Posts filed under: Wellness

Years in the making

Almost Paleo

The kitchen was not my place for a long time. You know, that place where you feel at home. I promise, even with a handful of wicked cool recipes that I pulled out of some drawer in my brain (like Flourless and Cauliflower-Free Pizza Dough), I was not born with a silver spatula in my hand and a cast-iron skillet in the other. Most of my recipes have come out of food allergy necessity or having only five ingredients left in my fridge and coming up with something edible. I did not know what curry, lentils, squash, fresh cranberries, and red lettuce tasted like until late in high school. I knew the taste of split-peas and ham, La Choy Chow Mein, Jif peanut butter, iceberg lettuce, 7-layer bars, refrigerated cookie dough, frozen spinach, spaghetti noodles and browned hamburger. Swiss steak, cinnamon rolls: yum. But I messed up boxed macaroni. Thought stir-frying made me wordly.

Cooking was not something that I did especially well for many years. To this day, I still can’t boil eggs properly (ask my daughter). Too lazy to set a timer or follow any number of simple rules, I wing it and hope the shell peels off. But I have always loved gathering around food – impromptu dinner parties centered around wedges of brie and camembert, artichoke dip made from canned artichoke hearts, big sprawling picnic-style events where everyone sits on the floor with a glass of wine and a crumb-filled napkin. Instinctively, I wanted to feed people. I got lucky one summer and was hired as a cook at a French camp (that was also the summer I shaved my head).

A cook!

Once I could hold a knife and properly chop an onion, standard fare in my student lodging became parmesan-encrusted chicken breast stewed in frozen raspberries, tangy udon noodles with crushed peanuts, and failed batches of scones. Cakes that wouldn’t rise, but looked pretty.

For many years, I did not cook for nourishment. I was an artist, duh. I had no time for homey meals unless it involved a group of friends. For quick meals, take-out worked. Roasted chicken and a side caesar salad while doing my first go at the South Beach Diet. A bowl of granola and yogurt for breakfast. Eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Food from the colorful food carts that dotted University Mall. I did not know what was in my food. I did not know what I was eating. Nor why I had near-constant skin breakouts, seasonal depression, energy crashes, chronic fatigue, and a puffy face.

I saved real cooking for indulgent meals that fed lots of people. Enormous bowls of couscous spotted with toasted pine nuts and chewy raisins. Cheesy casseroles. And processed-fooded-it the rest of the time. I knew better. But I hadn’t yet moved abroad and started living in a country where fast food and eating out is still a luxury. My mother-in-law abhors eating out. Unless it is köfte – hamburger patties seasoned with cumin and fattened up with stale bread, or lahmacun – flat pizza-style rounds or lengths of crisp dough topped with sprinklings of ground beef and spices. Her kitchen is laden with bags full of bakliyat – dried lentils, chickpeas, bulgur, and fresh veggies only, unless they have been picked from the garden and frozen in the deep freeze. When I gush about a particularly good restaurant – there are still few in Izmit – that has tender steak or a really good salad, she clucks her tongue and shakes her head.

Dışarda yemek güzel değil. Eating out is not good. Why would you pay all that money for something you can make at home? And make better, is what she means.

But I didn’t have that confidence for a long time. I failed in my kitchen. A lot. Whatever I made was just slightly off for about – no, exactly five years. From 2005 to 2010. I wasn’t used to the spices, the temperature of my oven. Cheese just did not congeal the way I wanted it to. Time and time again I would get a craving for something – lemongrass soup (no lemongrass), Thai peanut noodles (no peanut butter on store shelves until a few years ago, and all with added sugar), creamy mac ‘n cheese (no cheddar, and the stuff I can find now still doesn’t quite cut it).

So when I cut out grains, dairy, sugar, and gluten, I panicked. What on earth was I going to eat now? Was I going to live on grilled chicken breast and steamed veggies? My timing on hot meals, the kind that you slide onto the table still steaming in front of your hungry family, was always just a few minutes too early or late. Too crunchy. Too soft. Overcooked. Chalk it up to inexperience or just needing time to adapt, it was a slow process learning how to cook well.

I don’t think I’d want it any other way, though.

Because I learned flavor. Timing. Freshness. Eating in season. And focusing on one or two things instead of a huge, complicated menu.

My knives are still never quite sharp enough. Sometimes I forget and use sea salt that was not ground fine enough and we get chunks in our omelets (oops). Most recently I made my Flourless Pizza Crust and did not have oven paper, so substituted aluminum foil. The potato crust fused to the foil and we had to scrape the toppings onto our plate. But more often than not, now I work on instinct – pairing food and flavors without stressing. Making a sauce that makes a salad zing. Or baked potatoes melt. Sometimes, the fewer the items in my pantry or on my refrigerator shelves, the better. The fewer choices I have, the more creative I have to get. I try to give myself enough time in the kitchen to prep, but more often than not, I walk into the kitchen when everyone in my house is only seconds away from devouring each other from hunger. Open the refrigerator. Shut it. Freak out. There is nothing to eat. 

And then I put on my mother’s apron. Pull out my chef’s knife. Take a deep breath. Sink into that space where cooking is calming and all-out pleasure for my senses.

And pull something out of nothing.

I probably won’t be able to recreate it again – I used up the last of the duck fat, I’m almost out of sweet potatoes, and cucumbers are going out of season, but I promise, it tastes delicious.

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Rose and Devrim - 10K - November 16, 2014

Rose and Devrim with a slice of the Boğaziçi Köprüsü – Bosphorus Bridge – in the background. Istanbul Marathon 10K – November 16, 2014

Runners in red, blue, and green bibs bounced on their toes to warm up on a cool, Istanbul morning, and when the Turkish national anthem was played, everyone went silent. A zip of energy ran through the packed crowds, easy conversations happening at the endless porta-pot lines because you are united in a possibly grueling task: getting from the start line to the finish line.

The 35th annual Istanbul Marathon was happening. And I was one of the shivering hopefuls in the 10km line. Its been years since cross-country and track meets, but one thing never changes – stretching out hamstrings and cries of “good luck”. When I crossed the Bosphorus Bridge, I couldn’t feel my feet I was so excited and awestruck by the view.

I confused the race packs, so Devrim and I wore the wrong bib numbers. He’s ranked 361 on the women’s list (under my name) and I’m 1976 on the men’s – hee hee.*  I hit the 5k mark at 33:08 – yes! At 6k I felt something funny in my left leg, and by 8k I had to walk. I wanted more than anything to run past the finish line. And I tried to stay cheerful as hoards of people passed me by, even one guy I remember from the waiting line yelling at to me to “koş koş! – run, run. I wanted to, but I had to accept my leg wasn’t having anything to do with it.

I could just end the post here – vow to run the 15k next year, but be better prepared, stretched out, and realistic. But full confession: did I mention that in addition to loving bacon, I am also competitive?

Stretched Thin

I have been running since I was twelve. Running is something I take seriously. Much like being taken seriously as a writer and artist. But that mindset can get in the way of enjoying something. Like – feeling like you don’t deserve the medal at the end of a race. Like feeling like you didn’t finish even though you crossed the finish line. I know I have to shut off the negative thoughts and take a look at the bigger picture – hey, I did it! But if you are anything like me, and felt like at many points in your life you had to prove yourself – academically, work-wise, and I-can-make-it-as-an-expat-abroad, or I am not just a stay-at-home-mom – you’ll understand why that is so hard. I have my own internal goals: to beat my last time, to lift heavier weights, to improve on a scale that I can see.

Turning off the part of my brain that strives to get ahead is maybe one of my biggest challenges. Ever.

I hobbled to the metro station. Took one step up the stairs at a time. Went to bed at 9:00 p.m. When I woke up, I still had a twinge in my leg. CrossFit was out for a couple days. My best friend killed the race – she went at her own pace and finished all ten kilometers with a huge smile on her face. My husband was just in it for fun and was hyped up on the thrill of his very first competitive race.

I have spent a lot of time on the other end of fun: why can’t I just enjoy things like other people? And when it comes to food and wellness, excruciating negative thoughts: why can everyone else eat normally but food makes me feel bad? Why am I a binge eater? I worked 12-hour days to start up a design consulting firm that never happened. I started writing books I never finished. I shuttered a handbag design gig. I started sewing projects that sit in plastic bins in the closet. I wrestled with why I couldn’t just do one thing. Three years ago, I called it quits on teaching English and working as a volunteer for a non-profit. I was tapped out. Sick. Stretched thin.

Stretched Out

On Sunday, I wanted the wind in my hair, feet pounding the pavement – I wanted the runner’s high, the crazy amazing feeling of picking up speed and knowing your lungs can take it. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. But then I couldn’t. And I know I can’t do everything. I know I can’t be everything to everyone. Can’t hit the box five times a week every week. Or crank out 1,600 words every day all the time. But this is also very important: I don’t want to reject the fighter in me. She needs to live and thrive. Because she propels me forward. She makes me look at the world through the lens of possibility. And I never want to stop asking questions. Or learning.

So I’ll feed her good food. Get her to bed earlier. Get her stretched out and fit for the next race. In less than a year, I went from not being able to do a real squat to squatting with a 30kg barbell. I can touch my toes again. And I am going to be vigilant about this: I vow to care less what people think about my career path. The creative process is an explorative one, and if you try too hard to follow straight lines, you’ll never discover the good stuff: the ideas and questions that turn into a story, the I can do it attitude that gets you into the gym in the first place, the I believe in myself mantra that allows the seeds of change to grow.

At the end of the race, a guy with a goatee – his hair in a ponytail, the strands streaked gray, walked past us without a limp in sight as we tried to find the busses holding our bags. His knee was bleeding. Somewhere along the racecourse, he fell. But he kept going. So will you. And so will I. And grouchy internal voice be damned, I’ll do it with a smile.

Power to your feet, your pen, your plate.

 


 

*If I hadn’t mixed up the numbers, he’d be 1201/3242 (1:02:55) and I’d be 950/2691(1:13:36) according to finish line times.

 

 

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It’s 2 a.m.

I wake up and pad down the hallway to the kitchen. On the floor is a bag. Meant to be garbage. I crack open the refrigerator door for light. Fumble around inside the bag until I can feel conical shapes wrapped in gold tinfoil. Bonanza. I found the loot. It takes only a second to rip open the wrappers and start eating. But first, I pick up the chocolates, walk to the sink, and take a drink of water.

I am awake. Sort of. Sometimes, depending on my mood the next day, I surf the internet and find names for it. Night Eating Syndrome (NES). Nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED). Sometimes it is called a sleep disorder, sometimes an eating disorder.

Web MD says NES is “when a person eats during the night with full awareness and may be unable to fall asleep again unless he/she eats.”

But all I know is that in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep – Chocolate. Tastes. So. Good.

I sink my teeth into a gooey caramel center and find the golden nugget – a perfect hazelnut that crunches between my teeth. I always wait for it to start tasting bad – some people promise that if you are “off sugar” long enough it will taste gross. Or that cheap chocolate will be a turn off. I wish that were me. I am not elitist during the witching hour. Even as my brain screams no, I plunge my hand back into the bag for more.

That was last night. But it used to be every night of the year. It used to be worse.

I used to binge in full daylight and on all sorts of thing that made me sick – bread, pizza, candy. And later, after I went gluten free – gluten free versions of the same, plus rice and other pseudo-grains. It wasn’t until I started studying nutrition that I understood why I had chronic stomach aches, gas, inflammation, bloating, colitis, itching, eczema, and more. Adopting a Paleo diet helped nip daytime binging in the bud – I finally fed myself real, whole foods with nutrients that kept me satiated. I started healing and many of my symptoms went away naturally. I stopped searching for my next sugar fix.

Right?

Not during the day, at least.

It's Oct 31, people.

It’s Oct 31, people.

The birth of a bad habit

I started eating in the middle of the night (M.O.N. is the notation I use in my food journal) when I was nursing my first child. Lack of sleep made me chronically short on energy and I would get roaringly hungry at 2 and 4 a.m. I ate to fall back asleep. My second pregnancy came shortly after the first, and my sleep stayed disrupted. I had low progesterone, depression, and serious weight gain (30kg). I ate mostly white bread and cream cheese. Real food when I could stomach it. I nursed and ate. Nursed and ate. Drank barley malt beverages to increase my milk. Ate bulgur, telling myself it was better than bread or rice. My sleep never fully recovered.

My point in explaining my trajectory is this: I have had over eight years since the birth of my first child to solidify my night-eating habits. Plus 36 years of being alive, every single one of those days involving food. It did not happen overnight. And one night of kneeling at the altar of factory-made chocolate will not blow apart all the positive changes I’ve made, either.

I promised when I started this blog that I would not focus on perfection – how many days in a row I’ve gone without binging. Or without sugar. I’m not going to talk (today) about deprivation, insulin levels, hormones, or any of the other possible reasons for why the urge to binge still hits hard. I want to separate that from the closer picture: a woman leaning over a sink eating a bag of chocolates. She is not depressed, not lonely, and has a full life. She knows a lot about food. And addiction. She likes the taste of chocolate, but not during the day. She likes it at night in secret.

Her brain is more powerful that she gives it credit for. She taught it to give in to the urge to binge.

And that is why, dear Foodling, I am confessing. Even when someone’s auntie-teyze is shoveling more food onto my plate, I have a choice. It sucks to have to admit that no one, unless you are a two-year-old Turkish child at a park being chased with a spoon, is going to shove food down your throat. Even when it is the middle of the night and it feels like sleepwalking. It would be easier to say I have a disorder. It gets me off the hook. But acknowledging I have control is powerful.

I taught myself some really bad habits. And I am un-learning them. Binge happens. Urges happen. Now, can we get back to living?

By the glow of the fridge

Rather than launch into the tools I have learned for how to cope in this post, I want to return to the kitchen at 2 a.m. My palms shake when I realize just how far I’ve gone. I turn on my heel and march to the bathroom. I do not purge. I brush my teeth. Sink into the mattress next to my daughter who has crawled into my bed. Regret can wait until tomorrow, I tell myself.

And it does. I wake up with a pit in my stomach. A fear of the scale. A fear of what the lactose and soy lecithin and unpronounceable chemicals will do to my digestion. Not all of us can learn from scare tactics and threats: this ingredient will make you sick, make you gain weight. Or maybe it freaks us out enough during the day that we don’t binge. But come nightfall, no one is watching, right?

I am sharing this because I know what it is like to go into a dark place and blame myself. I also know what it is like to emerge from that and feel good. Really good. Even if I wake up in the morning and find bits of gold-leaf wrappers dusting the counter and the floor and my heart sinks.

I did it again.

And given my track record, probably will again. But maybe I won’t. Do I really want to spend all my time worrying about the odds?

I’d like to get back to bacon. Having enough energy to do box jumps and pull-ups. Writing a book. Deep living. For just right now, let’s be proud of how far that woman at the sink has come. Maybe she eats one less piece of chocolate.

Or maybe, she takes that bag, ties it up tight, and walks it out to the garbage can. Thunk. 


 

For one resource that helped me, check out Kathryn Hansen’s Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good, which chronicles her recovering from bulimia without therapy. More information about her workbook and blog can be found here.

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Do you know the perfect time to start a food & wellness blog?

How about when you are huddled under a blanket trying to sweat out a fever? How about when after MONTHS of feeling great and woo-hoo maybe I’m ONTO SOMETHING PEOPLE you get too sick to crawl out of bed?

Yeah, that time. Because last week I bought www.paleoabroad.com’s domain name, fired up Pinterest and Twitter, and excited to log some hours designing stuff again, whipped up a logo. The NEXT DAY I woke up and felt like my intestines were being ripped out and that wonderful feeling lasted through the weekend. Perfect timing.

This is what some people might call the universe taking artistic license with the word sarcasm. I call it keeping it real. Because my life is nothing but – schlepping kids to school, slapping together meals, and doing it all in a second language.

At the same time I was also maybe just a little wee bit excited about a contest I submitted my young adult novel to on Twitter (no dice – I’ll keep trying). And constantly refreshing my Twitter stream didn’t leave much head space for noting the usual signs for unwellness – headache, trouble sleeping, and a preoccupation with checking my spam folder for missed emails.

But thanks to the kindness of a partner in crime dear friend, I was spoiled with warm soup and a fuzzy blanket. And out of the goodness of her heart, she is sharing her recipe for Carrot Soup with me so I can return the favor one day.

Carrot Soup. My friends take such good care of me -- they feed me soup and let me spend aaaaaallll day on their couch wrapped up in a blanket.

My friends take such good care of me — they feed me carrot soup and roasted potatoes and let me spend aaaaaallll day on their couch wrapped up in a blanket.

Carrot Soup

5-6 medium length carrots, cleaned and peeled, chopped into 1″ thick rounds

1 tbsp butter

1 whole onion quartered (omit if you have sensitivities to onion)

1 litre water, plus 1 cup bone broth (if desired, and if omitting onion, recommended)

ground sea salt to taste

Melt butter in soup pot and add quartered onion, sauteing until onion separates and turns golden. Add water, bone broth, and salt, and dump those beautiful carrot rounds on top, cooking on low heat until the carrots are tender and a fork easily pokes through. Remove from heat. Using a submersible soup blender (or if you are fancy and have a Vitamix or other mixer suitable for pureeing hot liquids), puree on low until soup is smooth and creamy. Serve immediately.

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