I’m a grown woman, and I don’t know how to eat.
As I sit here writing this, I’m trying to resist the urge to get up and buy the giant coconut cream doughnut calling my name from the bakery case at the other end of the coffee shop.
On one hand, life is short. Don’t I deserve to treat myself? On the other hand, I can already feel the stomachache (and likely headache) that will result from consuming that giant, sticky pillow of delicious, yeasty sugar.
It’s long past lunchtime, and I haven’t eaten lunch. Truth be told, I rarely do these days, unless I’m actually meeting someone for lunch. When I work from home, stopping to fix myself something to eat doesn’t ever cross my mind. (This is not to say that I don’t graze on easy-to-grab snacks throughout the day – although moving my office to the third floor, two flights up from the kitchen, has put a real crimp in my snacking habit.) And when I work at the coffee shop, well – the pastry case beckons.
I mentally go over what I’ve eaten today: first thing this morning I sliced up a perfect, juicy peach, the kind you can only find a few precious weeks out of each year. Later, I wolfed down a cold scrambled egg atop a piece of buttered whole-wheat toast, left over from my daughter’s breakfast. There was also a too-ripe banana, half of which I threw away, and an almond-coconut granola bar I fished out of my bag while standing on the sweltering subway platform, waiting for the F train.
Instead of coming to this coffee shop to work, nursing an iced decaf Americano and resisting the siren song of a doughnut, I probably should have gone next door and gotten a falafel sandwich or a kale salad, both of which I’ve had many times, both of which are fantastic. Instead, I’ve let myself become so hungry that now nothing sounds good except a hit of sugar that will no doubt leave my brain in a fog and my body wanting a nap.
The jig is up
I’ve been here before. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that this is a regular routine for me. I’m 42 years old, I’ve managed to raise two healthy teenagers, and yet I still don’t know how to feed myself properly.
Certain things you can get away with when you’re young – one memorable finals week in college, I lived exclusively on Diet Coke, Peeps marshmallow chicks, and Camel cigarettes – could actually kill you when you get to midlife. And at the rate I’m going, I have to ask myself if this even is midlife for me. Do I really have another 40 years to live, if I don’t start taking better care of myself?
Recently, a spell of dizziness, fatigue, shortness-of-breath, and some other worrying symptoms sent me to my doctor’s office. She hooked me up to a heart monitor, drew a dozen vials of my blood, declared me deficient in a few vital nutrients, and referred me to specialists for more tests.
It’s all connected
Spooked and still feeling unwell, I decided it was high time to stop fooling around: it was high time to finally learn how to eat like a grown up. So I contacted a dear friend of mine from college, who I knew had studied nutrition, and set up a consultation.
Turns out, Jessica Ruth Shepard is much more than a nutritionist. She’s a holistic health coach and bodyworker who’s studied with Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and other big names in wellness during her time at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She’s been working with private clients and teaching workshops on food and mood, digestive health, and the mind-body connection for the past twenty years – and she’s one of the warmest, most authentic and joyful people I’ve ever met in my life.
Even though it’s my job to write about my personal life on the Internet, there are certain things I don’t share with anyone. But sitting down with Jessica made me want to spill all my deepest, darkest secrets. Who’d have known that talking about the food I put in my body would lead to conversations about relationships, money, sex, and shame? Jessica knew. Because, as she told me, it’s all connected.
It started with my confession that most of the time, when I’m hungry, I have no clue what to eat. That’s why I end up grabbing sugary treats, salty snacks, or greasy fast food that leaves me feeling bloated, sick, and lethargic later on. Sometimes I end up eating nothing, which makes me feel sick in a different way – disconnected from myself, depressed and listless, with no appetite at all, edgy and angry with the world.
All Jessica had to do was ask me, “When you’re hungry, what are you really hungry for?” to get me opening up about everything in my life – and I do mean everything.
I told her how I can go all day without eating, then make myself sick bingeing an entire package of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, how I never know if I’m eating way too much or not nearly enough, and how my stomach rumbles so loudly, whether I’m hungry or full, that it’s seriously embarrassing. I also told her how I’ve never made enough money to support myself, that I’m ashamed and conflicted about my finances, and that I feel like a failure when it comes to my career, having put it on the back burner for years while I raised my girls.
The rest of what we talked about, I won’t reveal here – but believe me when I say that I trusted Jessica with intimate details about my life that I’ve never shared with anyone else.
No easy fix
If I thought Jessica would sit me down and map out a diet plan, telling me exactly what to eat and when, I couldn’t have been further off base. Because, as she pointed out, if there were an easy fix for this stuff, the diet book industry wouldn’t be booming. There would be one book, and it would work for everyone, and that would be that. Instead, we’ve got Whole 30, Weight Watchers, the 4-Hour Body, paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, and a hundred other diets – some backed by science, some just passing fads.
Rather than ordering me to quit sugar, go gluten-free, or prescribing any particular diet regimen, Jessica asked me how I thought my life might change if I got my food issues under control.
“What would be different if you were feeling great? What does that future Elizabeth look like? How does she feel?” she asked. The homework she gave me was to think about those questions – which I was at a loss to answer as I sat there with her – and to shift my focus to all the things I’ve accomplished in my life, rather than fixating on what I haven’t achieved.
A terrifying thought
The scariest question Jessica asked was this: “what if you change all these things about the way you eat and the way you take care of yourself, and you’re still yourself?”
When she asked that, I realized something. Maybe the reason I’m so committed to holding on to all these negative things about myself – my disordered eating, my financial struggles, my unhealthy relationships, not making headway on the book I want to write – is because as long as I have all these things I can point to, then I think I know what’s wrong with me. And it’s comfortable to think I know what’s wrong. It makes me feel, in some way, that I’m in control.
The idea of getting a handle on all those things, doing all the things I say I want to do, and then finding out that I’m still not happy and life is still hard (because of course it will, because that’s life) – is terrifying.
If all of this sounds very woo-woo and Oprah Super Soul Sunday-esque, well – it kind of is. But also, Oprah is Oprah for a reason. She knows what she’s talking about. And just because something is woo-woo doesn’t mean it’s not right on the money.
Digging into the past
Jessica and I talked about much more than food, but we did still talk a lot about food. She had me fill out a questionnaire and bring it to our appointment; it asked about everything from how I sleep to what my periods are like. She also wanted to know what foods I ate as a child, what I eat now, and what percentage of my meals are cooked at home versus eaten out, either on-the-go or at a restaurant.
“All of this is very deep stuff,” said Jessica. “And it’s all related. Everything impacts everything. It’s all connected. Most of us never really learned to listen to our bodies, how to feed ourselves and care for ourselves. We learned what we could from our parents and our friends, and we adapted coping mechanisms that we later find don’t serve us anymore – overeating, starving, bingeing, deprivation.”
I thought about myself, age eight, sneaking the big can of instant lemonade powder out of the cupboard when my mother wasn’t looking and eating it by the spoonful until my whole mouth puckered and my stomach was sour. Feeling sick, I’d promise myself I’d never do it again – but I knew that I would. And I always did. I remember lying on the couch listening to E.B. White read Charlotte’s Web on our record player while I systematically peeled the edges off a piece of bologna, rolled them up, and ate them.
I had similar rituals around most of the things I ate. When I was in preschool, our teachers showed us how to shake cream in a jar until it turned into butter, and then let us spread it on saltines to sample it. More than thirty years later, I’ll still stand in the kitchen at midnight when everyone else is asleep and eat a whole sleeve of saltines spread thick with butter, feeling a deep satisfaction that goes all the way back to those preschool days – and also feeling ashamed of my weirdness, my gluttony.
Is it any wonder, given all that, that I’m messed up about food? And are we all secretly this way, or is it just me?
You don’t know what you don’t know
Jessica assured me that I’m far from the only one who struggles with this stuff, and that change is possible – but it takes time. “Learning to listen to the messages of your body and heal digestive distress doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey. These are deep thought patterns, deep grooves in your brain. Change requires doing deep inner work. But it has a ripple effect. Small changes ripple outward.”
But what will happen, exactly, if I take on the challenge of learning to take care of myself – learning how to feed myself? “You don’t get to know until you do it,” Jessica told me. “Doing this work will help you in a way you don’t even know yet. You can’t predict or even imagine what will happen. You can only know by doing it.”
When she said this, I got chills. It reminds me of my very favorite Bible verse, from Ephesians: “Now to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us.” More than all we ask or imagine. As Jessica said to me, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Making real change
But can I really learn to say no to that afternoon doughnut? Or those dark chocolate peanut butter cups? And do I even want to say no? I like my doughnuts and my peanut butter cups. All kinds of resistance comes up when I think about changing my ways – even though those ways are hurting me. “All of those fears and objections will come up louder and start screaming when you start doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” Jessica explained when I shared my fears with her. “But if you listen to the little whisper inside you, that’s your spirit – the part of you deep inside, your soul, that knows what you need, that knows what’s possible.”
Ending my sugar addiction, she promised, will help with my moodiness, my depression and anxiety, my digestive issues, cravings, hormonal imbalances, and more. And if I lose weight, it will be “a happy side effect of some healthy changes, not a ‘diet.’ It will be easier and more sane than a diet, because you’ll have tools that will serve you for the rest of your life. Diets don’t really do that.”
I told Jessica I wanted to make some real changes in my life, but I’m not sure I’m ready. It feels very overwhelming. “Being with our discomfort is part of life,” she said. “On the other side of it, many blessings and things we desire are often waiting. It’s okay to feel freaked out. Some change is like that – scary but essential. Expansion by definition is uncomfortable. And it’s funny what too much waiting will do to us. Waiting only makes some things harder.”
What I learned from Jessica is that this is just the beginning of my journey toward healthier choices and learning how to feed myself. It’s not as simple as reading a book or following a diet plan, and it’s not about resisting buying a doughnut while I work at the coffee shop. Although I’m proud to report that I did not buy that doughnut. And for today, I’m calling that progress.
Image via tumblr.com.
Comment: Do you struggle with your eating habits, and knowing how to maintain a healthy diet?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.