It's been a crazy week of flip flopping among the pundits in Washington regarding food. We have the first lady trying to set a world record to raise awareness for childhood obesity, and just days later the government goes soft, refusing to castrate Tony the Tiger.
Ms. Obama seems all about health on camera, but Paula Deen ratted her out. She apparently got her gnosh on during the commercials. Makes you wonder what the White House chef is serving up these days.
I guess it's one step at a time. If the history of my own relationship with food proves anything, it's that fitness is a journey rather than a destination. Exploring my curiosities has made it a roller coaster of an adventure, from mending my unhealthy relationship with food in my teens, to the trials of The Abs and The Warrior diets.
I didn't give vegetarianism more than a passive pondering until Jenn and I were planning to celebrate our 1st anniversary by exploring Portland, OR on foot. She's never been a vegan purist, but lived largely on produce by default until I came along. I don't remember whose idea it was, but vegetarianism was an eating -ism I'd never tried, and that alone made me willing. The fact that my wife was eager to participate made it that much more enticing, since my evolving menu had been known to induce rolling eyes and exasperation on her part.
We decided ahead of time to go at least a month without meat after our trip, seeing it as a way to detox from all of the restaurant food eaten during our tasty tour of Portland. It could possibly speed up our financial recovery, too . . . I mean, spinach is cheaper than steak, right?
On one of our first nights in the trendy city, we went to a Living Room Theater and watched the documentary Food Inc. It points out a lot of ominous disease-breeding/animal-abusing/migrant worker oppressing/poison-spreading aspects of our nation's food system. The rhetoric was good motivation for someone already planning to shun meat for a time- so much, in fact, that I got started then and there.
Portland is a very liberal, organic, Petavegan-friendly kind of city. Almost all of the food joints we went to had meatless lasagna, veggie burgers, tofu tips, and other specially designed 'plates' to appease the herbivores- even Deschutes and Rock Bottom, a couple of the coolest little microbreweries on the planet.
I soon found myself ordering meat-free meals, and they were delicious! The early start was enjoyable, and I continued to handle our month of meatlessness well after returning home. Dagwood salads with lettuce, tomatoes, almonds, carrots, spinach, feta cheese, jalapeños, sprouts, and more helped see me through.
The leafy-greens and colorful salad aspect of vegetarian life was most healthy, but there was a darker side. I think any man my size would asphyxiate if he tried to get enough calories from leaves alone. The addictive and calorie-dense bread, cracker, cookie, rice, and cake side of things still qualifies as vegetarian. I could feel myself getting softer as muscles seemingly atrophied for lack of protein. I was more hungry more often, and the starchy foods ranking high on the glycemic index were being stashed at my waistline. I packing on pounds like Kobayashi, but felt myself growing weaker and softer. After over-training finally caught up with me and I had to stop running, my body felt even more inclined to store the starches.
'But what about beans?' you might scream- that seems to be many a vegetarian's answer to lack of protein. The truth is, beans have considerably more starch than they do protein. To get enough protein from legumes and tofu, you have to overdose on calories which, unless you have the metabolism of a hummingbird, usually results in weight gain. Not to mention the dutch oven effect. A married man's toe-steaming methane emissions under the covers are hardly appreciated.
Atkins was all the rage back then. There was a lo-carb version of everything in groceryland. Despite that fact, I never bought into the idea that going carnivorous to such a degree could possibly be sustainable or healthy in the long-term. I was more than ready for meat again, practically drooling at the thought of a ribeye, but wanted something more balanced than toxic ketosis. About to get back into weightlifting, I was on the hunt for a balanced, scientifically sound scheme that would optimize energy for exercise and protein for muscle development.
After another round of research I entered The Zone. It's a very interesting book, with sensible theory promoting a strictly measured, but wisely balanced diet. I also picked up Stuart McRobert's reference manual on bodybuilding. Together, my new set of references made for a few months of enjoyable progress. The carefully measured protein to carb ratios kept me in The Zone, while I meticulously recorded weight, reps, and sets in a raw circuit of fundamental compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
I felt pretty good overall, mentally and physically. As I got stronger, chronic aches like my rotator cuff and the periformis/sciatica that my running had incurred seemed to disappear. I could eat just about anything, which was liberating to a point, but portions were tightly controlled.
I put on around 15 pounds of muscle, but it never seemed to poke through the wrapping paper quite like Rambo's. I felt stronger but slower, my walk became a lumber. As a beefcake, I missed feeling light, lean, and quick on my feet. The constant label-reading and tedious fat, carb, and protein gram-counting became tedious, despite the pre-calculated recipes I'd developed that helped streamline snack time. I couldn't try anything new without another number-crunching session.
One evening I pushed the limits with a little too much weight on the squat, resulting in bad form, and my back gave me trouble for weeks. Just when I thought it was better, the slightest twist would bring all of the pain rushing back for days. I needed an extended break, and took it during the busyness of moving from the Little Rock area to upstate New York.
The physical transplant uprooted my routine completely. I was without a gym, my fully stocked fridge, and even my wife (for a couple of weeks.) Without the right combination of proximity and price, I couldn't find a gym worth joining. Over the next few months my hard-earned Arkansas muscle began to soften and sag.
For the first time since I was 13 years old I found myself over 200lbs and more interested in shedding excess weight than in general fitness. That's when I undertook a week long fruit-fast. It worked nicely in terms of slimming down, and provided plenty of vitamins and fiber, but seemed too sugary to do long-term without rotting your teeth out.
For my second phase of slenderization, I switched to a rice fast. Simple and effective, I was soon back down to my fighting weight, floating around 180lbs. I maintained that weight for some time as a mostly-whole-foods omnivore, intentionally conscious of portion sizes, but avoiding the hassle of calorie counting. It was probably a year later that I came across a revelation that would turn everything I thought I knew about healthy eating upside down and expose the 'con' in conventional wisdom.
Coming soon. . .
Article first published as Vegetarian, The Zone, Fruitopia, and the Rice Fast on Technorati.