Hello hunger, my new friend

A few weeks ago a girlfriend of mine went to see her GP because she had gained a crazy six kilograms in a few short months and she thought something must surely be wrong with her. Happily, after a series of tests her health was given the all clear; less happy was the verdict: it was the chips and pepperdew dip wot done it. Like a lot of us, she’d simply been eating too much. For someone who’s enjoyed a lifelong love affair with food, these words aren’t fun to hear – after all, life without wonderful food would be an intolerable business. But we eat too much wonderful food and we get fat and that’s not fun, either.

What her GP pointed out is that every four hours or so our bodies send a message to our brains that we are low on energy and need to refuel. And, as evolutionary beings, we don’t like the feeling of hunger so we go looking for a toasted cheese sandwich post haste. Except, for most people who lead relatively sedentary lives, this signal is a bit of a porky. Yes, your tummy might be empty, but unless you recently ran the Comrades, you actually have loads of glucose stored in your liver and fat cells, and circulating in your bloodstream. In fact, if someone locked you up with no food (unless you had an illness like diabetes) you could survive on water for quite a long time.

As Mr GP insists, while hunger doesn’t feel pleasant and eating a toasted sarmie does, there is no physiological reason why we need to respond to that signal right away. So, when we feel a bit hungry, we should try having an apple and a glass of water, and then wait a bit, and those pangs will more than likely go away or, at least, diminish. This is not to say we should stop eating or replace all meals with apples and water, but rather be mindful of the fact that the sensation of hunger is not always an accurate indication that our bodies require food. You know how when you have a huge dinner you wake up starving? Case in point. Your brain is a big, fat liar, but your skinny jeans know the truth.

So, as someone with the appetite of a hard labourer who has been known to out-eat large men even though I do nothing more strenuous than carry my iPad from room to room, I decided to try not to respond to the hunger signal instantly. And I cultivated this inner dialogue that went something like this: (stomach rumbles) ‘oh, really? You’re peckish? So, the two million calories in last night’s Bloody Marvellous Mushroom Risotto weren’t quite enough to fuel all this hard typing you’re doing this morning? Well, tough titties for you, greedy guts! You can have one cherry tomato, exactly. So, put that in your fat little pipe and smoke it!’

And, to my astonishment, I didn’t faint or expire during the course of the morning. When my tummy did the rumble lie, I gave it a cup of green tea. It wasn’t happy, but really, what was it going to do about it? For lunch I had salad with avo and seeds, and for supper, I reduced my normal portion by a third. It’s a challenge, not shoving stuff in your mouth the second you feel snacky. Or bored, or meh. But I got kind of used to it – the sensation of being slightly hungry and not doing anything about it.

And I actually felt pretty light and energized. Because we do weigh our bodies down and tax them with the sheer volume of food we put away every day. Google how to live longer, and a lot of studies will tell you simply to eat less. There’s a marked correlation between frugal eating and longevity. The process of consistently digesting rich, protein-heavy food takes its toll on the human body, and eating, for us, is at least as much about recreation as it is about nourishment. Doing away with all lovely food and always eating leaves would make (my) life not worth living, but there is an argument for not turning every meal into a feast. Choose your feasting times, eat like a crazed Roman, but the rest of the time (more or less) it just makes sense that we’d all be better off with small portions of simple, easily digestible food.

So, after five days of eating air with a side of nothing we went out for a fancy dinner (hooray! A feast, at last!). Normally I would easily put away three courses, but after my starter thimble of cauliflower soup I was so full I had to take my entire main course home. And while it’s boring as hell being one of ‘those’ girls and my husband’s eyes were rolling to the ceiling, at the same time it did tell me that I’ve been eating hopelessly too much forever, and that it’s not by some tragic fluke that my muffin tops spilleth over. Whether I’ll be able to change a lifetime’s bad habits is another question, of course. Once the novelty of being hungry and smug wears off, there’s a good chance I’ll be right back on the mayo samoosas*. But I’m going to try to try. Really.

*(I discovered a sad thing when I was fifteen and my boyfriend’s mom used to buy a box of frozen samoosas which we would proceed to deep fry and devour: a hot samoosa goes very, very nicely with Helman’s mayo. As if the fat content of the thing is not enough. Don’t try this at home, you’ll never eat them any other way.)

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Confessions of an exercise-phobe

Let me say this from the get go so we’re all clear on where we stand with one another. I do not exercise to be healthy. I don’t give a rat’s testicle about a strong heart or good lungs or avoiding osteoporosis. I exercise so that when I sit at my computer (like now) my stomach doesn’t protrude over my jeans to the point that I can’t inhale. If I was one of those people with a turbo-boost metabolism who can dig into a mushroom risotto and still wear jeggings in the morning, you wouldn’t catch me dead in that stinking hell-hole of a gym. Sadly, god did not bless me in that way, so I have no choice but to make (what I must admit are) somewhat half-hearted forays into that weird, underground world of sweat and protein drinks and strange, beeping machines.

Frankly, fit people piss me off. What business do they have pummeling away, looking so focused and smug and like they’re not even in pain while I spend the entire session staring desperately at the time which, by the way, never goes slower than when you’re running. Just this morning I found myself behind one of those demonic gym girls from hell. By the time I got to my machine, took ten minutes to untangle my earphones, get my water sorted, remove my sweater and find the eighties music channel – oh, and check my phone seven times in case a very urgent call had come through with stuff I needed to attend to immediately – she’d already been running for some time. Fast. I could tell by the casual way she stopped and wiped her sweaty brow, glancing briefly around before continuing her sprint, how she pitied the rest of us for not being her.

She was dressed from head to toe in sexy black lycra, her long brown hair tied back in one of those don’t-fuck-with-me-I’m-in-training ponytail-plaits, and the cool white stripes on her leggings blurred as she ran, making her look like she was going even faster. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the techno music suddenly went quiet and Chariots of Fire started blasting from the sound system, while everyone stopped what they were doing to gather around her and clap and wave their small towels in slow motion. It’s one of those moments when you realize ‘the zone’ just wasn’t meant for you. While other hateful people space out and get into a ‘running rhythm’ where they forget they’re running and start relaxing, for me ‘the zone’ is like the VIP lounge of a cool club. I can take hours getting dressed and show up in just the right shoes, but they’re never going to let me in.

Plus, I don’t sweat. It must be so gratifying sweating – when you can see the results immediately, you know you’ve done something good. My husband might try and tell you that I don’t sweat because I refuse to go anything above the lowest resistance on those machines, but that’s just unfair. It’s the aircon, and the fact that I’m always wearing some flimsy little vest. How’s a girl supposed to sweat in that? Next time I go to the gym I’m going to leave the lycra and instead wear one of the nice (if slightly mangy) floor-length fur coats I picked up at a charity shop in Sweden and insisted on bringing home to South Africa despite the fact that winter rarely goes below 18 degrees. Not only will I build up one hell of a sweat, I reckon I’ll look pretty fancy. That’ll put Chariots of Fire girl right in her place. I knew there was a reason I bought them.

Why I’ll Never Get On Another Scale Ever In My Life

My new happy weight - nought.
My new happy weight – nought.

So finally, at the age of 42, after being a slave to my scale for as long as I can remember, I have stopped weighing myself. It’s been about six months since last I voluntarily made myself feel crap first thing in the morning, post-wee, pre-coffee. And it’s not because at last I reached a level of self-acceptance and understanding that I am more than that what those numbers say, it’s because my scale takes those little round batteries like you used to get in Nintendo games and I have no idea where you buy them. And while at first the site of that blank screen filled me with panic (how would I know how fat I was? How would I measure yesterday’s level of gluttony or – less commonly – denial if I didn’t know my exact weight, down to the comma whatever?).

And then an interesting thing happened – nothing. At first it was weird not starting my day with the rush of oh-yay-I’m-down-300-grams-since-yesterday-I’m-not-gonna-touch-a-carb-all-day OR the crash of oh-fuck-why-did-I-have-those-three-glasses-of-wine-now-look-I-might-as-well-have-ciabatta. I missed the smug (albeit hollow, short-lived) feeling of victory when I had gone hungry and the scale was my best friend, but I didn’t miss the other feeling which happened rather more often – the dismay and the quiet self-loathing. Because it’s really quite difficult to feel okay about yourself as a woman if you’re not pretty thin. And somehow, achieving that goal can feel like the most important thing in the world. Which is seriously fucked up.

Three years ago, roughly (I remember this moment well) I got on the scale at midday (midday, nogal!) and it read 57kgs. That’s low for me as I’m not a naturally skinny person. The reason I weighed 57 (as opposed to 62, my body’s happy weight) was because I had recently moved countries with two small children, had no job or home, my husband was working overseas, I had chronic insomnia and our marriage was taking strain. I have never been so stressed and on edge in all of my life but, by god, I was thin! And that made up for all the other stuff. Needless to say, my delight was short-lived. We bought a house, I got a job, we settled in and found the love, and with happiness, (for me) comes food. We cook and we eat and drink wine and talk into the night because we’re friends and we’re alive and days are hard enough without living on grilled chicken.

I don’t weigh 57 anymore, and – barring a terminal illness or my head falling off – I never will again. I have no idea what I weigh, and I don’t really care. Okay, that’s not true. I do care, but not enough to make me go buy those batteries. My really skinny jeans are too tight on me, but luckily I have others. I exercise a few times a week without being mental about it, and instead of imposing crazy rules on myself, I try to listen to what my body is asking for. Sometimes it’s an enormous salad; other times it’s Kettle Fried chips. I have days when I eat too much and days when I eat just right. Sometimes I clutch at my muffin tops and hate the way I look naked; other times I think, hell, you’re not doing not too bad, lady. I think the biggest challenge we women face is being nice to ourselves. And without that mofo scale to torment me, I’m finding this a little bit easier.