Obsession, Routine and Food: A Memoir

In ancient times of Before Daughter I enjoyed waking up at a 4:38 AM for a ritualistic, borderline neurotic, two-hour regimen. That is all but gone now. Fortunately, I have adapted. No matter what time I wake with Miss Vivian, I start with a squeezed lemon in faucet temperature water. Some days, after a night of less than nutrient-dense food, I’ll add some activated charcoal, although I try not to use it more than once a week. I’ve recently employed an intermittent fasting element to my diet that seems to be working. Given the nature of a toddler’s sleep schedule, timing becomes unpredictable, so I simply try not to eat anything in less than twelve, preferably fourteen, hours after the time I ate the night before. After an hour or two in the morning, I hand off Miss Vivian to my wife which allows me to begin my routine of meditation, gratitude, Wim Hof stretching, and recently added callisthenics exercises.

I don’t remember exactly when I became obsessed with being fit. Maybe it was when I joked with a high school classmate of mine, Natalie, who was looking at a magazine photo of a muscular fitness model. The man stood shirtless in jeans with small dark oil smudges in front of a background of an auto repair shop. “Wow, they superimposed that guy’s face on my body,” I quipped. Natalie looked at me.

“If you have a body like that, I will marry you,” she stated. I thought this a good deal. Natalie was good looking and popular. I was not. Perhaps, I thought, this was a way into the cool crowd, a cool life.

This morning’s callisthenics I attempt has a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) component that gets my heart racing. I make myself a protein shake if I think I want to help build a bit of muscle. Other days if I want to feel lean, I skip the shake. Shake or not, my next event is a refreshing cold shower a la Wim Hof. The freezing cold water sucks, but I think of it as overcoming a bit of adversity every day. Every morning I dread stepping into the cold and every morning I step out renewed, refreshed and in a better mood than when I stepped in.

My obsession with diet predates Natalie from high school. My father would comment on my size as a child instructing his second wife to watch what I ate because he didn’t want a fat son. Of course, this is the way I remember it. It could very well have been a concern for my health. Media have undoubtedly also played a role in my youth. I remember entertainment news television shows repeating the scene in which a young Brad Pitt demonstrates how he uses a gun while holding a hair drawer topless in Thelma and Louise while the anchors discussed his abs. I marvelled in disbelief at all the perfect male physiques on the covers of men’s magazines before ever hearing of airbrushing, now Photoshop. Every time I’d see these images my hand pinched the layer of fat over my belly in hopes that I too could one day look like these specimen.

My favourite meal of the day is my breakfast bowl. I call it The Fifteen Layer Bowl and preparing it is as much about the ritual as it is the nutrition. I start with a half of a rice cake which I crumble into a serving bowl. A regular cereal bowl just doesn’t cut it. I add either some raw oats or if I’ve made some already, banana oatmeal and sprinkle on some ground flax. Moving on to the sweetness, I add some strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries and banana whichever ones that I have and these could be fresh or frozen. Everything is organic, of course. I add some a Korintje cinnamon to the forming mountain of food, and then I move on to the nuts stage adding small palmfuls of raw pecans, walnuts and almond slivers. Recently I’ve been substituting a small spoonful of almond butter at the end of The Fifteen Layer Bowl assembly. Once Operation: Nuts is complete, I move on the final stage, the wet stuff. A couple of dollops of unsweetened coconut yogurt and pea milk. I top this off with some hemp seeds. With it, I enjoy a coffee with some a ten-blend mushroom powder from Four Sigmatic. I have been eating this every day for a couple of years now, and I still look forward to it.

I’m on the right

In my early thirties, I stopped boxing and was depressed about not being able to compete. I gained almost sixty pounds. It was not a good time. I became painfully embarrassed about my body, refusing that have my picture taken, but did find one here (thanks Facebook). In it, I was two-hundred and twenty pounds. Although pleased I was no longer boxing; my doctor was now concerned about my heart health. I asked him how much he thought diet had to do with health. He encouraged me to read the China Study. I didn’t listen to him. I read The Four Hour Body instead which was a significant influence. The most valuable takeaway from the Four Hour Body was self-experimentation to see what works best for me. I took it seriously. I followed most of the recommendations in the book, started weight training and lost most of the weight in about six months.

Daily lunches are all over the map. If I’ve eaten breakfast too late, I skip it, opting instead for a green smoothie. In it, I add coconut water, spinach, kale, frozen banana, pumpkin seeds, flax and some other frozen fruit like mangos or berries. Someday I get fancy with things like cocoa powder, wheatgrass, or another superfood I have lying around. When I do eat lunch, it is some a hearty salad with mixed greens, carrots, chopped Brussels sprouts, (yes they’re delicious raw), red peppers, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts. I’ll sprinkle some hemp seeds on top and usually dress it with a sunflower ginger oil. Other lunches may be a falafel wrap or salad, a burrito salad or bowl, or a smashed chickpea un-tuna sandwich with pickles. Most of these I make spicy. I like the heat.

Years after I lost the weight, I regained it. My life was a cacophony of non-stop partying and recovery junk food. I went back to what I had learned, but I wanted to delve deeper. I began studying nutrition diligently. Around the same time, we found out we are pregnant. I now had an even more powerful anchor for my endeavours into health. Not only did I want to lose the weight, but I also wanted to be a healthy father and role model. I needed a diet that would be an integral part of my day to day life. I finally read the China Study which led me to dozens of other books. I took a course on how to read nutrition studies which are incredibly convoluted and as I discovered, deliberately so. In the spirit of The Four Hour Body’s self-experimentation, I convinced my doctor to take baseline blood panel. I changed my diet and retested my blood repeatedly as I learned more and modified what I ate. As my blood markers, energy, and body improved so too did my happiness. Obsession evolved into mindfulness.

An everyday go-to for dinner is what we call a One Bowl. I don’t know why we label our meals. In our One Bowls, we include a starch like rice, potato, sweet potato, or quinoa. We also add a protein such as black beans, lentils, chickpeas, or tempeh, my personal favourite. And vegetables, usually broccoli, cauliflower or my wife’s preference, sautéed kale. We add a sauce which could be a simple hummus or salsa or a more ambitious tahini dill. A daily dose of sauerkraut is also a pillar of our diet. There might even be a salad component, but not every day. Some days we have a protein pasta, our favourite is the red lentil, with some pesto or a spicy tomato sauce which we finely chop vegetables like broccoli or lentils if we want it to be more hearty.

What I eat now is as much about feeling healthy and happy as it is about the results of my blood tests. I’ve found were with small dietary adjustments I’ve made over time. It started with replacing sugar in my coffee with cinnamon, a tiny variation that was the catalyst for many changes. I don’t look back. Every once in a while I forget, like this past weekend when I had a chocolate-filled croi-fin (a croissant-muffin Frankenstein). It made me sick immediately. Foods that make me sick aren’t what I want in my body. I don’t crave them; I don’t want them. I don’t have a “cheat day.”

At forty-six years old, I have the abs I’ve always wanted, yet my hands still go to the skin I once held while I looked at those fitness models feeling unworthy. Unworthy of someone’s attention, someone’s love. The truth is it had nothing to do with abs, health, fitness or diet. It was insecurity, reinforced by the culture in which we live. It was in the not-so-subtle comments from parents, classmates, friends, that can hit like a drive-by shooting. Over in a split second, impacted for a lifetime. Vivian, my wife, my friends today don’t care if I have abs, instead of laughing at my obsession with them. They care that I’m safe, happy, healthy and present. These are the things worthy of attention, possibly obsession.