I think most people have a complicated relationship with food. While none of us would be here if we didn't take in calories so that our bodies could have energy and carry on all our primary functions as human beings, the way that food governs our heart and our head can be quite overwhelming.
My biggest downfall is a sweet tooth to which I find myself enslaved, always craving some sort of dessert after the meal. My husband used to joke that dinner was just a “minor inconvenience” prior to dessert at the Wagner household, and he wasn't wrong. I grew up on brownies, chocolate mayonnaise cake, Nestle Toll House bar cookies and too many other baked goods courtesy of my mom. Getting to indulge in all of these delicacies was amazing when I was a teenager and had a “hollow leg,” as my mom used to say.
Now my peri-menopausal body is way less forgiving. So I try to reign it in, exercise and find substitutes that are not as bad for you when I can.
As a mother, I feel that I have always tried to express my love for my kids through my baking. Making and eating cut out cookies at all the various holidays throughout the year is one of my favorite things to do, and it still happens — just sometimes with my friend's kids instead of my own.
Raising three sons who have all wrestled creates a backdrop for food that is not always healthy. I cringe at the wrestling culture that glorifies “cutting weight,” but also have seen my kids over the years do just that. With my oldest son, Will, it seemed that he would never have to worry about the pressure of losing weight every week. He was about 85 pounds in middle school and was constantly being told to eat more and gain weight, since the lowest high school weight class was 106 pounds. However, the weight gain didn't happen. As time passed, it became apparent to me that he was much smaller than most of the other kids in school, and then I began to notice some food behaviors reminiscent of some teenage girls that I had encountered in both high school and college.
Many people have known someone that has struggled with an eating disorder. Certainly, adolescent girls and teenagers are taught from an early age in our culture through TV and other media that a thin figure is desired. I love that Girls on the Run was created as a healthy program to address self esteem issues in adolescent girls and have seen it gain success since its inception. But adolescent boys can also struggle, as I started recognizing in my own son.
First, I saw him pushing food around on his plate. Then I saw his portions get smaller and smaller. He became fixated on super-healthy foods such as quinoa, whole grains, tofu; he even did an English class project on the use of crickets — yes, you read right — for a sustainable source of protein that required far less resources than the cattle industry. He seemed to love trying just about anything, especially ethnic foods. We cooked, a lot. But then his eating was not a lot. His exercise simultaneously was increasing, and I noticed that after eating he would often do a work-out routine almost immediately.
When I brought up my concerns to a psychiatrist, I felt blown off. Then, I took him to a counselor because he had been dealing with anxiety and depression. The counselor did a brief screening tool and immediately walked us over to a pediatric office to weigh Will and start making a plan.
I write with my son's explicit permission nearly ten years later and happy to say that after counseling with a therapist specializing in eating disorders, he started gaining weight and is a relatively reasonable weight for his height as he approaches his 23rd birthday. At the time, the therapist drew out on a paper the number of calories he needed “to just breathe” plus the calories he needed to fuel his two-plus hours of exercise with wrestling five days per week in addition to the calories he needed to grow. He admitted to counting calories and having a goal of not taking in more than 1,000 calories per day, which was around 1,800 calories less than what he needed at the time.
As his stress and anxiety levels escalated, the counselor said his eating disorder became a way for him to cope with that stress by finding something that he could control. Looking back, it seemed to arise around age 13 or 14 and resulted in delaying of his growth. He eventually caught up on growth for the most part — he’s taller than me — but his relationship with food seems forever altered. I've seen him enjoy food still at times, but by and large it seems to still create some stress. He admits that cooking is no longer that enjoyable to him and his diet leaves a lot to be desired. However, he certainly has more tools to cope with his anxiety and stressors, which is good.
Reflecting back on that time, I tend to think first of the fact that my maternal instinct knew there was something wrong, despite being told there wasn’t, and secondly that our food relationship can definitely be affected by our stress levels and coping. I am grateful that Will does still participate in some baking — he makes an awesome beer bread — and that we have moved beyond that time in his and our life. I bug him about eating a more varied diet beyond the coffee, oats and peanut butter. Because it's what I do, I still send him cookies in a care package when exams or big projects are coming due.
What I hope for is that my kids learn that fine balance between indulgence and restriction, so that they neither eat their way into happiness or starve themselves out of it. While living a healthy life necessitates some restraint in how often you allow yourself to eat what you want, appreciating a great meal, the love of a home-baked cookie or loaf of bread, and the joy in making something with someone you love are some of life's finest pleasures and shouldn't require penance to enjoy.