There were three relationships that helped me shift the way I thought about food and release the need for control (without even realizing it): running, vegetarianism, and of course, good humans.
First (2008-present): I signed up for my first half-marathon in January of my senior year at Penn State. The race was five weeks away. I was ALL IN with nothing that even remotely resembled a training plan, not that I knew what that meant at the time, anyway. Blissful ignorance! My first long run was on a relatively mild Sunday afternoon in January (i.e. it might have been above 25 degrees and wasn’t snowing). I drove to campus and parked at the beginning of the 5k course used for every single fundraising 5k, which I knew because I ran it once as a freshman and once as a senior. My only goal for the day was to keep going until I hit one hour. Success! This half-marathon might actually happen! Every week thereafter I added 15 minutes to my “long” run until race day, when I crossed the finish line feeling like a version of myself I hardly recognized — high on adrenaline and achievement, curious, and comfortably out of control.
Running feels comfortably uncomfortable; it’s reliably adventurous to the degree you want it to be. You put the work in because you want to, because you see both tangible and intangible results. Sure, I could get a little wrapped up in counting miles, paces, and minutes instead of calories, but that was fine by me. It felt like running met me in the middle, ready to challenge me to change but only pushing me to the limit(s) I chose to chase.
There are things you can and do control about running, but there are plenty of days where it will ground you with its variables. Humility and adaptability will give you far more miles than a tight controlling grip. It’s refreshing (af).
Next up (2010-present): I literally went vegetarian overnight, without giving two shits or even two minutes worth of contemplation. I watched Food Inc., which we’ve talked about, and that was that. Appetite: gone. So all of a sudden I’m staring into my fridge thinking, “Okay, now what?” I’m wandering the aisles of Trader Joe’s in Georgetown picking up random vegetables, some rice, and a lot of trail mix. But the good thing here was that I almost entirely stopped thinking about the numbers, because most of the foods I was buying had no label anyway. Ah! There it is. Real food, good feels. Like magic. I understood why people said they felt better when they had what we RDs call nutrient-dense foods. It made so much sense. I also wanted to go back to the calorie-preaching dated-nutrition-philosophy textbooks and be like, “Scratch that!” But we’ll get there.
I do think this epiphany would be possible with or without a vegetarian label slapped on there. But for me, this was a fresh perspective. I cared more about quality than quantity, and straight up respected my food. Which sounds so weird, but I can’t say I’ve ever respected a low-fat chocolate pudding or diet soda or sugar-free peanut butter, because, gross. Coming up with meals full of fresh foods didn’t feel like work, it was fun. And pretty damn tasty.
Last, but not least (2004-Always): all the people. Relationships with friends and partners come and go, but the good people stick around. The people who don’t aren’t “bad,” we just don’t jive and that’s okay. What I’ve learned from this is that the relationships we value, the people we keep close, require work that never feels like work. They’re the people you want to do favors for, be loyal to, run, travel, dance, drink, and eat with, cry on, hold onto, and introduce other people to. You’re so invested in this seemingly effortless relationship that you can’t imagine not having it. It feels natural; like how could they possibly have ever not been in your life? You’ll have good and bad times with them, and they’re worth every bit of it.
When you go through the shit that we as humans will inevitably go through, you step back and realize you always want to have these people who energize you, fuel you, keep you going.
And look, I’m not saying you have to compare your friends to food because that might get weird, but what I’m saying is to think about the relationships you keep, happily hone, and cater to. Why? They’re essential. Just like food, and just like the relationship we can have with it. It fuels us, we need it, it gives us energy, and we shouldn’t have to think too hard about it. A little effort, yes of course, but in a sense that you start to know what works and what doesn’t for you, and you stick with that.
These are the things that worked for me — that made me realize how it felt to truly be “healthier” — and you might be different. Pick your flavors and put them together however you want to, but know that you cannot and should not have to do it alone. Find your adrenaline, your foods, and your people, and let them help you. Know that if it feels forced, inauthentic, or too hard, there’s another way. And know that there are plenty of us who are right here to listen and help when you’re ready.