Habits can be a bitch.
Let me rephrase that. Bad habits can be a bitch.
For the last 10 years of my life, I’ve spent most of my time cultivating a storm of bad habits –everything from procrastinating on work to the point of insanity, to studiously avoiding exercise, to regularly picking up fast food as a convenient and momentarily satisfying meal. To my shame, these weren’t habits my parents taught me; I developed these all on my own, as an adult. My health and self-esteem has suffered heartily from it.
My food habits were the worst of all the bad habits I developed. In college, with no restraining hand on me, I would eat in the school’s cafeteria like every meal was my own personal all-you-can-eat buffet. And you can bet I wasn’t at the salad bar, either. Pizza, Mongolian wok, Belgian waffles, bagels, burgers, hot dogs, subs, animal protein-rich entrees dripping with grease and accompanied by overcooked canned veggies – my dining hall had them all, and every single one was a regular part of my daily smorgasbord. And to make things worse, since I was now staying up as late as I wanted because most of my classes started around noon, I would get hungry at 11 or 12 at night and think nothing of running down to the late night student café and grabbing a full plate of fried chicken wings with French fries, ranch, and a 24 ounce soda. Gross, I know. But that was my life for years, and it’s little wonder I gained between 30 and 40 pounds during college. Actually, it’s a miracle I didn’t gain more.
Yep – college weren’t my best years. You can’t see it, but I’m pointing at a drink in my hand. Which also probably didn’t do much for my health.
I also started eating all my meals while I watched TV or movies or read a book, until I reached the point that I felt like I couldn’t really enjoy those things unless I was stuffing something unhealthy in my mouth. Food comforted me, made me feel intensely satisfied – at least at the moment. Then I’d spend the rest of the day berating myself for being weak-willed.
After college, my habits changed, but not really in a good way. I no longer had a dining hall readily available, but suddenly I had a car and money and an internship that I finished around 3 pm every day. So literally only a couple hours after my lunch hour, I’d be driving home, and I’d see that Panda Express. Or that DQ. Or that Burger King. And I had nothing to prevent me from stopping and eating. I had money in my pocket for it, an empty house to go home to with no one there to watch me eat and “judge me”, and usually a book or movie calling me to accompany it with a heaping helping of MSG. Needless to say, my health didn’t noticeably improve. I reached the point that I had been a bit overweight, unhealthy, and tired for so long that I really started to believe that I could never be any other way. That I could never again feel as energetic and healthy as I did when I was a teenager. After all, we all get old. Can’t be young forever, you know.
In case you’re wondering, I came to this irrational conclusion when I was about 23.
So what happened? Six years later, why am I not as unhealthy and unhappy with myself as I was then? I’d like to say I came to some kind of epiphany, or I just reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, or I finally became sick and tired of being sick and tired, or whatever. I’d like to give you some magical point where I turned the corner to lifelong improved health, but truthfulness prevents me from doing so.
Honestly, I was forced into change. When I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps. I spent the next two years living and working in a small village in the mountains of El Salvador, a 45 minute bus ride from the nearest town. I was literally unable to access the heavily processed fast foods that I loved. It didn’t matter if I was literally starving for a cheeseburger, I just couldn’t get it. It’s not that Salvadoran food was super healthy, either – most women in my village had a pretty heavy hands with oils and salt in their food – but I had been overeating so badly in the U.S. that just eating more normal portion sizes helped me lose some weight and gain energy.
When I finally moved into my own little casita (little house) in the village, I found that I didn’t have to have super willpower to make healthy choices. In the U.S., I was confronted with food literally everywhere I went – driving to and from work, the grocery store, getting my morning coffee – even places like tire shops and gas stations had a delicious and dizzying array of snacks they sold! These places really had no business selling anything but their product, but in a culture that embraces constant, mindless snacking, there’s money to be made in having a couple of well-stocked vending machines. In El Salvador, though, there was only one tiny little tiendita (small shop) in my village. Admittedly, it was right next to my house, but being there as a Health and Sanitation volunteer kept me accountable – I couldn’t very well tell the women to feed their children mostly vegetables and rice, and then set the example of running to the tienda every day for a quota of soda and snacks. There was literally only ONE time each week that I had to really focus on making healthy choices, and that was my weekly trip to the mercado. All I had to do was buy a week’s supply of healthy foods, and then for the next week, I had no choice but to eat well.
See, I told you. Forced into change.
So how did I fare when I returned to the U.S., the land of the all-night drive thru? Okay, at first. I didn’t have a job, so it was easy to focus on working out constantly and making smart planning choices when it came to food. After all, it’s not like I had anything else to do – I had the luxury of going to the gym twice a day if I felt like it, and spending two hours preparing a delicious, healthy meal. My appetite had changed too, so I no longer felt able to eat the huge American portions normally served in restaurants.
Then I discovered, as so many others no doubt have, that it’s hard to combine both a busy and healthy lifestyle. I got a boyfriend, got a job, and got 30 extra pounds in the bargain. I was a first year teacher, and I was working 12 or 14 hours a day most days during the week, and 5 or 6 on weekends just to keep my head above water. I was working so hard that it didn’t seem fair that I should have to worry about what I was eating or if I was exercising, too. So I didn’t.
So what was my impetus for change this time?
I couldn’t very well leave the country for two years. Leaving aside the issues of abandoning a new relationship and a job, it wasn’t exactly practical to go hide out in the mountains of El Salvador every time my body needed a reboot. I simply had to root around inside me and find that willpower that I had convinced myself, at 23, I didn’t have. Having been healthy and happy again for a few years, it was twice as miserable to return to the old me, because I knew I didn’t have to be that way. I knew I could be healthy, because I had been. All my excuses had been stripped away.
It was around this time that my vegetarian sister convinced me to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives. It blew my mind. For the first time I really considered that my diet wasn’t just about being skinny, but that it could have a lot of other serious health implications as well. I had always thought that, since I didn’t eat a slab of bacon every morning for breakfast and plate-sized steak for dinner, and because relatively low blood pressure ran in my family, I was safe from diseases that I heard so many other people got. I didn’t worry about heart disease or high blood pressure or strokes. And I certainly never connected what I ate with cancer. I just assumed with little family history of it, I was fine.
But for the first time, I took a long hard look at what I ate and wondered, “Am I doing myself and my body a disservice here?” Sure, I could lose weight eating eggs and cheese and chicken, as long as I kept my overall daily calorie intake low. But what difference does skinny make if you’re going to get breast cancer or colon cancer or have a heart attack down the road?
It was then that I began to dabble in veganism. It has been an up and down journey for me. Despite all I’ve learned about factory farming, the connection between animal products and disease, and the impact of the animal food industry on the environment (and trust me, I’ve done a LOT of reading since that fateful day that I ordered Forks Over Knives on Netflix), bad habits are hard to shake.
Routines are everything.
I found that, when I got into the routine of making myself some healthy meals for the entire week on Sunday, I was a lot more likely to eat those delicious vegan entrees rather than those school cafeteria chicken fingers that were beckoning me. The longer I’m eating well, the better I am at it.
I’ve also learned, much like I always tell my students, cheating is a bad idea. A really bad one.
I have some friends who have found great success being flexible with their diet, allowing themselves to occasionally have a bit of whatever food would normally be off limits. A piece of pizza here, a sliver of cheesecake there, and so on. But you know what? It doesn’t work for me. If I let myself have the occasional chicken wing or slice of pizza, not only am I doing something not so great for my body (as with previous diets), I’m no longer eating in accordance with my values.
I also find that if I just have one slice of pizza, I’ll figure a second one won’t be so bad. And pretty soon I’ve eaten half a pie, and virtually given up on eating the way I KNOW is best for me.
I’ve told you, ups and downs.
But here’s what I know.
Eating a healthy vegan diet does something good for me. It’s not just making me physically healthier, it’s making me mentally healthier. My mind and body feel good when the food I eat is in line with the values I hold dear. It makes me more confident, more sure of my place in this world when I feel like I can honestly say, “I’m doing what I can at this moment to live my life in a way that I feel to be right.”
I went to a teacher’s convention in New York City last weekend (BEST place to be vegan, fyi), and because we had to tell the convention leaders if we had any food needs or preferences, for the first time in my life, I self-identified as a vegan. I told people outside of my family that I didn’t eat animal products, and I couldn’t believe the sense of pride and self-acceptance that this single declaration gave me. Just saying that and seeing the overwhelming curiosity about my lifestyle made me feel good about the choices I made.
So that’s it. I’m slowly defeating the worst habits of my life by finding new ones. By starting new routines. By making the choices that will quite possibly save me from a lifetime of disease and unhappiness. By living in accordance with what my conscience tells me is right. And most importantly, by recognizing the beauty of what my life can be, if I only let it.