A couple weeks ago we had an unwanted guest in our home, wreaking havoc on the entire household--the dreaded stomach virus. Oh yes.
I'll spare you the rest.
Whenever one of these bugs hits my first thought is "yup, throwing up is indeed one of my least favorite activities" followed closely by "I really did not need to be reminded of this". It took its turn with each of us and, even though I was only actively sick for a day or two, my appetite for the foods I usually love was still gone long after the bug had run its course. In the days that followed, all I seemed to crave were fruits and vegetables and just the thought of meat or dairy turned my stomach. I was even skipping my morning coffee, so I knew something was askew--Momma doesn't skip her morning coffee.
Now, I normally eat healthy...I'd call myself an 80/20 eater--I eat pretty clean about 80% of the time, but allow myself to indulge in whatever I'm craving here & there, too. Cravings, in my experience, are that nagging that you HAVE TO HAVE something until you do and are usually reserved for ice cream, French fries, or Coke. But, after this virus hit, what my body was clearly craving was some healthy foods & probably a little hydration. So I listened to my gut (quite literally) and organic produce in one form or another was pretty much all I ate/drank for about 10 days or so, until I started to feel "normal" again and my appetite returned. I guess you could say this bug ended up acting as a cleanse of sorts, although it was NOT the kind I'd recommend to anyone (kind of a tough way to go about it).
I have to say that there were some pretty dramatic changes in my body for the better these last couple weeks after cutting out sugar, fast food, alcohol, dairy, and meat completely and the changes were noticeable so quickly that I felt it was worth sharing. Within a week or so
*the cystic acne I normally have on my chin/jaw area completely vanished
*the indigestion & acid reflux I deal with daily disappeared immediately
*my nasal allergies improved greatly (itchy nose, sneezing)
*my mood improved--I felt much calmer, more focused, and just generally more even-keeled
*the habit I have of picking at my nails went away (a "nervous" habit I've observed that seems to worsen with caffeine & sugar)
*and--not a bad honorable mention--my pants began to fit a little looser in the waist
So, essentially, one could say that any health problems I'd experienced (though minor) pretty much disappeared, and quickly. I felt great. It seems then that the logical thing to do would be to continue on the path I was on, cutting out all the "junk" that was likely causing my symptoms. But, for some of us, the issue can be more complicated. For a lot of women like me, our relationship with food defies logic. Our choices aren't logical, they're emotional. My proof of this? That craving for the junk food, sweets, and caffeine did return--just as soon as life got stressful again following the illness (as it always eventually does!). After returning to "hustle" mode post-sickness, I found myself having some old familiar thoughts on the way home after a particularly stressful day:
"Wow, I could really go for a burger & fries right now"
"Whoa, where did that come from?...I haven't had an appetite for that stuff in awhile!"
Almost immediately, I made the connection that what I was craving wasn't so much the food itself, but the temporary comfort I feel from these foods when stressed out. This might also explain why I've gained 10 pounds since returning to teaching--it's a job I love, but it's also a fast-paced, multitasking kind of gig that expends ALOT of energy (aka stress).
Despite making that connection, I still surrendered to the craving and had the burger & fries (yes, it was delicious)...and that's when I made another interesting observation. My craving for sweets, which had been absent during the "cleanse" completely, returned for the first time just as soon as I finished that meal, and it was noticeably powerful. It had all the qualities of any other type of addiction: the nagging in your brain that won't go away until you cave...and the shame & regret you feel after you do. Thinking about it, wanting it...it's consuming. I wasn't naïve to the fact that sugar is addicting before this experience, the power of it was just particularly noticeable this time because I had stepped away from the stuff long enough to notice the difference--what it felt like NOT to have that nagging in my brain for it. I have to say, it felt nice for a few days to just be free--free of the thought of feeling as if I needed something in order to feel good.
After feeling so much better, I have to admit I don't want to go back to experiencing the list of uncomfortable symptoms I mentioned before on a regular basis or return to that feeling of being addicted to something--there's no question I felt better on an exclusively plant-based diet. But I also don't think I'm at a point in my life as a full-time working mom of a toddler where it's reasonable for me to go to any extremes with my diet and expect to maintain it long term. When I have done so in the past, one of two things happens: I either cave and go extreme in the other direction (accompanied with a hearty side of shame) or I maintain it but begin to find myself obsessing about every little thing I put in my mouth, which isn't fun for me or anyone else around me.
So, despite the benefits I experienced, I won't claim that I'm "done" with all processed foods, sugar, chocolate, and other vices and commit to making a lifestyle change.
Why? The word I struggle with is lifestyle. I'm a little wary of an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to eating one way or the other--we're human, we're flawed, life has its ups and downs, and committing to doing anything 100% of the time can bring with it a lot of pressure, consuming your time & mental energy. I will say I think it's all about intention though: if you are vegan because of beliefs you have and you have peace in your heart about it, that's one thing, but if the driving force behind the decision has more to do with fitting into size zero jeans or you find the topic of food consuming your mental & emotional energy, that's a different story.
It seems you can't go on social media anymore without scrolling through pictures of women with fantastic bodies holding green smoothies & acai bowls. While I think it's great that healthy eating, yoga, and the such is all the rage right now (I certainly count myself as a member of that camp) I have seen some touting the benefits of eating exclusively plant-based 100% of the time, and I think sometimes that can create a sort of pressure around healthy eating, as it's difficult to maintain anything all the time. For years I was inspired by & followed the work of a particular author-slash-spiritual guru, but decided recently to stop following her on social media because, while the wisdom she shared was worthwhile & uplifting, I watched over time nearly every post becoming pictures of the teeny tiny amounts of food she was calling dinner. I'm sure that her intention was to spread the message about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, but I got the feeling that from the frequency of the posts that this clean eating lifestyle was consuming her and, given the small amounts of food she was posting as "meals", I questioned whether it really was a healthy message to send after all. The posts were consuming my news feed and I simply don't want to be that focused on food when there is so much else in life to be enjoying! Additionally, on days when I didn't eat particularly well, it would bring up feelings of shame for me, thinking wow, if this person I look up to is able to be so self-disciplined, why is it such a struggle for me? I pondered the question for about five seconds & found my answer.
I have no doubt most of these people have the best of intentions when sharing their lifestyle choices on social media--I'm sure for the most part, the intention is to help spread the message that a plant-based diet is a healthy choice. And I agree, the proof was there for me when I tried it myself. But for a good population of people it's not about not knowing the benefits of healthy eating or not knowing how to do it--it's just that the struggle is a little deeper and more complicated for some than others. For a lot of us, food is all wrapped up with emotions...addiction...hormonal imbalances...or all of the above. Not that these are excuses for an unhealthy lifestyle, but these issues sure make it more complicated of a process to maintain a healthy diet, and seeing images of women with fantastic figures sharing how clean their diet is, though their intentions may be good, no doubt induces shame for some women whose diets aren't so good--and that shame sets off the cycle of emotional eating again.
So, for now, I will give eating as healthy as possible my best effort, because I do think it's worth it, and just take it a day at a time rather than make any crazy declarations about how I've changed my ways.
Maybe instead of asking myself "should I adopt a plant-based lifestyle or return to the way I was eating before?", I should ask myself some deeper questions like
What will I do when negative emotions and stress pop up again?
Will I turn to food for 'comfort'?
And is it really providing comfort if the result is that I feel miserable?
And, maybe more importantly, what can I do to soothe those feelings in another way?
I won't shame myself for eating a little pizza and cake at a friend's birthday party, but what I don't want to do is eat pizza and cake for emotional comfort when I'm feeling some difficult feelings. And there's a world of difference.
Any tips? Thoughts to share? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!
'Til next time,