Throughout my teenage years I was on the spectrum of body weight from under weight to overweight, until my mid 20s really when I finally felt like I’d gained control over my food choices and eating behaviour. I certainly didn’t feel like I had a perfect diet, but I had reached a point where I could relax and enjoy food, for the most part. I was still very wary of eating anything outside of my ‘Mikki-friendly’ foods. This diminished as I got older and I settled into what I thought was a good healthy diet, and a good, healthy lifestyle. As I said in my previous post, 80% of my diet was great; the other 20% looked a little like this:
- All the light/low fat options where at all possible
- Baking spray to roast vegetables
- Hummus/cottage cheese as major sources of protein
- With condiments. I was the condiment queen
- Low calorie, artificially sweetened
- Protein bars to snack on (I couldn’t go 3h without feeling like I would fall into a coma if I didn’t have something to eat.)
- Wrigley’s Extra Gum. In quantities large enough to warrant its own bullet point.
However, my beliefs around the ‘calorie is just a calorie’ theory were starting to shift, in relation to the carbohydrate/insulin research we were beginning to get interested in at work (the idea that fat didn’t make you fat, but your body’s response to carbohydrate could). This was merely proving what I’d already thought for years: that carbohydrates, in the amounts usually recommended, were too high for general health for a growing portion of the population who were struggling with their energy levels, weight, sleep and other health problems. Further, consuming easily digested carbohydrate foods could drive those susceptible people to consume more. While the modern food environment makes these foods widely available, our behaviour in the environment is at least in part due to our physiological response. The other part of the research though, that fat didn’t make you fat, I still didn’t buy. However, it wasn’t the research at work that caused a lightbulb moment for me; it was my own health scare.
I had a routine mole check up that resulted in two moles being removed, but I wasn’t overly concerned; I’d had a couple removed previously with no major issues and had no reason to suspect this would be any different as the doctor wasn’t too concerned either. So it was a complete shock to get a message from the surgery to tell me to ring and make an appointment to ‘discuss my results’. I got through to the nurses office who informed me that one of the moles was melanoma. While it might not seem like a big deal to you, for me, it was the longest 18 hours of my life; from getting the phone call on Wednesday afternoon, to seeing the doctor on Thursday morning to get the prognosis. I was lucky, it was caught early, ‘in situ’; all cancer cells contained into the mole). However, a little bit of information can be deadly. So in the small time window between the phone call and the prognosis, naturally I had given myself about 6 months, tops. And I felt really f%$&*d off (when I wasn’t feeling an overwhelming surge of fear course through my body). I was fit, I didn’t smoke, ate heaps of fruit and vegetables, didn’t drink to excess, never sunbathed, wasn’t a ginga (sorry! But that’s a risk factor!) and grew up in Dunedin. There was no sun. How did I end up with this? Yes, melodramatic, but I don’t believe for a second that I would be alone in my reaction. Over the next few months it was never far from my mind. I didn’t spend time dwelling on it, but was much more aware of articles and information related to skin cancer, cancer, and health in general.
The lightbulb moment came mid December. I was waiting around at the airport, having lunch (Sumo salad, no dressing, Coke Zero) and happened to be reading Sarah Wilson’s “I quit Sugar” book, when I had one of those moments where something just clicked. I was reading her week by week guide to quitting sugar and one of the recommendations was to also kick artificial sweeteners. The sweet sensation would drive a taste for sweet food and, while you weren’t consuming sugar, you were still feeding an undesirable habit and not retraining your palate to enjoy the natural sweet flavour of food. And just how nasty are those artificial sweeteners? I literally looked at the Coke Zero I had in my hand, turned to see the Wrigley’s gum packet in my bag and thought ‘what the hell have I been doing??’ For the past 18 years I’ve been consuming ‘diet’ everything; Coke, Sprite, yoghurt, gum, the lowest fat options available. I had developed this absolute fear of eating fat that had stemmed from my own childhood diet and body image experiences. This had set me up for almost two decades of eating behaviour that had been partly endorsed by what I had learned in my degree and what we all are told is healthy. As a result, I had a diet full of substitutes instead of real food. While melanoma is a skin cancer, there has to be some ‘cancer-promoting’ environment in which it can grow. While, obviously, I don’t know that the addition of what my friend Nicky calls ‘rat poison’ (aka artificial sweetener) increased my risk of developing melanoma, it certainly wouldn’t have been protective.
This lightbulb moment propelled me into action from the moment it happened. I grabbed the protein bar I had in my bag, the Coke bottle that was half finished and the two packets of spearmint flavoured Wrigley’s and dumped them in the nearest bin. Sounds dramatic I know, but there was no question in my mind that something had to change, and it had to change now.