Five Lessons I Learned from My Two Week Food Challenge

The Promise: “This is a two-week detox plan that’s actually realistic. You’ll learn to eat healthy, feel awesome, and stay that way.”

Lesson 1: It’s Great to Live Without Options

We think of choice as a sort of universally good thing, but choice is only as beneficial as the options you have and the decisions you make. If choosing means you get to pick something that is better, that’s great. But choice for choice’s sake is a burden. It’s wasted thought.

Grocieries Week TwoI had been thinking way too much about what I ate. I’d been making lots of choices, but none were better than any others. Every morning was an exercise in running through endless breakfast possibilities only to choose one of the same four things I always ate. Every night dinner involved staring at the open fridge and waiting for some divine sign to tell me if tonight was the night I should try that new recipe I bought all the ingredients for, or if it was a night to defrost some spaghetti sauce. Again.

I loved having no say in the matter for two weeks. There was no question when I woke up in the morning. No back-and-forth guilt about eating marshmallows at work. I looked in my meal plan and I ate what I saw. No discussion. No decision.

Lesson 2: Food is as Much or as Little Work as You Want it to Be

For as freeing as it was to never decide what to eat, it was a real pain having to cook so damn much. True to its promise, none of the cooking in the challenge was difficult. But everything had to be made. There was no putting leftovers into the fridge and pulling them out ready to go the next day. Salads had to be assembled. Smoothies had to be blended. Chopping and stirring and frying and futzing. Every day for two weeks. It was worse than NaNoWriMo.

With each meal and extra step, I questioned whether the extra work was worth it. I like pistachios, but I don’t like them any more than almonds, and almonds don’t have to be shelled.

Lesson 3: You Can Get Tired of Eating

I’m used to small portions of calorie-dense foods, so the salad-fest was a bit of a stretch for me. There is just so much to eat in a salad before you approach a decent number of calories. You sit there chewing and chewing. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Am I really still eating this damn thing?

I don’t handle eating fatigue very well. Unless I’m eating something outstanding, eating starts to feel like a waste of time. I want to move on, I want to do something else. I’m sick of ingesting, let’s get back to work. No, it says, you can’t. You have to eat more salad.

Lesson 4: Nothing is Perfect

When I was getting ready for my second grocery run, I noticed that I was supposed to be buying things I still had plenty of. I had to go through the list, item by item and match it up with the recipes. In the end I still managed to over-buy some things and underbuy others.

I made some mistakes in my estimations, I bought the wrong amounts, I didn’t always eat everything I was supposed to eat. I want to defend the challenge by blaming the problems on my own mistakes. I want to say that it could have been perfect. But realistically, everyone will always make mistakes. There is no such thing as a perfect food plan because it implies perfect implementation. Things come up. Batches get burned. You’ll never get it just right. There is no just right.

Lesson 5: True Balance is a Myth

One of the reasons I wanted to do this challenge was to eliminate questions of balance and quotas. Am I eating enough vegetables? Am I eating too much meat? Is it okay to give into my sweet tooth if I’m healthy in other ways? There’s so much good and bad and changing food science out there. Trying to answer these questions can be maddening.

Food in BowlThis challenge was (in theory) put together by a professional nutritionist, allowing me to outsource the balancing act. However she also put it together knowing that people like variety, and that not everyone will love every recipe (I’m certainly fine with never eating parchment fish again). So maybe sometimes I was eating blackberries not because of nutritional variety, but because of emotional variety. I already know I don’t need much emotional variety in my diet, which leaves the balance question just as open as before.

I find myself looking back on Michael Pollen’s food rules with longing: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It’s so simple, right? Stop comparing blackberries to raspberries and salmon to tilapia. Stop counting calories and just drink more water. It’s advice so easy that we’ve all heard it a million times and yet we never feel like it’s enough. We’re always looking for that magic bullet, that set of rules, that “one weird trick” that will turn food from an enemy into a friend. It’s unfair to put all of this onto a silly online food challenge, because while it may not have made me “feel like a champion at life,” the food was good and it was a fun experiment.

There’s a nagging voice in my head that tells me to eat more whole grains, no, eat less read meat, no, add chia seeds to everything, no, cut out all dairy. Sometimes the voice gets on her high horse and tells me that what I’m buying ruins the planet or traps third world citizens in poverty and I should know better. When she gets mean she says that I’m doing it all wrong, that I’m falling short of the completely achievable perfection that all those healthy, beautiful people on TV must have mastered. She tells me that no matter how good my abs look there’s always those love handles to work on. She’s there at every meal, on every shopping trip, and every time I look in the mirror. Sometimes I think of her, and I wonder if we’ve been going after the wrong toxins.