For several hours last week I couldn't get toast out of my head. As I sat at my keyboard, trying to formulate a sentence, the word flowed through my thoughts like a mantra: "toast, brown crispy toast, toast with butter; I should be working right now; pumpernickel toast . . ." I tried to quell it with a snack - nine hazelnuts and a few gulps of mixed vegetable juice - but no luck. There was a big, doughy elephant in the room.
I developed my obsession with bread on the fourth day of my new, five-day eating regimen, which I created as part of an attempt to live up to my obligatory New Year's weight-loss resolution. The resolution process generally goes like this: 1) I promise to do something I don't actually like (exercise) for a full 365 days, and 2) fail to stick with it, leading to 3) several weeks during which I castigate myself until, finally, 4) I forget about the whole thing until December rolls around again.
Not this time. Being a food writer isn't exactly waist-line friendly, and now that I've entered the metabolically sluggish thirties, I know it's time to set myself up for a long lifetime of happy, healthy dining. So in 2008, I'm changing my approach. I've vowed to consume only foods that make me tingle with pleasure, rather than giving in to the "if it's around, it's in my mouth" syndrome that infects so many sedentary office workers with easy access to stores that sell salt 'n' vinegar chips.
I also want to be able to stop eating just before I get full, rather than hundreds of yards after I've crossed the finish line. Finally, instead of forcing myself onto the treadmill, I've resolved to work up a sweat in ways I enjoy. (Pushing the buttons on the Xbox controller doesn't count.)
All of that is perfectly sensible, recommended by most nutritionists and exercise gurus alike. But when you really want to change your habits, sometimes it pays to kick off your new life with more radical changes in your routine. How else to explain the allure of trendy near-starvation diets such as the Master Cleanse, which entails regular doses of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper, and nothing else?
A diet that makes me feel faint from hunger day after day isn't an option - I still have to function at work, after all. What I really want is to give myself a crash course in enjoying smaller portion sizes and massive quantities of produce. I'm hoping a carefully controlled and selected diet will make me feel peppier, which in turn will make it easier for me to remain abstemious. In short, I'm interested in eating well, not avoiding food.
I decide to begin with a 36-hour juice fast, then spend the rest of the work week eating a limited array of ultra-healthy foods, with a couple of supplements thrown in for good measure. (I'm suspending the "100 percent pleasurable food" bit until the week is over.)
The rules of this regimen come from my reading and my own intuition. Taking my cue from Michael Pollan's new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, I shoot for "mostly plants." My goal is nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I know that eating sugars makes me crash - hard - so all sweeteners and sweetened foods are out, as are refined grains and cold cereals. I can have meat once per day, provided it's local and organic. Then there are the three big allergens: wheat, soy and pasteurized dairy products. I decide to eliminate wheat altogether and only eat fermented soy products, such as miso, which are easier to digest. As far as dairy is concerned, I'll stick to raw-milk cheeses and cultured products such as yogurt and butter. The good bacteria help with the digestion of lactose, to which I'm intolerant. With these principles in mind, I'm ready to begin my week of eating less dangerously.
I rise at 6:30 a.m. I ate my last meal at 8 p.m. on Sunday, and I won't eat again until 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
7:30 a.m. Breakfast: One-third of a bottle of organic mixed-vegetable juice and a mug of detox tea.
10 a.m. Snack: One-third of a bottle of gross carrot juice. I stick my finger into the bottle of aloe vera juice I bought because it's good for you. The transparent glop smells and tastes just like the stuff you put on burns. I can't drink that.
11:50 a.m. A coworker brought chocolate and other snacks into the office this morning. I feel deprived. Then they all talk about the stuff all day. "Ooh, this chocolate is so nice." "Look, almonds." Fuckers.
12:15 p.m. Lunch: One-third of a bottle of vegetable juice. I loved it earlier, but now I hate it. I pour part of it down the drain and try two-thirds of a bottle of grapefruit juice. I read this morning that you're not supposed to drink citrus juices during a fast, but that's what I've got, and it tastes refreshing.
1:30 p.m. Somebody in the office has fried food.
7 p.m. Dinner: Half a bottle of pomegranate juice, and one tablespoon of flax oil to squelch a nagging worry that I won't be able to synthesize any vitamins today for lack of fat. Reminds me of taking cod liver oil as a child.
8:15 p.m. My teeth feel gross from all the juice.
9:30 p.m. I can't wait to go to bed so I don't have to think about food anymore.
8:45 a.m. Breakfast: A banana, oatmeal with flax oil and sunflower seeds. I eat four spoonfuls and don't feel hungry anymore. Perhaps my stomach is shrinking already?
10 a.m. Snack: Eight hazelnuts, some vegetable juice.
12:30 p.m. Lunch: Miso soup with buckwheat noodles, carrots, ginger, garlic, daikon and pea shoots, made in the microwave. Note to self: When you cook noodles in the microwave, they get all mushy. After I've exposed my skull to radiation for 8 minutes, trying to get the water to boil, a coworker asks me, "Um, are you still using that?" Oops. I eat half of the soup, but can't stomach the rest.
3:15 p.m. It's warm out, so I go for a nice long walk.
7 p.m. Dinner: Finally, a real meal. I have some steamed potatoes with cultured butter, an organic local pork chop and a mesclun salad with apple, avocado and raw-milk blue cheese drizzled with olive oil and cider vinegar.
5:30 a.m. I wake up full of energy and get to work an hour-and-a-half early. Nice.
7:45 a.m. Breakfast: The rest of yesterday's oatmeal with an orange and 10 hazelnuts. I do miss honey in my oatmeal.
9:20 a.m. Snack: Flushed with the success of my energy-filled morning, I bravely decide to try a "Perfect Food" product made from pretty much every healthy substance in the world. I blend the expensive, verdant powder into a mug of carrot juice, sprinkling at least $2 worth over my keyboard in the process. The resultant brown sludge is the fourth most disgusting thing that has ever passed my lips - after a couple of horse pills for bronchitis crushed in tapioca pudding, doses of Robitussin, and a blob of moldy yogurt. Nonetheless, I slowly sip until it's gone. The concoction grows more viscous and unpleasant as time passes.
1:15 p.m. Lunch: I reward my own efforts by going out to Stone Soup, one of the only places in town where I can stick to all of my rules. Or so I think. I mistakenly eat a really delicious seitan stew, forgetting that seitan contains forbidden wheat. I survive. I also have a piece of sweet potato and a salad with a mix of raw veggies, sprouted peas and lentils topped with lemon-tahini dressing. I break my sweets rule by trying a gluten-free, vegan peanut butter bar, just to see what it's like. It's not my favorite thing ever.
2 p.m. After lunch I take a walk. It's ridiculously warm, and I'm feeling great.
6:30 p.m. Dinner: Local organic chorizo, polenta with raw sheep cheese, wilted spinach and sauerkraut. Delightful.
6 a.m. I wake up bright and early again and notice that my lips are redder than they have been.
7:45 a.m. Breakfast: A banana, an orange, herbal tea, unsweetened cranberry juice and 10 hazelnuts.
12:15 p.m. Lunch: Leftover chorizo and polenta, a ridiculously large pile of sauerkraut, an apple.
6:15 p.m. Dinner: Mashed sweet potatoes with cultured butter and crème fraîche; omelet with raw-milk cheese; mesclun salad topped with avocado, apple, and sunflower seeds, dressed with balsamic and olive oil. I'm liking the dinner part of things. Breakfast is sometimes tough.
My often finicky stomach - not the best quality for a food writer - has been feeling great all week. In fact, I've been consistently experiencing what I describe as "Buddha belly." It's a feeling of intestinal well being that I associate with an enlightened diet: no junk food, lots of fresh produce, whole grains.
7:45 a.m. I weigh myself before work and find that I've lost 3 pounds. And I've done so eating mostly delicious food, with the exception of the "soylent green" incident on Wednesday.
8:15 a.m. Breakfast: Banana, unsweetened cranberry juice, tea. I've been too busy to make cereal in the evening to bring to work.
11:45 a.m. Lunch: Leftover mashed sweet potatoes from the previous night. Pickings are slim.
6 p.m. Dinner: French onion soup sans bread, stinky sheep cheese and an apple. Then I mix pomegranate juice, cranberry juice and aloe slime. The chunky aloe floats to the top of the cup. My husband tries it and says it's like drinking frog's eggs. I finish it anyway. Blech. When I wake up tomorrow, I'm done.
By Friday afternoon, I'm feeling great. I've been waking up early, taking afternoon walks, and eating less than usual. My plan may not be the next big diet phenomenon, and I'm gonna start eating bread again the second I wake up on Saturday, but I think I've given myself a head start on my resolution.
If I had to do it over again, I'd keep the juice fast and lose the weird health foods. Aloe juice and green powders aren't for me. I might plan better: When I didn't have time to cook, I ended up eating some pretty unbalanced meals. But cutting out the sweeteners, the junk food and the dairy/soy/wheat trio made a definite difference. Next week, I'll work on settling into my healthier groove - and cherish my new appreciation for food that doesn't come in a bottle.