Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Good (and bad) nutrition begins in youth

I was at the bar for a ladies gathering several months ago. And as women tend to do, the conversation got deep rather quickly. Before I knew it, my childhood was being examined.

My three lovely barmates simply had to get to the bottom of why I have yo-yo and crash dieted since adolescence. It always goes back to youth, these things, or at least that’s what Psych 101 has taught me.

As cynical as I am about blaming one’s childhood on problems in adulthood -- problems that an adult mind should have the capability to recognize, understand and work to remedy -- I found myself surprised by the insight these women gained so quickly. They traced the problem back to sixth grade, and I was pretty shocked that I hadn’t looked back to examine that year before.

I knew that age 11 is when I first became conscious of my weight. That’s the first time I beat myself about it. But I hadn’t realized my familial circumstances had a lot to do with the problem, as well as the reason it got worse.

My parents divorced the summer before my sixth-grade year, when we lived on an Air Force base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We were poor. In fact, my uncle had to come up and help pay for a U-Haul to get my mom, my sister and me back to Fairmont, where my mom grew up.

When we got settled into income-based housing in Fairmont, my mom started working two jobs. Through my high school years, she worked 60-80 hours a week. So, at 11, it was just me and my sister at home. We had to get our homework done without prodding. We had to keep the house clean. And we had to prepare meals for ourselves.

When you are 11, you don’t think about nutrition when you’re cooking. So that’s when Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, peanut butter sandwiches, chips, sugary granola bars, Little Debbies, ice cream and Fruit Loops became staple meals. When we wanted to snack, whether it was right after dinner or before bed or constantly throughout the night, then we did.

What I was careful to point out to my bar companions was that I in no way blame my mom for not being around. In fact, I feel the opposite way about it. I can’t imagine a more giving woman, to work from sun up to sun down so that my sister and I had what we needed. If that were me, I don’t know if I could do it. And she never complained. Not once did I ever hear her say that her feet hurt from waitressing or that she was tired.

I think about a time once when we went on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Owatonna to outlet shop on her day off. She brought all of her tips with her, and when I found a pair of Nikes I couldn’t live without, she counted out one-dollar bills and quarters to pay for them. I remember how embarrassed I was. I walked outside as she lined the stacks of quarters on the counter, with annoyed customers behind her.

I wish I could go back to that moment sometimes and wrap my arms around her and tell her how grateful I was to have those shoes.

But, I digress. My point is that, while it wasn’t my mom’s fault (if she had her way, she would have been home every night making me eat my peas), I had no one to teach me about nutrition. No one to make me eat my vegetables and limit my snacks. I ate what I wanted when I wanted, and that mentality has stuck with me well into adulthood. Since 11, if I wanted to have ice cream for dinner, I did.

As I said, an adult mind has the capability to recognize and begin remedying these self-destructive patterns. But it’s certainly important to look back and examine their roots.

I can’t promise that I’ll never eat ice cream for dinner again. But I will more frequently force myself to eat my vegetables. Tonight, in fact, in honor of my mom, I’ll eat my peas.

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