September 24, 2011

From Gerald R. Lucas

Time to Eat

I remember my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Jones telling me one time: “you are what you eat.” Like other five-year-olds, I’m not sure I understood the figurative significance of this statement, but it is one of the first moments of contemplation in my life.

I think I later dreamed of waking up one night, like a Kafka protagonist, as a huge McDonald’s french fry wrapped in blankets of ketchup. Surely, I thought, this isn’t want she meant. As far as I knew, people did not turn into pizzas, hamburgers, or Slurpees. OK, if this didn’t actually happen, what did she mean?

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a fat kid. Part of this had to do with the fact of the television: it was always more entertaining to me than sweating in the Florida sun with the other kids in Shadybrook Village. It also had to do with what I ate. I remember a childhood of McDonald’s and other dubious fast food. Part of this was satisfying the dietary cravings of two brothers caught in the vicissitudes of their parents’ divorce – the one who bought hamburgers and fries would trump the other’s meatloaf and green beans and curry the favor of the children. So, we ate out a lot, and nutrition was never really emphasized.

Even in sixth grade, when a “husky” Jerry joined Harllee Middle School’s Nutrition Club, I wasn’t taught about nutrition more than I was encouraged to limit my intake. I may be misremembering our weekly meetings – where a non-too-pleased Mr. Harrison would have to let one of his trumpet players miss first period to hang out with the other fatties in the lunch room – but I think it was more about fraternity and calorie counting than about actual health education.

This was the beginning of a cycle of gain and loss throughout high school, college, and graduate school. I never remember losing weight to be particularly difficult: remembering the lessons of Nutrition Club, I made up my mind to limit my intake. I’d still eat the pepperoni pizza; I would just eat less until I stripped off the excess pounds. Easy. And yes, growing helped, too.

It wasn’t until near the end of graduate school when I was at my heaviest – nearly 220 pounds – that I actually educated myself about food. I was essentially a vegan for about five years, and I maintained a constant weight of 165 pounds. Diets do not work; you have to change what you eat. If you don’t want to be fat, you must stop eating fat. Ah, Mrs. Jones’ advice finally makes sense. It only took me 25 years to get it. As long as I was on my own, I ate right and stayed thin.

However, there is another factor to food: social pressures. When I was single and lived with my two cats, I could determine what I ate and safely ignore any outside influences trying to steer me wrong. However, as soon as eating becomes social, the bad habits reassert themselves beaded on pressures both subtle and overt. If you try to eat correctly around others who are not, you make them feel bad about themselves. And instead of seeing the problem with themselves, they lash out at me. Yes, I can often stay strong, but ultimately this pressure wears me down and I just give in and eat the fried chicken just so I don’t have to hear it. How many other things in our lives can we say that about?

So, when it’s time to eat, I try to eat right: no added fat; no animal products; no overly processed foods. I do not worry about counting calories or portion sizes. If you’re eating right, these things don’t matter. However, around others, I often give in. This is indicative of the life of a happily married forty-something.

One thing I can say is that I have given up McDonald’s for good. That’s just something I cannot be.