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Fighting the (Good) Food Fight

No matter who we come home to, or who we choose to share our next meal, we all have another important relationship that’s infinitely complex and forever changing. At times, it brings us soul-satisfying comfort, immediately followed by crashing dread and disappointment. One day you feel like you have the upper hand, and the next, it controls your every movement and thought. It’s the one you turn to when you’re ready to celebrate, down in the dumps, wringing your hands with worry, or stressed to the point of snapping. And it’s one relationship we can never leave. I’m talking of course about food.

My personal food relationship was born from a childhood spent in the South. Food for us was much more than sustenance—it was a topic of endless discussion, the glue that held us together, and the lubricant that smoothed out family friction. It also served as our most common vehicle for self-expression. And though I was surrounded by this Southern-fried, grits and gravy, buttermilk biscuit food culture, I possessed zero interest in cooking until I moved to New York after college and became a (literally) starving design school grad student. No way could I afford to eat out, so I started copying recipes out of books onto 3×5 index cards. My first home-cooked meal was Chicken Dijon, a simple dish of cubed chicken simmered in a mustard sauce. I made it in a friend’s dorm room, tearing chicken meat from the bone with a crappy steak knife, but the result was pretty darn good. This cooking thing might be ok after all.

In a matter of months, I graduated from pouring canned cream of mushroom soup over chicken breasts and broccoli spears to making Peking Duck, lacquered with hoisin and hung to dry over my sink, suspended by twine looped over a broomstick. I started prowling the markets of New York City, sniffing out exotic ingredients like kaffir limes and dried wood ear mushrooms in Chinatown, and savoring freshly made mozzarella in Little Italy. I cooked and ate (when I could scrape up the funds) my way across Manhattan, wide the occasional side trip to Brooklyn and Queens. I had fallen passionately in love with food and cooking as both an endlessly fascinating hobby and a way to feed myself.

But as my love for my new pastime grew, so did my pants size. At the same time I was making homemade bagels on the weekends, I was working well over 60 hours a week as a graphic designer. My relationship with food has slipped from that first blush of new love to a deep, gnawing dependency. Food and cooking became a release, a distraction from my crushing workload, and a way to reward myself. And reward myself I did, right into a size 16 pair of pants.

So I joined a gym that I could actually see from my office window, hooked up with a dietician and personal trainer, and lost 85 pounds in 9 months. I learned how much as well as the types of foods I should eat, and stuck to that plan religiously. Now food for me had gone from friend to fuel. I dialed back the multi-course weekend feasts and cut indulgences back to a few times a month. And in the process of reclaiming my health, I decided to make other dramatic changes in other parts of my life. I left New York for the more laid-back lifestyle in Seattle to redefine my life and career goals. Cue the dramatic music and fade in “The End” on the screen. A beautiful end to an amazing success story, right?

Wrong. I assumed that I had made peace with food, and I didn’t have to invest quality time in that relationship because I had found another. I had started dating Brent, who became my husband a few years later. I transitioned my design career from hands-on work to more management activities. And I earned my MBA while all of this was happening. And guess what? All those wonderful distractions helped me stray from the straight and narrow path of weight maintenance. In less than 3 years after losing all those hard-fought pounds, I was right back where I started, maybe even a little heavier. I was so busy celebrating my new life with food that I forgot about feeding myself in a healthy manner.

So I got back to the gym and started working with a trainer again. I started eating smaller portions and cutting out most of the bad stuff. And glory be, as I wrestled food back into its role as fuel, it worked again. Another 65 pounds gone, and back into my size 4 jeans, determined to make it stick this time. While I was sweating it out, I got interested in healthy cooking and started a personal chef business to help others struggling with weight issues. I started feeling those rumblings again of wanting to overhaul the other parts of my life to match my renewed and healthy self. So I went back to the East Coast, with my husband’s blessing, to go to culinary school and shift my career to the culinary world. I wanted to redefine my relationship with food from the ground up. By making food my profession, I figured I would think about it as my craft rather than my crutch.

I spent almost 2 years earning my degree from The Culinary Institute of America and learning classical French cooking techniques. And not much of it was healthy. I’ll always remember the day our chef commanded more butter and cream to finish shrimp bisque we were making. He whipped in gob after gob of softened butter, chased by almost a quart of heavy cream. It was food porn at its finest. And after Chef pronounced it finished, we gingerly dipped our spoons in for a taste. It was spectacularly rich, silky, and amazing. This was the high standard to which we must aspire.

And despite navigating that treacherous river of cream dotted with jagged rocks of butter, I actually lost weight in culinary school. My life was almost monastic, with its rigorous class schedule and tightly defined meal times. I shared a dorm room with a stranger half my age. I had no TV to distract me, and only a mini-fridge for storing yogurt and milk for coffee. Thankfully we had a gym on campus, where I taught Spinning classes and worked out rigorously to distract myself from being terminally homesick. But it was an incredibly transforming experience. I graduated top of my class and arrived home ready to build my new career. I landed a job at The Herbfarm, a renowned farm-to-table restaurant just a few minutes from my house. And I still fit in those size 4 jeans.

After cooking in a restaurant for almost a year, I learned why so few chefs embody a healthy lifestyle. The intense pressure, the adrenaline rush of service, the long hours on your feet—all of it makes your body and your brain cry out for some kind of relief. Again, I was so intent on building my new career that I put my health on the proverbial back burner. I convinced myself I was too tired for the gym, plus I was getting plenty of exercise in the kitchen, right? And I was only eating one meal in the late afternoon instead of lunch and dinner, so the food thing was fine. Except it wasn’t. During that one meal, I was wolfing down as much rich restaurant-style food as I could in 10 minutes flat, standing at my station. After service, the sommeliers would bring any leftover wine for a collective toast to another successful evening.

Even after leaving the restaurant to teach cooking classes full-time, I let my career ambitions overtake my resolve to maintain my healthy habits. By the end of 2011, I nervously stepped on the scale, which to my horror registered 210 pounds. Something had to change, and fast. But my relationship with food had become much more complex. Not only was I surrounded by and making all that tempting food at work, I brought those high-calorie cooking habits home. Often, because I was cooking so much at work, I was too tired to make a meal at home, so I was fueling myself mindlessly with fast food. Now I was wrestling a two-headed food monster—the butter-fueled one at work and the apathy-fueled one at home. And I was losing to both. 

Time to step up to (or away from) the plate for a third time. I knew I would without a doubt lose weight going the exercise and dietician route. But I knew that long-term success would happen only if I could negotiate a new relationship with food, one that allowed me to express my creativity at work while feeding myself for energy and health. I was determined to make all three of us play well together. So I enrolled in a physician-monitored lifestyle management program at my gym, where I worked with a trainer, dietician, doctor, and therapist. Besides working out 5 times a week and following a strict elimination diet, I tracked every morsel of food I ate, met with a weekly support group, and worked with my therapist on taming my food demons. It was like having a part-time job, but one with a higher-than-normal payoff. I lost 35 pounds in 12 weeks, and in the 6 weeks since, I’ve lost another 10. My clothes are hanging off me once again. But more importantly, my cholesterol came down 48 points and my blood sugar is back to normal. Those numbers far surpass the importance of hitting my goal weight on the scale. I have about 15 pounds more to lose, which I should be able to accomplish in the next couple of months.

So then what? How do I avoid writing a fourth chapter of this story in a few years? How do I finally enjoy a peaceful relationship with food, both professionally and personally? I decided to dive deeper into that relationship and conduct a year-long experiment with food. I want to explore various eating theories and find that approach that helps me stay healthy, gives me the energy I want, and helps me live the life I dream of living. Just this week, I started the Health Coaching program with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York. In their online program, I’ll learn over 100 dietary theories and try them out firsthand by weaving them into my own weekly eating plan, kind of like a test drive. As I find the foods and approaches that work best for me, I’ll mash them together into my personal take on healthy eating. I’m nervous about veering from the diet that I’ve followed since the beginning of the year, but I’m also excited about diving deep into my personal relationship with food and finally making peace. So stay tuned!

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