Hot dog and candy
Photo: William Abranowicz
For Jessica Winter food is a means to stave off impending disaster, keep stress at bay, and when things get really crazy, drop a dress size or three....
Like the mighty bison, the sturdy yak, and the vast water buffalo, I am a ruminant. You can usually find me in my native habitat (an office cubicle) chewing contemplatively (cud of choice: Snyder's Sourdough Nibblers) while gazing into the middle distance or in the general direction of a computer screen. I may not have a multichambered stomach, but I eat as though I do, particularly when on deadline. All my life, whether as a student cramming for exams or a 30-something writer-editor struggling to construct a decent sentence, I have eaten to stave off fretfulness (because every test was the one I would fail, every article is the one I'll botch) and enter a bucolic state of clarity. Mindful work and mindless feeding patterns made a marriage of convenience long ago.

Because I am vain as well as irrational, I occasionally swap out mindless eating for mindless dieting—invariably during a summer off or a slowdown at work. And if my regular food habits belong to a lower order of species intelligence, my weight loss frenzies are as devoid of rational thought as a mollusk convention. When I was 18, I followed a plan of hot dog buns and Sour Patch Kids (I lost 15 pounds in six weeks). At 21, it was Greek salad and Tootsie Rolls, consumed only after 7 P.M. (I lost ten pounds in four weeks). At 25, it was Atkins (I lost my entire butt).

These phases of bizarro discipline shake up my ruminant identity—the sturdy yak suddenly wants to shape-shift into a gangly giraffe who nibbles daintily on leaves and looks amazing in a pencil skirt. Weirdly, though, the crash diets do fit my overall eater's profile. Whether I'm snacking or abstaining, I seem to view food in purely functional terms: either as a sop to anxiety or as a potent but dangerous fuel, to be tapped as sparingly as possible. It's something to help me think or something to be avoided to help me look nice, but it's seldom something to be thought about; hence my attraction to rigid, narrow-minded diet regimens. Maybe my subconscious decided early on that my relationship with food was so gnarled that it should take up a bare minimum of mental space. This may explain why I've never learned a kitchen skill higher than toast-making and have rarely tried a weight loss plan that didn't count bulk candy as a dinner option. Or why my approach to food is still as childish as when I was actually a child.

The ruminant would like to evolve at last, but how? What would happen if I ate three squares a day, and never in the vicinity of my laptop? Would the work not get done? Would it get done badly? Just how scary is it to be alone with one's thoughts, unsoothed by carbohydrates? I'm fairly sure the answers are promising, but I need to mull them over first. And I will, just as soon as I get back from the vending machine.

Next: The joy of eating, well, everything

Jessica Winter is a senior editor at O, the Oprah Magazine


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