Sara Mahoney has a cool blog called Losing It Together, where she and her husband write about getting healthy together. We recently had an email chat about my experience with food addiction, and how changing what I ate changed my life (or, put another way: how I killed off my alter ego, Jen-Tron the Eating Machine). She posted the short interview here if you’d like to check it out. Thanks to Sara for the idea, and for asking great questions!
Speaking of which, here’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you about:
You’ll notice in the interview that I once again plugged The Perfect Health Diet. As I’ve mentioned before, this was the book that made it all click for me. I’ve read approximately three billion books on the subject of nutrition, and I found this one to be the best. It’s written by two Ph.D. scientists who went on a personal quest to overcome some illnesses they were struggling with and achieve optimum health. A bit about their backgrounds:
Paul Jaminet, Ph.D. Paul was an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, became a software entrepreneur during the Internet boom, and now provides strategic advice to entrepreneurial companies while pursuing research in economics (see pauljaminet.com for more information). Paul’s experience overcoming a chronic illness has been key to our views of aging and disease. [...]
Shou-Ching Shih Jaminet, Ph.D. Shou-Ching is a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, and Director of BIDMC’s Multi-Gene Transcriptional Profiling Core. [...]
What I love about the book is that it’s written more like a doctoral thesis than a glitzy diet book. Rather than trying to strong-arm you to adopt their opinions through emotional stories or scare tactics, they simply talk about the research they did and explain why they found some arguments more compelling than others.
Anyway, I’ve also become a big fan of the authors’ blog, so imagine my delight when I saw this post on Good Friday. Even more cool was the ensuing discussion, where Paul Jaminet offered an excellent defense of the idea that not only are faith and science not incompatible, but that faith leads to better science. Definitely worth a read.
If you’re interested in hearing more about that topic, you absolutely must go get a copy of Br. Guy Consolmagno’s talk, Why Does the Pope Have an Astronomer?, in which he goes into detail about this idea that adherents to the monotheistic religions do the best science. He also has an interesting (and funny) talk you can watch on Youtube called The Religious Life of Techies.
A macabre dressing room experience prompts me to make a fist-shaking proclamation that — no, seriously this time — I’m going to get in better shape. → The first day I start exercising, I’m motivated to push through the pain by a vivid image of myself looking awesomely cute in a pair of size 10 jeans. → I actually lose a couple pounds and start shooting off my mouth about how I’m really going to keep up with this, even though it’s only been a week. → Approximately 3.6 weeks into the new routine, I realize I hate exercising more than I hate my current jean size and give up in disgust.
From age 15 to 32, that cycle repeated itself on about a 10-month loop. I kept thinking that my vanity would be strong enough to fuel my efforts at exercise, that the payoff of looking how I wanted to look would be worth the pain of exercising. (Let me add the big disclaimer that I’m not suggesting that everyone who exercises to look better or lose weight is doing it out of vanity; I’m only talking about myself here.)
Then, after my conversion to Christianity, things began to change.
A little over a year ago, I began working on my relationship to food. After finally praying about what I should do with some food-related issues I had, I received the thunder-and-lightning insight that I needed to distinguish between gluttony and addiction, and deal with both separately (I summarized all that here). All of this happened during my fourth pregnancy, which was the perfect time for me to work on this: since the possibility of weight loss was off the table, for the first time I could address these issues without making it about vanity.
Doing that “Saint Diet” (as I call my new way of eating) has made me focus more on how I can structure my life to make sure that I’m not unintentionally sabotaging my spiritual growth and ability to serve God by feeling physically worse than I need to. That’s not to say that you have to feel great to grow spiritually, of course — many of the saints shined God’s light most radiantly when they were in pain and ill — but I have found that when I feel bad simply because I’m not taking care of myself, I do not have peace about it. When I’ve prayed about it, I get the message pretty loud and clear: “This needs to change!”
It was just that type of situation that recently brought me back to the subject of exercise once again — only from a whole different angle than I’d ever approached it before.
Despite how much better I’ve felt since doing the Saint Diet, I still often found myself with less energy than an otherwise healthy 33-year-old woman should have. Something felt incongruous: on the one hand, I’d pretty carefully discerned that there were certain things I was supposed to be doing right now, and doing well — the duties of daily life with four little kids, keeping my house in order and food on the table, certain side projects, etc. There have been seasons when I felt like I was supposed to relax and do the bare minimum; this wasn’t one of them. And yet I didn’t have nearly the energy to do the work that I thought God was calling me to do.
I was open to seeing a doctor, getting on medication, accepting that I had misunderstood the things I was supposed to be doing in daily life right now, or whatever — I just wanted to know what the right path was.
After a long period of thinking, praying and consulting Dr. Google, it occurred to me that I should at least try to get more physical activity before I moved on to other solutions. I thought I already did enough: I walk to the mailbox at least once a week, and I can’t always change diapers while remaining in a sitting position on the couch. You’d think that that type of Olympian exertion would leave me fit as a fiddle, but God and my body teamed up to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it might help if I moved a little more.
This sounds lame, but I guess you could say I felt “called” to exercise in order to better serve God and my family. (I know. God calls some people to save thousands of starving people; he calls me to run around the block. My spiritual life is not very exciting.)
So I started jogging. I didn’t create any grand plan, I just put on my running shoes and ran around the block one evening. I did it again the next day, and then a couple days after that. And, sure enough, I started to feel better. My energy increasingly matched up with the level of activity I felt like I was supposed to be engaging in. That was a few months ago, and I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.
Given my temperament as an utterly exercise-averse person and my dismal history with keeping up with exercise routines, it is really weird to be a regular jogger. I was thinking about it the other evening, wondering why my efforts seem to be sticking for the first time in 17 years, and I realized:
My motivation is completely different.
Every other time I’ve attempted exercise, it was a tool I was using to try to find happiness in myself: if I looked a certain way, weighed a certain amount, could wear a certain style of clothes, then I would find peace and happiness.
And yet my laziness knew something my rational brain did not: it won’t work. It’s fool’s gold. You’ll be happy for about three days while you stare at yourself in the mirror and then that exact same angst will pop up again, only in a different part of your life. And so I’d quit, yet again.
I’ve seen almost no external results from my new jogging efforts; I haven’t been weighing myself, but it doesn’t seem like I’ve lost any weight. And yet I’ve had an easier time keeping up with it than any of my other adventures in physical activity — even the ones that netted huge “scores” on the scale.
It’s a lesson I first learned with my love of writing, that I continue to learn in so many areas of life: when you do something because you think it is going to bring you peace and joy in and of itself, the whole thing is doomed to collapse. But if it’s done out of service to God, with the final aim of deeper union with him, your efforts will bear more fruit than you could have imagined.
I don’t mean to overblow this insight; I’m not quite ready to start my own cause for canonization just because I’m running around the block and not losing weight. I’m not even trying to suggest that my motives are 100% pure in terms of doing it to better serve God by serving my family and others. I just wanted to share the simple lesson that I’ve learned in this situation and with so many other little endeavors in my life: that it’s easier, simpler, and the burden is a whole lot lighter when your final aim is God.
A lot of people have asked for details about what I’ve been doing on this Saint Diet I keep referring to. Here’s the scoop. I apologize that it’s a long post; there’s no short way to get it all down!
This past summer I decided that now was the time for me to finally deal with gluttony. Not only was my weight creeping up higher and higher after each pregnancy, but for as long as I could remember I’d had a real problem with overeating that I seemed unable to conquer.
I first tried to get this problem under control when I was 15, and had been trying — and failing — ever since. None of the zillions of diets or programs or mental strategies I tried ever worked on a long-term basis. Starting this past summer, however, I decided to try something radically different: I would ask for God’s help. I was sure that this was the missing piece of the puzzle, that by leaning on the Lord I would be able to get my tendency to commit the sin of gluttony at least somewhat under control.
I was surprised and disappointed — you might say, “crushed” — when things didn’t play out like I’d hoped they might.
I was incorporating prayer into the fabulous No-S Diet plan for conquering gluttony, and that took me a long way…but not far enough. After a few weeks went by I started to fail. A lot. I have so many vivid memories of sitting in front of a plate of food and saying a prayer begging God to give me the strength to not have extra helpings, pleading for him to let me stop eating when I felt full…and then I’d eat to the point of being overstuffed anyway.
I know, it makes no sense. Why didn’t I just stop eating if it were so important to me? If you’ve never experienced this I’m not even sure I can describe it. “Stop! You’re full! You’ve had enough!” one part of me would say; but some other, much more powerful force within of me would rise up and override all other thoughts, fixating on the food in front of me in a blind panic. It was truly a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type situation, the Dr. Jekyll in me powerless to stop the gluttonous Mr. Hyde.
I prayed over and over again to ask God to help me stop overeating, yet it continued to happen day after day, week after week. Eventually I stopped praying about it.
Then, a few months later, I got in a regular habit of going to Adoration. I even got to the point where I would leave my list at home and try to just clear my mind and let the Lord lead me. And a funny thing started to happen: even though I had long since given up on the topic, I started to feel strong guidance when it came to my food issues. Through prayer and meetings with my spiritual director I got a loud, clear message that my bad eating habits were not just leading me to the sin of gluttony but leaving me tired, sluggish, irritable, and thus impacting my family and spiritual life.
After a profound moment in Adoration when I finally realized after 17 years of repeatedly falling flat on my face that my way wasn’t working, I admitted my powerlessness and turned the whole thing over to God. With no more plans of my own, I finally began just listening when I prayed about this issue.
And, sure enough, God had something to say.
Shortly after that moment, a series of “coincidences” led me to discover the concept of food addiction. A rough summary of the theory is that some people’s bodies react to sugar- and flour-based foods like alcoholics’ bodies react to alcohol and that, like alcoholics with alcohol, these people need to surrender to the fact that they’ll never be able to eat those foods in moderation, that they must abstain from them completely.
It sounded pretty extreme. In fact, I probably would have blown it off I hadn’t encountered people who had had astounding results by putting it into practice.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with a blog reader who shared with me her own dramatic story of being chronically overweight, eventually topping out at 370 pounds and feeling suicidal. After she got the right information about food addiction she not only got down to a healthy weight of 150 and has kept it off for eight years and through two pregnancies, but her spiritual life grew by leaps and bounds as well (a version of her inspiring story written a few years ago is available in a Word doc here). When I joined the “The Body Knows” food addicts email list I encountered many other people who had almost identical stories to hers. Their testimonies were intriguing and compelling…and sounded vaguely familiar.
After a lot of research and more prayer, I decided to go ahead and cut out all foods with flour and sugar, as well as other processed foods, just to see what happened. Unlike other times I’d done something like this as part of a short-term diet, this time I would do it indefinitely, letting God lead me day by day.
That was in late December, and the results over the past 12 weeks have been amazing.
- As the food addiction theory would predict, when I cut out the foods I was addicted to, the insane cravings went away. Not having those foods in my system tamed that Mr. Hyde inside of me, so much so that I could even serve my family things like biscuits or cookies without having one myself — something previously unthinkable.
- Gluttony has become manageable. I quickly realized that when there’s not a sugar- or flour-based food involved in a meal, I can act like a reasonable human being when I sit down to eat. Suddenly those voices that said “You’re full! Stop eating!” actually had some impact on my actions. Though I still have a tendency to be gluttonous that’s not always easy to overcome, with that powerful Mr. Hyde vanquished from the table it is at least now possible.
- I’m no longer yanked around by food-induced mood swings. Not only has it been easier not to commit the sin of gluttony with this new way of eating, but it’s been easier to avoid a lot of other sins as well. The post-meal “crashes” that I used to experience on an almost daily basis left me extremely vulnerable to angry, selfish, slothful behavior. I still have all my same bad personality traits, of course, but without the biochemical factors to exacerbate them it’s much easier to overcome them. (My husband says it’s been stunning to see how much more calm and “able to deal” I seem when he comes home in the afternoons.)
- I’m much more detached from food. When I used to think of detachment from food, I assumed that that always meant eating all things in moderation. For most people, that’s probably the case. It’s taken me 17 years of banging my head into the same wall over and over again to realize it, but I finally see that the way for me to be detached from food is to cut out the foods that I cannot control myself around. I am now able to enjoy meals in a spiritually healthy way — that is, appreciating and taking pleasure in them without obsessing about them — and I don’t even miss the foods I’ve given up now that they’re out of my system.
- There have also been some dramatic changes physically as well. I am noticeably less “puffy” (I get many comments on that), and less inflamed and sensitive to pain. Also, my body has started dropping weight like crazy, even though I wasn’t trying to lose weight. Despite eating more than the recommended calorie intake for pregnant women, I lost a few pounds during the third trimester, and am already down to a post-baby weight that it usually takes me months to reach (in fact, after baby #3 I never did get down to the weight I’m already at now). I’m trying to make sure I don’t get caught up in the dangerous “high” of the scale, but it’s been amazing to see how my body naturally began to release weight after I cut out processed foods.
- And, finally, my daily diet is so much more nutritious than it used to be. I eat so many more fresh fruits and veggies than I used to, I recently calculated that the increase in vitamins and minerals from my new way of eating is almost equivalent to taking a daily multivitamin.
The biggest lesson I learned, however, was about listening. In all that time I spent chattering at God about gluttony, ordering him to help me follow through with my plans to stop overeating, I thought I had all the answers; it never occurred to me that I might be barking up the wrong tree. It was only after I got still and calmly let the Lord guide me that I realized that my particular problem was one of gluttony and addiction, and that I couldn’t treat one without treating the other.
The lesson I’ve learned here has made me think about how often I do this in other areas of my life: I think I know exactly what needs to happen, so I pray to ask God to make it so, as if I’m the one in charge and he’s some kind of wish-granting genie. Considering the dramatic changes I’ve seen in terms of my relationship to food, it makes me wonder what else the Lord could do in my life if I spent a whole lot more time listening.
This post is part of a series about re-thinking my relationship to food, which I call “The Saint Diet” to remind myself that the ultimate goal is deeper union with God. You can read all the posts on the subject here (scroll down to see them all).
When I first realized that now was the time for me to make some radical changes in my relationship to food, it was exciting. God was clearly leading me down a brand new path, and I really felt like this might be it, a path to finally breaking unhealthy attachments to certain foods that had plagued me all of my life. It sounded like fun to see what he had in store! And then I remembered:
Aw, man, but I’m pregnant!
And it got a whole lot less fun. In fact, if it weren’t for the overwhelming confirmation I’d received multiple times in Adoration that now was the time (along with my obstetrician’s agreement that this would be a good thing to do), I would have done what I usually do and shoved it all to the backburner of my life until pregnancy and breastfeeding were over. Being pregnant left me unable to use any of the tools from my old bag of tricks: setting exciting weight loss goals, imagining getting into those size 10 jeans, creating colorful Excel graphs tracking pounds lost per week, following strict diets laid out in books, etc. With all of this off the table, I was lost. How do you break unhealthy eating habits without spreadsheets and scales and diet books?!
I was praying about this one afternoon, and a clear answer came to me:
When you are motivated to do it during pregnancy, you’ll be motivated for the right reasons.
When I “heard” that in prayer, something big clicked for me. In fact, I realized that the thinking that “I can’t work on food issues now because I’m pregnant” was indicative of where my mentality went wrong in the first place. If the drive behind previous efforts had truly been to achieve a healthy detachment from nutritionally void foods, to treat my body as a temple by nourishing it with quality, nutrient-rich foods and break my addictions to those foods full of processed sugar and white flour that harm me spiritually and physically, I would have been more motivated to do it during pregnancy since that would benefit my unborn baby as well; but that’s not what was really driving it.
I didn’t realize it until now, but in all my previous efforts I was looking to replace one worldly high for another: I would give up the “high” of the rush of pleasure from eating a bowl of cookies n’ cream ice cream; but I would replace it with the “high” of seeing a five-pound drop on the scale. The satisfaction I got from my efforts did not come from a deep, still place of joy at letting go of attachments that hindered my relationship with God, but from seeing how effectively I controlled the numbers on the scale to meet my goals on my timetable. I was like an alcoholic who quit drinking by smoking pot all the time. I was still seeking a high in something other than God.
This also explains why I have never been able to achieve long-term changes in this department: because once my weight would level off and I’d stop getting that high from seeing lower and lower numbers on the scale, that old high of a sugar cookie or huge plate of fettuccini alfredo would start to seem awfully appealing.
By prayerfully examining all of this while pregnant, learning how to get motivated to make these changes when there’s no high available to me, I have learned more about my issues with food in the past few weeks than I had in the past 17 years combined.
I’ve learned that I can’t make the scale an integral part of any long-term healthy eating strategy, because I will be too tempted to become addicted to it as a new high in relation to food issues.
I’ve learned that the spiritual part of getting my food issues under control is going to be the hardest part. To let go of seeking highs in any form — to learn to eschew the pleasurable rushes that come with control and short-term payoffs and seek only the slow-moving, deep-rooted peace that comes with when we begin to break our attachments to those things that come between our relationship with God — will require a level of spiritual maturity way beyond where I am now.
I’ve learned that to truly free oneself from an addiction to an unhealthy substance is a slow, sometimes painful, often boring process that involves just taking it one day — sometimes one hour — at a time.
I’ve learned that I have so much more to learn than I could have imagined, and that it’s silly for me to think that I have all the answers right now.
I’ve learned that I cannot do this without God’s help.
I want to add the important disclaimer that I am not suggesting that these lessons apply to everyone. In fact, one of the biggest things I’ve learned lately is just how much the process of detachment is a completely unique process for each individual — especially when it comes to food. There is truly no one-size-fits-all approach. I’m only offering my experiences in case it’s interesting at all to people struggling with similar issues.
(Also, I should add that I’ve been going over all this in detail with my doctor, and would recommend that anyone who’s pregnant do so as well.)
So this is foreign territory for me, tackling gluttonous, addictive, unhealthy eating habits without any of my usual substitute highs. On the surface level, it’s so much more mundane and, well, boring than when I’m getting on the scale every day and relishing the illusion that I’m totally in control. Yet without all the noise of my own controlling thoughts and immediate worldly payoffs, in the silence that’s left I am finally beginning to hear the still, small voice of God.
photo credit: amyliagrace