Don’t Let the Ostrich Be Your Spirit Animal

by | Jun 9, 2014

Photo by vanz

I’ve always been very honest about the fact that I spent over a decade of my life struggling with food, health and body image. That getting to the place I am now was a process of trial and error. That I am not more gifted or special than anyone else trying to lose weight and get healthy, but that I have simply found a better method than the one we’ve been given by the dieting and health industries.

Yet something strange happens when you have a successful blog or book. People look at you differently. They don’t see all the struggles and failures that you went through to get where you are. They only see the result and assume that you’re blessed. They say things like, “I understood from reading your book that you have tried every diet out there, just as I had, but you are the original Foodist and how could I possibly ever be as good as you?” (an actual comment from a reader).

Like many of the limiting beliefs that hold us back, the idea that one person is uniquely talented and therefore her results cannot be replicated by regular people is a cognitive illusion.

I’m not a supermodel. I’m 5’5″ and probably always will be (fingers crossed for a growth spurt!). I’m not talking about changing your genetics or reaching the top 5% of hot bodies. I’m just talking about being a normal person with the goal of being healthy, looking your best and having a positive relationship with food. This is achievable by anyone.

When you look at someone who has achieved something you aspire to, it is easy to assume they have always been there or were destined to get there eventually. But this is almost never true. Instead, it typically means that they started before you, and are therefore further along on the journey. I gave up dieting in 2007 and have been slowly but steadily optimizing my healthstyle ever since. I don’t have any magical abilities, I’ve just been working at it for a long time and continue to improve every year.

Reprogramming your habits doesn’t happen overnight. It takes lots of practice and much trial and error, just like learning any new skill. Over the years the basics get easier, but you still need to work on refining your tactics for specific situations. Those who excel at something aren’t always the most gifted, they just put in the necessary thought, time and effort to improve daily.

The logical conclusion then is not that you can never achieve what others have achieved, but that you certainly can achieve it so long as you take the appropriate steps.

So why is this illusion of unattainable success so darn persistent? and so crippling?

(listen up because this is important)

When you compare your position to someone else’s you are acutely aware of the struggles and difficulties you face while pursuing the same goal. But when you look at someone else, you only see the results. You don’t see the ongoing struggles and ongoing growth.

Today I want to bust that illusion open by showing you some of the healthstyle struggles I’ve faced since launching this blog.

Obviously I made a ton of headway in finding my optimal healthstyle before starting Summer Tomato. The results I had were profound enough for me to leave a career in neuroscience to be a food blogger. (So glad I have supportive parents, because most of my friends’ folks would have lost it.) But an ideal healthstyle isn’t just something that happens to you and stays that way forever. An optimal healthstyle has to be built and then maintained. It is constantly evolving, because life changes and you have to adapt.

When I launched Summer Tomato in the spring of 2009 I was a grad student living in San Francisco. I was essentially single (had a boyfriend in another city whom I didn’t see much) and was barely keeping my head above water financially. Life was hard, but eating well was pretty straightforward since time and money limitations didn’t leave me a lot of options. I cooked simple foods focused mainly around vegetables, beans, grains, eggs and yogurt. I couldn’t afford many indulgences like meat, seafood, alcohol, exotic ingredients or SF restaurants. I had free healthcare and a gym membership.

Since then, however, I’ve dealt with several major lifestyle changes, and not one of them was easy to adjust to or resolved itself overnight through divine intervention.

I’ve written about how I mysteriously put on some weight after graduation and how difficult it was to diagnose the problem. I also learned how to covertly reduce my alcohol consumption in a social circle that loves to drink (this is still hard sometimes).

Later, when social and professional obligations required me to go out to dinner more often (as a student I was cooking at home 6-7 nights a week), I spent almost a year trying to develop mindful eating techniques, with far more failures than successes. Even in my book I suggest a tactic that I no longer recommend (setting an iPhone reminder before meals to remember to chew). It worked for me for awhile, but wasn’t sustainable.

Even now I face incredibly difficult healthstyle obstacles that test me to my core. In just the past six months I have travelled to Las Vegas, LA, Tokyo, Portland, Austin, Albany, Puerto Vallarta, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Omaha, Palm Springs, London and Dresden. That’s more cities than I visited in my entire year studying abroad in Europe. As you can imagine, my home court habits are a lot less reliable when I’m not at home. While I have no trouble returning to normal once I’m back, being on the road half the time has forced me to seriously reevaluate my eating and exercise habits when I travel.

A post about my Away Court Habits is coming soon, but today I simply want to emphasize what I don’t do when my normal methods stop working.

First and foremost, I never ignore when I have a problem. Whenever something in my healthstyle starts to break down I take a long hard look at what might be going on. I note what has changed in my life or my habits and what the consequences have been. If I’m not sure exactly what is causing my issue, I make an educated guess and test my hypothesis by trying something different. If that works I have my solution, if not I formulate a new hypothesis and try something else.

Admitting that you are doing something wrong isn’t fun, but it also isn’t that bad if you realize that it doesn’t reflect your own weakness, but a weakness in your system that still needs to be optimized. A healthstyle is a complex machine with a lot of moving parts. When one input changes it is bound to throw the system off. Your job is to figure out where the misalignment is and account for it. You don’t have a problem unless you pretend nothing is wrong.

Don’t let the ostrich be your spirit animal.

Denial is bad, but wallowing in your problem is worse still. Guilt, anxiety, stress and shame are the most common emotional reactions when we feel bad about ourselves for not doing something right. When we are in this state, our brains default to comfort-seeking behaviors. For some people this means turning to alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. But if you’re struggling with weight or other health problems, it is also common to turn to food.

The secret to being a successful foodist is realizing that no one is perfect all the time, and that healthstyle hiccups don’t reflect on you as a person. Practice being honest with yourself about what is and isn’t working, and don’t assume that unresolved issues impact your worth as a person or your ability to succeed. Observe your situation rationally, not emotionally, and make tweaks in your healthstyle until you figure out what works.

The process of growth and iteration never ends, so don’t let it discourage you.

How do you handle healthstyle hiccups?

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11 Responses to “Don’t Let the Ostrich Be Your Spirit Animal”

  1. Samantha says:

    Darya – thanks for this great post. I agree, it’s so easy to come up with solutions and tricks when you’re in the “exact perfect circumstances”…but as soon as schedules change or other pressures knocks you out of your safety bubble, it can be really tough to figure out how to bring yourself back to center.

    My strategy to handle healthystyle hiccups?
    -Separate myself from the story
    -Drop the blame game
    -Ask myself what I could have done differently.
    -Strategize for next time.
    (I wrote about these more in detail here: http://bit.ly/1nYyDUT)

    Over time….you develop an arsenal of solutions, learn the trigger situations, and the hiccups start to happen less often. It’s a practice. Hope this is helpful!

    Sam

  2. Joshua Dance says:

    Great post. I think this line hit me the most,

    “When you compare your position to someone else’s you are acutely aware of the struggles and difficulties you face while pursuing the same goal. But when you look at someone else, you only see the results. You don’t see the ongoing struggles and ongoing growth.”

    So true. Thanks for helping us see some of the struggles.

  3. Thanks, Darya, for offering a place for our comments! Input from others is very encouraging. My “healthstyle” is the product of decades of off-again on-again dieting, not dieting, working out, not working out… you get the picture! I have always been remarkably healthy; never had any daunting challenges until I got into my late 60′s. My four sons were well into their own families and lives. I was still working, as I had been divorced for many years and had to be more frugal than ever. I taught Childbirth Education classes for many years; nutrition was one of the subjects I covered and I took it all to heart for myself. Very nutrition-conscious, I kept my weight always in the 120′s and exercised faithfully. When I got off-track with the weight, I disciplined myself for as long as it took to get back down to my optimal weight! This all fell apart when I developed some serious health issues; Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Colitis forced me to give up working and I lost thirty pounds. At 104 lbs, I was way too thin and really enjoyed gaining it back when the doctors finally got a handle on my condition and I improved rapidly. Then I was trying not to gain too much! This would have been fine if I hadn’t developed Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was furious when I realized I could not walk very far or exercise at all due to the pain. Well, enough history; I am 75 now, still have the RA, and have decided to try and reverse it or at least improve my situation by going on a real “Health Kick”! I stopped all the meds that did me no good and started a regime of vitamins and holistic supplements that have me feeling and looking better. Weight is at 125. I am seeing a Chiropractor which helps a lot, and have been buying organic veggies and such. I do love to cook. My present challenge is Dark Chocolate and Frozen Yogurt (Chocolate of course!) Those “addictions” are sabotaging my efforts to be on the Health Kick, and I DO know this… so I just “nibble” at them… but, alas, every day! I have a wonderful juicer, but haven’t used it yet. I keep telling myself that fresh organic veggies and fruits are sooo expensive/the fiber may disrupt my digestion/it’s too much trouble… so there I am.. I know what I must do, but am always putting it off till “tomorrow”. If there are any older gals who follow your blogs and posts, I would love to hear from you. I’m after “Old but Healthy”.

    • Judy says:

      Hi! I am 56 and often feel like the oldest reader myself! But I think the fact that we love Darya mirrors her thoughts today…a health style is a process that never ends. It can vary with where you are in life, new health science that becomes available or just the ups and downs of everyday living. But with the eye always on the goal it can be done most of the time. For me the hardest parts are balancing being a “foodie” with being a Foodist, and accepting that our bodies do change as we age. But a Foodist lifestyle certainly can dramatically slow the pace of the changes that occur and that becomes a strong motivator as well!

  4. Lazyretirementgirl says:

    Excellent post — there is a saying that you need to remember when you are comparing your insides to other people’s outsides, which I think describes the phenomenon you discuss at the beginning. Looking forward to your away habits post.– that is my great challenge. I am fine at home, but it falls apart when I travel. The things that help me somewhat when I travel are using websites on my iPad like Greatist that have no equipment workouts, choosing hotels with gyms when I can, and carrying healthy snacks on the plane and in the car. Still lots of room for improvement, and eagerly anticipating your ideas.

  5. Tracy says:

    Thanks for this post. This is what I struggle with most…lots of work travel, active social life, personal travel. I know not to treat these as special occasions, but often the stress of travel drives me to comfort in food. More posts on this topic with specific ideas to combat this tendency would be great!

  6. David says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m new to Summer Tomato (got here via Foodist, probably backwards of most). I look forward to hearing about your Away Court Habits. Right now, I don’t travel much, so when I do, I usually indulge a bit more. After all, I really *can’t* have that later. That usually tends to work for me, but I imagine if I suddenly started traveling enough for that to become a new normal situation, it would become a problem pretty quickly.

  7. Darya Rose says:

    You ladies are definitely not alone. I have a very sizable number of readers who are 55+

    As for the sweets, dark chocolate is better than the frozen yogurt any day. I’d say that if you’re having sugar cravings you probably aren’t eating enough healthy carbohydrates. I’d try adding more beans/lentils to your meals and see how that goes.

    Keep up the great healthstyle!

  8. Elly says:

    Hi. Excellent article. What I’m also struggling with is the “special occasion” issue. My partner and I have a beach house – which we will retire to in a few years. This year we have been going there every 2 weeks, prior to this I’ve only been going there every 6 weeks or so. So every 6 weeks feels like a special occasion – every 2 weeks should be treated like “being home”. Until I read your article I hadn’t considered what had changed in my healthstyle. There are behaviors I do take from the city to the beach – like daily walks, breakfast, cooking. AND in hindsight there are special occasion things I do there that get in the way of maintaining a good healthstyle. I agree with the other comments that a good healthstyle is an evolving thing. I’m delighted that I’ve exposed this problem BEFORE I am 100% committed to retiring to the beach. I’m heading there this weekend with a different intention. This time its not a special occasion.

  9. AJ says:

    I love this post. And since I also travel very frequently for work and to visit friends/family, I can’t wait for the Away Court Habits post.

    As for how I handle healthstyle hiccups:
    1. I return to/revise my Life app goals
    2. I explore my emotional/mental well-being and make sure to set aside time to talk about any problems/challenges with my husband and family/friends.
    3. I prioritize daily meditation, even if it’s just for two minutes!

  10. Dee says:

    Q. How I handle health style hiccups? .. A. Read Summer Tomato

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