Tuesday, October 2, 2012

LAY OFF ME I'M STARVING: Making sense of my role as a "Health Professional"

This post is a little about Paraguay, but not entirely. It's about more than Paraguay and in some ways less. It's about something every person does on a daily basis, one of the most intimate of acts. Sitting down and eating a meal.
Tastes so good.

I have always been an active person. I joined my first basketball team at age 7 and have been an athlete ever since. Partially due to that athleticism and partially due to genetics I have always been a relatively thin person.  I've never been called fat. I've never looked in the mirror and thought I was fat, nor have I ever looked in the mirror and truly disliked what I saw. In many ways I have often been indifferent to the appearance of my body but rather more interested in the achievements of it. Scoring a goal in the final minutes of a game, climbing a more difficult grade, running a marathon. These have been the markers of my relationship with my body. This is not to say I live without insecurities surrounding my body, I just don't care about them that much.

I've always known that what I described above is not how most other women view their bodies. I went through high school, then college and then after college, listening to the laments of friends about their bodies. So often these conversations would happen over meals that were unhealthy in every sense of the word. I've watched otherwise intelligent, level headed women chew a hamburger "for the taste" and then spit it out to avoid the calories. Of course this person was on their third diet coke of the day. I never know how to have these conversations, because it's clear that it's not really about their body. There can always be something wrong with your body if you want there to be. I usually try to tell them to work out and be active, hoping that they too can find a relationship with their body having nothing to do with clothes, or men, or other women.

Impromptu zumba class at PC training

Since coming to Paraguay I've further been confronted with this reality. By simply starting an exercise class in my town, I've fell into the role of "Health Professional." In most ways, I love this portion of my service. Showing people what they are athletically capable of is awesome. I have even expanded my role as Exercise Guru to my fellow volunteers, organizing fitness challenges to help us all meet our goals. But a health professional I am not. I'm a former college athlete, and life long not-fat person. Nonetheless these qualifications seem to have been enough.

People constantly ask me health and nutrition questions, ranging from "How do I lose weight?" to "I heard I can cure my diabetes by only eating vegetables for a month, is this true?"  To most every question I give the general advice of eat less and move more. Not something that would seem too controversial, yet I can't help but fear that I'm feeding into the the totally unbalanced view most people have of their bodies and the part food plays in that scenario. I don't want to reduce food to calories nor do I want to reduce exercise to a way to allow yourself to eat. There is joy in eating and joy in exercise both related to and totally separate from their biochemical effects.

Shame shouldn't enter the equation.
As I research nutrition and exercise to try and offer some insight to those who have asked my help, I have noticed a huge gap in the conversation about food, and fitness. Just go to Pintrest and check out the health and fitness section. Over and over again I see "motivational" posters that are essentially guilt covered in glitter. Nutrition sites are littered with exclamation points declaring "evil foods!" that we must be wary of. All of these sources are supposed to help with our health and lead to better lives, but clearly they are fucking us up even worse. The suggestions that get made on these blogs gross me out. Here's a few just to get the flavor:

*Make all your meals at once.
      This suggestion will range from making all your meals once a week, to once a month, to once every three months. You freeze everything then just take out a pre-portioned meal and microwave/ crockpot/ reheat it at your assigned meal time.What has happened to cooking? Cooking has been demonized as a chore, when it should be a place to create, experiment, enjoy, and share. There are days I don't want to cook either, and I totally understand a little pre-prep can make getting dinner on the table a lot easier, but seriously, what the fuck?  Where is the connection to a meal that is pulled out of a freezer and defrosted? I don't care if you did make it from scratch a year ago.

*Eat before occasions where there will be food, or just bring your own.
     This honestly offends me. If I were to invite a person to my home for dinner and they didn't eat, or brought their own food as so not to fuck up their diet, I would just tell them to go home. (Exceptions being religious and allergies.) Food is intimate. We share meals with those we care about. When people invite you for food they are sharing part of themselves and if you think your paleolithic lifestyle is more important than human connection then I hope you don't get invited to parties.

*EVIL FOODS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
     Ok, first of all blogosphere, enough with the exclamation points. We've gotten them out of our system so let's put them away for a while until we know how to use them. I stop listening to anything you have to say after the third one. You sound dumb. Secondly, there is no evil food. This may go against everything the nutrition world had said, but it's true. With the exception of poison, nothing you eat will kill you instantly. I work very hard to limit processed foods in my diet, and I will spend more money to buy food that I think is better for me. Most notably I spent over 5 times as much on cooking oil than needed, so that I can have olive oil as opposed to soy bean or canola. This is a choice I make, however this is not to say that soy bean oil is EVIL!!!!! No food is evil!!!!! So often nutritional advice is about what not to eat. It starts to become a pissing contest to see who can subsist on the most limited diet. Gluten free, paleo, vegan, grain free, dairy free, there is always someone who is limiting themselves more than you.  I read a post about one woman's trial of a smoothie cleanse. She said she missed chewing and that clearly indicated she had been eating too much prior to the cleanse.. Maybe she missed chewing because she hadn't eaten in three fucking days! (Sorry, I needed that exclamation point. I'm better now.) Let's stop with the negative associations with food that only lead to guilt thus fucking up more how we view food.

Ok so why am I writing this? I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. I have been chewing on this topic for a while. (No pun intended. Ok, maybe a little bit intended.) I almost burst when I found for the first time a person who spoke with reason about food and normal eating. Michelle, of The Fat Nutritionist, wrote this wonderful post about the calorie in/ calorie out myth. She explains that yes, calories in/ out are part of weight but food and exercise are much more than just a way to reach net zero at the end of each day. Finally a person who gets it, and she, unlike me, is in fact a health professional.

I just so badly wanted to share Michelle's post with as many people as possible that it sprouted this rant about all the bullshit I had been reading out there. Up until reading Michelle, the blogger who made the most sense when is comes to healthy eating is Chef and Salumi aficionado, Micheal Ruhlman. He too is not a health professional.

At the end of the day, I still hope that people get active and eat better. This is not an assault on those trying to lose weight, better their body, nor trying to "eat healthy." Being active is a fundamental part of my life and I  love to show others how athleticism can increase their joy. I also make a lot of choices to try and eat healthy food. The difference being that the health of the food is broader than just the sum of the caloric and nutritional parts. Food is not the enemy, and exercise is not the cure. They are both just cogs in the awesomeness machine of building a good life.

As far as my role in contributing to people's bad food/body relationships? The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one, consider my writing this post that recognition.