Figuring out what I could and should eat, via "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," published jointly by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, meant three hours of slogging through an 84-page downloaded file. Put as simply as possible, it advocated eating from all food groups every day—two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables a day, including veggies both dark green (kale, broccoli) and orange (carrots, squash), starches (potatoes, corn), and "other" (artichokes, green beans). I also needed six-ounce equivalents daily of grain (at least half of it whole grain); about five and a half ounces of meat, fish, or poultry; and three cups of milk or yogurt. I would also include four to five servings a week of legumes (varying from a half cup for beans and peas, one ounce for nuts, and two tablespoons for seeds). I made copious notes, shopping lists, menus.
As I switched, perhaps too quickly, to whole grain rolls with less peanut butter and nonfat milk in my coffee; salads heavy with vegetables, four nutritious ounces of white beans, and virtually no dressing; and yummy snacks of plums and raw carrot sticks, my stomach went noxious with fiber overload. Let's just say it was a good thing I work at home, alone.
The exercise regimen was only slightly better. Since I've worked out in the past, I know that a first-thing-in-the-morning session of lifting weights followed by a stationary bike ride in the later afternoon are the two things I'll do on a regular basis. I even own the equipment—I wasted money maintaining a gym membership for five years after I became a mother before admitting I'd never again find time to use it. Plus, when you work out at home, you can freely sweat, curse, and look like hell. But starting exercise after a lull is never pleasant. The only way to get through it was the fitness equivalent of "lie back and think of England": outline what to do—today, work on triceps, chest, shoulders—do it, and don't even think about having fun. Listening to music with a driving beat made the time endurable. I also did a late afternoon dog walk, but as a workout it was utterly useless given my dog's stop, sniff, and pee habits. I missed my enormous yellow Lab; Haskell, may he rest in peace, demanded a daily death march at breakneck speed. Now there was a personal trainer.
As the days went by, the combination of workout and diet left me both charley-horsed and starving, longing for the satiation that only sugar and grease provide. The irony: Normally I'm one of maybe ten women in America who aren't obsessed with food, but I became fixated on portions, grams, what I had eaten that day, and what I could consume next. "You see what it does to you," said my friend Cathy, who has struggled with weight and diets for decades. "You get to where it's all you think about, and your whole approach to eating becomes distorted."
Other friends became positively indignant when I complained. "If you have trouble maintaining this diet, what use is it?" demanded one, her subtext transparent: "Oh, goody. I don't even have to try."
By the end of the second week, hunger had become a constant companion, and I was in a foul mood about how little fun it was to eat, especially out of the house. I went to a Chinese restaurant with family on my birthday and sat, fuming, while everyone gorged on fried/salty/fatty delights and I got the broccoli garnishes. At my favorite Mexican joint, I exchanged my customary cheese-filled chile relleno for a bowl of sopa con pollo. I baked my daughter a birthday cake and watched others wolf it down.
We Hear You!