On Untethering and Learning to Trust

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March 3 vs. March 29

Life has changed a bit since I was last here.

The novel coronavirus – barely a headline in January, as I set off on my no-sugar adventure – is now taking over the planet. My kids are out of school, my husband is (thankfully) working from home, I was (hopefully temporarily) laid off from my kickboxing instructor gig. We hightailed it out of our NY home – Westchester County being one of the OG coronaviral hotbeds in the US – and are hunkered down, self-quarantining, social distancing, and following the statewide stay-at-home order at our 241-year-old farmhouse in NH.

In other words, life has basically changed completely.

Life has been boiled down to family, health, and safety. I am trying to balance awareness and anxiety, routine and going with the flow, family time and me time, work and rest. I am trying to reconcile goals set in a pre-COVID-19 existence with our current COVID-19-dominated reality.

And here’s where I am at this moment:

In our creaky, drafty farmhouse kitchen, pre-dawn, sipping coffee. I have actually been up, tossing and turning, since 4:43am. Because today is the day that I set myself free from three months of self-imposed dietary restrictions. It feels oddly like Christmas. I feel thin and strong and really hungry and excited for the food that I’ll eat today. In these dark, quiet, solitary minutes, as the rest of my family sleeps, I am a child again, gazing in awe upon a bevy of colorful boxes while dreading the letdown that will inevitably occur once all the treats are unwrapped.

Here’s how I arrived at this Christmas-esque morning:

In January I cut added and artificial sugar from my diet. Acknowledging my sugar addiction was hard, but I was determined to tackle it as I tackled my dependence on wine – which I came to understand was a cover for my underlying sugar addiction all along.

It sucked, going without sugar for what feels like the longest month of the year, but it wasn’t torture. Because I found other ways to (over-)indulge: gluten-free pretzels, nut butter, bananas. By the end of the month I felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Mama (minus the marshmallows). So for the first two weeks of February I tried a low-FODMAP diet, plus no sugar. That helped a bit with the bloating and general malaise. On February 15 my husband and I enjoyed a planned “cheat day” that, for me, lasted two weeks. I fell deep into a spiral of sugar consumption that was actually pretty scary and left me feeling totally out of control, bloated to the max, and disgusted with myself.

So, in admitted desperation, I turned to a nutritionist recommended by a woman from my kickboxing gym who had recently undergone an incredible body transformation under the guidance of this perceived wonder woman. I met with her on March 2 and started the super-strict diet and exercise program she designed for me on March 3. The program was to last four weeks, ending tomorrow, March 30.

But today is Sunday and our favorite brunch spot is offering takeout. The world has gone to hell in a handbasket and I have been REALLY FUCKING HUNGRY FOR TWENTY-SEVEN DAYS AND SO TODAY IT ENDS.

Strike that.

TODAY IT BEGINS.

Today I set myself free. Today I accept that my life’s journey of emotional, mental, and physical wellness is a marathon, not a sprint. Today I recognize that my sobriety is a superpower that I created for myself and that I can apply to all areas of wellness. Today I challenge myself to believe in my capability.

Today I commit to learning to trust myself, no matter how many millions of baby steps it takes.

My four weeks-minus-one-day with the nutritionist were very, very hard. I have never been so hungry in my life. I have not pushed myself this much with exercise in over a decade. I did not enjoy the diet but I completely de-bloated, and I gained both strength and stamina. So, I accomplished the main goals I set for myself. I just wish it hadn’t been so miserable so much of the time. And attempting such a transformation over such a short time in the ever-engulfing shadow of COVID-19 elevated the level of difficulty from high to stupid-high.

So I AM DONE, Y’ALL. But no regrets. I made huge progress and I also learned some valuable lessons that I will carry with me. I have been exercising first thing in the morning, in a fasted state – which I had come to believe would make me feel nauseous and lightheaded but is actually just damn empowering and a badass way to start the day. I have added more strength training to my workouts which I can already tell is helping my body burn fat. I forgot how much I love lifting heavy weights. I feel leaner and stronger now, for sure.

I also learned that I was simply eating too much of too many things. I learned that I can – and, most of the time, should – operate on a diet of eggs, lean meat and fish, a little fruit and nut butter, sweet potato or brown rice, oatmeal, and lots and lots of veg. In other words, for the past four weeks-minus-one-day, I have basically been eating the way all the health food books and blogs and podcasts and Instagram accounts and wellness influencers and weight loss programs tell you to eat. And – SPOILER ALERT – it works.

I learned that I can live totally happily without beans and soy, mostly happily without dairy and white flour, somewhat happily without refined sugar, grudgingly without anything processed; and that life without avocado is bleak indeed. Now I have a better sense of what foods outside my healthy diet staples I will prioritize adding back in for special meals.

These weeks have at times made me feel resentful, cranky, and hangry to the max. But overall I also feel svelte, strong, and proud. I have overcome my lifelong fear of being hungry – and that was one of my main goals for seeking assistance from a nutritionist in the first place. Before this little nutritional adventure, if I felt the slightest twinge of what I perceived as hunger, I would grab one of the snacks that I always had on me – in my purse, in my car, in my pocket. What these weeks have taught me is that as long as I am filling my body with the right nutritious foods at the right time of day, my blood sugar will not plummet. I will not pass out or throw up. It is not comfortable to feel hungry, but neither is it the end of the world. I am learning to really listen to my body now, and not fear hunger anymore. Eureka!

That being said, I have basically been hungry for a month and it has sucked for a lot of the time. I’m done feeling deprived. I choose to feel FULL. To fill myself with all of the goodness that I can as my family navigates this unprecedented, bizarre, surreal time. In the quarantined days that continue to unfurl and wipe our family calendar clean before our eyes, I will fill my stomach with healthy food and delicious food and healthy, delicious food. I will fill my body with exercise-induced endorphins. I will fill my soul with snuggles and nature and books and writing and movies and TV. I will fill my brain with important, useful, and factual information and filter out the false or sensationalist crap. I will fill my heart with with my kids and my husband and my dogs as we, together, create this uniquely beautiful quarantined life.

Because it is beautiful, in many ways. And just because it’s beautiful does not mean that it’s not also a little scary and a lot strange. A persistent thought keeps popping into my head and it is this: “This time is such a gift.” This chance to slow down; to disconnect from life’s superfluous crap and reconnect to only what truly matters; to invest in emotional and physical health; to be present; to just be. Of course, our opportunity is another family’s tragedy and for that reason I feel like an asshole being so damn content. Then I remind myself that it’s ok to choose joy over fear. It’s ok to feel simultaneous gratitude and grief. This time IS a gift. It is a family-sized life raft keeping us afloat on a sea of uncertainty and fear.

So, for now, as we continue to float along these uncharted waters, I am done with dietary restrictions. I hereby untether myself from anything that does not belong in our family life raft. Starting now, there is no “on the wagon” or “off the wagon.” No good or bad eating, no blue dots or negative points (in WW lingo).

Instead, I am going to practice trusting myself. This will be hard work for me, because I have never trusted myself around food. But right now I have the gift of time. And now I know how great it feels to be fit and strong. I know that I can reap extra benefits of exercise on an empty stomach. I know that as long as I am filling my body with nutritious food, I will not feel debilitating hunger. I know that if my stomach emits a wee growl, it is not an emergency and I do not need to immediately grab for the nearest snack. I know the foods and portion sizes that my body needs to optimize its performance. I have a better sense of what foods help my body run smoothly and what foods give me trouble. I know how I feel if I indulge in too much junk. And I know I do not deserve to self-flagellate myself in shame if I do it anyway.

Today I set myself free from my super-strict nutrition program without setting a deadline to get “back on the wagon.” I am instead going to practice trusting myself. I am going to remember that my wellness journey is a marathon, not a sprint. I am going to use my sobriety superpower to stay present. If I slip or stumble, I will remind myself that I possess a superpower that makes the impossible possible.

I am capable. I am trustworthy. I am grateful. I am free.

A Sugar-Free Wellness Check-In

No Added Sugar January is finally drawing to a close. (Did this month seem extra-long to anyone else??) How are things, you may be wondering? Am I living my best life without added sugar? Am I riding high on the waves of naturally sustained energy? Have I slimmed down without either refined or artificial sugar thwarting my efforts?

Here’s the unfortunate truth: I’m not feeling as great as I hoped. In fact, I have been feeling insanely bloated, gassy, and frustrated. I anticipated my body running like a well-oiled machine after four weeks without sugar, but instead I have an out-of-whack gut weighing me down both physically and mentally.

How did this happen?! I haven’t had added sugar (natural, refined, or artificial) for four weeks! I thought sugar was my ultimate foe, and yet I am feeling almost as bad now as I was when I was eating it. I think the answer just might be the Muppet-like acronym FODMAP. Sugar, you are not innocent, but you are not solely to blame for my malaise, either.

Here is my roadmap to FODMAP (i.e. how I figured this out):

Starting January 1, I removed added sugar from my diet. Bye bye, junk! My daily food intake these days usually includes half an avocado, a banana, an apple, at least one tbsp of almond butter, and a handful of almonds or cashews. I often also eat grapes or frozen mango, butternut squash or sweet potato, plus beans and Fage 0 Greek yogurt for added protein. A typical day for me looks like turkey bacon and avocado for breakfast, a chopped kale salad with chicken for lunch, and chili for dinner. Snacks are usually a Raw Rev or RX bar; or oatmeal or yogurt loaded with nuts, cacao nibs, and fruit.

(Ok, I may have hit the banana-nut butter combo a little too hard. Especially once I discovered banana-peanut butter “nice cream.” And I did consume an entire container of RX vanilla almond butter in like two days. But still! I thought I was doing pretty darn good!)

But still: bloat. So much gas my kids are probably telling their friends about it. And moodiness to boot. WTF.

As I walked my dogs yesterday I listened to a Melissa Urban (yup, the Whole30 lady) podcast on gut health, and the doctor who was her guest brought up this whole FODMAP thing. I decided to look into FODMAPs and BEHOLD, here are some examples of medium- and high-FODMAP foods: avocado, bananas, apples, nuts and nut butters (if not consumed in moderation, AHEM), grapes, mango, butternut squash, sweet potato, beans, and yogurt. WELL CRAP.

FYI, in case you were wondering, FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.” But none of us will remember that so just know this: FODMAPs are carbs that some people are sometimes unable to digest. FODMAPs ferment in the colon, where they live their best lives by causing gas and gut distention, among other splendid symptoms.

I have a gut feeling (pun intended) that my body is having trouble with FODMAPs right now, especially since I have been eating (read: over-eating) a lot of high-FODMAP foods whilst navigating life without sugar this month. I have come too far in my epic battle with the sugar monster to still be feeling so gross. So here is my new plan:

Starting February 1, I will do two weeks of a low-FODMAP diet. I will also continue to stay away from added sugar. I will still eat fruit, just low-FODMAP varietals; and I will still eat nuts and nut butters but in moderation (one handful and one tbsp per day, respectively). Most importantly, I will embrace this challenge with hope and determination. I don’t HAVE to go low-FODMAP and cut sugar for two additional weeks; I GET to explore the impact of these healthy choices, see how good I can feel, and maybe even discover the food culprit/gas bandit currently loitering in my colon.

[TMI alert but as long as I’m getting this all out there: the timing for this is also good because I am at the beginning of my cycle. So I know I won’t be PMSing over the next few weeks. My hormones will be working with me on this instead of against me.]

So, over the next couple of days I’ll be eating the remaining high-FODMAP foods in my fridge and restocking with low-FODMAP alternatives. Bring on FODMAP February!