Not Letting Food Be the Enemy During the Holidays

This Thursday, we will face one of the biggest, if not, the biggest, food oriented holiday here in the United States, so I open today’s post with some caution. This blog entry is not for everyone. I cannot understand the trauma faced by all persons who have suffered through anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or orthorexia or the difficulties faced by family members and friends supporting a person through their condition or recovery or who have lost a loved one to these conditions. I am only touching on the surface of eating disorders, but I recognize my limitations as a non-medical professional. The first two are conditions I knew of growing up, both through portrayals in media like one (I’m fairly certain it was on Lifetime) movie I recall where the mother uncovers jars of vomit in her daughter’s closet or news media coverage of models and actresses struggling with their body weight.

My teenage years did not provide the wisdom to understand underlying mental health issues are the root of eating disorders. If friends personally struggled with any of these conditions, I was unaware. Lost in my own world as an introvert, I felt awkward in my own 5’2″ shell and couldn’t see others who appeared more confident in their skin dealing with any issue similar to my own feelings regarding my body. I left high school weighing 103 lbs., a weight I likely would have hovered around, with or without my short-lived career in track and cross country. I did not throw myself too hard into my sports participation, so I never tracked my weight at home. I knew my weight because I had to go in for sports physicals and for every person who called me “lucky” for being little, they did not see how uncomfortable I felt being tiny. My former boyfriends or prospective interests were interested in busty girls, not me. Being so small, I felt guys did not find me all that attractive. Regarding how people talk about body types, too, I’d rather people describe me as having a slim or slight-frame body type, rather than boyish but I get most people (sadly) gravitate towards boyish. It’s one of those terms that has gotten under my skin because it implies unattractiveness as a woman in a society that changes its opinion every few years about what features (and their prominence or diminished appearance) makes for an attractive woman.

This, photo, taken with my stepmom and sisters taken shortly after arriving home after graduating Marine Corps recruit training, does not show what kind of life I was in for when I signed up to become a Marine. Recruit training was just the start of a life changed by food options and access to those choices and the focus on my body weight wasn’t too far behind. I was something like 108lbs. -115lbs. when I joined and my weight, like that of other female recruits, was checked on a regular basis. During training, I’d write home and grumble about limitations with our food selection. Throughout my childhood, I was allowed Little Debbie treats, plenty of candy during Halloween, and was free to take seconds at dinner. Recruit training was jarring in the fact the chow hall line was the only regular option for food save for Drill Instructor approved care packages from home. Families could send in Nature Valley crunchy granola bars. Maybe they allowed us Clif bars, but those don’t stick out in my mind all that much. I started to notice that I noticed food more based on how we received our meals and what wasn’t an option. When our platoon went to the rifle range, we received diet trays. If you’ve ever seen a Lean Cuisine meal, it’s pretty damn close to those, complete with the heat sealed package but without the exterior colorful box with your nutrition details. It was not uncommon for us to be punished when recruits took cookies from the rifle range chow hall or for team punishment to come down when someone swiped a peanut butter package and the package remnants were discovered by the drill instructors.

I get the demands on drill instructors’ time are great. With all the Marine Corps knowledge to drill in and building physical strength, a lot must be accomplished with the limited weeks of recruit training. Reflecting back, I think I would have benefitted greatly during recruit training from a nutrition course built for athletes than seeing us punished when recruits stole food. We have our entire lives where we need to maintain our bodies and honestly, it’s a bit tough to navigate when a huge life change occurs, such as leaving behind a bit more of a sedentary life for something like the Marine Corps, or where I am at now with some digestive health issues that complicate my day-to-day choices. (I know I still have a tendency to see myself in light of the boundaries the Marine Corps placed on my weight and what’s acceptable.)

Navigating a world where it’s a sort of jumps on and off again from hard discipline to relaxing environment did not create the best foundation either to grow into my adult self. The constant extremes bear extra attention in conversation. While a lot of our food choices were made for us at recruit training, on our Senior Sunday outing we could go out and procure almost anything we wanted. A lot of us overindulged in snacks and paid for it with stomachaches and scoldings from our drill instructors. Post-recruit training, I went home until I had to report in to Marine Corps Combat Training. I did not eat all that healthy at home or for that month of training. I often resorted to eating junk food to stay awake during nighttime fire watch assignments. When I later arrived at MOS school the female sergeant would call our pre-packaged snacks like Hostess cupcakes “fat pills” and a part of me lost respect for our service branch.

Guilting service members over their food choices does not necessarily equate to them making more of the choices you want them to make and/or it may not be appropriate at all for you to push them in that direction. Using these numbers from 2016, as a 5’2″ woman, I could weigh between 104 and 142 pounds. If, during my service I stayed within these parameters–and I did–my leadership should not care that I want a cupcake after my lunch. On the other hand, if my weight fell outside these standards and my leadership wanted to help me get my weight back on track, it would be considerate to not break out the cupcakes and the right mentor or coach to build a sustainable eating plan geared towards individual needs. (This is why I am more a fan of knowing food portions in relation to the human hand or common object than breaking out a food scale. Most people are familiar with the size of a deck of cards or making a fist and they won’t need to meal prep as much which requires proper food storage and a lot more tracking that can exacerbate existing food insecurities.)

I felt this subject would be best to share today because you never know what someone is going through as we head into the holidays.

After my first tour in Iraq, one of my earliest weigh-ins was incredibly awkward. My Staff Sergeant was shocked that I weighed about 108 lbs. because my pre-deployment weigh-in was something in the ballpark of 120-125 lbs. and as the only woman on the team, it was easy to feel more visible in the worst way possible. To steal a line from Britney Spears living in American society comes with a feeling of always being “She’s too big, now she’s too thin” and body weight management in the Marine Corps is not all that different.

In the photo below, I wasn’t heavier because I wasn’t going through something and coping with the situation through my eating habits. I was roughly five to ten pounds heavier than when I joined my Marine Corps unit only a few months prior to when this photo was taken. Back then, I often ate out at restaurants over the weekend instead of the chow hall and restaurants serve larger portions. Had I lived in my own place instead of the barracks, I may have gone out less and/or taken leftovers home. It’s kind of hard to do in a barracks room where food storage is limited. That building was essentially studio apartments throughout with private bathrooms but no kitchens, making most barracks Marines and sailors dependent on the chow hall for the bulk of their meals.

Returning 17 pounds lighter–and after being gone seven months–was not indicative of the problems my supervisor likely thought it was, but I understand that this situation is not true of all people. I was going through a lot after returning from Iraq, dealing with undiagnosed health challenges, financial issues, and strained relationships with my family and in my dating life. I was in an age group that is often overrepresented when it comes to eating disorders and as a woman, I am more likely to deal with this issue than my male counterparts.

(2005 at my barracks in Camp Margarita on Camp Pendleton)

My dramatic weight loss was not through any real effort. I make this statement as a positive and to also reinforce the fact I do not encourage others to lose weight. If they have health conditions that can improve by adopting a more physically active life or making some dietary modifications, I will absolutely support those goals. Overall though, I try not to comment when people talk about weight loss situations because I do not want to misread a situation and inadvertently encourage someone to adopt a lifestyle that is actually doing harm to their person. The weight loss I sustained was not needed but happened somewhat organically.

Not that I think the weight came off consistently a little at a time, but it’s good to be realistic about what happened. 17 pounds dropped over seven months is just under 2.5lbs. lost per month. Different reputable resources will and do indicate it can be safe for persons to lose 1-2 pounds per week, making my weight transformation less dramatic. I did little more than moved more and ate less. My tour in Iraq left me in the position to walk almost everywhere, unless I used a unit vehicle to grab the mail, and I had limited time to sit around to eat. Back in the States, I could hang out with my former boyfriend at a restaurant for really as long as we wanted to order something and commander a table. Working 12 hour shifts in Iraq meant there was too little time to invest in a meal as a leisure activity: a 30 minute lunch was divided up into walking to the chow hall, standing in line, and quickly consuming whatever was available before walking back to work. I could enjoy snacking in my off time because we had a small store where we could purchase pre-packaged snacks and I’d get care packages, but I did not snack the way I kind of do now during the pandemic.

The season we are in now where holidays follow each other in quick succession puts us in a prime position to talk a lot about food, eating habits, and expectations (both to contribute to gatherings and expectations on what should or should not be on someone’s plate). As a parent, I am just as guilty of putting a little of everything on my daughter’s plate as my parents were before me. We learn that we should encourage our kids to “try everything” and to diminish fickle eating habits and it is a process to unlearn these things. I think some of what I’ve experienced has taught me to constantly revisit my attitudes regarding meals and eating in group settings because I want my daughter to see a variety of food choices as the norm.

I start with what I know about my daughter. She tends to like all the protein sources we do and loves about every style of bread, pasta, or rice we make. Fruits and vegetables can be problematic, but to encourage balance and avoid arguments, my goal is we have one or the other with meals. I am not a fan of being the parent who “hides” nutrient rich foods like fruits and vegetables into meal as much as it’s something I explored when my daughter was younger. Now, it’s easier if we focus on fruits and vegetables that complement our protein and starch choices. As an example, a recent dinner for us was baked chicken, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and it was served with diced roasted butternut squash that had been tossed in turmeric and coconut oil with a touch of salt and sumac.

As we roll into this week preparing for, avoiding holiday prep until the last minute, or letting someone else take charge on the holiday meal, please know I encourage you all to have fun and to know eating is a part of sustaining our beings. Most of us did not grow up with the best lessons in how to approach eating as both an activity our body needs for proper maintenance and as a societal bonding activity with our fellow humans. Knowing this about ourselves, we should be kind with our words and not rush judgement for what others put (or leave off of) their plates and we should give ourselves grace for our food choices, too.

Speaking about what we see others bring to their tables and what we bring to ours, I figured it might help to talk about the recent Friendsgiving I attended. I haven’t been to too many in my life. The first was during my time at Florida Southern College and the home I went to already had Christmas trees, one with traditional ornaments and one that was geared solely towards the family’s beloved football team. The meal stands out a lot less than the group of people and I’ve felt that way for my subsequent gatherings. During the event, I am often surprised by people’s culinary talents and I’m equally appreciative of something someone picked up from the store because it shows their willingness to make the day a community experience, but as time passes, there are few food items that my brain recalls as a spectacular dish I miss.

My gall bladder issue and lactose intolerance now make some meal related events like Friendsgiving and Thanksgiving feel like a less dangerous version of Russian roulette and I am learning how to reduce the stress around meals where I don’t plan the entire menu. For this past Saturday’s Friendsgiving, I brought items that were dairy free or made with lactose free dairy milk. I also brought a bag of Unreal dark chocolate covered peanuts as my dessert so I could avoid asking people what was in the pies. Another option I utilized was to bring an easy side dish, a container of no sugar added apple sauce. Would I have loved something like mashed potatoes or green bean casserole? Yes, until my stomach hurt tremendously and then I would have wanted to go home, killing our outing. No one guilted me for bringing some things that made my dietary situation easier.

I stuck to safe options for dinner and I’d recommend the same for anyone else in a similar position. The protein source was easy as there were smoked meats and I shied away from the turkey in case butter was used in the basting. I had a bit of cornbread and palmier cookies (things I brought), some macaroni salad (only after checking the label), and the apple sauce from home. Later, I split a dinner roll (one I made) with my husband and I grabbed a handful of my Unreal chocolates before also enjoying one of the Trader Joe’s mint peppermint meringues (another thing from home) and losing the rest to my daughter who also wanted them. My situation has also taught me to think more about others’ needs as well; everything I brought was labeled with the ingredients so if they needed or wanted to know the ingredients, fellow guests did not need to hunt me down to inquire.

Our actual Thanksgiving meal later this week will not be entirely dairy free, but it will be dairy minimal. Thanks to not hosting this year, I felt less compelled to build a traditional holiday meal. We are having pork sausages wrapped in pancakes and tied with bacon. This is a nod to the episode of “Gilmore Girls” where Luke makes this treat for Rory the day she heads off to Yale. I also found a recipe for a bacon egg drop soup to replace a more traditional side while still adding a vegetable into our meal and there is a fun sourdough bread recipe shaped like a turkey I am dying to make that would be a great complement to the soup. We have a duck in lieu of a turkey; it’s a much more enjoyable form of poultry in my opinion and worth the extra money. There will be a homemade cranberry sauce. Recipe TBD. I am most delighted though to make progress on the desserts ahead of Thursday. Today I am tackling a whisky ice cream, replacing the dairy milk with plant-based alternatives. Tomorrow I am making the apple and frangipane tart dough (this is my dairy dessert to consume in moderation) and will complete the dessert assembly and baking Wednesday. If time permits, I can make the cranberry pie Wednesday as well and having found Diamond brand pecan pie crusts a little while ago, I now have a non-pastry and non-dairy pie shell for that treat to kick it up a notch.

In closing out today’s blog, I’d love to learn about what others like to make this time of year, even if the dishes aren’t for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Here’s what I wore for our recent Friendsgiving. After all we’ve dealt with during the pandemic, it was fun to dress up a little again.

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