Addicted to Dieting

            My obsession with losing weight began in my middle-school years when I realized, thanks to the cruel taunting of my classmates, that I was the fattest kid. Not just among the girls, but the fattest student in the entire school.

            The Internet did not back then and since we lived out in the country, far from a library, my ability to access information about nutrition was limited. Occasionally, when I had saved enough money and was allowed to accompany my mom to the store, I’d buy a teen magazine geared that, if my hopes were met, offered tips to losing and maintaining.

            I learned that fresh fruits and vegetables were the basics of weight loss combined with exercise. I was an active kid, so all I had to do was stay outside longer riding my bike or roller skating in the garage or hiking in the woods behind our house. In the summers it was often too hot and humid to spend much time outdoors, so that’s when I’d ride or skate in circles in the garage. In wintertime I was back to circling the garage as well as sledding from one neighbor’s yard to the next. None of that activity helped.

During the summer months our garden produced tomatoes, green beans and carrots. Strawberries, blackberries and rhubarb were the only fruits. In off seasons we only ate canned and processed fruits and vegetables, which much later on I discovered were soaked in a thick, sweet syrup.

I knew enough to eat the fresh over the processed, but there were rules about cleaning your plate. We were also not permitted to refuse a particular item, so maintaining a diet was next to impossible.

Add to my problems the issue of my mom’s cooking: it was laden with sauces, gravies and carbs. Lots of bread and pasta. What meat we did have was tough unless she cooked it for hours. Chicken was only oven-roasted in a thick layer of oil. We never ate fish except for the few times when my dad went fishing and returned with catfish which my mom baked. One healthy meal out of hundreds! Oh…but she ruined any enjoyment of the fish: she was worried that we’d swallow bones, so she made sure that we chewed the fish until it was a tasteless much.

I did what I could, when I could. It must have helped as my weight remained more or less the same.

At the end of ninth grade we drove from Ohio to California, eating out every single meal. Like most kids I preferred burgers and fries topped off with the occasional milkshake, when permitted. By the time we reached what would be our home in the Sacramento area, my clothes were tight.

It was too hot to do anything except eat ice cream. And popsicles. My dad was often away, so my mom turned to quick meals, slopping together anything and everything, none of which was healthy.

Before school began we moved to the SF Bay Area. By now I was hard-pressed to squeeze my body into the clothes I’d brought on the journey. My mom had no choice but to take me shopping, an embarrassment to be sure. There was no mall at that time: only one main street with stores that catered to slim people. The only one that had clothes my size was a Montgomery Wards clearance shop.

My choices were limited to tent-style dresses. Girls weren’t permitted to wear pants to school, so I was stuck with what now would be called mu-mus. Bright patterns of flowing fabric that hid my flab, but marked me as the fat kid.

I returned to obsessing over food, but once again, had little choice or say in what I ate. Back in Ohio I ate school lunches that were awful. No matter as at least one nun made sure our trays were empty before we could go outside and play. I wasn’t interested in playing as I had no friends, it was cool in the cafeteria, and so I’d outlast the nuns.

In California there were no school lunches. Instead I was handed a lunch bag with a bologna sandwich inside, slathered in mayonnaise. Every single day. No fresh fruit, but sometimes a cookie.

No one at school watched what I ate, so I often threw half my lunch away, praying each time that my brother wouldn’t see.

We lived on top of a hill, so taking the dog for a walk became my primary source of exercise. We’d go around and around the block until the poor thing was so exhausted I’d have to carry her.

Health class was mandatory. I learned more about nutrition than I’d ever known before. The problem was that the more I learned, the more I understood that almost nothing we ate was healthy. I tried sharing my findings with my mother, but it only made her angry. I could either eat what she prepared or starve. But I couldn’t choose to starve because I was physically punished each time I refused to eat a meal.

I was able to stay active, however, thanks to PE and being on the school’s bowling team. I maintained my weight, not what I wanted, but at least I didn’t get fatter.

When I went away to college, for the first time, I had complete control over what I stuffed in my face. As I strolled past the buffet line, my eyes feasted on the range of possibilities. I understood that most of the options wouldn’t help me lose weight, but the sheer joy of being able to take what I wanted removed all thoughts of dieting from my brain.

The one thing that saved me from putting on the pounds was the anxiety I experienced every day. I was still a lonely kid, much to my great sadness. That alone should have been enough to keep my weight down. Add to that the pressure to get the highest marks in all my classes in order to keep my state-funded scholarship, and there were times I truly couldn’t eat.

For the first time in my life I lost weight! I never got skinny, but I certainly was no longer obese. I marveled at how good I looked, which inspired me to monitor what went into my mouth. I became more selective, choosing those things that I knew were longer in calories. I even switched to nonfat milk, which nauseated me.

Thus began a years-long journey of yo-yo dieting. At school I’d lose weight: at home I’d gain. I’d lose ten pounds, then put on fifteen. Lose ten more, but add twelve. Until the summer when I got a job on campus and so didn’t have to return home.

That truly changed my life. I was no longer under my mother’s supervision for almost the entire school year, so could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. I was able to lose weight and keep it off. By the time I graduated from college, I looked great. Not skinny, but also not fat.

With no job and no place to live, I returned home. Nothing about my mother’s cooking had changed. Everything was fried, covered in bread crumbs, drowning in a sauce or gravy and paired with pasta. My weight began to rise.

Thankfully I found a job that allowed me to pack my own lunch. I still had bologna sandwiches, which was not a good option, but often had an apple. I balanced the not-so-good with the good. I lost a little.

I saved enough to buy my first car then get my first apartment.  This was a liberating change in my life. I chose what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had freedom to come and go as I pleased. And I took up skiing, an activity that I’d never done before. I wasn’t great at it, but it was hard work. I lost a little bit more.

I got married and now had to cook for two. I was a lousy cook. The one cookbook that saved me used some form of soup in every recipe. I also had one that mixed fruits, cheeses and marshmallows in Jell-O. These were not the healthiest meals, so I gained weight.

We bought a house and soon I was pregnant. The next fifty years were a continuous struggle with weight. I’d diet, lose, then gain. I’d try a different diet, lose, then gain more. I ballooned. There’s no nicer word for it. It was as if someone had attached an air hose and filled me with air.

I drank prepared mixes that were guaranteed to lead to weight loss. I’d lose some, then put on more.

I joined the local gym and worked out at least five days a week. I bought frozen foods that I could microwave at work, thinking that would help me lose weight. They did, but then I regained whatever I’d lost.

Dieting was, by now, an addiction. Every moment that I was awake was consumed with thoughts of food. We now had three kids and I was the primary cook. They were picky eaters and my range of options was narrow. I turned into my mother, plating meals covered in sauces and paired with pastas.

I’d go to the gym only to come home and eat a handful of cookies that were supposed to go in the kids’ lunches. I didn’t know how to cook fresh vegetables, so they came from cans. I’d add slabs of butter or cover them with cheese sauces.

I got fatter and fatter even though dieting was always on my mind. I needed larger sizes of clothes, tops and bottoms. At one point I was wearing size 3X tops and size 22 pants. I was embarrassed, but not enough to cease control.

It was when the photo taken at my school came out that it began to dawn on me that I was obese. For years I had been avoiding family photos, so the idea was in my brain; it had yet to move to the forefront.

Even when doctors asked if I knew I was fat, that didn’t shock me long enough to make positive change. I rationalized it away. I had big bones. I was healthy. I could swim and exercise at the gym. I played soccer and coached a team and even refereed, which meant running up and down the field.

About four years ago I decided to stop the yo-yoing. I had been attending Weight Watchers meetings for a few years by then, but the calculating points confused me so badly that I didn’t track what I ate. I pretended to keep the info in my head. Pretended that I knew what I was consuming and making better choices.

I did lose thirty pounds. My knee went bad. After surgery I put the weight back on. I lost twenty. Then had surgery on the other knee and my weight went back up. I lost ten, then broke something and because I couldn’t exercise, put it all back on.

If I had charted my weight over that period of time, it would have looked like a roller coaster. Up, then down. Climb back up, then drop down. Over and over.

I am proud to say that I no longer fall into the obese category. I lost almost 80 pounds and have kept it off for over three years.

However, I am still addicted to dieting. I think about food constantly. I want to stuff something in my mouth even when I’m not hungry. I yearn for cookies and cakes and pies. I want the pasta drowning in sauce. I’m love a big, juicy hamburger with a side of fries. I love hot dogs and pizza.

I make mistakes. Instead of passing through the kitchen, I stop and scavenge. I try to choose low-calorie options, but that sugar cookie looks awfully good. I have plenty of fresh fruits in the house, but I’d rather have a brownie.

If someone offered me a thick milkshake I’d refuse, but dream of its taste. If plums were on the table, I’d take one, but still drool over the red velvet cake that everyone else was eating.

I’ve never understood why some can eat whatever they want and stay thin while the smell of a piece of See’s candy can add five pounds.

I now understand that dieting, or as Weight Watchers calls it, making lifestyle choices will be with me the rest of my life. For the first time I like how I look. It’s more than that: I’m proud of how I look.

In order to stay the way I am right now, my addiction to dieting is something I’ll be carting with me as surely as I put on a backpack when away from home.

I feel sorry for all those young kids who don’t have healthy choices at home. Their lives will be like mine, a never-ending battle with weight and desire.

Food Memories

            When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.

            I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.

            Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.

            My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.

            I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.

            I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.

            As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.

            My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.

My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.

I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
            In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.

What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.

Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.

So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.

I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.

My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.

A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.

About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.

My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.

I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.

My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.

When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.

I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.

Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.

After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.

My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.

As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.

Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.

I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.

Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.

I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.

I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.

All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.

It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.

Ode to Food


Food, glorious food!

Sumptuous tastes of

Slowly roasted beef

Drowned in onions

Covered in gravy

Potatoes gently

Browned, sprinkled

With parsley and chives

Arranged in spirals

Delicate designs

Green beans bathing in

Mushroom sauce, topped

With fried onions

Or drenched with butter

Stacked like lucky logs

Delightful desserts

Sugary cookies

Mouth melting cakes

Devilish  custards

Compelling desire

More, much more, awaiting

Consumption by

Mere mortals yearning

To taste the nectar

Of the golden gods

Food, glorious food!  

     Ode to Food

Food, glorious food!

Sumptuous tastes of

Slowly roasted beef

Drowned in onions

Covered in gravy

 

Potatoes gently

Browned, sprinkled

With parsley and chives

Arranged in spirals

Delicate designs

 

Green beans bathing in

Mushroom sauce, topped

With fried onions

Or drenched with butter

Stacked like lucky logs

 

Delightful desserts

Sugary cookies

Mouth melting cakes

Devilish  custards

Compelling desire

 

More, much more, awaiting

Consumption by

Mere mortals yearning

To taste the nectar

Of the golden gods

 

Food, glorious food!