Reader Beware: This post is not meant to be judgmental about anyone’s fitness level, size, weight, or shape! It is simply a personal way I have connected the dots about eating, exercise, fitness, overall health, and my own body size.
I’m frequently asked, “How do you stay so fit and eat so much vegan cheese?” (Read on and you’ll learn the truth!) The fact is, I wasn’t always so fit. Yes, I’d been vegan for decades, always exercised some, and probably ate better than the average person. But this is a post about personal honesty.
Right now, I have an image in my head of the timeline of my life after age fifty, a milestone I hit almost 6 years ago. I see the hands on the clock spinning backwards — fifty is the age from which I started getting younger again. I know, this sounds like fantasy. But this imagined timeline looked different as I was approaching my fiftieth birthday. I wasn’t sure what the half-centennial actually held in store for me, but I had a whiff of the briny flavor of my own mortality, a sense that the countdown was about begin. As healthy as I was, I assumed I still had a good many more years ahead of me, but after 50 years of life seemingly moving forward, developing and unfolding, I now had a sense of The Long Wind-Down. After all, the AARP was now sending me literature – how dare they! – and I was beginning to have little issues like lower back problems, stiffness in the morning, creaky knees. Oh, and did I mention my mommy pouch? Here’s a picture of me at my 50th birthday celebration, all dressed up and partying it up, but please take note of my midriff.
I sure look like I’m having a good time, but wait — was I really supposed to be drinking a mojito with a bun in the oven? Oh, I forgot– that wasn’t a baby filling out my cocktail dress. Maybe I didn’t look too bad for someone who’s fifty, but let’s be honest. I didn’t look great. I looked the way we expect people to look at that age. After all, how much can you ask of a woman who’s had three kids, worked all her life, and didn’t have time to be a gym rat-ess?
That Christmas, my wonderful but guilty brother (guilty by virtue of being ten years younger) thrilled me by presenting me a photobook he had created of my 50th birthday bash, a book that allowed me to relive that wonderful night. Despite my genuine appreciation, I had to ask him one question: why had he not photoshopped out my muffin top? Honestly, that is about all I noticed as I flipped through the pages – I may have felt beautiful and glowing that night, but now reviewing the pictures, I had trouble looking at myself below the neck. With all that echnology could do, why had he immortalized me as Rubenesque? But to make matters worse, I was resigned to the fact that despite my relatively healthy vegan diet, running the trails with my dog and generally maintaining an active lifestyle, I was probably just going to have that “jelly belly” – as my family called it – the rest of my life. I figured that by the time I was sixty, most people would expect me to look that way, so I just had to wait another decade and my body would meet the expectations of the most critical eye. And there were those loose styles that would cover up most of it. Forget those silly tight workout gear designed for hard bodies; I would just wear “age-appropriate” clothing.
At this point, I want to make it clear that I am not a member of the “Love Your Body” movement. I do love my body. And that’s why I want it to be as healthy as it can be. Because whether it’s politically correct or not, your BMI does affect your overall health. But understand that it’s a journey for all of us (even for me now), and I pass no judgment on others at different points along that journey.
However, something remarkable happened that very same Christmas with another present, a gift that set in motion the hands of a clock that started to tick backwards. After gazing disappointedly at myself in my brother’s photos, I opened the gift from my husband. At first, his gift seemed no better; in fact, I momentarily wanted to walk out on him as I pulled out of an envelope a gift certificate for a membership at a local gym. What was he trying to suggest? Besides, I was through with gyms; I was through with gym culture, and had been for 25 years. I much preferred the fresh air of the great outdoors while bonding with my dog, Chloe, on my “runs” – or at least I called them that. And who was he to suggest I needed to start working out – his paunch was bigger than mine!
But I went, anyway, mainly so as not to waste the money. You probably know the end of the story already – girl goes to gym, girl gets fit, but girl doesn’t meet boy. She just loses her paunch. But that’s not the real end. Losing the paunch was just a perk to the true gift: better health and fitness. Don’t fear; this isn’t a post on how to get a great workout, nor is there a link at the end to the ten secrets to super fitness that ends up costing $99. And I don’t pretend to be the super athlete-author who is never tired, disillusioned or suffers menopausal symptoms. In fact, I get exhausted just reading those types of books written by people who seem to be doing ultra-marathons as they pen their pages. No, it’s about how I, a long-time vegan who thought she was super healthy, finally took a good look at her own lifestyle and eating habits, and realized that they could use some improvement.
Okay, so I started going to that gym. It happened to be a CrossFit gym, which meant the workouts were really tough. I’d be wiped out by noon and wanted to take a nap. I started to notice that I felt better on certain days than others, and began to pay attention to what I was eating on those days. Turns out those were the days I was eating whole foods. Real food. In other words, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. I noticed a huge salad for lunch kept me awake all afternoon, while take-out Chinese food had me falling asleep by 4 pm. Instead of coffee and toast for breakfast, a green smoothie kept me powered through the morning workout. But the funny thing was that the fitter I became, the more I naturally gravitated towards nutrient-dense foods. Mainly greens. Without thinking much about it, veggies became my “center of the plate”, along with a healthy dose of other whole foods. And the more I ate this way, the more I wanted to continue eating this way. Vegan junk food simply lost its appeal. Okay, as chef and a foodie, I won’t pass up an opportunity to try something that is really creative and delicious (as long as it’s vegan!), and I continue to enjoy chocolate, wine, and other finer things of life – but just not everyday. How about cheese? That, too! Just not every day. (While my Artisan Vegan Cheeses are unprocessed, whole foods, they are higher in fat than I like to eat on a daily basis.) But that loaded vegan pastry case? It just doesn’t hold the same temptation anymore.
And what happened? Here’s the usual cycle: you’re tired, so you eat sugar and drink coffee. You feel like crap, and later you crash, and you’re tired again. So you eat more sugar and drink more coffee. Then you feel like…well, you know. Here’s the other cycle: you exercise and sweat, and you feel the good sort of tiredness, and you want a green smoothie to refresh you. You feel great, so you want to move your body some more, and then you crave a big plate of greens, and then you feel great, and you exercise some more…Really. It was as easy and natural as that. I didn’t “diet.” Becoming fitter and healthier was never about denial. I didn’t go about my day thinking about all the things I couldn’t have. I just didn’t crave those things anymore. It may sound weird and hard to believe, but I really believe that if you eat the things you are meant to eat, you will simply no longer crave the stuff you weren’t supposed to eat in the first place. I know that when I travel or go through a period where I “party” more than usual and my diet reverts to more refined and processed foods, my cravings for less healthy foods are triggered again. But when I start my day with fresh fruit, nuts and veggies, I feel so good that I want only more of the same. And when you start getting fit and healthy, you naturally want to get fitter and healthier because IT FEELS SO DARN GOOD. In fact, it becomes FUN. The road may seem bumpy and steep in the beginning, but I swear – it gets easier and easier as you progress.
Studies show that fit people have an easier time keeping weight off. Studies also show that you can continue to increase and maintain muscle mass into old age. And the more muscle mass you have, the more your body becomes an efficient calorie-burning machine. Have you ever complained about the skinny friend who can eat so much? Well, there’s science behind it. Muscle burns more calories than fat. Two people weighing the same with different BMIs will have different caloric needs to maintain their weight (the lower the BMI, the higher the caloric intake). So it’s important not only to change your diet, but to exercise. The good news about exercise is that its effects outlast the time it took to do it, as your body will continue to burn calories at a higher rate 0for hours afterwards.
Am I “there” yet? No. I still eat junk every now and then. I still get tired at times. I still look in the mirror and wonder why, if my internal time clock is ticking backwards, I don’t look 44. Yes, in addition to a few more wrinkles and needing to go to the colorist more often, I’ve had other things I attribute to getting older. But my lower back pain, creaky knees, those are things of the past. And I’m sure if I cleaned up my diet even more, I’d get even healthier. In other words, I’ve come a long way, but “optimal health” is a goal I’ll have to continue working toward.
Last year, on my 55th birthday, my husband and I did the Tough Mudder in Tahoe (yes, he’s cleaned up his act a bit, too). The Tough Mudder is a 12-mile obstacle course requiring endurance, agility, strength, and the courage to be electroshocked and covered in mud. It was a great way to celebrate my birthday. And take a look. The mommy paunch is gone. And what’s the moral? If I can do it, so can you. And if you have a story to share, I’d love to hear it!