anymore. I just like the moving, the conscious eating, the grace I feel in my body when I go for a long walk in the cold air and come back home to my two loves energized. I really like being alive in my body as much as I can.
(I wish someone had told me all this when I was 17. And that any change that lasts is incremental.)
The holidays made it all go sideways for awhile. All that baking, all that cold rain. Even though I was measured with the baking, giving away every batch of cookies after they were photographed, I still ended up eating a cookie (or two) every day. I stopped running as much with our hectic schedules on tour and the craziness of book promotion. I slipped back into the land of being tired and finding an excuse to push exercise to the next day. I still don’t eat out of the refrigerator. I’m done with that now. And I don’t blame myself for the past few months.
I just want more vegetables, please.
And no sugar. And nothing with food dyes or preservatives or additives or food-like substances. I just want good food.
That’s what we have been eating in January.
This is why I was happy to try the Food Lovers’ Cleanse at Bon Appetit this month. Sara Dickerman, one of my favorite food writers, put this together along with a nutritionist. It’s sensible food in moderate portions, based on recipes from some of my favorite cookbook authors and fellow bloggers. (Every food you see photographed in this post came from the cleanse.) It’s a food guideline based on celebration instead of deprivation.
I love what Sara wrote here: “Listen, there’s no point in regret. If your holiday diet wasn’t 90 percent cookie, you were doing it wrong. Don’t worry about it!”
The cleanse focused on good foods, whole and easy to find. No dairy for two weeks, except for yogurt. Good protein with lean meat and lots of vegetarian dishes. Vegetables and more vegetables. Whole grains prepared with flavor.
I did this program for a full week, following almost exactly what it suggested. And then we went on our own.
Why? Because a) the program is designed so well that it encourages you to make up your own meals after you have the hang of it and b) I felt silly buying frozen berries in January when pears are so yielding and sweet right now and c) after a week, I understood.
You see, this cleanse is how we mostly eat anyway, 90% of the time. Over time, and particularly in the last year when I erased any judgment about my body or diet, I heard more nuanced messages from my body. And so, after the baking frenzy, and doing the cleanse, I realized the following:
— I’m done with bleached white sugar. That stuff doesn’t like me. I’m eating fewer sweets from now on, but I’m also playing with alternative sweeteners. I’m sort of in love with sucanat right now.
— Even though I feel good that I can’t eat bleached white flour, the white starches in gluten-free baking really aren’t much better. I still love our 60/40 AP mix for cookies and goods that you want to mimic the nostalgic feeling of old, but I’m tired of starches. In the last three weeks, I’ve been playing with a multigrain mix, made of 70% whole grains and 30% starches. It’s working beautifully. We’ll share it with you soon. Most of the baked goods around here are going to be whole grain from now on.
— I don’t want any food that contains preservatives or food dyes or ingredients I cannot pronounce. This essentially means no processed food. (The more processed food is, the higher the risk of cross-contamination anyway.) This means cooking almost everything. We love that.
— I have realized, by process of elimination, that my body does not like xanthan gum or guar gum. I gave them up 10 days before I started the cleanse diet and I have not felt this good since before Lu was born. I’ll tell you more about this next week. (Be excited. This means better baked goods, actually.)
— I really love vegetables. If I start every meal with 1) what vegetables do I want to eat? and 2) how do I put some color in it? That ends up being a great meal every time.
Here’s the deal: these statements are true for me (and our family) right now. They may not be true for you. They may not be true for me three months from now. I just wanted to share this with you so you will understand when recipes from now on contain more whole grains, maple syrup, many more vegetables, and no gums.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those teenage girls, the vituperation they threw at themselves. That didn’t just happen. They have been listening to their friends, their sisters, and their mothers. But they also have been listening to this culture.
I’m not sure when we turned to such a culture of judgment. The internet does not help with civility, that’s for sure. You can’t talk about how you feed your kid, or her bedtime routine, or where you buy your clothes or how you plant your garden without someone telling at you loudly that you are doing it WRONG. When did we decide that there is one right way? Why are there not a hundred different ways to do the right thing?
So I’m still a little astonished, and sad, when I say anything about how we eat and get attacked immediately: “You need to stop eating grains at all.” “Why do you use so much dairy in your food? Don’t you realize it’s evil?” “You need more vegan recipes. I’m tired of coming here to see meat.” “If you did the Paleo diet and ate like a caveman, you’d look even better.”
Hey folks, how about I listen to my body and you listen to yours? If something is working for you, great! I’d like to hear that story. But as soon as you start telling me I need to do what you do? I stop listening. I have a feeling you do too.
So that’s my other wish for January. No judgments. The world could use that for awhile, don’t you think?
APPLE-FENNEL SLAW WITH TUNA AND WALNUTS, adapted from Sara Dickerman and Bon Appetit
The original recipe calls for celery root, which I love. However, our grocery store was out of it when Lu and I went to pick up ingredients. I never seem to tire of fennel, no matter how often I eat it. I’m pretty sure that fennel-apple salad is more my palate. You should play too.
I could make this salad different every time I make it by changing the texture of the apples and fennel. In the salad you see in the photograph, I put green apples in the food processor with the slicing attachment, making big bites of tart green apple. Cut them into matchsticks and you have an entirely different bite. Danny shaved the fennel thin on the mandoline for us, but it might be good in thick, juicy slices too.
We played with the oils too, as we’ve been having a good time trying different flavored, healthy oils. The sesame oil in here added just the right depth for us. You could use something else. Just play!
1 large fennel bulb, stalks removed, fronds reserved
kosher salt and cracked black pepper
zest and juice from ½ lemon
2 green apples, quarted, cored, and sliced in any way you choose
1/3 cup toasted walnut halves
1 can white tuna (we use west coast albacore)
juice from ½ lemon (just use the other half!)
1 ½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 ½ tablespoons sesame oil
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
salt and pepper to taste
Making the salad. Slice the fennel bulb as thinly as you can. Add the salt and pepper and toss the fennel around. Add the apple slices, walnuts, and tuna. Toss.
Making the vinaigrette. Whisk together the lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and mustard. Combine the sesame and grapeseed oils, then drizzle them slowly into the acidic ingredients, whisking as you go. Taste, then season to your tastebuds.
Dress the salad with the vinaigrette and eat.