It should be pretty straightforward, right? This is healthy; this is not. Black and white. Do this and Thou Shalt Not that, right?
A food pyramid! We have a plan! Unfortunately, in 50 years of living and 30 years of studying nutrition I have found only one grand truth: everyone is different. Even the cardinal sins sometimes have exceptions.
For instance, caffeine is incredibly hard on our hearts and endocrine systems (hormones) but is an effective vasodilator in treating migraines. Some people think it’s a chicken-egg scenario, where caffeine only treats migraines it has created the environment to cause. Who knows? We’re danged complex. If your head isn’t blowing up, power to you and that Diet Coke. I trust you to figure yourself out differently than I have me. I have an Italian heritage, olive skin, and tanning makes my bones heal – I’ll never get skin cancer. Power to me.
Almost 6 years ago my higher power let me know that it was time to get fit. I was on it. After years of pushing my body hard to get things done I was a mess and I didn’t like it. I hadn’t abused myself through illicit drugs or wild romance or extreme sports but I had overeaten and overstressed and underacted. It was time to whip myself into shape.
The only problem was that middle age doesn’t respond well to that. I began running and developed exercise-induced asthma, then full-blown-all-the-time-asthma. I started having symptoms of peripheral artery disease every time I ran. All of a sudden when I eliminated sugar and wheat my body didn’t like meat or broccoli either. I started having anxiety attacks out of the blue. Clearly, the inmates were running the asylum.
Through stops and starts, though, I figured myself out. I began meditating (that was an experience – controlling my thoughts initially could best be described as instructing a 3-year-old to herd chickens while someone was oooohhmmming in the background). I began saying no and explored the quiet world of introversion amidst a persistent feeling that I was forgetting something. I committed to sleeping at night (not all the squirrels in my brain were on board). I started doing my own version of internal family therapy, which looked like a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly awry for the first few attempts.
I got better at figuring out what I needed to eat, which changed several times over the years, and discovered that exercise is about 2.4% of the weight-loss equation. I submitted to being poked with needles and run over with a road roller. I discovered that people who had succeeded in reversing a 30-year downward spiral had all done wildly different things with the way they fueled their bodies.
Slowly I began to notice changes and appreciate that becoming a new person does not happen overnight unless you want to turn into the Green Goblin. I became more comfortable with myself and my past. I let go of bad habits of thinking and feeling and replaced them with mercy and charity, liberally seasoned with laughter. I let things be what they are even as I was immersed in a pursuit of change.
I’m doing better. I currently eat a ketogenic diet that would make you think I’m going to single-handedly depopulate the earth of 4-footed creatures, but I bet I eat less meat than you do (well, not you vegan people, may you rest in peace). Even though fruits and vegetables are considered healthy, they aren’t for me and I’m giving my carb-sensitive digestion a chance to heal for now. I run and hike even though I was born with dislocated hips and haven’t been able to do that without pain for 40 years and it’s working pretty well after a dramatic healing. I’m an extrovert again with a much calmer contingent of squirrels who actually settle down for the winter nightly.
Message: don’t just get fit – change you. Don’t limit yourself to losing weight or returning to some past version of yourself. Be someone entirely new! Gather up all the parts of yourself with a commitment to leave no one behind and slowly make your way to an entirely new way of being. Let go of your image of what you want to turn out like and how long you want it to take and let it happen as you search for what makes you a better person.
Then go do it! Know – Do – Be. Learn, act on knowledge, then refine. Get more knowledge, act on it, refine. Watch yourself slowly become. Put yourself in the oven and let yourself rise. You’ll be fabulous when you’re cooked.