71. Lying to Myself

71. Lying to Myself

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Lying to Myself

The body never lies.
 ~Martha Graham

“There’s no way she’s going to actually read them,” I assured my friend Renée. “She’ll never know.” We stifled our giggles in the back of the seventh-grade science classroom, where our teacher had just given us a nutrition assignment: write down everything you eat for one whole week. I knew Mrs. Beacham would merely check them off but not read them.

One week later, we compared our lists. We read the more unusual “meals” on each others’ lists: a wheel of cheese, a meatloaf milkshake, and an entry for which I took top prize—seven Star Wars figures. “Ooh, you forgot something,” Renée laughed, penciling in the words “with salt.” “No one would eat those things plain.”

Mrs. Beacham never questioned us about our strange eating habits or called social services to report what our parents were serving us. It was the first time I lied about what I had eaten.

As an adult with a weight problem, I became a veteran food journaler. I watched talk shows on weight loss, clipped columns on healthy eating, and highlighted numerous diet books. I knew that keeping a food journal was an important tool for losing weight. I just wasn’t sure why.

So I kept diet journal after diet journal, filling one blank book and moving on to the next as the years went by and the pounds piled on. It was a cinch, especially because I didn’t write down every single thing I ate. It wasn’t necessary, I told myself, as long as the main foods were there. I would scrawl “salad and iced tea” for lunch, neglecting to mention that the salad came with a basket of breadsticks dripping in butter, or that I “tasted” my co-worker’s pound cake that she didn’t want to finish. “Those are negligible calories,” I told myself, shutting the book.

Almost anything could be “negligible calories” in those days. Food tasted while cooking for my family? Negligible. Samples at the grocery store? Negligible. From wedding cake to cocktails to late night potato chips, you guessed it: negligible, negligible, negligible. It’s a wonder I wrote anything down at all, but I was insistent on tracking my main meals of the day. The trouble was, I was eating even more outside of mealtimes than I was at the meals themselves. I just didn’t know it yet.

One day a co-worker gave chocolates to all of us. Sheila, whose desk was next to mine, popped hers into her mouth at the same time as me, while we both rolled our eyes and made appreciative noises. “Oh, wait,” Sheila remembered. “Gotta write that down.” She scrambled for a book in her bag. “Food journal,” she explained, and made a notation.

“You’re writing down that chocolate?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “I keep track of everything I eat. Each one of those little things has thirty calories.”

“Thirty calories surely won’t make that big a difference,” I said. “It’s. . . negligible.”

“Oh, 30 calories might be negligible, but over the whole day it can add up. Thirty calories here, 50 calories there. . . before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole extra meal’s worth in a day. By the end of the week that can mean a whole extra pound. If I write it down, I know to be careful the rest of the day. No more extra treats. But one’s okay,” she said. “You need some small perks. Otherwise I wouldn’t have lost these last 10 pounds.”

Ten pounds? That’s what I’d gained since my last weigh-in at the doctor. Here was someone whose scale was actually going in the opposite direction from mine. Was she more successful than me because she was writing down every single thing that she ate? It just seemed like such a waste of time. I kept a food journal too; I just wasn’t a slave to it.

I decided to give it one week. I would keep my food journal Sheila’s way: writing down every single thing that passed my lips. I would even count the calories.

By the end of day one I was manic. How many calories are in one handful of peanuts anyway? I looked online and rounded the number up to be on the safe side. All of my nibbles here and there were impossible to calculate. What’s one-fourth of a candy bar? Half a cola? Does anyone know how many doughnut holes make a doughnut? I was up to my eyeballs in measurements and fractions, and worst of all: calorie counting.

The next day I caught Sheila by the elevator. “I wanted to ask you some questions about your food journal,” I said. I told her my difficulty keeping track for just one day. “How do you even have time to calculate all these nibbles throughout the day?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she answered. “I had just as hard a time as you. It was a headache! That’s when I discovered there was a much easier way. I quit eating that stuff.”

“Really?” I asked. “But that chocolate. . .”

“Like I said, that was a treat. I write down everything I eat, and I do it meticulously, but it’s a whole lot simpler if I stick to meals and the healthy snacks I bring from home. Sometimes I even write it all down in the morning when I pack it, so I’m obliged to eat only what I planned.”

“Wow,” I marveled. “That’s really smart. Thanks, Sheila.”

“Sure thing,” she said. “But I thought you were the food journal expert. You’ve carried one around as long as I’ve worked here.”

“That’s true,” I confessed, “but I wasn’t always truthful in it. I hadn’t been writing down what I really ate.”

“You lied to your food journal?” she laughed. “That’s hilarious. Who did you think was going to read it?”

I laughed too, but I felt strange. When I got home that night I pulled out my old food journals and really looked at them. While I knew I had cut corners, it wasn’t until Sheila had said the word that I saw them for what they really were: lies. I had lied to my food journal. And what was worse, as Sheila had pointed out, no one else was going to see them. That means I was lying to myself.

Incredulously, I scanned through pages and pages of “salad” and “sandwich,” knowing that the salads were drenched in dressing, the sandwiches were sometimes a foot long, and the snacks were missing altogether. I had been writing fiction. My food journal was as much a lie as if it said “seven Star Wars figures, with salt.”

I started writing down everything I ate, even when it was hard to calculate, and even when it seemed “negligible.” And like Sheila, I eventually found myself passing on snacks just to make my calculations simpler. My new accountability led to a steady weight loss that I owe completely to my food journal—my new and improved, one hundred percent factual food journal.

Now I look back in disbelief at the heavier me who wrote a fake food journal. Today, if I were to write down “seven Star Wars figures,” you can bet your life that I would have had action figures for lunch. No salt, though: sodium can make you bloated.

~Elizabeth Kelly

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