Given how I mentioned in my last post that I have felt a spiritual calling to live a healthier lifestyle, I think it is only appropriate to quote a bible verse I have been thinking about a lot lately from Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” The verse goes on to say that you cannot serve God and money, but I think in this world, you could easily change these “masters” to good health, and culture. After all, by turning away from an unhealthy culture and taking care of the body God gave me, I feel I am honoring God.
For my fourteenth birthday, a friend from choir invited me to see a youth theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Techni-Colored Dream Coat, as she was in the cast. The performance was fantastic, and a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. But the year I turned fourteen was my first attempt at trying to live healthier, in which I gave up chocolate, my biggest vice at the time. Before the show, I had angel food cake with strawberry frosting, which was fabulous, but not as addictive as chocolate and therefore I didn’t eat too much. After the show, this friend and her mom invited me, my parents and Grandma to her house. I don’t remember whether I told this friend that I wanted to give up chocolate and she just thought I would be willing to cheat on my birthday, or if I hadn’t told her at all. But at any rate, she had baked a chocolate birthday cake. I stood my ground and politely declined a piece of cake, but after the party, I was told that I should have had a piece to be polite as this friend went out of her way to do something special for me. For a long time after that, I felt terrible about how I had treated this friend, and eventually went back to eating chocolate because standing my ground in social situations was too emotionally difficult. This situation with my choir friend came back to mind in 2017 when I went over to my Jehovah’s Witness friend’s house for bible study. In conversation, I had casually told her I had Celiac Disease and had to eat gluten-free, but I had never really talked about my past wake-up calls, or how in the scariest wake-up call of all, the doctor thought I was pre-diabetic when I was only eighteen years old, so after that, I was very careful about how much sugar I ate. So this friend consulted closely with another Jehovah’s Witness friend whose son had to be strictly gluten free for medical reasons, and I could tell she was delighted as she presented me on a plate a big, beautiful slice of rhubarb cobbler she had made specially for me. Somehow, I couldn’t justify telling a little lie and just thanking her and asking to wrap it up and take it home to eat later, which in truth means giving it to Mom who also prefers to avoid gluten but does not have to worry about cross-contamination because she doesn’t have Celiac Disease. I have no qualms telling this little lie with other well-meaning friends who don’t understand Celiac Disease, but I really trust both her and the friend whose son is gluten free, so knew cross-contamination wasn’t something I would have to worry about eating the cobbler. And after all these friends did for us, including visiting me in the hospital and bringing food for my parents when I had my seizure in March 2017, and visiting my mom and bringing food for all of us after her shoulder surgery in April 2017, I knew I would feel like an absolute jerk if I didn’t eat the cobbler, so I did. But then I felt crushing guilt for caving and eating unhealthy after all the supposed wake-up calls I have had, and because I had done so well the past two years abstaining from family birthday cakes and pies Mom usually baked from scratch. I felt tremendous guilt the first couple celebrations, but when I explained my desire to abstain from high-sugar treats, Mom completely understood and was not offended because she had been there for me through all my wake-up calls. My Jehovah’s Witness friend did not know about my past wake-up calls, but with her degree of Christ-like compassion and selflessness—something I saw in all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses I met—I know she would have understood if I had explained my past struggles. I could have even been honest and told her that I was going to take the cobbler home to Mom.
But I don’t feel guilt and shame anymore, because in retrospect, I realize I wasn’t as committed to good health in 2017 as I thought I was anyway. While I made surface-level decisions to give up certain things like high-sugar desserts, and cheesy dishes like lasagna, I had not matured enough to go deeper and completely change my mind-set about eating. I didn’t realize then that while I had made small decisions that made me feel healthier, food was still my master in other areas. And as I mentioned in my last post, I have learned over the course of bible studies that perfection is not required, only progress. I know God forgives me for not making healthy choices in the past because I lacked the maturity at that time to change my mind-set. But now I feel ready to progress to a deeper level of maturity. It has also occurred to me that without the practice God had given me, starting in 2012 when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and had to smell wonderful things like pizza that I couldn’t have, I might not have even had the confidence to make the choice to resist gluten free birthday cake. And all those times I successfully resisted gluten free birthday cake prepared me for this holiday season when I felt so secure in the decision I felt called to make that I didn’t even have one paleo Christmas cookie or take one lick from the chocolate bowl, what used to be my favorite part of making the peanut clusters. And on Christmas day, when my sister requested steak and baked potatoes for dinner, I felt no shame in having my separate meal of a small slice of turkey breast meat, green beans and a giant salad. Life is really a series of stepping stones, and I believe God knows that.
For now, I still allow myself to eat one square of Ghirardelli 92% dark chocolate for lunch because one square only has 60 calories and hardly any sugar, and super-dark chocolate does have health benefits. But if this chocolate is not available, I will go without chocolate rather than eat chocolate with lower cacao content. In fact, yesterday, I noticed I only had four squares left, so I went to Target’s web site where I always re-order my chocolate because they have the best price. But for some reason, it is not able to be shipped right now. The only way to get it would be for Mom or Dad to take me to Target and pick it up. Next time Mom or Dad announce they will be going to Target anyway for household stuff, I will ask them to buy some chocolate. Until then, I can live without chocolate. It is a luxury, not something I need for sustenance, so asking Mom or Dad to make a special trip for it would be akin to idolizing food again. Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live makes a couple broad statements that chocolate should be avoided, but he does not say anything about super-dark chocolate, just that with chocolate comes sugar, and sugar is an addictive toxic substance. I can say from personal experience that sugar definitely is an addictive substance. I wasn’t aware of super-dark chocolate as a child, and probably would have spit it out in disgust if I had tried it as a child because my brain was so hooked on sugar. Many of the patients Dr. Fuhrman treats are morbidly obese, and would not be able to stand the bitter taste of 92% dark chocolate. But because I have pretty much abstained from refined sugar for years, I am no longer hooked on it and love the taste of super-dark chocolate. And because it is “the real thing”, I am perfectly satisfied with just one square.
Sorry, I really digressed there. Since it is impossible to serve two masters, I have confidently chosen to honor God by prioritizing my health, and I believe my true friends will understand. If that means eating my own thing at family gatherings or social events with friends, I will eat my healthy food proudly or when possible, eat at home beforehand and go to the event for the people, not the food. The week before Christmas, a co-worker who was relatively new to the company found out I was gluten free. She said she also has to be gluten-free, and offered me some cookies she had baked. Since I didn’t know her that well, I didn’t feel like explaining my health decision to her, so I accepted the cookies, thanked her and took them home. Mom and Dad loved them, even described the taste so I wouldn’t be backed into a corner if she asked specific questions about the taste of the cookies. But with co-workers I know well, I was honest and told them not to bring me any gluten-free baked goods because I planned to stay diligent even through Christmas. To my delight, everyone so far has been respectful and understanding. In fact, when I entered the office Secret Santa pool at the end of November, I wrote that dark chocolate was one of my favorite gifts to receive. After names were drawn, it occurred to me I hadn’t been thinking straight. What if they got me chocolate with only 60% cacao content, or just an obscene amount of chocolate that I wouldn’t be able to eat in a lifetime, that I would have to tactfully figure out what to do with. I would have been polite, smiled and said thank you, of course if these scenarios played out. But to my delight, my Secret Santa, who I found out consulted with a close friend who is also health conscious, didn’t give me any food at all. Insteat, I got a snow globe, and a wonderful smelling candle!
I am sure at some point, awkward moments will be inevitable, as my journey of a countercultural way of living in a culture that revolves around unhealthy food has only just begun. But with a successful first Christmas under my belt in which I lost five pounds while most Americans gained weight, combined with the opportunities God has given me to practice self-control since 2012, I am brimming with confidence and ready for the challenge. I will try not to over-explain things and just say a polite “no thanks” if offered unhealthy food. But when people ask questions, or make a comment like “oh come on, it’s a special occasion. You could cheat every once in awhile,” I have two approaches ready. If I know they are believers and religious talk won’t rub them the wrong way, I will share the feelings I have expressed in these last two blog posts. If they are not believers, I will tell them about this article. In this article, Dr. Fuhrman explains that addictive foods stimulate the same dopamine receptors in the brain that drugs and alcohol do for some people. Since unhealthy food is cheap, legal, and socially accepted, it is the “drug of choice” for many people. With just one bite of addictive foods, dopamine is released, and the brain wants more. It isn’t long before the brain adapts by actually reducing the number of dopamine receptors. With fewer dopamine receptors, the brain needs more and more of the addictive substance to get the desired reward. Therefore, in the same way that a recovering alcoholic or drug user cannot even have one drink or dose without risk of relapse, people who struggle with over-eating cannot have even one splurge without risk of relapse. Indeed, my craving for ever larger portions of certain foods, especially peanut butter, paleo treats and grain-based casseroles after work began with just one bite.
How fitting that I am publishing this post on New Year’s Day, isn’t it? I know parts of this post may have sounded like I was gloating because I started the most common new year’s resolution even before Christmas. Don’t feel bad about yourself reading about my success. It is a journey, and we all have unique struggles. Even my transition was rocky at first. As luck would have it, exactly one week after my shock on the scale which I talked about in the previous post was Thanksgiving, the holiday that is about feasting. I ate smaller portions that day than I ever have on Thanksgiving, but even at Thanksgiving, I felt like I would be “missing out” if I didn’t have mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole with gluten free fried onions on top, and a slice of pumpkin pie. Before I realized how overweight I had become, I asked Mom to buy an expensive gluten free pie crust at a local bakery rather than make a crustless pie as she did two Thanksgivings ago. (Last Thanksgiving, my sister hosted Thanksgiving in New York City.) I felt I couldn’t bail on her and say no to pie when she had gone to such expense. But I think in retrospect, there could not have been a better time to start a new lifestyle than the holiday season. I found my footing in this new lifestyle by Christmas, and now that I successfully navigated Christmas just over a month after choosing this lifestyle, I think I can handle anything. If I can do this, anyone can. I think being Christian definitely gave me an advantage because I feel as though I am doing this with a higher purpose. But no matter what you believe, I think incredible freedom and joy could be found in just not having to think about your weight anymore or agonize about the next doctor visit. I have also found that I appreciate other facets of life more now that I am eating for sustenance rather than pleasure. For example, this year I sang in three choir concerts for the Christmas season, and by no longer allowing myself to eat for pleasure, my mind did not wander during the concert to what treat I would have afterwards, but instead appreciated more fully the beauty of the songs we were singing. You don’t have to be mastered by cultural norms. This freedom and deeper appreciation of life can be yours too if you make the decision to “just say no.” No, it isn’t easy, especially in the beginning when you actually go through withdrawal just like a drug addict. For me, withdrawal came in the form of a couple migraines that were more severe than usual. But I can tell you the rewards have already been worth the sacrifice.