Food is not our enemy. You'd never know it, though. Every time we turn around, we are bombarded with reminders of what we should and should not eat. Terms like "good" and "bad" are applied to everything we put in our mouths. Our relationships to food are shaped by a weird combination of guilt and desire.
I know very few people who see food primarily as something to nourish and fuel bodies. Most, it seems, see eating as evidence of a character flaw, a sign they've surrendered to an unfortunate human weakness--the need and desire to eat. It sounds so stupid doesn't it? That's because it is stupid. In our culture, eating is more about restriction and resistance than it is about nourishing and fueling our bodies so they can work effectively. Many of us learned to see food as the enemy at a very young age.
Track Coach From Hell
When I was twelve years old, for example, I joined one of the city track clubs in Edmonton. The coach had a set of body fat calipers and made "fat testing" mandatory for team members. Keep in mind that we were all between 12 and 17 years of age. I recall sitting in my junior high classes on fat-testing days pinching the skin on the back of my arm trying to determine how many millimeters of fat had accumulated. I dreaded those fat tests, and for good reason.
If the tests determined that we were too fat (the coach drew this conclusion) we were placed on low carbohydrate diets. As a twelve-year-old who weighed about 115 lbs and stood 5' 6," I was often sentenced to several weeks of low carb eating. "Low carb" meant no more than twenty grams of carbohydrate a day. That's less than the amount in one banana!
My also-too-fat teammates and I would sit together at lunch time eating the lone apple each of us brought to school.
If our parents packed us lunches, we threw them away so as not to displease the coach. We were hungry all the time. How we made it through our track practices each evening is beyond me. It was ludicrous. Still, we obeyed our coach religiously. Why? Because, if later tests revealed that our diets had been successful at reducing our body fat percentages, he praised us and made us feel like super stars. Eventually, I switched track clubs and discovered that real athletes eat food. Go figure.
Although I have never had a weight problem per se, I did get a little chunky in graduate school. There was this awesome restaurant called the High Level Diner in Edmonton. In my M.A. year, I met a friend there often to study and ate more than my fair share of the delicious deserts on the menu. I gained about twenty pounds even though I was running a lot. Eventually, I decided it was time to ditch the extra pounds. I joined Weight Watchers and I lost the weight.
I really liked the Weight Watchers program for a number of reasons. At the meeting I attended, the leader gave those who showed a weight loss a sticker or a gold star on weigh in days. As my friends know, I'll do just about anything for a sticker or a gold star so that was a powerful incentive for me. (Yes, I'm five.)
I also liked the structure of the program. I'm a tracker and those who are successful at losing weight on Weight Watchers are generally those who religiously track what they eat. Weight Watchers, then and now, allows participants to eat real food and to make decisions about what and when to eat it. It's really based on an "everything in moderation" approach to eating, which I think is the healthiest approach to just about everything in life. Mostly, though, I liked the Weight Watchers program because it didn't, and does not, make food the enemy. As far as "diets" go, it's probably one of the most sustainable plans.
Then Along Came CrossFit
Since I started CrossFit, I've learned a lot more about food and eating for performance. Carrie Slaton and Ben Ball, the coaches at SK Kinesiology, definitely do not see food as the enemy .On the contrary, they emphasize the importance of eating the right ratios of macronutrients--protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Periodically, Ben and Carrie offer an excellent nutrition seminar at their facility in Magnolia, AR. The seminar teaches how and why it is valuable to balance and track macronutrients. Essentially, if we're trying to get stronger and fitter, we have to fuel our bodies. Fueling our bodies doesn't just mean shoving them full of food. Nor does it mean eating one macronutrient and shunning the others. Rather, it means eating a diet balanced in ways that are appropriate for our personal goals.
The best part of tracking macronutrients is that many of us find ourselves eating MORE, not less. Thanks to the "no fat" craze, I'd grown accustomed to avoiding things like butter. Much to my surprise, Carrie and Ben advocate eating butter--real butter, not the little tubs of chemicals posing as butter--as well as coconut oil and other healthy fats. It is so refreshing to be encouraged to eat more food and not less. This is just another part of the CrossFit life that I find so appealing.
Food is on my mind today because I've eaten poorly the last two or three weeks. I can feel the effects. I've not been drinking enough water and I can feel that too. My eyes are dry and my skin is broken out. I've also been completely ignoring my macro ratios. About the only thing I've been truly committed to is eating ridiculous numbers of cookies. When I'm grading papers, I turn to the cookies. They are my weakness. It's not that cookies are off-limits in the world of macronutrients; they're not. It's just not a good idea to eat twenty of them in one sitting. (No, I'm not kidding. I have done this--usually when the essays I'm grading are especially bad or I find a lot of plagiarism.)
Today, I decided to get back to tracking macronutrients and getting well hydrated. This is a good thing. Also good is that I am not beating myself up for falling off the macronutrient wagon. I am so beyond feeling guilty for having a body that needs food to work at its optimal level. I am done celebrating restriction or deprivation. I am over seeing myself as lazy or weak because I have a thing for cookies and overindulge from time to time. What matters is what we do most of the time. Periodic slack periods won't make or break the plan.
We Need to Be Nice to Ourselves
At almost 49, I am stronger than I have ever been. What a great feeling that is! Food is my friend and I refuse to have it any other way. Every WOD I do at the box reminds me that I need to make sure I eat well, but not so I can be skinny. Rather, I need to eat well so that I can be strong and healthy and do awesome workouts at CrossFit.
Let's Make a Pact
We've got to stop seeing food as the enemy. Let's stop beating ourselves up and shaming others, consciously or unconsciously, about what and when and how much we eat. Let's just do our best to put good fuel into our bodies so we can use them to do things we want to do.
We owe it to ourselves to find ways to be active. We need to feed our bodies what and how much they need to do the things we ask them to do. Being active and eating well are ways of being nice to ourselves.
Life is short. As the song goes, we're not going to live forever and so we owe it to ourselves to make sure we're really living while we're alive. Seriously. We have nothing to lose, right?