Tummy Dearest: Like Mother, Like Daughter...'s Diet

When most people talk about their early food memories, often their families are involved, whether it's their doting mother, a grandparent with recipes from whatever "old world" they hail, a neighbor who feeds you as one of their own, or a father who excels at omelets, and also omelets. The fact is that those who care for us dictate what we eat for many years, and are obviously our earliest food influencers. Of course, the cooking and the eating are only a part of the equation. The part that most people don't talk about is actually rather important, and that's all about how those around us relate to food themselves. It's easy to provide nutritious meals to children while neglecting yourself. However, that may also have negative impacts on the young.

 Alexay, my sister, on the left dining with me on the right dining in our convertible high-chair/table (circa 1986ish)

Alexay, my sister, on the left dining with me on the right dining in our convertible high-chair/table (circa 1986ish)

In my household, we were fortunate enough to be growing up in a time when it was still possible AND common for one parent to stay at home with their children. In my case, it was our mother. For those early years, Mom was singing and acting whenever she could, and Dad would work long hours in the shipping (think large oil tankers and not UPS) industry that would often send him on business trips around the globe. So, while we had nightly family dinners, it was common for Dad to be missing. Of course, if he was in town, he was always provided the leftovers from our dinner. Now, as a snob who makes a living off of knowing the best and worst places to dine in this great foodtropolis, I wouldn't say that my mom was the best of home cooks. She had some things that I remember loving, like chicken cutlets and egg noodles with butter and peas. But to her credit she wasn't raised in a food culture family. Although my grandmother was raised in Argentina, her parents got their from Canada. What I'm saying is we're white. There's no Italian, or Spanish, or even Southern fare that has been handed down from generation to generation. The only family recipe that we take pride in when gathered together is a hot fudge sundae...and that does not involve anything homemade. You get your best or cheapest vanilla ice cream (it's merely a vehicle for the chocolate), and then you smother maybe a scoop of that with as much rich and creamy hot fudge (none of that shell-hardening stuff) as it takes to cover that ice cream, and then at least another layer after that. This is a true and legitimate family tradition thanks to Grandma Phyllis, and will continue on for the ages. But that's it. Ours is a family of singers, storytellers, laughers and drinkers with a major sweet tooth. So, while Mom was never a Julia Child when it came to savory food, she excelled at baking, which made us the favorite family to help with a bake sale or birthday party or any other event requiring Mom's signature brownies or Palm Beach Cake. My personal favorite was her crostata--essentially a chocolate pie. Yum.

 Hot Chocolate with the Family Name!

Hot Chocolate with the Family Name!

But, as I said, that is not the whole story. My mother was a singer and an actress, which meant that she was regularly struggling with her weight. Every diet out there, my mom tried at some point. My sister and I saw this, and it certainly had its impact for us both, although certainly in very different ways. My younger sister followed her lead, rather early on, but I scoffed at the thought of a diet until I was an adult, and my view on the prospect has evolved even since then. Genetics also had their role to play here, as I drew the skinny tall card, my sister (31) is now the shortest of our cousins (as young as 15), and she had a little bit of a tummy. We all thought she was adorable, but other kids were not so nice, and growing up in an environment that treats thin as the equivalent of happiness ("nothing tastes as good as thin feels" was a saying displayed on our refrigerator--an unhealthy diet mantra for mom) did not help her case. My sister started dieting very young. I don't remember what age it was when she first tried Slim Fast, but she also joined Jenny Craig, and was swallowing diet pills by the handful all before she was even 18. My body, on the other hand, played a bit of a trick on me, despite warnings from my family that I wouldn't always maintain such a tiny figure, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted--provided I had access to it. So, I developed bad eating habits and then I slowly started gaining weight as a teenager, but really started packing on the pounds (for me) when I was in college and was truly responsible for everything I ate. As soon as I was in charge of the shopping, things went downhill quickly! Some kids have issues with drugs and alcohol when they go away to school, but I'd already done that--now I got to buy any food I wanted! And most of what that included was processed junk.

 I'm playing lose the shoe on the left and my sister's the one in the headband--she had many!

I'm playing lose the shoe on the left and my sister's the one in the headband--she had many!

In college, I went back and forth with my eating habits and how much I cared about them. I semi-tried diets here and there, and would sometimes try to get more exercise in, but generally speaking, I didn't give a shit. After college, I brought my hefty butt down to Argentina, a country that praises beef and pasta...and so did I. I was very lost when I came back home, 7 months later. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, or how. I was back with the family and a few months later I looked at a picture of myself from that New Year's Eve, that I'd spent with college friends of mine and I was horrified. I hated the diet mantras that my mother clung to, but I knew that I had to make some sort of change, and so I joined up with a program called LA Weight Loss. It had a lot of elements from other programs. I bought a food scale, and invested in a shit ton of disgusting protein bars that gave me debt I'm still paying off today, and while I did learn some stuff about healthy eating then, the most important step I took was joining a gym. I started out with a woman's circuit training gym, and then moved on to a Bally's where I quickly crushed on my Personal Trainer, so I signed up for more sessions very quickly (more debt), and I was quickly on my way to losing that weight. I believe I lost about 60 pounds at my peak. Eventually, I stopped the weight loss program as I was happy to maintain, and then I stopped the personal training because I moved out of my parents' house and away from the gym with my hot trainer But, I kept my membership, and attempted to maintain some sort of exercise program as I started working in catering, which is good for being a workplace with limited sitting, but in terms of snacks...not so good. One way or another, I had now moved into a new state of being where I was cognizant of what I was eating and how active I was being. When I moved again, and finished out my Bally's contract, I found a lovely group of women who worked out 3 times a week in Riverside Park early in the morning, and I've been working out with them on and off now for over 6 years.

 The image that made me realize it was time for a change. New Year's Eve 2005 with my friend Jeff.

The image that made me realize it was time for a change. New Year's Eve 2005 with my friend Jeff.

My latest reawakening, involving food, happened almost 2 years ago when I was given a book for Christmas called Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting. And before anyone worries who would buy a book like that for a Christmas gift, it was on my list. I'd read about it on one of my foodie websites, and I was intrigued. I did find the book to be more diety than I was hoping for, but what it did was remind me the importance of seasonal eating--something that had influenced my company more than my kitchen. It provided tools for me to find my local CSAs and Farmer's Markets, and encouraged me to roast a chicken and learn to love beans. The science of it all was fascinating and horrifying, and made me want to read more, and so I did. I finally picked up the copy of Omnivore's Dilemma, that was collecting dust on my bookshelf. I've posted about the strides I've made with these changes in the past. And it was with great pleasure that I was able to teach my mom how to prepare kale so that both she and my father enjoyed it for the first time when I was laid up at their home. They also enjoyed the apple chips from my CSA as a healthier snack alternative to much of the junk that my kind friends and family sent my way post-injury.

 The victory of hard work was on display for my 25th birthday.

The victory of hard work was on display for my 25th birthday.

My road has certainly been a bumpy one, but I benefitted from parents and family and friends who always told me I was beautiful, even when I didn't believe them. It permeated my brain. I saw my mother struggle with food, and was lucky enough to see it as something I DIDN'T want to deal with, but clearly that's not always the way it goes. The woman who actually inspired me to write this post is my cousin Kate. She also grew up in the shadow of an actress mother, but with even different genetics than that of my mother's, being the daughter of my dad's brother. She's also an actress, but as my grandmother said in the past, they're both more the English Rose type, while we're more the Battle Axes. This is to say the pressure is on for them to maintain a more demure figure, in order to be cast in the roles, the men at the top will allow them to play. I realized how important the role of our mothers is when I saw Kate post an inquiry on Facebook about a diet that's been popular in the UK, called the 5:2 diet, where you eat "normally" for 5 days out of the week (about 2,000 calories a day for women), and then greatly restrict your caloric intake for 2 days (about 500 a day). Naturally, I saw this and I was horrified. I think when she first mentioned it she had the numbers swapped, so I was even more scared. But, she was asking about how to maintain such a diet on a budget. I chimed in with my outrage and thoughts and noticed her mother corrected her number (at least), and that was about it. I was suddenly brought back to that refrigerator nightmare of mine: "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels". Except for really good food, really good wine, and really good people to enjoy it all with. This is not a critique of anyone's parents, I think my parents did a great job, and I know that my aunt has done as well. My cousins are great--even if they've never visited us in the US! :P But, I just wanted to remind my friends who are starting their journey of motherhood, and perhaps I'll need to read this myself one day; if you love your daughters, you must also love yourself. I know that this is easier said than done, but it's a much better mantra than "You can feel sore tomorrow, or you can feel sorry tomorrow. Your choice."

 My snarky sister, left, and our cousin Kate on the right, Christmas in England, 2005

My snarky sister, left, and our cousin Kate on the right, Christmas in England, 2005

Now, I'm clearly not a psychologist by any means, I've never even taken a course on the subject. Nor am I a nutritionist or anything, so I'm not trying to diagnose anyone's personal issues related to food, but I'm just sharing some of my own personal experiences and those that I've witnessed around me. And maybe it will prove helpful for someone to just reflect on what their own habits are demonstrating for their children, and then perhaps they'll choose to seek professional help should it seem necessary. If you would like to speak to a professional, I will direct you to Christy Harrison, who has a great podcast and was a guest on my first The Food Funny show.

 Back when Mom was my hair stylist.

Back when Mom was my hair stylist.