Yeah, I ran.
Every day, in fact. Three or more miles.
I’m the one who put the cracks in the sidewalks.
I’ve never NOT exercised. Exercise was never the problem.
I like sugar. Carbs. Sweets. Fried foods, foods like those I grew up with in the Deep South. Lard biscuits and melting butter, the kind that disappears on your tongue. Biscuits and gravy. Thick high piles of blueberry pancakes with hot syrup, butter and whipped cream.
When I finally figured out that a salad that had fourteen tablespoons of Thousand Island dressing (let’s call that what it is, 840 calories of junk food on top of three pieces of wilted lettuce) was probably not exactly healthy, I was already in a perma-yo-yo relationship with my body. Despite the fact that I’d done time in the Army and gotten skinny at one point, I was still grappling with my weight.
Jaffa Ice Cream
In 1984 I headed Down Under, with a backpack strapped on, for nearly four years. My journey first took me to New Zealand, where their cows munch contentedly year-round on volcanic soil-rich grasses. That leads to a milkfat percentage that is much higher than what we Americans are accustomed to. It also means beyond-heavenly cheeses, rich ice cream (Jaffa, which is my favorite, is various combinations of chocolate and orange flavors), dense sauces, and even cream in your tea. At least, in my tea. I piled on the pounds, all those eager little fat cells putting on weight like grizzly bears preparing for a long, hard winter. I fell in love with Tim Tams, the single most ridiculously good cookie I’ve ever had in my life. Too good.
In a few months my hips had expanded to 54" and I weighed upwards of 205 pounds. Someone cracked to me once that if I didn’t get my body under control before I turned 35, that’s the body I was stuck with for life. While that is patently untrue, that comment stuck with me. So did the comment, “You dance really well for a fat girl.”
“Women Over Thirty Just Get Fat”
That was the thought that arose one morning in my rental house nestled in the small town of Elsternwick, just across from the shore town of Brighton, southeast of Melbourne.
I had an immediate, visceral reaction.
“How dare you do motivational speeches and you can’t even control your own eating habits?” I thought.
Somehow, I’d just hit a breaking point. Thereafter, when my neighbor Charlie- a triathlete- came by my house and invited me to run, I ran. One day when he offered to teach me how to ride the twelve speed bike that sat unused on my porch, I took him up on it.
I couldn’t walk for a few days after our 24-mile ride. But I was hooked.
It’s What We Eat
What really changed was my kitchen.
Out went the donuts and cream and goodies. I fundamentally shifted what I ate to mostly veggies and fruit with low-fat dairy products and a small amount of chicken and fish. Desserts became pineapple pieces. Water replaced sodas. I dumped all breads, cookies, cakes.
During my first month I lost an astounding amount of weight- quite possibly the result of food allergies. Bread and I don’t get along well. While I don’t have celiac disease, gluten and I just aren’t good partners.
Thirty Years Later
By the end of that first year I had dropped nearly eighty pounds. As with many Herculean efforts like this, the dieting part isn’t all that hard. It’s remarkable now many people can set, and reach, a very challenging weight loss goal. That’s not the challenge.
The hard, slogging, onerous work is keeping it off. In Dr. Sylvia Tara’s wonderful book The Secret Life of Fat, she explains the bane of every fattie’s existence: the body wants that fat back.
Holy crap. Talk about a never-ending battle. It’s like guerrilla warfare. Not only that, but once we’ve been obese, we can never eat the same number of daily calories that others like us can. The body utilizes those calories differently. It’s a double whammy. The only spoils in this life-long war are good health and the pleasure of self discipline. Okay, those aren’t bad, but look, can I please have a chocolate chip cookie once in a while?
Yes, you can, but your body will utilize those calories very differently. One bite is better than the whole thing. As someone who used to chow down the entire bag of Chips Ahoy, come ON man.
“You’ve always been skinny”
People today accuse me of having a very fast metabolism. They assume I can eat anything I want. That I’ve always been skinny and that life is easy for me.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As I age, and the body inevitably needs fewer calories despite a brutal workout schedule, I still have to be uber-mindful of what goes down the gullet.
I Still Love Donuts
My intense love of sweets hasn’t abated. My fondness for whipped cream on pancakes, or lard biscuits with butter hasn’t magically disappeared. I could easily inhale a dozen hot Krispy Kremes in under two minutes flat. Tim Tams are available at any Cost Plus World Market store. In this sense, nothing has changed. Like everyone else, I’m bombarded every day, all day with images of foods that are off-limits if I am going to maintain what I fought so hard to achieve. And even then, that doesn’t always work.
I recently made a health decision to detox off a bunch of medicines which had become toxic. One of the side effects is that I put on ten+ pounds that I haven’t carried for nearly thirty years. Any of you who have ever fought, and won, a tough weight loss battle can empathize with how this feels. While I’m doing the same amount of hard workouts, and eating the same way, those pounds won’t budge. Sucks. Most of us can relate.
Still, research shows that those of us with a little extra padding fare better as we age than super skinny folks. Fat in many ways is as important an organ as our lungs or heart. It’s not the enemy it’s made out to be. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing- fat is there for a reason. Too much of it is one thing, not enough is another.
As the 1980s gorgeous actress Kathleen Turner once wryly pointed out, I’ve reached the age where if I’m too skinny, my face looks terrible, and if my face looks good, my butt is too big.
The point is to be fit
The real issue here isn’t about being skinny. Not in the slightest. Being skinny didn’t get me love or adoration or happiness or a good job. Being skinny didn’t somehow transform every aspect of my life. Getting healthy is what made the bigger difference, and that only came when I researched what worked for my body type and metabolism (hint: Snickers bars for breakfast do not constitute health food). While I like being smaller, it’s how I feel that matters. The energy level. Endurance, the ability to hike a huge mountain or bike many miles or kayak a very long fjord. Being skinny doesn’t ensure any of those things. Being fit does.
Fit vs Fat
Being fit is uniquely defined by our body types, genetics, age, activity level, those things that make us who we are. After spending most of my adult life chasing skinny, these days I’m far more committed to being fit. Strong, powerful, with a body that can handle the demands I place on it. That may no longer mean uber thin. The price to get there may be too high.
If my body has decided that it needs that extra ten pounds, then my responsibility is to learn how to live with it. I may miss a 34" butt, but as I motor my way through my sixties, I may need those extra stores to get me through the epic adventures that make up my life. Who am I to argue with Mother Nature? I still don’t eat donuts (OK I lied. I gormed a big one at the VA Hospital the other day) and my diet is just as disciplined. Instead of 120, I’m 130. You know what? Who cares. I’m not a fashion model. Quality of life doesn’t hinge upon having a 24" waist. And if it did, what a jail cell.
Being fit is being free. Many very fit people are quite large. Ever see a power lifter? Sumo wrestler? NFL player? Stereotypes don’t determine what fit means for you and your body. We can only discover what works for us. Freedom comes when we run our own race, whatever that race may be, in the best body for our individual lives.
I confess. The girl who loves Jaffa ice cream is alive and well. The chick who loves to chomp on Tim Tams lurks behind the curtains of my taste buds. They always will. However I am free to choose: the yogurt or the donut?
I choose to be fit. Pass the yogurt, please.
Julia Hubbel is the author of the prize winning book WordFood: How We Feed or Starve our Relationships.