How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body

carbs-bread-rice-pasta

Foundation of the old school food pyramid, yo! But really, who ever got 6-11 servings in a day? Eleven servings??

After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.

I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.

At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.

Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.

I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)

Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.

Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.

I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.

“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.

Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.

Gnocchi to the Rescue

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.

After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.

Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.

I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.

And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.

I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.

Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.

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Chocolate Chip Cookies for Your “Cheat” Days…or Every Day

funny_chocolate_chip_cookie_throw_pillow

While fitness is one of my highest priorities, I haven’t given up my sweet tooth. Luckily I have found the Holy Grail: a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that are both tasty and SLIGHTLY less harmful than the normal processed white flour crap you’d find on the shelf at the grocery store. It can’t be brown rice and vegetables 24/7. You need to have a little fun.

First let me give credit where credit is due. I originally found this recipe on Ambitious Kitchen. (Click here) It all started with some cookies I had at a yoga retreat (you can stop rolling your eyes now.) They were fat, chewy, sweet, and unbelievably yummy…and just happened to be Paleo, but whatever. I couldn’t get the taste out of my mind, so I hunted down a similar and even tastier version on the Ambitious Kitchen website.

How awesome are these cookies?
-They are soft and chewy. Who likes a hard crumbly cookie?
-The dark brown sugar and coconut oil give them a unique taste.
-They’re gluten free thanks to the quinoa flour, and can be dairy and soy free depending on the type of chocolate you use….but, sorry vegans, they do contain eggs. I don’t understand Paleo, so I don’t know if they are or not….nothing against it; I’m just too lazy to research it.
-They are very popular. Other than two people, no one in my family has dietary restrictions and has to avoid wheat and soy. Everyone just likes the cookies because they are THAT good.

Ingredients
-2 cups quinoa flour (I have found it at Sprouts and Fresh Market)
-1/4 tsp salt
-1 tsp baking soda
-2/3 c melted coconut oil (Whole Foods sells some liquid coconut oil specifically for cooking, but it’s hellaexpensive. Target now carries liquid coconut oil for about $6. Yeah!!)
-1 1/4 c dark brown sugar. (Seriously, get the organic DARK kind, not just that regular sand-colored brown sugar if you want a yummy, molasses-y flavor.)
-1 egg
-1 egg yolk
-2 tsp vanilla
-1 c chocolate chips (Now this is where I do get down with Whole Foods. Their in-house brand 365 jumbo milk chocolate chips will make you want to leave your family and live on a paradise island with a bag of these chips.)
-sea salt for sprinkling. Don’t forget!

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Whisk together quinoa flour, baking soda, and salt.
3. In a separate large bowl, beat together the coconut oil and brown sugar with an electric mixer. When it starts to smooth add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat until it becomes creamy.
4. Add flour mix. Mix on low speed and add chocolate chips…if you haven’t eaten all the chocolate chips already.
5. Roll into 2-inch balls and place on a cookie sheet.
6. Bake approximately 12 minutes or until they turn golden brown.
7. Remove from oven.
8. While the cookies are cooling, very lightly sprinkle with sea salt.

Option: Chill the cookies in the refrigerator if you like cold cookies. Once in a while the quinoa taste comes out, which is a little weird, but that goes away when those amazing chocolate chips punch you in the face.

How to Handle the Holidays When You’re an Athlete with an Appetite (Or, My Justification for Pie)

sleeping at gym

Exercise is good for you, and so is sleep. She is multi-tasking!

“I feel like Jake LaMotta when he’s all fat and out of shape and laughing at his own stupid jokes at the end of ‘Raging Bull.'”

I was leaning against the counter at my parents’ house, drinking a glass of wine and munching thoughtfully on a tortilla chip. As I’ve been coming off a serious back injury that brought my exercise routine to a screeching halt, I’ve been going into the holiday season, which means excuses to eat are everywhere. I haven’t exercised since the Friday before I hurt my back, and unlike the weeks before my black belt test, I’ve been eating a little more than my typical brown rice/roasted veggies/eggs/fruit diet.

So what to do when you’re an athlete in a demanding sport, but you also have a mother who puts Italian sausage in her Thanksgiving stuffing? (I know, awesome, right?) Here are my tips for staying semi-fit and fully sane during the next month of solid eating:

1. Choose Wisely
Unless you have some serious dietary restrictions, it’s OK to indulge. We only get one life, and that life should include carbs, sweets, and salt. It doesn’t mean you need to eat every salty, sweety, carby treat that’s in your sights. I can skip the store bought cookies at the office potluck, but the aforementioned sausage-infusted stuffing? NO. I’m eating it. If you’re going to indulge, choose wisely and really enjoy it, don’t just mindlessly shovel in crap that doesn’t even taste good.

2. Honor the Family Traditions
Is there a special dish that is significant in your family? Don’t deprive yourself!
This isn’t a holiday food per se, but I recently had the very last taste I’ll ever have of “lake fish,” which any family members reading this will understand. My grandparents owned a lake house for thirty years until selling it last year, and there is nothing better than finely filleted and fried crappie that was swimming happily (and organically, just FYI) until its untimely demise. No one cleans a fish like Grandpa, and no one fries fish like Dad. After my grandparents sold the house we all knew there was a dwindling supply of “lake fish” in the freezer, so every last bite was cherished.
Will I ever eat fried fish any where else? Gross, no. Other than “lake fish” prepared by Grandpa and Dad, I hate fish and refuse to eat it. I’m not going to waste my calories on some sub-par, disgusting, greasy fried catfish with bones sticking out everywhere and the skin still on it. (Cause y’all know that’s how most people fry fish. Amateurs.) The calories I spent on hand-cleaned and deep-fried Oklahoma crappie were calories well spent.

3. Keep Up the Exercise
I hate cold weather with a bloody passion and may have to resort to my cold weather inside routine if the ice storms hit. Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated when it’s gray and yucky outside. Feel like skipping the gym? Just remember how good it feels to get your body moving and feel those endorphins kick in. Even if you can’t do your regular workout a walk around the block or some push-ups while you’re watching a movie can keep the winter blues at bay.

4. Trim the Fat Elsewhere
I always try to lose a little weight before the holidays kick in because I know I’ll be indulging and will be hindered from  getting out as much as I’d like to by rain and cold weather. Maintaining a steady diet of whole grains, produce, and lean proteins will help you stay energized and feel light during a time when it’s so tempting to curl up under  a blanket and eat cookies. If I keep up my normal nutrition and exercise as much as I can I feel like I have more leeway to indulge at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

5. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Look, if you gain a pound or two over the holidays, is it really that big of a deal in the grander scheme of things? We put so much emphasis on things that don’t matter: getting all twisted over a project at work that really can wait until tomorrow, mindlessly scrolling through our phones while ignoring the other people in the room, agonizing over a bite of cake because deep down we feel ashamed of our own bodies. My grandparents are almost ninety. I would rather sit at the dinner table, linger over pie and coffee, and listen to them tell stories than go for a run outside by myself. The exercise and the diet opportunities will always be here. My family won’t.

I know I’ve gained a little weight, and going back to taekwondo class is going to be tough after a two-week break. I know taking the pounds off won’t be as easy or as fun as it was to put them on. Oh well, I’d rather be thankful for a healthy and fit body than make myself miserable when I have my moments of being a tad less fit. I can breathe, walk, move on my own, take care of myself without assistance, and feel that as far as being able wake up the next day, the odds are in my favor. Many people don’t have that reassurance. Be grateful for what your body can do.

No one will love you or respect you any less for that slice of pie, and if they do? F*ck them and their insecure, superficial, limited little minds.

6. Remember That Spring Will Come
Okay, so it’s sleeting outside and your aunt made her famous brownies that you don’t think you should eat, but you reaaaaally want to. The world is not going to end if you can’t make it to the gym or if you have that brownie. Practice moderation, remind yourself that you will soon be able to get back to your regular training, and remember to enjoy the precious moments with people you love, Italian sausage, brownies, and all.

And if you don’t like your family? Go outside for a run! Problem solved!