Q&A With a Nutritionist, Part Two: The Reckoning

Previously: Part One of the interview with Sarah Starpoli.

You mentioned that it’s useful to figure out which foods work best with your own body — how do people figure that out? Is it something that naturally takes years, or is it something that’ll be testable in the coming decades? Like a scanner you pass through — “beep bop, Sarah Starpoli your body likes animal proteins, beep bop Jane Doe your body likes nuts” — or is the fun (“fun”) in figuring it out naturally? I think I’m a nut person. Can I also be a wine person?

Oooh, I like the idea of a scanner! But, simply put, getting really in touch with how you actually feel every day is one of the best ways to figure out what foods are working for you. Do you get tired at the same time each day? Do you focus really well only sometimes? Do you have trouble sleeping? All of these things can often be tied to the food we eat and the time of day when we eat them.

I ended up actually having the luxury of getting to play around with different diets (as in ways of eating, not weight loss programs) for a year or so, but I don’t necessarily think it means having to explore drastically different ways of eating to figure out what works for you (i.e. eating only raw food for a month, followed by a macrobiotic journey, followed by a weird too-many-rules paleo attempt … sometimes eating shouldn’t be such a chore, you know?). I honestly think that trying out some sort of food diary is the best way to figure out some basic things. It sounds TOTALLY ANNOYING, but can be so helpful. I’m sure there are apps and stuff for this too, but I’m a stationery addict who loves a physical notebook (I also say that my TV is “taping” things).

Many people use food diaries to help with weight loss (you see how much you’re eating, you freak out, so you eat less). That’s all well and good, but I think it’s useful to use it to figure out how different meals make you feel. How do you feel 10 minutes after eating an omelette for breakfast? How about an hour later? How soon are you hungry again? What time do you then eat lunch? Monitoring the time you eat, what you eat, and how you feel both immediately after and an hour later can really help! You’re looking for food that makes you feel good for a long time! And then it’s always helpful to make sure you have a Dear Diary moment at night to see how you feel at the end of your day. See if you notice any patterns so that you can manage them. Red velvet cupcakes make me feel awesome for a little while, but then tend to plummet me into a sea of Bitch about an hour later. Does that mean I won’t eat them? Hell no! But I *do* think about it before taking the plunge, and if I decide to go for it, I avoid my boss until I snap out of it. Also, I’m a broccoli person and I’m a white wine person. I don’t love fruit because it makes me feel nervous. I sometimes need to stay away from meat for a few days because it seems too heavy. Other times I need a burger to feel grounded.

This isn’t really rocket science, but it’s pretty empowering to feel like I understand how certain foods affect me and my every day. A friend of mine likes to say “I feel bad in my body” about any number of things, but I always think of that when I make the wrong food choices. It can be a little unnerving to be suddenly aware of the way every little thing makes you feel, but try not to freak out about it and instead look at it as a way to make yourself happy and productive. And pretty! People who are happy tend to be so pretty! I think so, at least…

I want to take a moment to sort of toot my own horn to advocate positive eating habits and the exploration of them. I went through a spell of bad years recently, and I took to food for comfort — primarily the “orange food group,” which does not remotely feature oranges, but instead leans towards things with “cheez” and “goldfish” in their names. I gained a lot of weight, I felt crappy, I pretty much knew what I *should* be eating based on all the things I said above, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to deal with it. Or I would totally eat broccoli, and then totally eat a lot of pizza.

My mom has this BMI/fat index thing on her fridge that I saw during a visit earlier this year (not tacky at all), and it turns out I was at the top of the “overweight” band. Whether or not that chart was even correct (and whether or not I even knew what the hell a BMI/fat index was), it was something of a wake-up call, because my physical characteristics were only several pounds short of being called “obese” on a chart with science on it. I pretty quickly resolved to finally try to find exercise that I liked and started to rehaul my eating habits in the ways that I knew could work for me. I stopped buying any sort of usual late-night snacks (for me, that’s anything with crackers and cheese). I stopped buying instant-type foods that were loaded with sodium, which always make me feel even more hungry somehow. I started looking at the labels of anything I bought to make sure it wasn’t loaded with fake ingredients, or ridiculously full of fat. And in a crazy move for a New York City-dweller, I decided I had to take a complete break from ordering takeout. The portion sizes of even the healthiest takeout items are just too big, and cooking at home ensured that I would know what ingredients were going into my food.

I now work to make sure I have large servings of vegetables for each meal — I even enjoy them for breakfast in some capacity. I have embraced the heck out of brown rice and quinoa because I figured out that they make me feel more full, but less tired than other grains or pasta. And protein! A nice serving of protein makes my head feel level. Lunch is my largest meal each day, but it can’t have crazy heavy or salty foods in it because then I’ll just feel sleepy and want to snack more in the afternoon. And what of snacks? Anytime I really am so hungering for a snack (because seriously, I still default to wanting the orange food group every time I have to spend an afternoon finessing a spreadsheet), I try to grab some almonds or some carrots — something crunchy that feels like work but doesn’t leave me feeling dirty like chips or those cheesy crackers can (which I learned from that food diary exercise). Then I can tackle that horrible spreadsheet anew. I’ve been at last practicing what I preach for almost six months now, and I actually just realized that I have lost about 30 pounds. I’m no longer in the danger zone on mom’s fridge chart, but more importantly, I feel really great. And I feel like it’s also important to mention that I didn’t quit drinking, though I have made some attempts at moderation on that front.

And how did you get into boxing??

BOXING! I had never really found any sort of exercise that I either liked or stuck with in the past: I once belonged to Equinox just so that I could use their fancy showers, I had a brief dalliance with Jazzercise a couple of years ago, and every attempt at yoga has made me incredibly angry. Everything always seemed so boring, and even though it technically made me feel pretty good afterward, I couldn’t bring myself to stay with anything for long. I work very close to a well-known boxing gym in NYC, and I always thought it would be fun to try just once. It took me a whole year to brave going, and I only did so because of a serendipitous evening where I met a woman who regularly trains at that gym. She gave me the courage to go try it out — and I can’t tell you how incredibly out of my comfort zone boxing is. Or rather, was! Somehow, I took to it.

I’m not amazing at it or anything, and I regularly get good-naturedly teased at the gym, but I really love it. I feel strong, I feel energetic, and I actually only go twice a week (long sessions, always with trainers). It’s not cheap, but it’s something that I am now equating with my rent: it’s expensive, but it’s what I need in order to survive. I feel about exercise the way I feel about food: you have to take some time to figure out what the right thing for you is. It can honestly surprise you. And though I only go to training twice a week, I tend to try to move around more on the days off (more stairs, sit-ups at home, sometimes even a RUN… crazy stuff …). Side note of something I enjoy about boxing: when I tell women that I box, they usually want to know all the details of how/when/why. When I tell men, they almost always respond, “Oh yeah? Hit me.” I generally oblige.

One last thought about what I’m qualified to do as a nutrition counselor vs. being a dietician. I’m basically a nutrition enthusiast who likes to help people feel enthusiastic about and in control of their own health. Dieticians are experts in the field, and they have to meet strict guidelines in order to be qualified in their jobs (I’m sure they feel enthusiasm as well, but they also have a lot of special certifications and things). I just like learning stuff, and while I do have a certification (from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition) to do what I do, I am by no means an expert! I have spent many years exploring human diets and eating habits, but I also take a holistic approach in looking at a person’s overall happiness — in personal life, career, and exercise — in order to help them live their best possible lives. (I wanted to figure out a play on words using “cheez”y here, but it’s past my bedtime.)

Thank you, Sarah!