“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past” -Thomas Jefferson
Growing up in Spain I ate a lot traditional foods like stews, legumes, soups, broths, chicken and rice, fruits, vegetables… a lot of real food. My “junk food” allowance was when I would go buy bread at the bakery on Saturday mornings and spend the “change” (10 cents) on sweets. I could choose between red or black licorice, “clouds” (marshmallows), or bazooka bubble gum (among other things).
Interestingly enough, my mom was the Human Resources Director for Wendy’s International in Madrid. You would think that eating at Wendy’s was something done on a regular basis… but it was actually the opposite. I only remember having those kid meals when my friends had birthday parties there – a few times per year. I didn’t grow up with drive-through fast food, to-go food containers, or frozen meals; we didn’t have them back then in Spain.
My mom says I wasn’t a picky eater (no such thing!) but I remember not liking peas, onions, beets, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, and cauliflower. Everything else, for the most part, was fair game. Another thing we didn’t have is something called “kids’ food.” I ate what the grownups ate, for the most part, and if I didn’t like it… there was no other option. I was a healthy kid, average weight, and height.
I moved to the States in my early teens. While my mom still cooked all of our meals at home, I snacked at my friends’ house after school and shared treats with them. My best friend and I would stop at Seven Eleven on the way home and buy junk food a few times per week. I was immediately drawn to all things American snacks, the abundance of convenience foods, and their accessibility. Needless to say, I wanted to try all things “American food” and I gained 30lbs (~13.5kg) the first 3 years I was here. Let me tell you that 30lbs for my petite 5 ft 1 inch frame is a lot.
My sophomore year of high school, I went abroad to Germany as an exchange student. The first six months of my stay, I lived with a family that had poor eating habits and only purchased frozen pre-made foods. In those 6 months I gained another 10lbs (~4.5kg). On December 1994, I weighed 152lbs (~69kg) at the same height. Luckily, the family wasn’t the right fit for me, so I switched families mid year.
My second German family had type 1 diabetes and were insulin dependent. They only bought fresh foods, were adamant about portion control, and cooked all meals at home. The first month I lived with them I lost 10lbs (~4.5kg) by only changing the type of food I ate. I couldn’t believe it! I was immediately motivated to loose a few more pounds so I began walking everywhere (not a difficult thing to do in Europe) and enrolled in 1-hour long swimming lessons 5 times per week at a public pool. By the time June came around, I lost an additional 25lbs (~11kg) and weighed around 115lb (~52kg). I felt great. I no longer ran out of breath when trying to climb stairs or was ashamed of my body size amongst my friends. I was a happier girl from the inside and the outside reflected how I felt. That is… until I came back to the United States.
When I returned to the States, keeping up with my exercise routine was difficult. I didn’t have access to a public pool, I wasn’t athletic enough to make the actual swim team, and the distances are much greater here so walking everywhere wasn’t an option like it was before. Within a few months I put on 5lbs (~2.2kg) and my 16 year old self couldn’t handle that. I didn’t know what else to do to stop the pounds from creeping up; so I became obsessed with food.
I counted calories, restricted food, dieted, starved myself for days and then would binge on sweets and eventually purge… you name it, I tried it. Why was it so difficult to control my weight in the US? My mom used to joke that even the water must have calories. Certainly not the hormones in our meats and food or the constant availability of cheap junk food. You see, my friends would eat a bag of chips and a soda for lunch while I’d bring a healthy sandwich and fruit… but then I’d want whatever it was they were eating and I’d buy chips as well. At the end of the day, I felt I couldn’t compete. Something had to be wrong with me, my thyroid, my body, my brain.. something! As the ounces creeped up and down I felt worse and worse about myself. My weight was the one thing my body didn’t seem to be able to control, so I opted for controlling it myself -or so I thought.
I spent nearly a decade fighting the demons from the unspoken but very common world of eating disorders. My parents tried to help me and sent me to a very expensive psychologist who wanted to “talk about the root of the problem” when I just wanted to have my happy German life back. A life where food wasn’t the center of our focus, daily activity was easy and fun, and meals weren’t rushed. One day I stood up from my chair mid-session and told the woman she couldn’t help me and that I wouldn’t be going back. I’m sure she called my parents after I left her office since they never questioned my decision.
College wasn’t that much better either. The freshman 15 hit me fast and hard. By Senior year, I had a 3x per week exercise schedule, taught myself how to cook, and I made nearly all my meals in my own apartment. I couldn’t wait to graduate college and start life. I remember thinking: I just want to live happy. I want to love myself again and I don’t want to be food obsessed. At this point, I knew I was the only one who could help myself.
It took driving from San Francisco to New Orleans in 2000 to really leave my old habits behind. I moved to the South where people were more focused on living a good life than looking good. Maybe it’s because I surrounded myself with people who liked me for who I was… and all of the sudden I didn’t have to try so hard.
I also met my Southern Man. He was (and is) in great physical shape and worked out religiously 4-5 times per week. He taught me how to exercise the right way without spending hours at the gym. Pretty soon it all became a habit… and it “stuck.” Long gone were the days that I would let food consume me, where I counted calories, binged and purged or quit eating for a few days. While the demons no longer invaded my thoughts, I still had to make sure I kept them under wraps. I loved myself and someone loved me for “me” – and that, is what has kept them away since.
While we dated, we were financially poor. Together we made under $20,000 per year – but we were happy. We didn’t receive any food or government assistance so we learned how to stretch every penny. We were happy eating red beans and rice, lots of eggs, and homemade bread. As our income grew slowly, we expanded our eating repertoire, I was able to start cooking nicer meals and incorporate many of my grandmother’s recipes. If I have to describe our diet back then, I ‘d say it was what people refer to as low fat and whole grain.
Ten years ago, I thought eating low fat, low sugar, low carb, whole-wheat was what I was supposed to do. My label-reading skills were limited to fat grams, calories, and carbohydrates. I thought that was enough. Shouldn’t it be? I mean, the package says whole grain and 90 calories! Why can’t I eat it as a snack, right?
Leave it to the human body to tell us differently. At 24, I had two emergency gallbladder surgeries. The first to remove a gallstone lodged next to my pancreas and the second to remove the gallbladder. Waking up from the anesthesia right after the first surgery was one of the scariest moments in my life. I began to convulse, throw up and shake uncontrollably, and my fever spiked to 106 degrees F (41C). I thought I was going to die that night. I’ve never felt so ill in my life and yet wanted to live so badly.
In the next few months, I learned what foods triggered stomach aches, indigestion, gas, bloating…. among other things. I’ve spent a decade with minor stomach issues all while trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Over time, I’ve learned to understand labels, ingredients, food chemistry, and the way our body works.
In February 2012, a month after the birth of my 3rd child, I removed gluten and dairy from my diet because I was having nursing issues. After a week, I noticed that I physically felt better! I lost most of the pregnancy weight (without exercise since I had my 3rd c-section) by the fourth month and continued eating gluten and dairy free for seven months. After my son stopped nursing, I returned to my old ways of eating whole grain, fresh fruit and veggies, and low fat. Within two weeks, my stomach issues returned but I was so busy with 3 young kids and working full time that I put the discomfort aside for over a year.
The summer of 2013, I had an intern who ate a Paleo diet because of digestive issues. We talked a lot about food and I began researching the Paleo diet. Wanting to heal myself from the inside, I began my healing with a GAPS diet for 2 weeks. It was very difficult to maintain with work and travel, so I continued it with a SCD (simple carbohydrate diet). The next month I went fully Paleo and eventually, at the 4th month, I re-introduced some dairy and a few grains on occasion (I can’t give up hummus or rice in my sushi). I’ve been eating grain free with limited dairy and no refined sugars for about 6 months. I eat full fat everything, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs galore, and plenty of nuts. I’ve never felt better. I don’t count calories or worry about the fat content in real foods anymore. I read food labels, but my eyes scroll down to the bottom -to the ingredient list.
In hindsight, I wish I had learned about real foods earlier. I wish I had figured out the lifestyle that works best for me sooner; but, life is funny like that. I see it as life experience and motivation to teach others about real foods. I continue to experiment with making real food appealing to kids and remaking some of the traditional boxed favorites with real ingredients. I’m ok being different, and in this case, different is good.
This blog is not a specialty diet type of blog. It’s a compilation of the real foods my family eats and the stories around our life. The life of a full time working mom of 3 who spends entirely too much time in the kitchen and loves it.
Thank you for reading my food journey. You can read about my sons’ specialty diets here.