Since posting a small blurb the other day about claiming my physical and mental freedom from my overeating habits, I have received a few private messages about how I have done it and what I eat. I have been hesitant to write about what I eat (and what I do not eat) because: 1) I am not a nutritionist and 2) food habits in our current foodist culture tend to be on the order of religion. Questioning what we put into our mouths and why we do it turns out to be, in some ways, even more of a hot-button issue than religious faith, despite the fact that food consumption is (or can be) so much more of science. Why? For many, food is pleasure. Or it might be the ultimate pleasure. In a country currently inundated by food programs on TV, billboards and print ads advertising thousands of calories at one go, and promotion of the idea of overeating as a form of social status (court of Henry VIII?), it is easy to become sucked in. 

I was part of that culture, once. Then I stepped away from it and really thought about it. I’ve been fortunate that, from a young age, I have a tendency to question absolutely everything as well as the ability to reject pressure to conform when it doesn’t serve my best interests or health. I remember all of my Facebook posts about, or even pictures of, the food I was making and I am stunned at how much a part of that culture I was. From the moment I got up until I fell asleep, I would plan what to make, what to eat, what ingredients I needed. I had unsalted butter stocked a few deep in my fridge and sugars like sentinels at the ready in case I ran out. A few months ago I went to make something that had a bit of brown sugar in it and actually laughed out loud to discover that I had exactly none in my pantry. How long ago had I run out? How amazing that I did not even notice or care! 

Some history: 

My mom cooked healthily for us when I was growing up. Mostly everything was from scratch, filled with vegetables, baked at home. When I was really young we were allowed soda and chips, but when I started wearing the “husky” pants in elementary school, my mom cleaned that right up. I did not have any problems with food again until my junior year in high school (an awkward year with a bad haircut and dermatological issues as well), a stressful year with a bunch of AP classes and extra-curriculars and the first year of many that I stopped playing soccer and stopped running with Mom in the morning. I’ve got to focus on my schoolwork, I thought, there’s no time for anything else. A pattern of thinking that would later haunt me… 

But by senior year I had lost the extra weight and weighed close to 120 pounds at this height (5’3″), maybe 121 or even 122. I still don’t know exactly how that happened, but it was kickstarted by a trip to Istanbul, Greece, and Italy—where we walked all day, every day and were served reasonable meals. From there, I got so busy in 12th grade (AP classes, Academic Decathlon, Mock Trial, Assisteens, tutoring elementary school students, a bunch of other clubs) that I hardly had time to eat, literally. Added to this was immense pressure to keep my GPA the way it had always been, and I was getting anxious before school—so anxious I couldn’t eat breakfast.  I’ve never been very hungry in the mornings, anyway, but in 12th grade all I could think about before getting to school was not messing up, especially in my AP Calculus class. My mom started giving me power bars to pack, and I would nibble at one in the morning until it was gone. I wasn’t setting out to lose weight or even thinking about it. It magically seemed to disappear. This was a blessing at the time, but a curse later in my life because it contributed to fourteen years of my thinking, “If I just watch it a little, I’ll lose weight without really trying. I shouldn’t stress about it. Just try to be “better.” It will come off on its own.” 

After one semester at college, my relationship with food was a complete disaster. I had a meal plan that allowed for as much food as I wanted at every meal. Dinnertime was a prime social time in the dorm. I have a tendency to be a social eater, which I have had to change completely this past year. There were snacks in the room. There was “Late Night” service in the dining hall around midnight. More food than anyone could know what to do with!

Several years later, I was getting ready to be married. My weight had stabilized: I was on my feet teaching all day, logging miles around my classroom and my campus. I exercised, a little. I would get nervous before teaching my classes for the day, so I wasn’t eating much in the morning: a banana, coffee. As I grew more confident, I would stop once in awhile for a donut or, my favorite, a ham and cheese croissant. Yet with all the activity, I was stable at about 145 pounds. I taught myself to cook in the French style, despite my husband’s assurances that he was not a foodie and preferred the basics. Cream sauces, pate a choux, custards…I honed my baking skills: mascarpone and honey buns, all manner of bread, cakes for no reason, cookies for fun, cupcakes with butter icing, homemade ice cream with real cream. 

And I was good at it, too. Cooking and baking became, for me, an art form. A hobby. A passion. So relaxing. 

Then I had two pregnancies. I had read somewhere that full fats were good for a developing baby—no trouble there, I was on top of that! I ate not just for two, but for three or four. It was a social, happy time. I am a social, happy eater. The kiddos came out, and I wanted to make social, happy times for them. We made up holidays to celebrate with homemade confections. Every day turned into an event, much of it centered around food. I was convinced that I was passing along family culture, old recipes, good memories, love.

I never took off all of my weight (or got back to 145) after Katie. When I got pregnant again, I kept adding on. Within the first year of Eric’s birth, I did lose some. By January of 2012, after we got back from Hawaii, the OB congratulated me on losing 10 pounds from the previous year. “Oh yeah! Not even trying!” I thought. That old curse had come to haunt me. 

So from the middle of January 2012 to May of 2012, I ate whatever and whenever I wanted. I can do this if I just go with my gut, I thought. I do not have to deprive myself. My body will do this on its own. I shouldn’t stress myself by thinking about it. I don’t have time anyway, with two kiddos to raise. I have to put my family first: when would I have time to exercise?” Yes, over the past year I have discovered my martyrdom complex and part of my journey has been to stomp it out forever. The thing about martyrdom is that it victimizes the very people we think we’re protecting. How dare I put my failures to control my habits on my family, my hardworking husband and my sweet kiddos? That takes a heck of a big ego… And part of my weight loss journey has been dealing with this ego and putting it in its correct place.

When I am in the trenches dealing with what to eat, there is nothing for me except to be humble. I have to deal every day—every second—with the very substance over which I could lose total control. I am reminded continually of how weak I could be and have been, without a system of checks and gateways in my mind. I am reminded of how I used food as a means of complacency. Of how I gave my spark to that god. Of how little I trusted myself to build an identity as a mother without it. I have to look my fears and weaknesses in the eyes every time I make a meal.

I eat very differently now. I do not follow any known diet, and I count calories just on my own. This has been a lifestyle change, and I have had to learn to operate within real calorie counts. It has become second nature now, but in the beginning it took time and measurement. I kept tallies on pieces of paper. I ate mostly only what I could absolutely quantify (70 calories of Texas caviar from Costco—it’s a bean thing, 150 calories of sushi, a spinach and tofu wrap for 290) based on nutritional labels. Breakfast and lunch were easy: I could make different items for myself and serve my children something healthy that they would like (PB & J, etc). Dinners were much more trying. I need to make dinner for my children. So I would calculate based on fractions. I’d list all the ingredients, figure out how many calories there were of each in the recipe/meal and calculate my fraction to get at least a ballpark figure. It’s just all math. That’s all it is for me. On days when I feel insecure or if I am having a hard time with hunger, I remember: trust in the mathematics of it. Math does not lie. Following the numbers has brought me to my current weight. 

So what do I eat?  Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I sent to a friend: 

I tend to eat light in the morning (about 200 to 250 calories, plus tea with a dash of 2% milk and no sugar). I rely heavily on Ezekiel bread (80 cals, toast it twice to bring out the nuttiness) and a tablespoon of almond butter. That’s a protein packed breakfast. If I am having a super hungry morning, I might add a bit of fruit an hour later, maybe a banana. My husband likes more calories in the morning and consumes less as the day goes on. I am usually not very hungry in the morning (never have been) but get REALLY hungry from noon to dinner…so I tend to save calories to deploy later in the day. Another go-to for breakfast for me is Go Lean cereal. Lots of protein, and not many calories. I eat mine with 1/2 to 1 cup of almond milk.

About plant-based milks: everyone has an opinion. I’ve done soy… Some use coconut. I personally really like the unsweetened almond milk.

Lunches for me are sometimes 400 to 500 calories, depending. I love (fake) sushi. Hummus. Pickles. Texas caviar (a bean and corn salad from Costco). I seriously live on variations of garbanzo beans. I love quinoa with some toasted pine nuts and golden raisins and a bit of romano cheese. Spinach and tofu burritos from the store (I think they are Amy’s? I should check). I love sliced tomatoes on low-fat cottage cheese, with a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze or two of lemon. If you want to pack more protein in that dish, sub out the cottage cheese for 0% Greek yogurt (another ingredient on which I live). It is tart, especially with tomatoes, salt, and lemon…but my palate likes it. I use the 0% Greek yogurt in smoothies (along with banana, ice, almond milk, flax, and fruit and/or greens like spinach). I love black bean burgers (store bought) and sometimes I have them without the bun. Anything with lentils (lentil soup, a Lebanese dish called imm jaddara, for which there is a great recipe online, dahl balls…etc).

I eat lots of beans and veggies and increasingly little meat, although I do periodically serve fish or chicken. I discovered that I could eat so much more if I ate mostly veggies! This helped especially in the early days of changing my diet.

Tea. Tea, tea, tea. I would be lost without my tea. Black tea for me in the morning… followed by green tea (either mint moroccan or just plain green tea or jasmine tea) until about noon to 1:00. From there, it’s herbals. I love lemon ginger, peppermint, chamomile, rooibos… I drink tea almost constantly. It helps to fill me up and allows me to satiate my need for flavors.

I love the Forks Over Knives cookbook.

Hmm… trying to think of what else… We don’t allow soda (except for ginger ale during illness) or chips in the house on a normal basis (although we never did). I will also have to send along at some point some go-to recipes to satisfy sweet cravings.

To my knowledge, I have not exceeded 2000 calories on any day this year, even “special occasions.” (I personally don’t observe the “cheat day” rule because I know it can break down some of my gateways, but I know it works wonders for others—I think everyone has to find his or her own rhythm). It’s possible, but I’ve tried to be vigilant. For those occasions when I have had to go out to eat, I preview menus online beforehand and calculate calories for the dish I want. I never go blind into a restaurant. Even at Starbucks, I am careful. I used to consume several thousand calories there a week without paying attention. That said: 2000 calories for me is gaining. As I work to find my maintenance calories, I am finding that they have to be somewhere between 1500 and 1800. 

Food is in its proper place for me. It is fuel for the machine. Can it be pleasurable? Oh yes. I have tasted some of the yummiest food this year in its pure form (fruits, vegetables just as they are without adornment). Honey is amazingly sweet on the tongue. I love the way my body feels when it gets what it needs without being stuffed and leaden. The sensuality that comes from the right food being transformed into energy and passion is something I had been missing out on for years. I feel more alert. As interested as I have always been in every part of life, my curiosity and engagement with the world around me has only increased. My children have a more patient version of me. Much of my anxiety burns off in my runs and has no sugar or coffee to feed it; I am more calm. There is less time in the kitchen and more time painting, writing, thinking, playing, and reading. I wake up excited, not for what we’re going to be baking that day, but just because life itself is truly exciting and vibrant. 

So here is a picture that is more difficult to share than I would have thought. Yes, I see a version of myself that is overweight, but that’s not why it’s difficult. The hard part of looking at this and sharing this picture is that I know what that person was thinking and feeling about herself. I know that version of myself was not all the way in touch with that spark that burns deep down inside, which I have found and recovered this year. That version of me was not striving or wanting. The taste of wanting something, the hunger for it, and then going out to conquer it…that tastes better than any food I’ve ever put into my mouth. Last year at this time: 

sarah very overweight 2


Bill asked to take this picture this morning. I was going to wait another couple of weeks, but I think this works to show the overall change of losing 45.6 pounds: 

sarah thin

I look a bit sleepy-eyed, because I got up super early to run 4.7 miles before the kiddos needed breakfast and cuddles!