Food, Zombies, and Choices

When I was in 7th grade, my dad approached me with an offer I couldn’t refuse. “Hey, Meg,” he says to me. “How would you like to earn $1 a day for eating?” A whole dollar, you say? For doing something I’m going to do already? Let me think about it…sure!

There was, of course, a catch. Dad laid out a “nutrition plan” that seemed mighty restrictive to my adolescent eyes. I can’t precisely recall the particulars, but its basic goals were the elimination of “junk” food, sugar, and excessive snacking. For example, I remember that tacos for dinner were fine and dandy, but nachos made from Velveeta “cheese” were off limits. Milk with school lunch was fine, but chocolate milk wasn’t. Things like that. And of course, it should go without saying that pop, candy, desserts, and pretty much any other food with “sugar” or “corn syrup” as the #1 ingredient was a no-no.

Dad asked me to keep track of the foods I was eating. For any day that I managed to stick to the plan, I’d earn myself a dollar. Any slip-up, be it in the form of Mom’s impossible-to-resist sugar cookies, nachos at a basketball game, or even a single jelly bean, would deprive me of the green. Now, there are probably many teenagers who would ignore the rules and see how long they cold trick dumb ol’ Dad out of a dollar, but I wasn’t one of those kids. Perhaps it’s the first-born’s overdeveloped sense of guilt, perhaps I’m just that honest, or perhaps I never labored under the delusion that Dad was dumb enough to fall for something like that, but I took the deal and never tried to trick him.

In a month, I think I’d earned a total of $8.

Now, the point of Dad’s little experiment wasn’t weight loss. I think he was trying to help me be more conscious about what I was eating. It’s something I find myself thinking a lot about now that my metabolism is turning and I can no longer eat massive quantities of anything with nary a negative consequence.

Why is making the “right” choices so dang hard? Is it just me? I hope it’s not just me. In case it’s not just me, I’d like to share a couple of problems I’ve encountered.

Problem #1: Focusing on What’s “Best”

When I still lived in South Carolina, I was trying to figure out a way to lose the final stubborn pounds of “grad school weight.” Marathon training had gotten me halfway there, but then I plateaued. “Ah-ha,” I said to myself. “Maybe if I start eating RIGHT.”

On a quest to discover the best possible foods to eat, I took to the Internet. And went a little crazy. There are seemingly endless possibilities for the “right” way to eat, and they all have impassioned followers who are more than happy to present their arguments for what you should be eating and what is probably killing you. Very frequently, the theories contradict one another.

Now, theoretically, dietary diversity makes sense. Different foods are going to work for different people, and we should all be able to live happily and eat healthily…even if our definitions of “healthy” vary. In practice, however, the process of discovering what’s “best” for you can be immensely frustrating.

There’s the diet that lauds protein and vilifies carbohydrates. There are the diets that tell us to go back to our eating roots — whether this means eating like a caveman or a biblical patriarch. There are the diets that say human beings weren’t meant to consume animal products for various medical or ethical or ecological reasons. There’s the low-fat diet and the diet that claims that the right kind of fat is critically important and over-processed foods are what’s causing most medical issues. And on and on.

And then there’s the statistics. Oh, the statistics. If you send me a link to stats claiming that a certain food is bad for you, I’ll trump it with stats showing that same food is good for you. Don’t tempt me. I can do it. Just the other day, I was trying to decide what to do with some rainbow chard. “Can I make a smoothie with it?” I wondered. Off I went to the Internet, and the very first result for “chard smoothie” was a recipe for “the best green smoothie ever.” The link right underneath it, however, was to an article called, “Green Smoothies Can Have a Devastating Effect on Your Health.” Yes indeed. “Devastating.” The explanation is that many leafy greens are high in oxalates and can cause kidney stones. Cheery.

Now, obviously the rule of Internet research is not to believe everything you read. At a certain point, however, the contradicting opinions and statistics and theories can be overwhelming. When I focus too much on the BEST way to eat, I wind up not caring at all. “Aw, screw it. Next stop, hamburger and fries! Bring on the ice cream! And where are my jelly beans?”

Solution #1: Better…It’s Better than Best!

So, forget finding the BEST way to eat. Forget looking for “super foods.” (That term really bugs me for some reason.) What’s more sustainable for me (especially given the “what’s the best?” black hole I fall into otherwise) is eating BETTER. Water is better than pop. Green smoothie is better than a donut. Grilled is better than fried.

These are the types of choices that you don’t need a degree in nutrition to confidently make. Unless, of course, you are suffering from the second problem…

Problem #2: Food Zombie

I am a food zombie. This is only way I can think to explain my apparently natural inclination to consume massive amounts of sugar without realizing it. It goes like this: I’m sitting at my desk, editing a document. I get hungry and realize I haven’t eaten anything for breakfast. There happens to be a jar of candy nearby, so I chow down on a handful of sugar until the feeling of hunger subsides. Never mind that I know better. Never mind that all I have to do is walk upstairs to the kitchen and find some of that “better” food I was just lecturing about. Nope. I’m a zombie, and zombies don’t think.

Solution #2: Use Your Brain

Zombies eat brains. Food zombies just need to use the brain they already have. When I make conscious choices about what I eat, I’m more likely to eat oatmeal for breakfast. I’m more likely to drink water. I’m more likely to snack on fresh fruit or veggies. I’m more likely to make better choices in general when I wake up and pay attention to what I’m eating.

This isn’t to say that I’ve got it all figured out, or even that I consistently put “make better choices…don’t be a zombie” into practice. But I try, and knowing that I have LilRunr to be an example for is going to motivate me to keep trying in the future.

Just Desserts No Longer

I have come to a sad realization. I have passed that time in my life when I can look at something deep fried and covered with chocolate sauce (Hooray for Seinfeld re-runs!) and think, “this will be mine.” Now, I must think, “I can order this, but I will be done with it in two tiny bites. Then, what to do with the other $3.75 of my $4.00 raspberry white chocolate cheescake/peanut butter, caramel, & chocolate pie/Marble Slab ice cream mix?” I suppose it can go home…and sit in the fridge…and maybe I’ll finish it before it turns green. And of course, we all know exactly where those 1,200 calories posing as an accompaniment to a meal is going to go…and it isn’t going to be pretty.  

This makes me a little sad. I know that it’s just part of getting older…dang metabolism. I can even look on the bright side and think of all the money I’m saving now that I don’t burn off calories faster than I consume them…dang cheapskate Megan. And I’m mostly smart enough and have mostly enough willpower to mostly resist the siren call of the dessert. Mostly.

But geez, is it hard work sometimes. I do love sugar. And caramel (aka burnt sugar). And chocolate. You know, some people say that chocolate can be a little good for you. It’s probably not true, but I’ll play along. So…scratch that. And raspberries. Wait…raspberries probably have some sort of vitamin content. Scratch that, too. And…marshmallows (aka air puffed sugar). And peanut butter. Hmm…ok, fat content aside, peanut butter has some iron. That can be good. More scratching.

Where was I? That’s right, confessing my love for processed sugar and grumbling about changing metabolism. Grumble grumble grumble.