Friday, July 27, 2012

Arbitrary Goals

Earlier this week, I started job hunting. As anyone who is unemployed knows, this is an odious and onerous task. Even when you possess good skills (as I do), it is very hard to find a job in a sluggish economy with a high unemployment rate. There are lots of people out there looking to secure a decent job and lots of others who have jobs they don't like who are looking to find something better. The market favors the latter over the former, and I'm one of the former.

As part of my job hunting, I've set up a spreadsheet of all of the ways in which I'm looking. It includes temp agencies that I have applied to, individual jobs I've applied for, the dates I've applied and responses, if any. I started looking on Monday and today is Friday, so it's a little soon for responses. However, I'll be adding in "follow-up" letters to job applications as one of the things I track soon. I think it's silly that I should have to remind people that I sent them my resume, but I've been told it is a good technique to help you stand out a bit more in the crowd.

One thing that I did early on was decide that I would apply for at least three jobs a day. I set that goal because I figured that it would push me to look more aggressively. On the third day of looking, I was struggling to find a third place to apply to and decided to send my resume for work that I had done before (residential assistance to the mentally ill), but wasn't necessarily keen on doing again. This is the sort of "last ditch" job that pays so poorly that it would be hard to live on the income, but I was scraping the bottom of the barrel that day for my third application and it fit the bill.

A problem arose when they called me pretty much immediately to schedule an interview. It became clear that I was a perfect fit for this job because I'd done something very much like it before. If I interviewed, there was every chance I would have gotten the work. Unfortunately, I didn't really want the job. Upon reflection, the prospect of doing it made me feel terrible about myself. I felt like it was a step backward and was the type of work that would not challenge me or increase my skill level or knowledge. The pay was dramatically less than I made before. Pondering taking this job made me feel less valuable and as if I would never be offered anything better. I felt like it would be cramming me into a slot that said I couldn't move on in life to better things. It made me feel right back where I started from economically (poor) and emotionally (worthless).

I've mentioned before that my mother pressured me just after college to take the first job that came along. In that case, it was work as a waitress in a mall snack bar. She always engaged in "the sky is falling" thinking and talked as if you had to take the first thing that came your way because there may not be another chance. This mentality was drilled into me as I grew up, and it is very hard for me to walk away from a job opportunity because of it. It didn't matter that the job was not "right" for my goals, the cost of living where I'm going to set up my life, or in line with my skill set. Someone was offering me a job! I "had to" take it.

As I was emotionally struggling with this, I talked about it with my husband. He said that he was worried that this sort of thing would happen when I started to job search. I told him that I couldn't just sit around and do nothing while he was in grad school (which he just started). He said to me, "actually, you can." And he's right. I can. We saved enough money to live without either of us working for about 6 years. While it isn't preferable to drain our savings in this way, it is possible, and he will likely finish his path to a new career within about three or so years tops. That means that we have more than enough to live on until he gets a professional job most likely.

Despite all of this, the only reason I gave up on interviewing for this job (and the idea of taking it) was that my husband did something he has never done before. He directly told me what he felt I should do. He told me to cancel the interview and start writing the book I should write in relation to this blog and what I have accomplished while continuing to search for appropriate jobs that I want to do. It was only because he gave me "permission" to "fail" that I could make that leap. He said it was okay to break out of the box I'd arbitrarily put myself in, and so I could. Otherwise, I don't know if I could have done it at this point in time. Since I trust his judgment more than my own, I could manage this. I  hope next time to do it on my own, but this is a leap I wasn't quite able to make alone.

One of my problems throughout my life has been the setting of arbitrary goals which do not line up with rationality or sometimes reality. I set up a set number of jobs to apply for and when I couldn't locate three, I made a bad choice which landed me in a difficult situation emotionally. Had I not set that meaningless goal, I wouldn't have applied for a job that I didn't actually want and then been put in a bad position when it was almost certainly going to be offered to me. The fact that it was so quickly tossed in my lap in a difficult job market is an indication that it is not a desirable job and that they are having problems finding someone to do it, yet I felt that I had to take this scrap that was being tossed my way because I had another arbitrary notion that I "have to" work as soon as possible.

Of course, the desire to work isn't an arbitrary one. The truth is that I want to work for a variety of reasons. The primary one is I'd rather make money than use savings, but I also simply want to be engaged in meaningful and stimulating activities. I want to make connections with people and engage in my home culture again. I also want to start paying into the Social Security system once more so that my retirement benefits will be better. Working isn't merely about making money to get by everyday for me at this point in time (a luxury I earned through decades of hard work in Asia, frugal living, and an emphasis on saving), and that is exactly why it was a bad idea to take a job which was little more than shepherding and babysitting people with physical and mental disabilities. It's not that the work is beneath me or anyone else, but just that it is not a challenge for me. I've done that already. It's not bad work, but it's not a personal growth or learning opportunity. Frankly, I'd rather go back to Asia and do what I was doing before than return to the job I did just after completion of college.

Getting back to the point, I have this tendency to set up a rigid framework for myself and then feel trapped in that box. In this case, it was the goal of three job applications per day and the absolute necessity that I get to work as soon as possible. The fact of the matter is that there is no reason for me to apply for  a set number of jobs at all costs and I don't have to start working as soon as humanly possible. There is little logic in these goals and they ignore some important realities, especially emotional ones. Primarily, it ignores the fact that there may not be 3 jobs that are right for me everyday. This is something which is beyond my control. I should apply for 10 jobs if there are that many available or none if that is the case. Beyond that, I disregarded my needs to be stimulated, creative, and to learn entirely by placing a (very small) paycheck above my mental health.

This situation is not isolated. It is part of a pattern in my life and a pattern I see among many other women who are overweight and trying to lose weight. They set arbitrary goals and then feel stressed about not meeting them or like failures. They say their goal is to lose 2 lbs. a week, 10 lbs. a month, etc. The truth is that no one has any control over how much weight they lose. You can control the actions that may lead to weight loss, but you can't simply decide to lose "x" number of pounds and force your body to do it. Your body will metabolize fat or consume muscle tissue and reduce your mass in ways you can't control.

Similarly, people will choose exercise goals which are arbitrary and try to stick to them regardless of their health condition. They will work out "x" number of days per week for "x" number of hours/minutes and if they are injured, sick, or exhausted, they will push to do it anyway because they set an arbitrary goal and they are going to make it. The goal is health and fitness, not figures on a spreadsheet. You can't have good health if you do things when you are not well enough to do them. It flies in the face of logic.

The goals we set should be logical and flexible. Rigidity only serves to create stress and conditions under which we will have an increased likelihood of failure. That applies to all things, but it tends to happen more in weight loss for a variety of reasons. One is that we don't trust ourselves and we set the bar strictly to provide motivation. Of course, if you end up defeated by a bar that is set too high, it's hardly a good motivational tool to set an arbitrary goal.

Another reason that we make such arbitrary goals is that they give us a sense of progress. It's gratifying to know by the numbers that we're doing what we set out to do. That sort of feedback is a lot more rewarding than a general sense that we listened to our bodies each day and did what felt right. Our school systems reinforce the idea that measurable goals are important and rewarding when they give us grades for our work. Striving for excellence as reflected in an "A" is something we can relate to. Getting a perfect "score" by exercising for an hour five days a week provides a familiar sense of accomplishment. Getting a less than perfect one by being sick one day and only accomplishing it for four days gives a sense of being inadequate.

I'm not suggesting that people not set goals for themselves, but rather that those goals not be arbitrary or rigid. They should be flexible and reflect reality rather than a box we place ourselves in because we feel that is the framework we need to operate from in order to measure progress or motivate ourselves. For me, I've pondered why I have this tendency in general (my husband does not, he is rational about such things). I believe that it reflects my need for security and predictability in life. I grew up in chaos and being told the sky was falling so I have to construct boundaries to make me feel protected and ensure that I'm moving ahead. Those boundaries offer the sense of structure I didn't grow up with, but they can also be prisons. This is something that I have to be aware of as I navigate my entire life, not just in dealing with my relationship with my body and food.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shopping rather than doing

During my transition back to my home culture after more than two decades living in a foreign one, I've spent time in three different homes. Two of them, including my current residence, belong to my in-laws. Those two places were decorated by my mother-in-law, who passed away last November.

I didn't know my mother-in-law very well because I had a rocky road with my in-laws in general. I've written here before about their social skills, or lack thereof, and the way in which my fragile esteem was damaged by the way they treated me as if I were a burden or simply invisible shortly after my husband and I started to live together.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I should explain a little about the background of my relationship with this woman. Before we married, my husband lived and worked abroad in Asia for a year while I remained in the north east in the U.S. We conducted a relationship over our year's separation by post. The separation was terribly hard on us and when his contract ended and he finally came home, we were desperate to be together. We knew we'd live in his home state on the west coast, but he was coming in fresh from life abroad with no job or apartment. His family have a very big house and they had a spare room that people slept in on occasion. My husband asked if we could temporarily stay with them until he and I pulled our life together. His parents said, "no".

The main reason for their refusal was my father-in-law didn't trust that my husband would get a job and move out fast enough to suit his desires and he didn't want to face the prospect of an indefinite term in which we would be invading his privacy. This was fair enough. However, when we were offered a room in the home of my husband's best friend's parents' home, my mother-in-law's response was  essentially 'we can't let them do that because it'll make us look bad.' So, they didn't want to offer us a temporary place to stay while we found our footing (finding jobs, getting cars, etc.), but she also was not comfortable with our staying with someone else even though it meant that he and I could be together immediately.

During the time we resided with the friend's family, my husband's mother didn't have much of  a relationship with me beyond occasionally making passive aggressive comments related to our progress in getting out of another party's home. When my husband and I once got some take-out food from a local restaurant, she said, "you won't be able to keep doing that if you don't get a job." She also mentioned that we really should move on and stop inconveniencing his best friend's mother.

My impression of my mother-in-law was that she had little personality aside from that of someone who fretted over all sorts of things, both trivial and large, and a selfish concern for how our actions reflected their lack of generosity toward us. When we made a trip home after a few years in Asia and visited them, she was more preoccupied with our not dirtying anything which her first grandchild might end up crawling on with our clean stocking feet (shoes are taken off at the door) than spending time with her son and daughter-in-law who had not been around for 2 years and were going to go away again in 5 days. Nearly all of my interaction with her was critical or as a third party observer. She had no qualitative relationship with me at all.

I had heard and continue to hear a lot of stories about my mother-in-law from her children. My husband long ago told me about many incidents in which her anxiety and overly cautious nature created problems for him. When he was 12, he told his parents that he could go to an amusement park with other kids if he sold enough papers. When he proceeded to work hard to sell enough, his mother wouldn't allow him to go because she was afraid that something bad would happen if he did and she was unwilling to go along to assuage her fears. She simply exercised her paranoia at his expense.

To her kids, she was responsible for denying them pleasures because she spun unlikely scenarios of doom. Even her husband has told me tales of how she had a great many irrational fears, but he would allow her to dictate that her children live in accord with them while explaining to them that the world wasn't all that dangerous, but it would make their mother feel better if they just did what she wanted.

From my limited (and largely negative, though not horribly so) interactions as well as the multitude of stories I was told and continue to hear, I knew my mother-in-law to be a person who lived captive to her fears and anxiety. Only yesterday, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law in which she told me that she feels that her mother was always passive aggressive with her and that she feels that her mother slowly destroyed herself from the inside out with her emotional problems. She felt that her mother accelerated her decline into dementia and that her lifelong health problems were the result of her inability to come to terms with her panic and anxiety.

I mention all of this because it provides context for the point I'm trying to make. Two of the houses are reflections of this woman. The current place is more her than the other, and it is a very telling situation indeed. This house is liberally peppered with Buddhist paraphernalia. There are no fewer than three Buddha statues, two signs which say "namaste" on them, bells, beads, and copious numbers of books with themes about not sweating small stuff, meditating, relaxing, and finding inner peace. This house is a shrine to a mentality that my mother-in-law never possessed, not for a moment.

I asked my sister-in-law about this contradiction in her mother's personality and the trappings I saw all around me. She told me that they represented what her mother wanted to be, but could never succeed at. No matter how many Buddhas, singing bowls, bells, or books she bought, she couldn't purchase the inner peace she craved.

This situation strongly reminds me of how women approach weight loss. They buy exercise equipment, diet books, packages of diet food, and take part in forums. What they don't do is actually change enough to lose weight and keep it off for good. If throwing money at problems could make them go away, my mother-in-law would have had the inner calm of the Dalai Lama and most fat women in America would be thin.

The problem isn't that people aren't trying, but rather that they spend more effort on the trappings than on the actual work because they think that the trappings are the work.
My mother-in-law's problem wasn't that she didn't try. She went to meditation classes, listened to lots of relaxation tapes, and read about and practiced a variety of techniques to achieve inner calm, but she didn't deal with the core issues. Those were that she was playing fear and anxiety recordings in her brain in a continuous loop. Rather than focus upon finding a way to stop those recordings, she just tried to paper over them with a lifestyle she hoped to emulate. In other words, she tried to fake it until she made it, but faking never resulted in making.

I've written before about rewiring your mind. This is a Herculean mental task which requires millions of adjustments in thinking through time such that you stop going down mental routes that you are comfortable and familiar with. People don't want to do this because it's incredibly hard and taxes the blood glucose in your brain such that you are exhausted. It also forces a complete change in self-definition and an alteration in how you view your identity. Though it is far more effective than trying to buy a lifestyle you want in the hopes that it'll somehow magically replace whatever your problems in your current one are, it's also far less immediately gratifying. I don't know if my mother-in-law could have found some peace had she spent more time trying to stop her worry train before it left the station, but I'm pretty sure that trying would have been better than continually buying Buddhist paraphernalia and scattering it around her home.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's not how you do it

This isn't the sort of blog in which I write about the details of my daily routine and weight loss, at least not anymore. It's not that I don't believe such things may be helpful to some people, but rather that I realized a long time ago that each person has to follow a different path in terms of the mechanics of what they do to manage their daily food and exercise routines. I mainly try to address the broader issues that affect the relationships that people, especially those with life-long problems and severe overeating or compulsive eating problems, have with food.

That being said, occasionally, I do pause to talk a bit about the smaller things. I do so mainly to offer a realistic portrait, track my own behavior more concretely for my own records, and to show people that I'm human, too. To that end, I want to talk about how things have been going since I went through the monumental changes I've been through in the past 3 or so months and where my relationship with food stands at present.

Left: now, right: about 25 years ago (not my lowest ever, but the pictures of my lowest ever aren't as well posed to display my body)

First of all, I've been looking at  old pictures of myself from 23-26 years ago when I initially lost a lot of weight and seeing my body at its thinnest. I never weighed myself at that time so I don't know what my  lowest weight was. However, I think that I am probably about 10-20 pounds heavier than I was at my absolute smallest ever, and I certainly didn't spend long at that weight. That weight was achieved at the height of my exercising (that's 90 minutes a day - 45 of aerobic and 45 calisthenics, 5 days a week). It was done by not eating any fat or sugar and eating a lot of whole grain carbs, low fat dairy (especially cheese), and fruit. I ate salads, but vegetables weren't as big a part of my life then as they are now (because I'm a better cook and have broader tastes). It was done in a way that was nearly impossible to sustain without devoting my life to my body, and that is why I regained.

The body I have now, which is slightly heavier, was achieved through the processes described in this blog. That is, moderation,  no limiting of sugar, fat, or any particular type of macro-nutrient (such as limiting carbs or whatnot). Because of physical difficulties and the bare basic facts of adult life (having to work and have time for relationships), I could not exercise beyond walking and modest weight lifting and stretching. In other words, my current body, which is very much like my hard-fought body of two and a half decades ago, was achieved with far less time spent daily on exercise, far less Draconian dietary changes, and a lot more mental effort than physical. The irony is that it was achieved in almost the same total time (in years), and beginning from a likely higher weight. Certainly, it was achieved with a less youthful metabolism.

Of course, my current body is far from ideal. I'm still technically obese. I'm still fatter than I'd like to be from the viewpoint of going out and looking for jobs, but at least I can move. I can go out and play Frisbee in the park with my husband (and I have!). I can walk without back pain. People aren't staring at me or making fun of me all of the time. I'd like to lose more weight and will continue on the path I'm on with moderation in all things. However, I have to accept that this may be where my set point is likely to stay.

When I say that, it is not an admission of defeat, but an acceptance of some real possibilities. First of all, I'm not in my early 20's anymore. The reason I'm holding my arm and making a muscle like that is so you can see all of my bat-winged glory. I've been working on building arm muscle for firmness slowly through the last 3 years and I have muscle definition in my upper arms, but I will never lose that extra skin. It has been stretched out and no longer has the elasticity to retract. The same goes for skin in all areas of my body, especially my lower belly, hips, and behind. There will always be a lot of excess skin, probably as much as 10 lbs. of it, on my body. I can live with this because I'm 47 years old and I would not subject my body to the mutilation of plastic surgery (cutting away healthy skin) for aesthetic reasons or to bring down a number on the scale. I also note that my waist is not as small as it got before, but that is the effect of gravity. I will never have the shape I had before. 

 Me at high school graduation.

Second, I have been obese my entire life. I was a fat child and finished my teens at a very high weight. The number of fat cells in my body is much higher than that of a person who was thin when younger and later gained weight. My body will deflate those cells, but it will never eliminate them. Fat cells, once added, are forever. This I have known for a long time. Having a high number of these cells causes fat bodies to be different (hormonally, neurochemcially, and likely more) than thin ones and that is the case forever.

In order to be appreciably thinner than I am now, there is a distinct possibility that I would have to devote my life to weight loss and only weight loss. I don't have the time, joints, or desire to become a slave to my body in this way. I'm in excellent health with no problems at all. There is no reason other than vanity to push so hard, and I'd rather be mentally healthy and fatter than obsessed and thinner. I do not want to be obsessed for the sake of acquiring a particular look and nothing more, but more than that, I want to live my life fully, not spend hours and hours pushing myself to exercise or fretting over whether I can eat anything at a social function because my diet options are so restricted.

My feeling right now is that I will continue to lose weight, but it will happen at a trickle over years. I think that it will be hard for my body to go lower, but it will slowly happen over time. It will probably be pretty inconsequential and only noted over a long period of time. It's also going to be very "up and down" based on having good days and bad ones through time. That's okay. I will just  stay the course and see where it leads.

The odd thing is that, though I'm not especially pleased with my body, I'd rather live in it as it is with the lifestyle I have than go back to the thinnest I ever managed with all of the time and effort I had to put into it. It's not ideal, but little in life is. I find more happiness in moderation and in not pushing myself to spend 90 minutes most days on hard exercise or depriving myself at every turn. If people want to judge me for that, then they're welcome to do so, but they can keep their thoughts to themselves because they're the only ones who are reflected in them and going to be affected by them. In fact, given all the talk about health and weight, anyone who does judge me negatively will endorse the fact that fat disapproval is about beauty, not health. My heart is in good shape. My insulin function excellent. I was thoroughly tested late last year, and I'm in better health than thinner people of the same age. 

The bottom line is that, looking back over my two great weight loss experiences in life, I ended up at almost the same place doing it two dramatically different ways. It doesn't seem to matter how you do it, as long as you keep doing it and keep moving in a particular direction. There is no one path for anyone, and sometimes, there's not even a single path for the same person.

The Worth of a Normal Human Being

I've been away from this blog for awhile and I apologize to those whose comments languished for a little while in moderation. I've completed the third transition to a temporary domicile since returning to America. Each move requires adjustment, not to mention very practical considerations such as packing and unpacking. Settling into a new space always requires adjustment, especially since each time there is overlap with the owner.

In this case, we are staying in my father-in-law's house while he stays at the cabin we began our return in. We were there for 2 months. He plans to stay for 3 and we'll be in his place until we find our own and start paying rent again. While I'm not looking forward to the large bites that will be taken from our savings when that happens, I am looking forward to being autonomous again. Living in other people's spaces means living by their rules and in a space shaped to suit their individual desires.

This place is rather different than the others because it is familiar. I didn't spend a lot of time in this house before I went off to live in that Asian country, but I did visit all too frequently... far more so than I would have liked at the time. The seeds of the changes which lead to my regaining weight were fertilized here, though I imagine they were already planted none too shallowly in my psyche. I'm not sure if they can ever be dug out and removed, but I can continue to hope.

I used to be extremely bitter about how I was treated here by my in-laws and, at that time, felt it was an indication that I was worthless. Since I was raised and conditioned by experience to believe that others were entitled to assess my value, I embraced deeply the notion that I was inadequate. Now, I know that it had nothing to do with me. 

A lot of people say that sort of thing when they want to explain that others are mean to you because they are acting out on their own problems. That's true. However, that's not what I am talking about. In this case, these are people who are so self-involved and socially inept that they have no clue that they are behaving poorly and making others feel bad. Sitting at a dinner table with them, supposedly as their guest, and having people talk as if you weren't in the room would clearly be an epic act of rudeness to most people, but not these ones. They are most comfortable with each other and will focus on each other because they do not know any better. I'm not sure they even realized what they were doing on any level.

So, now when they act in a self-involved manner, and they do so less now than before because life has changed for them, too, I take it in stride. I see it for what it is, and it's not a reflection on me. I'm actually a little surprised at how I've completely let go of the bitterness and anger that I had about this for so many years. I think part of the reason for that is maturity and self-reflection. Part of it is also that my husband has become so much more clued in about the truth and has been supportive of my viewpoint (he has changed, too). Another is that I've lost weight again and that sense of worth that was lost because of the way I was treated due to my body has returned.

When I say things about my "sense of worth", I in no way mean that I'm the greatest thing on the planet. I mean that I no longer believe I'm a sub-human piece of garbage that deserves to be looked upon with disgust and disdain or treated as invisible. My "worth" in my estimation is that of a normal human. If you've never been super morbidly obese or if you did not grow up fat, you can't know what it is to walk around day after day feeling as though you are nothing and contemptible. You haven't been conditioned by thousands of external cues, both subtle and gross, that make certain that you know that you are a pariah in the eyes of the world.

A lot of people will say "get over it". A lot of people lack much depth of understanding and sensitivity. Those same people will cry and say how sad they are if they learn that a child was verbally abused and told he or she was stupid and worthless by an angry parent for years. They'll know that cripples that person's esteem in a way which the adult may never fully recover from. They can understand how the abused may seek abusers in relationships in the future because they associate love with abuse.

However, they fail to see that being fat and being mocked, derided, and belittled day in and day out for your entire life has exactly the same effect. They don't see it because their prejudice against fat people is too great for them to set aside and find compassion. It is a powerful and painful way to have grown up, and it is the ugly ground upon which all of the seeds of my psyche were sown.

Monday, July 2, 2012

It's so easy (part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about how the food culture in America has problems for variety of issues compared to what I experienced while living in Asia. In this post, I'd like to talk about how things aren't all bad and the fact that there are positive aspects to the food culture, especially for people who are trying to lose weight or who have special dietary concerns.

One of the differences between where I lived before and being home is that the selection in America is broader than that Asian country by far. It's not just that the shops are big, but that they offer so many colors of any particular aspect of the food rainbow. In the country I was living in, organic food was scarce, expensive, and poorly presented. It was often wilted or looked as if it were close to going bad. I'm guessing this was because their infrastructure, which was highly developed and actually superior to that in most parts of the U.S., was not designed to support rapid movement of food from place to place. It also didn't help that their farming culture was vanishing and they were getting most of their food from other countries.

Americans who live in areas which are not food deserts (that is most people, really) have access to more locally grown food and food grown without chemicals than I experienced in that Asian country. This is because we live in a huge country with a large number of farming areas and can get produce from where it is grown to where it is purchased more rapidly (as we don't have to rely on other countries) and because the demand for organic food is much higher. The country I lived in had consumers who prioritized how the produce looked, not how it was grown. If it looked good, they never questioned whether it had been sprayed with pesticides or chemcially treated so the demand for organic food was too low to see the economies of scale that you see in the U.S. And while organic food is more expensive than chemically treated food, it is still cheaper (and better) than it was in the country I used to live in (by far).

In regards to "processed food", and I view most food as processed in some way, America has better and wider options. It's important to realize that humans almost always "process" food in some way and it is the level and type of handling as well as the added ingredients that are the issue. Cheese is a processed food. Coffee is as well. The sugar-free whole grain muffins I bake on a regular basis are a processed food comprised of other processed foods such as flour, baking powder, peanut butter, etc. If you cut up, cook, or season your fruit and vegetables, you are "processing" them. That doesn't make these things unhealthy. The depth of processing matters and we have great choices in this regard compared to other parts of the world. There's a vast difference between the gallon of milk you buy and a Lean Cuisine, though both are processed.

If you are trying to eat more healthily or lose weight, you have many excellent options in the U.S. and these were ones I did not have in Asia. For example,  one of the things I have fallen in love with since coming home is almond milk. Yes, it is a processed food, but it is a simple one which can be bought containing ingredients which are not particularly alien or beyond what I willingly ingest as part of a multi-vitamin. It is no more processed than cow's milk, possibly less so. Almond milk is lower calorie and more nutritionally dense than cow's milk. It has a very long history as part of food culture (it was used for cooking in the middle ages) and, at least to me, is not far removed from what I make when I cook my own dishes. And, in fact, purists can make their own almond milk if they don't like what is sold in cartons. At 40 calories per 8 oz., it eclipses skim milk as a "diet food" option, and it tastes good and is better for you. By contrast, the country I lived in had cow's milk and soy milk. The soy milk always had sugar added and was high in fat. 

Beyond that, if you are a person who wants or, yes, "needs" to eat sweet treats or salted snacks, America is the place to be. If you can't fathom transitioning from your current food life to one of "pure" eating practices, there are options here. In the Asian country I lived in, it was "all or nothing". On the one hand, I am glad that I lost weight in that situation because it forced me to learn portion control. If I wanted a salty snack, I could ingest a lot of calories knowing I'd end up hungry for it or I could eat just 2 or 3 chips or I could choose something more nutritionally dense and forgo my craving. Here, it's not so hard. I can have Pop Chips, Skinny Cow ice cream, or some other reduced calorie snack. The "crutches" for dieters are numerous.

Of course, the diet food culture is like a minefield rife with danger. I can have Pop Chips, but I can't eat the whole bag. Portion control is still important, but the portion I can have here isn't 5 chips for 50 calories, but 10. Part of the problem for many people is that they see "diet" and think that they can lose weight and eat a lot. Perhaps the presence of such foods actually is a part of the larger problem as having the choice to eat more for a lower calorie amount encourages the continued consumption of large portions. I can't say for sure. All I can say is that it feels like a dieter's paradise here. If I wanted a bite of ice cream before, it would cost me 75 calories for two or three small spoonfuls. Here, I cut a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich in half and have that. And, yes, I do eat only half of it, even if it is reduced calorie. That's all I "need" to be satisfied, possibly even a larger indulgence than necessary at that size. It seems to me, after living in a "dieter's desert", that the American market makes it much easier to have your cake and eat it, too, but that people end up failing anyway.

To me, there is a difference between various types of processed foods in terms of the position they take in our food life. The problem in America isn't that I'm buying ice cream sandwiches rather than making them myself. The problem isn't that they are buying dried pasta rather than hand-making their noodles. The problem is that they are buying entire meals that are frozen or dried and seeing that as the end of their meal preparation and those meals aren't nutrient-dense. I think that it is convenience that is killing us more than the presence of cheap, crappy food. Even instant ramen (which I don't like and don't eat) can come close to being healthy if you use only half the seasoning packet and add a boiled egg and some fresh vegetables. When we look to processed food as a complete solution, it is then that we start to have issues.

As someone who has found health through small steps, I believe that the first stage of improving the American diet on a personal level is to start adding in small amounts of food preparation to augment to often nutritionally deficient processed options. If you can't give up macaroni and powdered cheese packets, then at least try stirring some canned tuna into it or having broccoli (either in it or on the side). If you can't stomach plain, low-fat yogurt, then you can mix in a tablespoon of instant pudding mix (lemon is awesome for this) to make it sweeter, thicker, and more dessert-like. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. The point is not to make ourselves miserable eating food we hate because it's "good" for us or wearing ourselves out making everything from scratch, but to start a transition from where we are to someplace a little closer to where it might be nice to be. Once we start down that path, it becomes more possible to move a little closer to a life which is increasingly independent of having machines make our meals for us and eating them out of the can, freezer, or packet.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

It's so easy

There have been many shocks for me since returning to America after more than two decades of living in an Asian culture. I'm sure that it is not that things have changed, but rather that I was so thoroughly a part of the culture before that these matters did not appear to be strange enough to note previously. Of course, things have changed, but overall, I think it's just that I got used to how things were "there" and forgot how they are "here".

When it comes to food, I've noticed that there are aisles upon aisles of frozen food and processed food in the U.S. This isn't entirely a reflection of our taste for such food (though it is that as well), but also the change in lifestyle that has come about because people are so over-booked that they don't do slow food much anymore. What is worse, a lot of that processed food is cheaper than real food. I used to think that was an excuse people made, but it's very clearly a reality. It's not just about the macaroni with powdered cheese in store brand boxes that provide cheap carbs and calories at a tiny price, but cans of soup, packets of ready-made meals, and entrees of processed meat in fried breading that are ready for the toaster oven at a fraction of the cost of that raw skinless, boneless chicken breast meat.

My husband and I have not had the time or mobility to visit a lot of the typical shopping haunts of people who live on lower incomes, but the biggest shock for us came when we made a trip to Target. Not every Target carries food, but this one did and the fresh food sections were tiny and expensive while the junk food areas were huge and full of items that could be had for a song. When we bought diet soda that was on sale for a very good price (yes, I drink diet soda and it hasn't had a negative impact on my weight loss), the store gave us a free half gallon of ice cream.They didn't offer a pound of apples or a half pound of cherries, but rather ice cream.

I was stunned by how cheaply one could eat food that wasn't really food and how much pricier it was to buy real food. It's not that you can't buy "real" food cheaply, but that it's far less attractive, far more troublesome, and requires pretty sophisticated knowledge of cooking. While one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods you can make is beans, few people have the time or inclination to deal with them. I've actually eaten beans about 5 times a week since coming home, but that's because I've been welcome to eat food from my host's pantry and it is full of various kinds of beans that she bought but didn't have the time or desire to prepare. I'm sure she's not alone in her good intentions and weak follow-through.

Beyond the poor folks who find that they have better and cheaper access to nutritionally poor food options, I've noticed that even affluent people eat poorly and convince themselves that they're eating well. My in-laws are fairly well off people, and they still eat what is easy, though definitely from a better grade of processed food. They'll concentrate on deli potato salad from an expensive store, organic canned soup, and protein bars rather than cheaper fare, but there is still a lot of processed and pre-prepared food in their lives rather than real cooking with real food. They believe that, as long as it's labeled "organic", and it is missing any of the hot-button "bad" ingredients of the current era (trans fats, HFCS, etc.), then it's "healthy".

In short, I'm shocked at how easy it is to eat poorly and how even people who are educated are eating badly and convincing themselves otherwise. Lara bars, sugar-packed Greek yogurt (and most of it is!), frozen and canned processed vegetarian meals, and protein powder-based drinks and smoothies don't make your diet a good one. It's still not "real" food for the most part.

I'm certainly not one to pine about the "lost art of cooking", but it has really come home to me that people have lost the art of eating well. They are so accustomed to processed food that they not only don't think about cooking from whole foods, but they find the tastes of such things strange and unpalatable. People are so indoctrinated in the chemical tastes of prepared food that food from scratch tastes "weird" to them.

As my readers know, I am far from being any sort of "food saint", and feel that all sorts of food have a place in modern diets. However, I think that the place currently occupied by real food is very small and getting smaller. The sickness of America's food culture is so deep and wide that I have to wonder if there will ever be a cure. Obesity isn't the worst consequence of it, but it certainly is one of them. We have a lot of work to do, and little of it has to do with losing weight. It has to do with finding our way back to being in touch with food in a way which brings the hands of people back into the process, and removes the machinery.