Monday, August 24, 2009

Hard Wired

Sometimes, I really wonder how long it is going to take to overcome my inner programming regarding the way I eat... the way I live. I think back to the examples I had in my life as a small child growing up. I think about how small children become "wired" a certain way based on their earliest experiences. It seems to make us who we are.

My father was an older man. He was a *great* father, but his example to me in the "health" category was lacking. He ate pretty much what he wanted, and he enjoyed it. In fact, he enjoyed eating more than anyone I've ever seen. He'd been to Korea and Vietnam and spoke of the constant rush to gulp down your meals there, and when he retired from the Army he said, "I'm going to enjoy my food. I have the time to eat slowly now. I'm going to taste every bite." (This was, in fact, the *one* bit of advice/good example in eating that I could have gleaned from my father, but sadly I was usually too busy cramming my food down at record speed with my mother to appreciate what my Dad was saying). He ate lots of cheese, fried stuff, and chips. We often went out to nicer restaurants where I was allowed to order pretty much anything I wanted; usually this meant deep-fried shrimp, deep-fried battered clams, cheesy pasta, or filet Mignon draped in bacon. I developed a taste for fatty foods pretty early on, and expected huge portions as well because of all our restaurant eating. I never ordered a "kid's meal" or a smaller portion, and I never thought of *not* eating everything that was brought to the table. Weekends were spent by my Dad sitting, watching TV, relaxing. I never saw my father run, jog, lift a weight, or do any form of "exercise." He never took a walk with me, went swimming, or got on a bike. Physical activity was something you had to do at work, and something to avoid whenever possible. I sucked that lifestyle right up and as an adult I instinctively would come home from work or school and attempt to avoid any extraneous movement for the whole weekend as I sat, watched TV, played on the computer, and "rested." This involved letting my small kids watch way to much TV and play way too many video games, even though I did take them to the park every weekend. I didn't play with them... I sat and watched them. Just like my parents did with me. Isn't that just what parents do?

My mother was an example of extreme eating chaos. She was a chubby kid, got thin as a teen and into her early 20's by binge drinking, vomiting, and not eating. She told me that her meals would often be a helping of plain tuna, eaten straight from the can with a fork. I don't remember seeing my mother like this, because by the time I was 5 she'd quit the crazy drinking and was trying to be "stable." But she subbed food for the alcohol and got really fat, really fast. I don't remember her ever being thin. Ever. Apparently she didn't know a whole lot about nutrition, either, because the few pictures I have of me eating as a child are: me having a bowl of chocolate ice cream for breakfast as a toddler; me drinking beer from a tiny mug when I was about 18 months old; me eating hot dogs when I was maybe 2. Growing up, I *did* see my mother exercising... as a punishment to herself for getting fat. She and her Weight Watchers friend would take me swimming at an indoor pool because they were trying to lose weight, but I remember them mostly floating around joking and laughing... not actually *swimming*. I doubt I ever saw my mother get her heart rate up enough to make a difference in her fitness. Beyond that, she had the same "avoid activity" philosophy as my father, and spent a lot of time in the recliner watching TV, or going out to eat with friends. Watching her eat, I saw her gushing over cheese and chocolate and gooey "sinful" desserts, but when she had a salad or vegetables, once again it seemed like she was punishing herself for being fat. She stockpiled Weight Watchers frozen dinners, which actually smelled pretty good, but I was *not* allowed to have them. They were her "special" food to make her lose weight. She was always obsessing, swinging from one extreme to the other, forcing down a salad and a 200 calorie WW meal or doing her grapefruit-and-egg diet, or eating a whole pound of chocolates or a bag of chips with dip and Coke. Swing swing, back and forth, all or nothing. Diet or enjoy food. Forced restriction or luxurious indulgence. It always seemed to me that the only reason you'd eat a vegetable or try to move out of your TV chair was to punish yourself if you got fat.

My mother had a book that she referenced often. It was called "Eat Better, Live Better" and was filled with nutrition advice and healthy recipes. In fact, it was the one book I *begged* her to let me take with me when I moved out. I was thrilled to bring it with me, since I'd used it so often as a teen. I still have that book. But the funny thing is, neither my mother nor I *ever* read any of the information in there about how good fish is for you, the nutrients in legumes, or how to prepare delicious vegetable dishes. No. Those pages were completely unread and unused and the spine still crackles when you open them, just like a brand new book. What my mother referenced so frequently, and what I loved that book for, was the "3-Day Diet" my mother scribbled in the back cover of the book. It's still there, in her curvy handwriting:

Day 1:
B. 1 grapefruit, 1 pc. toast, 2 TBS peanut butter (coffee-tea)
L: 1/2 can tuna, 1 toast
D: 2 slices meat, 1 c. green beans, 1/2 c. beets, 1 sm apple, 1/2 c. van ice cream
approx 1020 cal

Day 2:
B: 1 egg, 1 toast, 1/2 banana
L: 1/2 c cottage cheese, 5 saltines
D: 2 franks, 1 c broccoli, 1/2 c carrots, 1/2 banana, 1/2 c van ice cream
approx 915 cal

Day 3:
B: 5 saltines, 1 sl cheddar cheese, 1 sm apple
L: 1 boiled egg, 1 toast
D: 1/2 can tuna, 1/2 c beets, 1 c cauliflower, 1/2 cantaloupe
approx 765 cal

No substitutions were allowed. I remember my mother gagging down these foods trying to get thinner, and I, as a slightly heavy teen (I was maybe 8 pounds overweight) did this "diet" many, many times. I remember forcing down the dry, white toast, the canned carrots, the hated-but-necessary cottage cheese. I HATED it. It was 3 days of torture and by day 3 I was dizzy and sick, but I did it anyway. And when it was over I was thrilled to get back to my bowls of Cocoa Pebbles and Pizza Hut dinners. It still strikes me as so ironic that *this* was written in the back of a nutrition guide. And *because* it was there, somehow I felt it was valid. Yet I never cracked open another page in that book.

I wasn't a fat kid but I did pick up on my parents' habits. I hated PE. I pretended to have my period or be sick five times a month so I could avoid it. I did the usual kid things like ride my bike or go roller skating, but those things were just "fun" and it never occurred to me that they were actually good for my body. My parents didn't encourage physical activity, and they modeled "zoning out" so well that it is one of my very best talents. I am quite skilled at plopping on the couch for hours with snacks and not noticing anything else that's going on around me!

When I look at my "default mode," it is one of little movement and lots of indulgence. If a toddler is fed ice cream and hot dogs all the time, does it become an ingrained part of their psyche? I dunno, but it sure feels that way. I work hard to change my habits. I get to a point of eating lots of veggies (and enjoying it) and working out daily, but if I let up for an instant, I seem to float back to the old comfortable ice cream and hot dogs and inactivity. When I let my guard down, I revert back to a kid sitting on the couch watching TV and eating a block of Port Wine cheese with my fingers. I crave Coke. I want chips. Fried stuff. And if I'm not careful, the veggies I now love start feeling like a punishment for being fat. I wonder how long it will take for me to stop going back to that "safe place" when I am stressed out. I wonder if it is just so deeply ingrained from such an early age that I'll always have to fight it.

One of my goals it to completely shed the fat-mom mentality of exercise = punishment. I am trying to focus on *enjoying* activity. I want to create a new core for myself that sees activity and healthy eating as something I WANT to do. I need to rewire myself and stay with the new habits long enough that I never go back to the old. And the only way to do that is to DO IT.


FatFitnessFood said...

It is interesting to me that you can remember your parents' relationships with food. I never really thought about this before. I truly can't remember my mother or father even talking about food or nutrition. We just ate at meal times and that was that. So equally not addressing food at all can still lead to food issues.

And yes you are right, viewing activity as a great opportunity and a great fun part of your day is the way forward. Difficult to begin with, but certainly the way forward.

Joan said...

They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Friend of the Bear said...

Hi Lyn. I'm struck by how different the worlds we grew up in are and yet I too ended up in binge eating hell. Your childhood sounds like one of indulgence and plenty (for much of the time) while mine was far more puritan. Both my parents were very thin and I never ate a hot dog, McDonalds or any fast food at all when I was growing up. I wasn't allowed cola or sweets or cocoa to drink or biscuits. We didn't have a deep fat frier so no fried foods.

This was just how most middle class people ate in the UK in the 70s and 80s.

So if a person (like me) can develop, in adulthood, a desire for unhealthy foods they never had access to or only very rarely ate in childhood, then maybe it can work in the opposite direction too? Maybe it is possible to develop the taste for healthy eating later in life? I think it is possible and I think you are doing it.

But also it is true that when human beings have access to as much food as they want at any time of the day or night (which is now the case in the UK too) we are just biologically programmed to want the fatty/ sugary/ salty option much more than the healthy stuff, however healthy our early diet might have been.

It's important to remember that our biology is only evolved as far as the stone age. So we're battling against the stone age woman inside all the time!

I think you write, obliquely, about this many times - your fears of being thinner, of not having enough food, of the time when you only had $5 a month for food ...

We'll just have to keep telling the stone age woman that there's enough food to go round for the rest of her days and there's no need to eat it all today!

You can do it!

Best wishes,
Bearfriend xx

Leslie said...

Hi Lyn,

You are doing it, little by little. Wacko eating is so hard to move away from, because we have to contend with food every day. With booze, cocaine, etc... you can abstain completely...not so food.

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, figuratively (staying the course) and literally (walking, biking, moving in some way). And please keep blogging! I look forward to reading you everyday.

Diane, Fit to the Finish said...

I think that understanding some of where your own relationships and feelings towards food comes from is vital. It really helped me too, as I was on my journey.

And your views of moving your body are great!

Foodie McBody said...

Lyn, I just wrote a blog post about exercise as pleasure not punishment! (which it has always been for me) I don't know where you live but if you can find a Nia class via I bet you will love it. It is crazy good fun.

I also grew up eating lots of fatty junky food with parents who loved to eat. My mother did exercise (she played a lot of tennis) and did not diet, so I suppose that was good, but she and my dad were both really into unhealthy food, and still is. I often craaaaave hotdogs. I think a lot of it is hardwired and it takes a lot to overcome. But awareness such as yours is the first step. The hardest thing is being unaware. You are on the right track.

Vickie said...

I am not sure WHERE or WHAT - but it struck me that because you are lonely - it would be really good to tie your exercise to socialization.

I realize you have your knees to consider - but you might start watching the paper and mailers for group activities that you CAN DO - that would also get you out around people.

Anonymous said...

Your life sounds just like mine! It is so good to read your thoughts and see you work through is sad to think that this will be a battle all my life....even when I loose all the weight....I wont be fixed....will still deal with the same stuff...I guess we all have something...some struggle with booze, drugs...ect...we all have something...

Foodie McBody said...

I agree with Vickie. It would be so nice if you could get a workout partner, somebody to walk or exercise with - it will up your pleasure level by a LOT.

Anonymous said...

Working out with a friend is a GREAT idea. Even better would be a friend with kids who might kid-swap with you a couple times a month for a trip to the gym, a pedicure, or another much-needed break from parenting.

Lyn, I think the habits we grew up with are much harder to break than 21 days. You lived, though, and ate a certain way for years and years. You can't expect to reprogram your brain overnight. You can, however, make a choice that it ends here. You're doing that, too. You don't make certain foods off-limits. You're working at moving more and sitting less. And guess what? You're also working at being a better, healthier role model for your kids!

Keep it up. The self-awareness thing? It's the biggest piece of this puzzle, I'm convinced.

Val said...

insightful post. If I stop and reminisce about my parent's habits, they are very similar to your parents. What a cycle.
I need to lose the punishment mentality as well...making exercise something to enjoy. It seems you are well on your way :)

Tammy said...

I've read other people's blogs before where they've wondered about this hard-wired thing.

To me, in my opinion, it doesn't really matter. If we ARE hard-wired that way, we have to change the wiring. As you said at the end of your post...the only way to do it is to just DO IT.

Doesn't really matter what happened in the past because we are the only ones who control our present and our furture. Yes, it may mean we have to work harder. I know I work worlds harder than my size 0 sister has ever had to work. That's life...and we all know how unfair life can be.

Try not to focus on the wiring or the past so much...try to look ahead, and do what you know you need to do to get where you want to be. You're not alone...I'm having to do some re-wiring myself. We're in this together girl. :)

Lisa said...


screwdestiny said...

Great post, Lyn. I definitely think there's some truth to saying that these ways of looking at food and activity are part of your psyche. I mean, if it's been that way since you've been a kid, that's a long time. But you know that your body (maybe not your brain, but your body) likes it a lot better when you're being healthy. You've talked a lot about how great you felt when you were in the zone all the time, exercising regularly. So maybe if you can tap into those feelings more than the hard-wiring to like the bad foods you do, it'll help you to get back to where you want to be.

Sonya said...

What a great post.

You've really reminded me (again) how much influence we can have on our children - no matter how young. I have an almost-three year old and a six-month old, and keep thinking that "one day" I'll set a good example by being active. It starts from the day they're born, really.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

my therapist presented me, yesterday with the option that my binging may be obsessive compulsive and not an eating disorder, considering the anxiety present with my binging, my other compulsive behaviors, and that i don't present with typical eating disorder symptoms like compensating for the food by over exercising or taking laxatives. just thought i should pass on the idea to you, in case you have any of these things happening.

L.A said...

Hi, it's really awesome what you did. You really losing weight and having a wonderful body. I never think that losing weight is an easy task.. I've been through it before too...
I had experienced everybody mock me for being fat and it hurts..

But problem about diet is cannot be taken lightly. But I managed to escaped the all or nothing temptation by having a diet for 6 days and let myself having a guilty pleasure once in a week...

Looking forward for your next post... I know you can do it!!

Juice said...

Lyn, have you read the End of Overeating by Kessler? I've been listening to it on tape. It is very interesting and has a lot of scientific data about experiments with food. The only problem is that listening to the first 2/3s of the book made me hungry! But he does wrap up the book with some good advice on how to better control our eating habits. You may enjoy giving it a listen. My local library carried the book on CD.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts if you do / have read it.

Lyn said...


I have heard about that book on the news but have not read it. I happen to be going to the library today, so I will check for it and request it if they don't have it yet. Thanks for the suggestion!

As to the suggestion of exercising WITH someone, yes! I would love to do that! I spent part of the weekend calling various health clubs but didn't find any near me with free or affordable child care. I checked the city website for classes, the paper and craigslist for groups, and as well. No leads yet but maybe I can just find a neighbor who would walk with me or something. There are a couple of houses for sale on my block and you can bet I will be over there being friendly when someone new moves in :)

Thank you for all of the great comments! They help me through each day.

beerab said...

It's funny my parents were the same way- never exercised at all. WORK was exercise.

I have the same mentality as you- I hate exercising and my friend said why not do something you enjoy? So I bought a bike and it's been fun :)

Good luck I know you can do it :)

Thealogian said...

The other day, life was really upsetting--like one stroke in the family and another diagnosis of cancer in the family upsetting (and I haven't blogged about it at my blog because I'm not willing to go there yet), but he point is, I had a piece of whole-grain flax bread with butter and fresh, homemade strawberry jam on it it and I experienced a definite sense of well-being when I ate it. Calm, appreciation for the tastes and textures, a sense of being nourished--and a sense of melting away with the experience.

I think it was a good thing.

I think that self-medicating with food is sometimes the BETTER option than really sitting with the feelings without some sort of comfort. I don't think I'll ever be re-set to have a completely rational relationship with food. I don't think that I want it.

But, I don't want to eat and eat and eat. Instead of trying to change the food=love paradigm, I'm trying to go with food is within reason = love. I'm working on it, but sometimes "wired" is just about interpreting that wiring. I'm trying to interpret comfort-eating differently, be more forgiving, and thus making it more of an acceptable thing, within reason.

Best of luck to you as you ponder your relationship to food. As always, you get me thinking.


TeresaLynn said...

How funny - my mom had that same 3-day diet, and it came from a "hospital" so it was supposed to be perfectly safe. I gagged down those beets just to get to the ice cream.