My friend/next door neighbor (conveniently for me!) and I host a monthly Women’s Circle to give local women a safe, supported, and sacred space where everyone in the circle has the opportunity to be fully seen and heard. Each month focuses on a specific topic. December is dedicated to examining our relationships with food.
In November, Alex and I prepped a short list of questions to guide the Circle’s discussion of self-care. When we met to create the building blocks for our December discussion, we struggled. I have sheets of paper littered with words and phrases like: calorie counting, secret eating, mindful eating, body awareness of self/others, restricted foods, emotional significance, mind-body connection, and food judgment good/bad. We spent hours trying to find the best questions to guide the women in the Circle to a place of self-discovery. Eventually, we gave up the reigns and turned ourselves, and the Circle, over to the highly individualized nature of our relationships with food. December came down to one prompt:
How would you describe your relationship with food?
When Alex and I first brainstormed the topic for December, my immediate answer to that question was simple. I have a very healthy relationship with food. Thank you so much for asking.
Then I sat with it.
The history professors at Cal State Fullerton taught me the simpler the question, the more complicated the answer. The test I took to qualify for a Master’s in Latin American History was comprised of just one question. What is the interplay between race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status throughout the course of Latin American history? I submitted my response 8 hours and 12 pages later.
Our Women’s Circle prompt is no exception. I have 8 hours to write a description of my relationship with food, but I don’t think you have the desire to read the 12 pages that would result from that exercise.
The most compact summary of my relationship with food is that over the course of the last 20 years, this relationship went from fear-based, highly restrictive, and focused on fat free, overly processed food to nutrition-based, healing, and focused on anti-inflammatory, whole foods. My transition from fear to ease, however, only took place over the last two and a half years.
In writing draft after draft of this post, I realized I’ve hovered somewhere on the eating disorder spectrum from roughly age 15 to 32. It’s really no wonder that working on a description of my relationship with food has stirred painful memories, rough emotions, and a stress response that has me diving into a bag of tortilla chips.
I had to accept the fact that my history with food had been laden with fear and shame before I was able to write about my relationship with food today. I am not who I was at 15, 27, or 32, but I forgive those previous versions of myself because I know I was doing the best I could with my varying degrees of mental health, physical heath, and the information I had during those times.
The transition away from a fear of food was the direct result of two changes in my life: training for my first half marathon and agreeing to a 30-day cleanse where I was challenged to eliminate gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol from my diet.
To say I’ve never been a strong runner is a gross understatement. I’m still haunted by the memory of running a mile for the fourth-grade physical fitness test. The fastest student, Jason Green, clocked in between six and seven minutes. I was the last kid to cross the finish line at a sweet sweet 15 minutes. My boss in Orange County still laughs about the time I had to train to run a 5k. Despite training for a month, I burst into tears 1.5 miles into the Long Beach Turkey Trot. Nothing like hot tears of shame running down your face with the Pacific Ocean on your left and a victory pie waiting for you at the finish line.
When my sister asked me to run a half marathon with her, I would only agree if she met three requirements: we had to run somewhere we normally wouldn’t have access to, the course had to be pretty, and I needed a year to train. We settled on the Capitola Half Marathon that started at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (first requirement CHECK), ran along the ocean (second requirement CHECK), and was just under a year away (third requirement CHECK). I struggled to reach 5k strength. When I started running more than 3 miles, it became abundantly clear that I could not run any further if the only things I ate that day were a granola bar, a handful of gummy bears, and a soy hot dog with ketchup. Running forged the connection between food and performance. My diet was still focused on calorie counting and low-fat foods, but at least I was recognized I couldn’t eat gummy bears (a fat free food) for lunch.
Core Values Health & Fitness offered a 30-day cleanse the month after the Capitola Half Marathon. It seemed like the obvious next step in better understanding food as fuel. The cleanse was Paleo-ish. We eliminated inflammation causing foods, bumped up our protein intake, and met the daily guidelines for proper hydration. The detox period was awful. My skin erupted, I was irritable, and I focused on everything I couldn’t eat. About 10 days into the cleanse, I couldn’t stand another day of hunger. My sister, a detox cleanse guru, told me the solutions was simple, I had to start eating more fat.
Except it wasn’t that simple. The last 17 years of my life were centered around one core food philosophy, if you eat fat you get fat. I was terrified to start eating nuts and avocados. Cooking with olive oil rather than olive oil spray genuinely spiked my anxiety. I began eating fat with extreme trepidation…until it all clicked. My skin cleared up, the digestive issues that had plagued me nearly daily for the last 17 years were gone, I started sleeping better, I woke up free from my normal grogginess, maintained steady energy throughout the day, and my performance in the gym dramatically increased. I stopped craving the foods I couldn’t eat. I was no longer powerless to intense cravings for sugar.
The 30-day cleanse liberated me from the fear that held me in its grips for nearly two decades. 2 years later, I continue to eliminate gluten, dairy, and sugar 90% of the time. It’s not a diet. It’s not a lifestyle change. It isn’t a decision based on weight loss or the pursuit of the ideal body. It is simply the right thing to do for my long-term health, both mental and physical.
I’m not afraid to enjoy a meal that includes gluten or dairy because I no longer fear food. Cheeseburgers, nachos, and donuts still hold a place in my heart and I eat them from time to time without judging myself. Like many women, I am prone to cravings at different points in my hormonal cycle and I respect those cravings. When I get a nasty head cold, the only thing I want to eat is cheese. Last week, on the peak day of my cold, I ate a grilled cheese sandwich from Hog Island and it was glorious.
I acknowledge and accept that there are times when I struggle with my relationship with food, especially as it relates to weight gain and my addiction to sugar. It’s not an all or nothing space in my life.
After a lot of self-reflection, I feel comfortable saying: My relationship with food today is mostly healthy and it remains a mindful, complicated, sometimes messy work in progress.
If you are local, identify as female, and would like to join the Women’s Circle, please send me an email (directly, if you have my contact info) or through the Keep in Touch page on this website. Alex and I are excited to watch the Circle grow organically as we meet more women looking for a place to be fully seen and heard. The topic for January is SO SO SO good. We can’t wait to share it!