50 Weeks of Change–WEEK 1: My Relationship with Food

This is Week 1 of GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve‘s “50 Weeks of Change” series, “A Year-Long Journey of Rediscovery, Renewal and Rededication” in commemoration of her 50th birthday this year.

Up until now, eating hasn’t been a necessity–it’s been an emotional outlet.

Sure, sometimes, it’s a pleasure, enjoying a gourmet meal at a fantastic restaurant or even a Shake Shack burger. Other times it’s the pleasure of a holiday meal with the extended family around the table. But for most of my 50 years, there have been more emotional connections with food than anything else. While I wouldn’t call it an eating disorder, I usually tie food to guilt, restriction, procrastination and substitution for something emotional on the one hand, and celebration, indulgence and euphoria on the other.

It’s almost never been about nutrition and sustenance.

So on the cusp of turning 50 years old, it seemed about time to make a change. Actually it seems well-past the time to make that change, but starting somewhere is better than not. At 50, eating better is less about weight loss than it is about improving my health, and it’s an important change if this “50 Weeks of Change” has a core mission of improving my overall health. (Ok, sure, truthfully, losing some weight wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.)

Up until now, my food preferences have been erratic–I love fruit, dairy, cheese, bread, and sweets. My kids know, I love candy. I’ve never been a fan of vegetables, although I have some I love (brussels sprouts of all things!) and I prefer an omelet over almost any kind of meat or fish, although I will eat some, especially sushi. I don’t exclusively eat this way–I do eat real food and real meals, but if we’re talking strictly about what I like, that’s a pretty accurate description. When I was a child, my parents used to call me a starch-atarian.

Wow, reading that last paragraph, I sound as if I eat like a 6-year old.

I reached out to Farrah Minnich of Wilton’s Food First Nutritional Therapy, and asked to join her “Restart” class, a five-week sugar detox class that’s really a great dose of nutritional education. The class meets at The Well, the health food market in South Wilton. The class begins with a sugar detox following recommendations of certain foods that really limit sugar intake but that also really emphasize good nutritional steps for eating in a way to maximize the way the body functions.

“I’m a big proponent of body image and women accepting where they are in their lives, but that’s the first thing day one in my class. First, why does everyone take it? They want to lose weight and I talk so much about you’re going to learn through this process that there’s so much more to this than losing weight. You’re going to learn so much about yourself and your body and what you do and people are always amazed, and say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t even care about my weight anymore, I care about my mental clarity and how I’m functioning in my house and sleeping better.’ That’s what’s most profound for people–they realize that they make these changes their whole outlook changes. You’re just so much more comfortable in your own body, no matter what it looks like,” she says.

I spoke with Minnich about another food related pattern I want to break–I work late at night, sometimes staying up very late to write the day’s news. I’m writing this article, in fact, right now at 4 a.m., and those overnight writing sessions are prime time snacking and over-indulging–let alone really bad habits for my overall health.

“Self care is such a huge piece of it. That’s another thing I talk to people so much about because I find especially in this town, women are very much inclined to put their husbands and their children first and themselves last. When I was in nutrition school one of my professors said to me, ‘You’re going to find that you do more therapy than nutrition counseling.’ It didn’t really mean anything to me at the time, but a lot of women are coming to me with these sort of unexplained health issues that come up out of nowhere. Not weight. It’s kind of unexplained and if you really take a look at their lives over the last 10, 15 years in the course of having children and getting married and buying houses, they’ve squashed down all these emotional things and not taken care of themselves. Now they’re popping up, it’s like Whack-A-Mole, you squash it down somewhere else, it pops up as a health issue. There’s as much merit in tackling the emotional piece and self care, as there is to what you’re actually putting in your body,” she says.

Her approach is one that works for me–there’s a lot of teaching and information, and I definitely respond to the intellectualization of this. The more I know and understand, the more I’ll be able to integrate the steps she asks me to take.

“One time I was teaching a class and a student said, ‘I’m loving this, I’ve made such great changes and I feel so good, but I just feel like I’m thinking about food all the time now.’ You know what? You should be thinking about what you’re putting in your body. You shouldn’t just be mindlessly grabbing for things without thinking, what is this going to do to me? How is this going to affect me? Then over time, as you start to learn that, you obviously are not going to be thinking. Eventually you get to a point where it becomes second nature,” Minnich explains.

From the start, she has allowed each of the eight people in the class to decide individually what elements to integrate into our lives–the foods we choose from the “What to eat” list, as well as what and how much we eliminate of things on the “What NOT to eat” list as well. She’s also made the suggestion to just start with ourselves, rather than making it a plan everyone in the family has to follow.

She’s made suggestions about the importance of food prep, taking the time to prepare for the week–and keep it simple. To roast a couple trays of vegetables and hard boil the eggs ahead of time so that they’re ready in the fridge. She has supplied us with recipes, and has even baked us samples of delicious, no sugar added blueberry muffins.

Yesterday was week three of the class and there have been so many things we’ve learned already.

  • With added sugar in almost everything, we eat a lot of sugar, and that translates into a lot of body inflammation.
  • Don’t be afraid of fat–the “good” fats actually help keep us lean, unless we eat them in combination with carbs.
  • Starting the day with protein and fat sends the message to the brain that it needs to start the body’s correct way of metabolizing sugar, keeping sugar balanced and facing the day.
  • We operate under the simple, “1-3 veggies, 1 fat, 1 protein” mantra for each meal. Among those good fats are avocado, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), nut butters (e.g. almond, cashew–but NOT peanut), bacon/bacon grease (YES! bacon! but with no added sugar), olives and olive oil.
  • I can still drink coffee, and learn that the body processes low fat milk as a carb, while full fat milk is processed as a fat.
  • Proteins are important–they break down into amino acids, which are necessary for healthy muscles, producing antibodies, hormones and enzymes, and they’re the building blocks for neurotransmitters–they’re important for mental health and help us feel well.
  • Drinking water WITH meals actually dilutes the healthy digestive acids; Cold water is an added shock. Minnich suggests avoiding water 20 minutes before, during and 20 minutes after meals. (Red wine is better.)
  • Other things that interfere with healthy digestion:  stress, caffeine, medication, alcohol and sugar.
  • Slowing down while we eat is one of the best things we can do for gut health. Look where we often eat–in the car, on the phone, standing up at the counter… Choosing a quiet peaceful place to sit down and eat is essential to putting your body in the parasympathetic state the brain needs to send the message to the stomach to start producing digestive acids.
  • When we get a craving, most times we aren’t really hungry for food–we’re tired, or there’s another void (emotional?) that we’re trying to fill. Self care is more important.

Above all, Minnich is trying to make what we learn translate into long-term, sustainable healthier choices and habits.

“On New Years we had these really beautiful cupcakes and they spelled 2018 with these pretty, sparkly sprinkles on them. I had one of course–it’s as healthy for me to sit down and eat cupcakes with my family as it is for me to eat a salad tomorrow. It’s like a healthy relationship with food. Just because I choose to indulge in one thing doesn’t mean I set off this spiral of indulgences. I choose, I make a healthy indulgence, sometimes I call it intelligent indulgence. You choose one thing you want to have, you enjoy it with your family, with your friends. You enjoy it yourself and then you get back to treating your body the way it needs to be treated,” she says

She also says “all or nothing” is not a healthy relationship with food.

“People do these extreme detoxes. Then around holidays, it’s like, ‘I’m going to have the wine and the cheese and the cupcakes and the this and the that.’ Things come up–weddings, vacations, upsetting events in life. You return to food in times of happiness, sadness, celebration whatever it is, stress. Find that middle ground and just live your life and enjoy it. Recognize what’s healthy and important to you, kind of leave the rest behind, treat your body right.”

My core issue of food being about anything other than nutrition is a common one for people, especially women, says Minnich.

“People say, ‘Oh I shouldn’t eat that, I shouldn’t eat now, I should wait a little while longer. What should I have?’ We’re constantly battling with it instead of embracing it and seeing it as something that nourishes us and keeps us alive and makes us healthy. When you can make friends with food, it’s the most empowering thing in the world for women. Just get over it, move on with it, it’s food, it’s not going to hurt you. By the end of my class a lot of people get there–obviously it’s five weeks versus however many years you’ve been alive, so it’s a little jump start into a new way of thinking about food. The easy part is when you’re here with me. The hard part is when I send you off into the world to continue it on your own. That’s when the real work starts, but at least it’s a start.”

So what results am I seeing? I’m feeling more energetic and fewer spikes and dips in my August level  I’m craving less and enjoying more and I have even lost around 5 pounds.

If you have questions about anything in this article, contact Minnich at The Well (33 Danbury Rd.) on Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., or via email.

Some of the things I’ve found that have become an indispensable part of this program for me:

  • cauliflower rice–I sauté it in coconut oil or olive oil, along with some fresh cut vegetables, spinach and seasoning (salt; liquid aminos, a soy sauce alternative)
  • kimchi–fermented veggies are great for your gut health
  • Dang coconut chips (0g added sugar!)
  • Collagen Peptides–a powder I add to my coffee or water; tasteless, odorless, it’s great for collagen production, the essential material in healthy connective tissue and hair, skin and nails.
  • spinach and kale–I put it in omelets, smoothies, sautéed, and more.
  • frozen avocados–that’s the basis for my smoothies, and a GOOD fat

This recipe was a big hit with the whole family–husband, kids and most importantly, me! They were easy to make, very flavorful and a keeper.