The Good Life: What It Means to Live and Eat Well in 2014

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It is never very interesting to read about being good. The only thing that is maybe less interesting than reading about being good is writing about being good. Or, wait. No. The only thing that is definitely less interesting than reading about being good and writing about being good is actually being good. Goodness is not interesting because being good means being clean. Goodness is not interesting because being good means absence. Goodness is not interesting because being good means being empty, and there’s nothing of interest in a void. But the process of getting to that state of nothingness? The act of attaining a spot in that perfect place where every decision (even what you eat!) is made in such a pure and moral way that it’s impossible to deny that you have finally reached a place where you are good? Well, that becomes much more interesting, because the process is necessarily messy, and the reactions people have to your goal of being good and eating well range from contempt to enthusiasm to annoyance, and the sad, dark truth is that you know deep inside that you will not only never manage to be good, but you will never even manage to be good enough. All of which is to say, I went on a diet.

I should probably mention first that I’ve never said that I’ve been on a diet before. I’ve never even used that word. “Diet.” For me—and probably this is a generational thing, but maybe this is just a me thing—the word “diet” always conjures up images of Lean Cuisine or Weight Watchers dinners packed in a freezer, low-fat dairy products crowding refrigerator shelves, and daily morning weigh-ins on the scale in the too pink guest bathroom. The weigh-ins, of course, were always in the morning because the body hasn’t spent all day retaining water. I’ve never done anything like that. I don’t even own a scale. I never would have said that I’ve been on a diet before, because I don’t think of myself as ever having been on a diet before. And maybe I hadn’t been on a diet before, at least not on a regimented one, but I had definitely, consciously manipulated what was going into my body before, and denied myself certain things for a whole range of reasons, some of them more sound than others.

This time was going to be different. The impulse that I had to try to live healthier came from a better place than had any other changes I’d made in my eating before. This time, I wanted to change my eating and drinking habits because I want to drink less alcohol, and I wanted my face to be less puffy in the morning, and I wanted to have more energy and I wanted to get rid of everything extraneous and harmful in my life, which maybe wasn’t just about food, but also definitely meant that I was interested in going gluten-free. But I didn’t want to do this on my own. I didn’t, actually, even think that I could do this on my own. I wanted to be held accountable. I wanted conditions. And so I went to a nutritionist.

I went to see Stephanie Middleberg, founder of Middleberg Nutrition, after having spent a week recording everything that I ate and drank. I went to Stephanie because her nutritional advice is not prohibitively restrictive and because she is incredibly hands-on and communicative with her clients and because she has the shining hair and glowing skin that make you convinced that eating better really is the key to everything that is healthy and good. But also I went to Stephanie because we went to high school together, even though we were different years and never knew each other (full disclosure: this is probably because I was terrible) and so I hadn’t spoken to her since then, if I’d ever spoken to her at all (fuller disclosure: probably I didn’t, I was incredibly anti-social).

It had been an unsettling thing for me, recording what I ate and drank for a whole week, and it was even more unsettling to know that my ridiculous diet was going to be looked over by a professional. There were things I felt bad about. And while it might sound obvious, those things that I felt bad about were exactly the things that I wanted to change. I wanted to stop having 5 drinks during one long dinner. I wanted to start eating breakfast so that I wouldn’t be starving at 3 every workday. I wanted to figure out what it was that I was eating that was making me break out in hives. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong so that I could fix it and everything would be better—inside and outside, everything would be fine.

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I should probably say that my eating habits weren’t that bad. I almost never eat heavily processed food. I cook a lot. Long gone are the days when I subsisted on Top Ramen, bragging that it kept me healthy precisely because it was filled with preservatives. I’d boast that eating all those sodium bomb flavor packets meant that I fell outside of, no, rose above the food chain, like an untouchable, perfectly preserved noodle deity. I felt very clever saying those things, mostly because both sentiments were lifted (well, paraphrased) from a ZZ Packer short story I’d once read in the New Yorker. No one ever called me out on it. But so, yeah. No more Top Ramen. Instead I eat healthy, whole foods, just not at the right time of day. And so Stephanie helped me, and we composed a meticulous, but doable menu for the coming week. The biggest changes would be eating breakfast, and cutting back on carbs, and not drinking as much. I could do all of this. I knew I could. I thought about the time somebody asked me, “Do you ever say no to anything?” I mean, maybe I hadn’t before, but now? Now I would start saying no to almost everything. Just thinking about this and talking to Stephanie gave me this weird endorphin rush, the kind I get after working out, when I feel like I can conquer anything because I didn’t back down in the face of a challenge, i.e. managed to successfully clip my shoe into a SoulCycle bike. It was kind of amazing. I was going to buy sardines! And I was going to eat them.

I bought the sardines. I bought probiotic supplements. I bought enough avocados so that I could have at least one a day for many, many days. I bought raw almonds and butternut squash and brown rice and salmon fillets and green tea and quinoa. I was spending a lot of money, but I was trying to change my life, right? I had a plan and I was going to stick to it and I fully understood the value of a nutritionist because not only had Stephanie given me support and sound advice, but she would be there so that I could check in about what it was exactly that I was doing. I was on a diet. But I wasn’t alone, which I suddenly realized was an essential part to being healthy. Yes, suddenly. I know. I know. Even though I am now aware of how good hemp hearts are for me, I still have a lot to learn about healthy living.

Healthy living seems like an easy thing for those who can do it without thinking too much. It is easy to argue that eating well is such a privilege that is so specific to our society at this point in time that it is beyond frivolous and borders on narcissism to give up bread because you think it might not be good for you anymore. And, hey, as someone pointed out to me about my diet, “We’re all just going to die anyway.” I can’t argue with the fact that life heads in only one direction, and I am well aware of the troubling implications behind economically privileged people paying ten dollars for a green juice when some families of four have a daily food budget of that same amount, but when it comes to the accusation that dieting solely benefits the individual on the diet, I have to say that I’m fine with being called self-indulgent. I mean, maybe the energy that I’m using to pay more attention to what I’m putting in my body would be spent in a way that was instead productive to society, but probably that energy would just go toward watching an episode of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23. 

The morality of health and diet is, anyway, a difficult subject. It is difficult to defend eating quinoa, for example, when you learn how devastating the super-grain’s popularity has been to the Peruvian farming infrastructure. But then it’s also difficult to consume any animal products at all once you have some grasp of what goes on in factory farms. The list of all the things that we could be doing to make the world a better place is endless, and while it would be facile of me to shrug off global problems because I really, really want to hunt down a packet of chia seeds, it’s also a false dichotomy to claim that a person cannot have both global and personal concerns on an issue as complex as health and nutrition.

But besides all that, in the few weeks that I’ve been saying no to multi-beer afternoons and avoiding the bread basket, I’ve noticed some real changes. I have more energy in the morning. I don’t have crazy blood pressure spikes throughout the day. My skin is clearer than it’s ever been. I am pretty sure this is all due to the sardines. Beyond those Omega-3-rich fish, though, is the simple truth that as I become more and more conscious of what I’m nourishing myself with in terms of food, I’m also becoming more aware of how I’m nourishing myself in terms of a lot of things, whether its physical activity or books that I’m reading or art that I’m seeing or people with whom I’m speaking. The thing is, it might not be as interesting to read or write about abstaining and being good (there isn’t as much messiness and chaos involved), but it is definitely interesting to live this way, because—as I quickly came to realize—being good isn’t really about saying no anyway. It’s about saying yes to different things, things that are empirically better for you, things that make you happy and make you feel like you’re well. And there’s really no reason to be ashamed of saying that what you want is to be healthy, what you want is to feel good.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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