April 2, 2009
The Diet Cycle — One Woman’s Journey to Get Off the Bike for Good
One day, almost three years after the birth of my youngest child, I looked in the mirror. I hated what I saw. I had been carrying around “baby weight” through four births, at least that’s what I kept telling myself. It seemed, though, that I was suddenly able to see clearly that this wasn’t baby weight at all. I was fat, plain and simple.
FAT. The word is ugly, in every context, and it’s not hard to imagine how it makes people feel to admit that to themselves. My own path to fat started almost at birth. Bad habits ingrained early included regular ice cream trips, twice-weekly dinners out (usually pizza) and a two-a-day Butterfinger candy bar habit. All was fine and good until I hit puberty, and as my body changed, the truth became evident — I had fat genes. God bless my father’s family, they gave me many good things — but they also gave me tree-like thighs and a slow metabolism. And so it began. The summer I was 16, I went on my very first diet, and though I would never be fat again until I started having kids, I would spend the next 15 years thinking that I was fat.
Like so many other women, I was trapped in the diet cycle. It’s an awful place to be. The “cycle” implies correctly that you are not successfully dieting. The emotional ups and downs and soul searching that go along with that cycling is often a painful process. During my early 20s, I spent an entire summer eating nothing but tuna. Then there was the carrot diet, which turned my roommate’s skin orange; the grapefruit diet; and let’s not forget the soup diet and SlimFast. I ate when I was depressed, I ate when I was happy and I “dieted” all the time. I had been taught to literally feed my heart and my head. But I didn’t have the type of body that could process that kind of eating, and where had I learned that behavior anyway? Food had power over me, and would remain in control for a very long time.
Fast forward to Los Angeles, 2008. I am 40. I have a garage full of pre-pregnancy clothes that have been collecting dust for six years. I vow to fit into them again. And this time I mean it. For months I eat nothing but protein and vegetables. I lose 70 pounds in a healthy-feel-good-about-myself kind of way. I am thin again, but this time I know I am thin. I accept that I am thin. I have managed to banish those voices in my head that used to call me a fat pig when I put a cookie in my mouth — which I do with less and less frequency.
I learn a lot while I am dieting.
Judaism, like many religions, is food centric, and as we approach our Passover seders, when our tables will be laden with food, it’s a good time to admit it. We eat when we’re happy, celebrating a baby’s birth or a child’s entry into adulthood with big parties and copious amounts of food. We eat when we’re sad, bringing platters of food to friends and family when a loved one dies. We eat when we’re sick; isn’t chicken soup the cure all for any ill? And when we’re depressed, comfort food is ... comforting. And of course, we Jews eat to be social. Kiddush after synagogue on Saturday mornings has turned into a festival of good food — whatever happened to Tam Tams and herring? When did Kiddush become lunch, followed by lunch? Orthodox weddings have the tradition of having a literal smorgasbord before the ceremony, which is of course, then followed by dinner. The bigger the simcha, the more food you serve?
I didn’t have to look very far to figure out where I had learned that food makes everything feel better. Jews are taught to be emotional eaters. As a religion, as a community, we turn to food to celebrate the good and share the bad. Why on earth would anyone expect it to be any different in our personal lives? When you diet, you learn to quickly recognize and replace emotion-based eating. Exercise to clear your head or see a funny movie to ward off a bad mood. A conversation with a friend can make me feel worlds better that the pint of ice cream I might have eaten a year ago. And I am proud of that, but it meant unlearning 40 years of emotional eating. And, sometimes, I still want to eat an entire cake.
While I was dieting, I sat at Shabbat tables and saw with clarity why it is so hard to diet. Not only do we eat to make ourselves feel better, but we constantly surround ourselves with delicious-looking food. A regular Saturday lunch consists of two main courses, several side dishes and a dizzying array of desserts. Sit at my Shabbat table and you will see that I am guilty of this as well.
As a symbol of the double portion of manna we received prior to Shabbat while wandering the desert, Jews start Shabbat with two loaves of bread and eat two more during Shabbat lunch. That’s four loaves of bread a weekend. And while many of us do not actually eat four loaves of bread, it is there in front of us.
And let’s not forget the multitude of Jewish holidays that start and/or end with large meals. The High Holy Days are always a source of discussion and consternation — everyone I know complains about how much weight they are gaining and how tired they are of eating. I was one of the chief complainers. But this year, as Passover approaches and I think of how many meals are involved in two seders, two days of Yom Tov and then going into Shabbat, it doesn’t scare me. In the past I would have wasted time worrying about all the weight I was going to gain or what I was going to eat, because no matter how much food there was, it never felt like enough on Passover. Or I would dread knowing I would end up eating bags of potato chips because there “just wasn’t anything else to eat.” This year though, I am strong and completely in control of what I eat. And while I certainly have my moments when I reach for food because I am bored, I reach for an apple, not a bag of chips. And that puts me back in charge.
And let’s not forget the additional difficulty of being a Jewish woman on the diet cycle. We were raised by a generation of women who didn’t know “healthy.” We were raised by the Jewish mother who in the same breath as telling us our dress was too tight, was also asking us if we were hungry. Food was love.
At the end of the day, deciding what you want to look like and how you choose to eat is all about willpower. It isn’t easy to decide to diet. It takes time and thought and a ton of emotional effort. It is especially difficult amid a culture where food is the backdrop of everything. However, that is also part of what becomes so rewarding. For me, to be able to sit at Shabbat meal after Shabbat meal, week after week and eat only what I told myself I would eat — that was a huge victory. And I will always remember the Fourth of July barbecue, where I did not eat a thing. And it’s not all the food I missed out on that I remember, it’s how good I felt when I got home.
However, I also believe that for women it is twice as difficult, and we sabotage ourselves every day in so many different ways. Many women are caretakers, breadwinners, housecleaners, taxi drivers, short-order cooks ... and the list goes on. We are all things to many different people, and it is draining. We are frequently at the bottom of our own list. We have to learn that it is OK to make ourselves a priority. Eating right and thinking about what kinds of foods make our bodies and minds feel good are part of those priorities. It is the difference between eating a piece of chicken or that bowl of Captain Crunch we think we really want.
What I really want is to never feel fat or actually be fat again. Not five pounds overweight — fat. Only I can control whether or not this happens. I am no longer 30. At 30, I could eat whatever I wanted because I ran 3 miles every day; I know that my 40-year-old body will not metabolize food the way it did ten years ago — even if I wanted to exercise every day. So, for me, this “diet” has become life changing. I won’t ever veer from my protein and vegetables regimen, because I know it is what keeps me thin and feeling good. And because I am not insane enough to think that I will never again want to indulge in delicious, sugar-drenched, processed food, I allow myself one day each week to eat whatever I want — within limits. For me, that day is Shabbat, when you will find me indulging in all the sweets I love. But at the end of the day, I have learned that food has lost its power over me, or rather, I have found the strength to take that power back. Now I feel clearer; I would rather hug one of my kids and appreciate the pleasure that brings them, as well, than the momentary pleasure of eating a donut that ultimately might make me feel worse.
It took me a very long time to get here and a longer time to understand the role my parents and Judaism played in my journey. I love Judaism. I love the tradition and I love the sense of greater community I feel when I think of the millions of other women who are also lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night. I love the feeling of continuity it brings to our household and that it forces us to rest in a world where we often feel there is no time to rest. And I love how social it is — that people come together to celebrate, or mourn, or hang together on Shabbat, and I can appreciate why those things are done around food.
I don’t intend to stop doing any of that, and I hope I can infuse in my children their own love of Judaism. However, what I hope I can change is the importance food plays in their lives. I hope I can teach them the delectable beauty of an excellent meal, but that talking about a problem will make them feel better than eating a chocolate bar.
Now that I have broken my own cycle, I make different choices. I hope by example, that my children will make different choices as well.