Friday, August 26, 2011

Diet Change: The Beginnings

So how did I get from eating a bunch of processed fast foods to the considerably-more-healthy-but-still-lots-of-room-for-improvement diet I have now? The short answer: I worked at it. It didn’t happen overnight. Or over a year. Or over two years. I’m 33 years old. This started when I was…well, I guess it could be traced back to my early 20s, or maybe even my late teens, and the initial progress was so slow.

“Your late teens?” you may ask. “You said you didn’t really start trying to change your diet until after the colitis thing, and that happened when you were 21.” Very true. It’s not a contradiction, in my mind. I now realize I honestly started making my way toward a healthier diet before I’d had that first bout with colitis, although I didn’t realize I was setting things in motion; it was nothing conscious, and it didn’t add a lot of great nutrition to my life—I just realized I kinda enjoy cooking.

I’m picky about what I eat. That much I’ve surely made obvious. The great thing I realized about cooking is I can make the food I eat exactly what I want it to be, which at that time meant excluding every ingredient I never really wanted to eat. You could guess I wasn’t cooking a great variety of meals, but I was cooking.

I like steak. I don’t think I mentioned that. I hate fatty steak. I like the lean stuff—screw marbling, I want my steaks as red and lean as they can be, and I have no problem cutting off and wasting chunks of fat. Ew. Some people love to chew it; it makes me want to vomit.

I also mentioned I liked spaghetti, but only one certain canned sauce.

Spaghetti sauce and steaks, this is what I started cooking.

Steaks are easy, of course: a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, grill. I still prefer ‘em on the grill, and I cook them more than any steak-lover would ever say you should. (I’ve tried to tone that back a bit as I’ve gotten older, but I still err on the side of more-well-done than not—I don’t mind pink, but I don’t want blood on my ‘taters, either.) I’d usually toss a potato wrapped in foil on the grill with it, and the vegetable was invariably corn or green beans. Nothing difficult, but better than Wendy’s. And it wasn’t super often I did this, but I’d probably make myself a steak once per week. I can’t really remember. I wasn’t just cooking for myself, but that’s irrelevant.

I’d cook the spaghetti sauce sometimes, and again, it was a rather simple version. I wasn’t all that into produce. I didn’t like onions. I’d brown up some hamburger, toss it in some canned tomato sauce, add a bit of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and I think that was probably about it. I’d toss that over some plain ol’ spaghetti and cover it all with parmesan cheese. (Some things still haven’t changed much.)

I essentially carried on that like for a few years, but slowly started to try cooking other things, like maybe making my own pizzas (and the sauce), making my own burgers at home (still on white-bread buns) with frozen fries from a bag, stuff like that. I’d cook an occasional chicken breast: boneless and skinless. I would never claim these thing were the pinnacle of nutritive goodness, but they were improvements over what my body had known—baby steps.

I was no gourmet, nor am I now. I still ate mostly crap, lots of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Long John Silver’s. American cheese slices on grilled white bread. Probably margarine, although I forget. I surely wasn’t conscious of hydrogenated oils, but who was in those days?

I graduated college. I moved to Huntington Beach. A long relationship came to an end—which tore me up—and I moved back to Indiana. I lived in the house I grew up in since no one else was living there. I had good old friends around. I was pretty depressed. I went to the doctor. I was back with my old family doctor who’d been my doctor since birth and knew me and my family well and I was really pretty down and out and I trusted him greatly. I still do. I went and saw him about my depression and was hoping he’d give me some Xanax; just something to mellow me out a bit and help me sleep. (I still wasn’t a sleeper, even when depressed.)

Instead, he prescribed me Zoloft, which I guess may have a bit more of an antianxiety edge than, say, Prosac, or at least that’s what he’d told me. Oy. I’m not a fan of antidepressants. I won’t go into it now, but I’m not a fan. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now, although I know they seem to do a lot of people a lot of good. I almost threw the prescription away. I sat on it for a while (not literally).

I’d started reading Men’s Health in those days: cover-to-cover. I’d been running quite a bit. I’ve always loved biking, and at the time had only my trusty mountain bike, and I was riding it. My dog, Nosta, was only a pup in those days—about 2 years old—and she was the best running partner: fast and enduring. (Oh how I miss running with her). I started lifting weights at the gym. I started learning about nutrition, thanks to Men’s Health, but I didn’t apply much of the knowledge. I started drinking protein powder mixed with water (no milk), and I’d add some L-glutamine to aid recovery. I was in good shape, but my eating habits were still essentially the same. The colitis was in the back of my mind. I was thinking of improvement. I knew I needed to make improvements. And I’d made some, but I was a long way off from what I really needed to accomplish.

My moods didn’t improve much. I was down. Okay, fine: I got the prescription filled. I started taking the pills. I wasn’t expecting what happened, but here’s the quick summation: I got obsessive. I’m not super sure of my narrative order or time durations here, but all of the things I’m getting into did happen. They just may have happened in a slightly different order, or taken a bit more time, or…well, I was only in Indiana a little over a year, so I guess it all happened pretty quickly.

I started running more; further; faster. I biked more. I bulked up the muscle more than I ever had, which isn’t to say I was huge, but I got definition. I kept a friggin’ spreadsheet, for crying out loud. My weight-lifting regimen in that time surprises me to this day. I really obsessed.

I decided I was going to do a triathlon that was only about 2 months away, and I wasn’t a swimmer. I mean, I wouldn’t drown, but I didn’t have goggles and I’d never swam laps for exercise or anything. I started swimming laps. I focused. And as I really kept pushing the limits of my body, something I’ve done many times before and since but at that point was doing to some extent I’d never before reached, I started to realize something: I didn’t quite have enough energy.

I looked at my life—at myself—and how I’d changed, and I stopped taking the Zoloft. I think I’d taken it for about 2 or 3 months. That wasn’t me. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like my obsessions. Maybe I can’t blame it all on a pill. There was a lot going on in my head. I don’t know why I was affected the way I was. Regardless, I no longer took the pills.

I did, however, want to do that triathlon, and being a triathlete was going to take some dietary change: I needed to eat more nutritive, energizing foods. It was then, when I first really started to think of myself as an endurance athlete, that I really started forcing the dietary changes on myself. I was 25 years old. (And it may be weird that I’d never considered myself an endurance athlete before that—I’d run and bike quite a bit. But for some reason, it can take a long time to start to see oneself in a new light, and “athlete” had such strong connotations to me: I won’t explain now, and it doesn’t really make sense anyway.)

Given my diet to that point, there was plenty of room for improvement, and I was still pretty sure I didn’t like any of the foods I’d spent my life avoiding, so I started making some really small changes, adding things into what I had already been cooking and eating, but adding it in ways I couldn’t really tell I’d added it, which essentially meant cutting things up really small—mincing.

I’d mince onion and add it to my spaghetti sauce. Garlic. I ate more chicken. I know this is nothing monumental, but it was when I’d been avoiding onion my entire life to the best of my abilities. I never ate a lot of chicken. I said it has been a slow change. I emphasize slow change. I promote it.

Broccoli: this one always makes me chuckle, and it’s really the best example of how slowly and methodically I made myself eat differently. I hated broccoli, but it’s so darn good for you—Men’s Health told me I needed to eat it. So I’d buy broccoli, and I’d just chop the very tips of the florets into my salads (that otherwise remained the same: lettuce, cheese, and lots of Catalina dressing), I’d throw the rest of it away, and I started getting a tiny bit of broccoli into my system. I couldn’t really taste it, so I didn’t mind it, and I started cutting the broccoli bigger. I started to feel it in my mouth, and taste it a bit. (Texture with food has always been a big problem for me, which is one reason I avoided so many things: chunks weirded me out. As did [does] seeing things in my food when I didn’t quite know what they were and was pretty sure, given my limited palate, I didn’t like them.) I started getting some bits of the stalks in my salads. After a month or so, I could eat raw broccoli. I won’t claim it’s my favorite thing, even to this day, but I was eating it. I started steaming it. I liked it better steamed, and lo and behold: I had a new vegetable in my dinner rotation! It probably took me 2 or 3 months to go from not eating any broccoli to starting to force it into myself more regularly. I still don’t LOVE it, but I like it…enough to eat it.

I also started making myself fresh fruit smoothies, mostly because Men’s Health told me to. This was a big one for me, because I NEVER ate fruit: it’s the texture thing. One day I forced myself to make a smoothie, though. I mean, I liked some fruit-flavored things…errrr…more accurately, I liked some fruit-flavored candies. So I tried to make it taste like some kind of candy, mostly strawberry, although I couldn’t stand the texture of strawberries. Horrible, maybe, but it’s true.

~~Okay, here’s a sad truth. I ASSUMED I couldn’t stand the texture of strawberries. I assumed a lot of things about foods I didn’t eat, and I didn’t even try a lot of those things because of these assumptions. I’m not sure I’d ever just eaten a strawberry before. That said, I still have a hard time just eating a strawberry: it’s the texture thing. Flavor=good. Texture=bad.~~

I used apple juice as a base, I added a banana and a bunch of frozen strawberries and I think that was about it. I blended it up until it was virtually free of texture. It was a frozen puree of mostly strawberries. I slurped it through a straw, straight to the back of my mouth and down my throat as fast as I possibly could so I’d feel no texture and taste as little as possible although I was still grossed out to find I could still feel chunks of things, mostly strawberries. I was so proud: I’d eaten not just one fruit, but two! (And apple juice.) I started experimenting more. I’d add blueberries. I’d add a dollop of yogurt. (I still hate yogurt, but I can eat it on those terms [or as a frozen, over-sugared delight].) I’d allow myself to taste the smoothie more. I found them acceptable. I also found they really helped my energy level. AND they were getting me fiber, something my body really, really needed. 

I was making changes. They were subtle. They were, on some level, nearly insignificant. But they WEREN’T insignificant. They were building blocks.

I have more to write on this, but again: I’m getting wordy. The basics are here. This is, once again, not exactly where I intended this entry to go. I won’t even claim I’m happy with it. I’m not sure I wrote it well. I’m not sure I got my point across. I’m pretty sure it isn’t entertaining. I started it weeks ago and now it’s today and part of me wants to start over, but the majority of me knows I don’t really have the time and I hope this is enough to get things moving. To move toward the present, and how I continue to struggle with and improve my diet.

Things are better these days. I eat MUCH more healthily. It hasn’t been easy, if you couldn’t tell from above. I’m not one to embrace that which is unfamiliar to me instantly, even if it IS familiar to everyone else. That’s just not me. So when I get around to it, I’ll share my ongoing efforts…and the first time I actually peeled and ate a banana (which I have a digital photo of, if that tells you anything). I just realized I can eat nectarines—not just any nectarine, and I won’t do it all the time, but I can eat some. This is my life. I’m not a foodie. I’m not the guy to sit down and eat what’s put before me—I’m the guy that fears that. I’m the guy that usually orders a burger when I got out to eat, and if I don’t I tend to order something I’ve had before and know I like because I fear otherwise I’ll waste my money and go home hungry. That’s me: I love eating, but I don’t like food. Or I haven’t tended to. I’m learning to. It takes time. Baby steps.

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