After years of trying all sorts of different "healthy" diets, from low-cal to low-carb to vegetarian to vegan to paleo, I've finally found the diet that works for me. While my diet has no catch-all name, it's the best and healthiest I've ever felt in my life. Getting here, however, was a journey of broken "rules" and failed regimens that ultimately taught me that perhaps the safest and gentlest way to define your diet is to stop trying to.
It’s not a rare story, but it is mine: I have always struggled with my weight.
I came from a household where we ate quickly, and food was always copious. While my mother eschewed processed sugars and candy, and snacks were always either fresh fruit or crudités, there was always more than enough pasta to go around. I wasn't a particularly active child, and I loved food, often eating beyond the point of fullness. Comparing my body to that of my skinny sister was something that I did frequently by the time I was ten or eleven, but I didn’t have the tools – or the self-awareness – to realize that portion control was probably the best way forward.
Instead, when I was thirteen, I started a long chain of fad diets that I didn’t understand. I would drink my father’s Slim Fast shakes for breakfast or use websites in an attempt to count calories. I would eat meal replacement bars or emulate my sister's eating habits. By fourteen, I had tried both Atkins and Weight Watchers; with the latter, I started to see my still-adolescent body shrink.
Finding Meaning in Food
For years, I had decided what to put in my body solely based on what tasted good. It wasn’t until I was fifteen and my boarding school roommate sent me a Michael Pollan article about steer farming in America that I began to think about the morality behind my food. I quickly became a vegetarian, which, at boarding school, meant I ate a lot of pasta and bagels. But I also frequented the salad bar and began a life-long love affair with vegetables. I liked the sense of fullness they gave me: a fullness that made me feel revitalized instead of sluggish. But I must admit, now, that I also liked the fact that putting a name on my diet made it easy for me to refuse food, to hide behind the name of something that was morally driven rather than inspired by vanity.
There’s nothing wrong with trying a new eating regimen – for whatever reason – or even being gung-ho about it, as so many vegetarians and vegans are. But when we define ourselves by what we eat, things get complicated.
“There’s a little bit of a slippery slope,” explains Elise Museles, certified eating psychology & nutrition expert. “Because on the one hand, we don’t want to discourage people from being curious. Where you get into trouble is when you think that you have to stick to these super-rigid rules, and they were defined by somebody else, not by you.”
In doing exactly this, Museles explains, I was refusing to listen to what my body needed.
“You become disconnected from your body and you become more concerned with the rules instead of how you actually feel.”
This was certainly true for me. Weight was pouring off me, but I couldn’t get enough sleep, and my usually thick curly hair thinned. It wasn’t until moving to France that I would reject this unhealthy diet… but my journey towards healthy eating was far from over.
The Social Component
Food is nourishment, yes, but it’s also social, something that contributed to my abandonment of my vegetarian diet at the age of sixteen. While studying abroad, I was housed in a homestay with three other girls and an elderly French host. On our first night, she served everyone ham-and-cheese-stuffed cordon bleu, looking at me and saying, "Don't worry, I have something special for you!"
She returned to the kitchen and emerged holding a baked whole fish.
Aghast at the prospect of explaining the difference between vegetarianism and pescatarianism to my elderly host, I made an exception. Afterwards, I felt so guilty that I Googled meat production in France, discovering to my pleasure and surprise vastly different standards than those I knew back home. In rural France, which was far from veggie-friendly in 2004, this was a welcome relief.
Soon, I started integrating not just fish but meat into my diet. By the time I enrolled at the University of Toronto, I was an omnivore once more.
At university, I began to teach myself to cook, a skill my mother possessed but never passed down. I made meals to share and also went out to restaurants with friends. But as I embraced the social aspect of dining, I also gradually put on thirty pounds over the course of my freshman year.
This doesn’t surprise Museles. While she notes that "socializing and connecting with other human beings" is, itself, "a form of nourishment," it's all about finding equilibrium.
"If I'm going to end up eating something that isn't as healthy as I would make at home, I'm OK with that, because I would like to be connected to other people," she says.
But I wasn’t quite there yet. While I enjoyed sharing foods with my friends, I hadn't reached a balance that made me feel both physically and emotionally sated. Over the next decade, I found that my eating vacillated widely depending on whether I was alone or in a group. With others, I would eat omnivorously and with gusto, often “punishing” myself for it later by cutting calories... or cutting out food groups entirely. I attempted all sorts of things to get my eating back on track: Weight Watchers, Whole30, and more. I would tell people that I was taking some time away from booze, or grains, or gluten, or meat, or dairy, only to change my mind weeks or months later. I never felt satisfied, and food, despite having become my job, was a source of profound stress and anxiety for me.
For Museles, the rulemaking I subjected myself to is not uncommon.
“Women have a tendency to vilify entire food groups,” she says, citing carbohydrates or gluten or fat as examples. This tendency to restrict based on what works for someone else's body often inspires cravings, especially if that food group is one your body really needs.
“Often a binge will follow a cycle of restrictive eating," she says. “It creates this loop that makes us feel bad about ourselves, when the truth is that it's really our body doing its job.”
There’s No Word for My Diet, and That’s OK
In 2015, I came down with a bout of bronchitis that I could not shake for six months. After two rounds of antibiotics, chest x-rays, and more, my doctor put me on a cortisol inhaler. Knowing that a constant intake of steroids couldn't be good long-term, I explored an anti-inflammatory diet, using the principles of Whole30 and GAPS to cut vast swaths of foods from my diet. From there, I slowly reintegrated them, all the while focusing on how I felt: were my lungs inflamed? Was I coughing? How was my breathing? It was the first time in my life that I examined so closely how individual foods made me feel, and in doing so, I finally stumbled upon the diet that has cleared up my skin, helped me shed unwanted pounds easily, improved my mood, and kept me full. And it has no name.
I had learned back in high school that I do well on a diet mostly made of plants, and that remains true to this day. I love to feel full, and every day, I consume multiple servings of leafy greens, orange veggies, and crucifers, as well as quite a bit of seasonal fruit.
I do believe strongly in the moral and environmental ramifications of eating plant-based. The only non-vegan foods I keep at home are small, sustainable fish (pickled anchovies are a favorite, as are canned sardines) and free range eggs sourced from local farmers. I also know that I need a decent amount of fat to feel full: tahini and avocado are my favorite sources.
I know that dairy and alcohol make me break out, and most carbs make me hangry and cranky. I avoid these foods most of the time, and frankly, I don't miss them. I've never had much of a sweet tooth, and when a craving arises, I truly, honestly do feel better with a piece of seasonal or frozen fruit.
This is how I eat when I'm at home, and it's no hardship. I look forward to hearty meal salads of beans and kale and chili-spiced tahini dressing. But also live in Paris, where I work as a restaurant critic. And you can bet I'm not asking Alain Ducasse to make me a kale salad.
"Food should work with your life; it shouldn't define your life," says Museles. "It should enhance it.”
I love eating out with friends, exploring new restaurants and flavors. White flour might make me cranky, but depriving myself of a truly exquisite Saint-Honoré makes me even crankier.
But even when deviating from my base diet, I make choices that make me feel good. I prefer skipping breakfast and eating my first meal at lunchtime, and when I indulge in a croissant in the morning (as my countrymen are wont to do), I find it makes me hangry two hours later. So instead, I save my croissant consumption for the 4pm goûter or snack. I've noticed that while I tolerate meat fine, I rarely get excited about it. I probably eat meat once a month, if that, and only when a particularly enticing option presents itself on a menu (90 percent of the time, this is tacos al pastor or nduja). At restaurants, I usually eschew dessert, because eating sweets late at night gives me a stomach ache.
It took me 33 years to know that about myself. And I'm still learning.
There is no one word to define the diet I follow, which I suppose bridges the gap between flexitarian and pegan. But I don't need a name for it. All I know is it’s the best I’ve ever felt in my whole life.
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