Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Finding Balance: A Gastronomic Journey

When I left Iowa City in June, 2008, to study Russian in Vermont followed by 9 months in Russia, I was physically quite fit. I worked out 4-6 days a week and carefully watched what I ate; despite occasional splurges (nummy treats at the office, anyone?) most of my food intake was carefully planned and executed. When I went grocery shopping, I bought the exact number of apples I'd need to get through the week, my dinners were planned out ahead of time, and lunch and snacks were planned, packed, and subsequently devoured ONLY at the appointed time.

Yes, it was a bit obsessive, but it gave me control, and I liked how I looked and felt. I was fitter (and thinner) than I'd ever been in my adult life, and while I've never been overweight, I enjoyed feeling trim and muscular.

I was able, for the most part, to maintain my diet and exercise routine in Vermont (although exercise started to fall by the wayside when Reziko and I met and almost all activity outside of class was replaced with Skype time). At the very least, the foods available to me gave me healthy options, and I made somewhat regular use of the campus gym.

Then came Russia. I already knew from my previous year in Petersburg to anticipate some weight gain – a different diet and climate, after all, will have their effects. But I felt like I gained a LOT last year. Maybe it was the lack of sunlight draining me of all energy, maybe it was academic burnout, maybe it was a lack of sleep from staying up late to talk to Reziko, but my willpower and motivation were sapped. I would eat a relatively healthy meal of salmon or chicken with steamed veggies, then after dinner pig out on cookies or pudding made with whole milk or my host mom's turnovers or chocolate. None of these things are bad in moderation, but I was eating them constantly, and they constituted the majority of my calories. My host mom would bake constantly, I'd helplessly scarfed it all down and beg her not to make so many or so often because I couldn't resist, and we'd repeat it next week. I started to eat not from hunger, but from boredom, stress, loneliness.

I did have a gym membership, paid all up front in September. I could use the facilities as often as I wanted, whenever I wanted, including classes. And I did go. Sometimes a couple weeks would go by without a single workout, but especially toward spring I got better at going at least 3 times a week. But with my eating out of control, the exercise did little to influence my weight or shape. My clothes were too tight, my stomach too round, and I wasn't a happy camper.

Since then, Georgia has had quite an influence on me in the diet department. My first few visits were downright gluttonous, as my desire to try everything and the Georgian tradition of stuffing guests silly ganged up on me. As I made forays back into the world of meat, I earned myself quite a lot of stomach upset, including one illness this summer that landed me in the hospital for some rehydration. But since then (and after a few weeks back in Iowa eating my comfort foods – spinach and cottage cheese), something has clicked with me, and I feel like I'm eating better than I did in Russia AND in Iowa City.

First and most important, Georgia has broken me of that nasty habit of finishing everything on my plate. Take too much? Leave it. There's no reason to stuff yourself. Finishing it does not feed starving children in China, it just messes with your hunger signals and stretches your stomach out. I've long known this, of course, but my solution back in college was to simply severely limit the amount of food available to me, based on the premise that I can't stop myself if given unlimited access to food. This is still true when it comes to chocolate. But where I went wrong in Iowa City was limiting access even to the good stuff. I don't think an extra half cup of cottage cheese or a whole sandwich instead of half of one would have killed me or made me fat – and I would have spent a lot less time running around hungry and watching the clock until my next designated eating time. Also, this strategy taught me nothing about learning to say “no” in situations were I'm not in control of the serving spoon. I've learned the hard way that taking another cabbage roll or piece of meat just to be polite does nobody any favors – especially me when I spend the whole evening or next day feeling ill as a result!

Another habit in the Gvarjaladze household has proved very helpful to me: no set mealtimes. Not hungry. Don't eat. Hungry at 11 PM? Inga will get up and fix you a plate (I've never asked her to do that, by the way, but sometimes she gets up and takes over anyway). We all eat breakfast and dinner at different times, which has provided me a great opportunity to get more in tune with my body's hunger signals.

These two developments – only eating till I'm full and only eating when I'm hungry – have been revolutionary for me, even though they aren't new concepts in the health and fitness world. I haven't been exercising here at all beyond our fairly regular seaside walks, yet, despite a diet higher in fat and with more cheese, bread, and meat and fewer veggies than before, I haven't gotten fat like I feared I would! I weigh less than in Russia and just a few pounds heavier than my lowest weight in Iowa City. Would I like more veggies? Yes. Would I like more whole grains? Yes. My diet here isn't perfect. But I am way more satisfied than I ever felt in Iowa City, and I don't feel like a gluttonous pig like I did in Russia (I know the fact that it's warmer here and my body isn't trying to store winter fat helps, but that's not all of it).

And while I'm still trying to work around fitness restraints here – weird rules about when one may and may not go running by the sea, for example – I have started in the past week or so to work strength exercises and yoga back into my daily routine. I feel perhaps I've truly started to find a balance.

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