By the time I was 30 years old, I had developed and nurtured some terrible habits related to food. The relationship I had with food and eating was a result of a lot of habits that began when I was very young. The consequences of those terrible habits were physical, mental, and spiritual.
This post is not intended to be an excuse for the condition I was in at age 30. Neither is it in any way meant to point the blame at anyone else but myself. But by the time my weight ballooned to nearly 300 pounds, there were so many poor eating behaviors ingrained into everything I did. And believe me, you don’t become morbidly obese without some bad habits. I had a destructive relationship with food. That which is meant to nourish, fuel, and feed my body was actually killing me at a pace that was only picking up speed.
Typically, when there is a destructive force in one’s life, the best solution is to sever the relationship entirely. If you are an alcoholic, the only solution is to stop drinking. If you are addicted to heroin, you have to eliminate its use. But what was I to do in this case? I couldn’t choose to abstain from eating for the rest of my life. That isn’t an option with food. The only way to overcome a destructive relationship with food is to fix it. Like a broken marriage, the only hope for this relationship was to first determine how the situation got so bad, admit my part in it, and replace my poor habits with good. And just like any broken relationship, it wouldn’t be mended overnight. It was going to take dedication, perseverance, and a lot of time.
Where did it start?
I was blessed to have two of the best parents in the world. Not only did they demonstrate a happy, healthy marriage, but they were active, attentive, and loving parents. To this day, I enjoy a wonderful relationship with my mom and dad. The only thing they do better than parenting is grandparenting. But they would also be the first to admit that, when it comes to food and eating, they themselves not only struggle with unhealthy habits, but also that they introduced me and my siblings to some of the same. I know it wasn’t intentional and I didn’t become morbidly obese until I was married and on my own, but some seeds were set with the habits our family developed when I was young.
Food was a reward and a way to celebrate.
My softball team won our game! Let’s celebrate with pizza! We brought home good report cards! That deserves Dairy Queen! If we were good in the grocery store, we might stop at the bakery for a donut. (The donut thing? Honestly one of my earliest memories.) My parents were great to commemorate things like that (and wise to bribe us for good behavior), but over time, in my life, food and celebration became linked by a very strong bond.
Food was a way to medicate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of celebrating is disappointment, hurt, or loss. Whether it was cookies because it was a hard day at school or a Popsicle to distract us from the pain of a skinned knee, I began to associate eating with comfort. As I grew up, the hurts and problems became bigger and more significant and so did the association with food to feel better. Stress, loneliness, loss, failure, or disappointment of any kind would send me to fill a prescription for food at any of my favorite pharmacies — the kitchen, bakeries, fast food restaurants, the ice cream truck, etc.
We ate late at night. And most nights.
One of our favorite things to do was to get donuts for a snack before bed. And when we got our first microwave, we discovered that a 12-second spin took a pastry from good to great, it became a very regular thing. I guess I should be a little more specific. I don’t believe that there is any time that you should just absolutely not eat. But if the reason you are eating is just because it’s something good and not because you are hungry, that should be done in moderation, not every day. We typically enjoyed our donuts in front of the television and a nightly snack became part of our routine. From this routine, eating something I really love (like donuts) was something you just do. I did it too often with food that was too unhealthy and in larger than reasonable portions. Healthy reasons to eat include genuine hunger or to deliver nutrients the body needs — not just because it’s Wednesday night.
We ate a typical Indiana, middle-class family diet.
My mom is, to this day, one of the best cooks I’ve ever known. But she cooked for our family in a way typical of how she was raised and how a lot of families eat. We were blessed, but I know money was tight at times for my parents, so ground beef was a staple protein of our diet. White bread toast with chipped beef gravy was a regular meal — loaded with sodium and low-quality carbohydrates. We ate a lot of noodles, potatoes, and pasta. Vegetables were prepared with a significant amount of added fat in the form of bacon grease or margarine.
Mom and dad usually drank iced tea, which, at some point mom began sweetening with Sweet N Low instead of granulated sugar. My siblings and I drank Kool-Aid. I still remember preparing it, dumping the packet into the 2-quart pitcher, adding 1 cup (heaping, when my brother or I prepared it) of sugar. Summer lunches consisted of a lot of canned ravioli, Spaghetti-O’s, bologna sandwiches on white bread, potato chips, and snack cakes. Breakfast was a packet of instant hot cereal (Cream of Wheat) with butter added, toast with margarine and jelly or cinnamon sugar, or dry cereal. Mom seldom bought the “kid” cereals like Cocoa Puffs or Fruit Loops — it had to be something dad would eat too. If we had something like Corn Flakes, we were allowed to add 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar to it (measured with an eating utensil and my brother and I were skilled in stacking it high). Pop Tarts or toaster waffles were a rare treat to me and my siblings, but maybe not rare enough!
I will again insist that I am not blaming or finding fault with my parents. I believe with all my heart they were loving us the best they knew how and food was a way to express that love. We still love to visit mom and dad and enjoy one of mom’s specialty dishes that I will just never be able to make as well as she does: chicken and dumplings (served over homemade, loaded mashed potatoes as per the Hoosier tradition), beef stroganoff, Swiss steaks — my mouth is watering just thinking about it. But my parents didn’t force feed me in quantities sufficient to add an extra 200 pounds to my petite frame. And I have spent a greater portion of my life independent of my parents than I did at home. I am responsible for my choices, my habits, and my obesity.
My parents did a LOT of things right, too, though.
In assessing my habits and considering the roots of my behavior, I realized that my parents taught me a lot of very good habits as well and I want to thank them for that. Many of the healthy behaviors our family practiced I chose to abandon when I had the freedom to do so. Nobody forced me to double down on the unhealthy habits while ignoring the good stuff. That was my choice, my responsibility.
Mom cooked the vast majority of our meals at home.
We very seldom ate out when I was growing up. When a home-cooked meal was as tasty as what my mom made, why would you want to? Even though some of the meals she cooked weren’t the most nutritious, just the fact that they were prepared at home probably saved fat, calories, sodium, added sugar, and preservatives. That is a good habit.
Mom and dad planted a garden.
Almost every year, our family worked together to plant, cultivate, care for, and harvest a very large garden. Mom and dad grew tomatoes, green beans, corn, peas, potatoes, onions, cabbage, cucumbers, and more. And mom canned a lot of the produce. All year long, we enjoyed home-canned green beans, tomatoes, and tomato sauce and she made freezer pickles from the fresh cucumbers. On our vast estate also grew berries and rhubarb. I learned about growing fruits and vegetables and our family worked together to produce it. Those are very good habits.
Mom included the kids in preparing meals.
Mom taught me to cook at an early age and by the time I was in 4th grade, it was nothing for me to finish dinner that mom had started, or even to prepare the entire meal according to her specifications. Mom worked outside the house and we all chipped in with household chores, including cooking. She also took us to the grocery store with her, which I’m sure wasn’t easy for her. Involving us in the purchase and preparation of food fostered an awareness of the choices that are out there. I learned that food choices are made based on a variety of factors: availability, price, preference, and methods of preparation. Involving everyone who eats in the preparation is a good habit.
We ate together. As a family. At the Table.
This might have been the best habit of everything they taught us, as it affects not just diet and nutrition, but almost everything else. We didn’t watch television while we ate dinner. We talked to one another. We sat at the table (in assigned seats), not at television trays in the family room. My siblings and I helped set the table and clean up afterward. Our kitchen was a pitch-in, not a full-service restaurant. We held hands and thanked God for His provisions. We passed the pepper and said, “please,” and, “thank you.” There was a time I remember very vividly in our little blue house on National Road West that each night after dinner, dad would lead the family in devotion. The custom of eating together around the dining table, free of distractions, was probably the best habit of all. I am eternally grateful to my parents for making that a priority.
We didn’t have to clean our plate.
We were not forced to eat, save for a portion of vegetables at each meal (another good habit). Most of them I didn’t mind, but I remember swallowing little green peas, one at a time, like pills, because I couldn’t stand to chew them. They made us try new foods, but didn’t force us to eat things we didn’t like. And while they discouraged wastefulness, I never remember being forced to clean my plate after I was already full. (Sometimes I chose to keep eating after I was full, especially on tuna noodle casserole night, but I was never forced.) I think it’s a TERRIBLE idea to force feed kids under normal circumstances. If you don’t want to waste food, fine! Put it in a container for lunch the next day. But forcing a child to keep eating when he or she is full sets up a life-long habit of ignoring one’s body’s satiety signals. If you ignore your body’s signals enough, you become oblivious to them. If we were more in tune with what it REALLY feels like to be hungry, we would eat when our body signals the need for food instead of eating because it’s noon or 6:30 p.m. or because the food is there. And if you actually learn to recognize your body’s signal that you are satiated and you STOP EATING at that point, you’d probably consume less, feel better, and foster far better eating habits.
Putting It All Together
To understand my eating habits and how they affected my relationship with food was the first step in connecting the dots that led to my obesity. I had to admit the bad habits and change them. I had to inventory the good habits and keep them. My experiences and associations with specific foods, customs, and meals developed in me a lifestyle that looked something like this:
I associated food (almost to a Pavlovian extreme) with celebrations, so I routinely “rewarded” myself with food treats. Even the routine things like cleaning the house, finishing a project, or getting a raise at work were enough to convince me that I “deserved” a treat and it was almost invariably in the form of a rich, decadent, and fattening food.
I considered food some kind of analgesic — something that could soothe what ailed me. If I was stressed, I ate. If I was lonely, I ate. If I was sad, I ate. If I was disappointed, I ate. If I felt bad about the extra weight I had gained, ironically, I ate. This behavior led to a vicious cycle, because as my weight skyrocketed, I grew more stressed, sad, and depressed, which drove me to eat more, which led to…. you get it.
My habits can be changed and with them, so can my associations and my relationship with food.
That is what I had to do.
I had to change.