This has been a long time coming. I’ve been sitting on it for a while and I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been scared to share it or because I fear that straying from my usual recipe posts will lose my readers’ attention. But you know what, I realize that’s a silly thing to think, because I think it’s soooo important that you know where I came from and how I got here, and why I want to help you find the same balance that I’ve been able to find within myself. My hope is that it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to be at peace with food, and you can learn (as I have) to appreciate it, love it, and use it to make yourself your best “you.”
Let’s start from the very beginning, because looking back, I realize that my struggle with food was seeded at a very young age.
It probably won’t surprise you that I grew up a dancer. I started taking lessons when I was five and was doing competitive tap and jazz by the time I was eight. Although dance is a stunning, beautiful, graceful art, we all know that it comes with its stereotypes. Soon after I started competing, I realized that my body did not look like most of the other dancers’. I was never “fat,” but I certainly had some baby chub still hanging on. It had never been an issue before.
By the time I was nine, dancing had taken over a significant part of my life. I was still attending public elementary school, but I was heading to the studio every single day after class and competing or performing in some way at least a couple of times a month.
I remember my “turning point” distinctly, and it remains a question to me whether I had a real medical issue or if it was just my silly mentality that I had to start looking like a prima ballerina.
Every year when I was little, my family would take an annual trip to San Francisco to see the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. It was a trip I always looked forward to. We usually caught a matinee and then went out to a fancy dinner afterwards before making the almost two-hour drive home.
The year I was in fourth grade (I remember this so clearly) we had once again headed to the city for our annual tradition, and I ordered an indulgent ice cream sundae for dessert. About a half hour later, as we were in the car heading back to Santa Cruz, I was overcome with the most intense nausea. I literally felt like I could be blowing chunks at any moment and was doubled over in the back seat with my eyes closed, trying to keep it together, for the whole ride home. The thing was, nothing ever came up. Maybe it was because I HATE throwing up (I take after my dad in this respect) or maybe it was because it was all mental, but it was the weirdest thing to experience such wooziness and pain and then have nothing happen. My dad mentioned maybe the dinner and dessert had been a little too rich for me, and I headed to bed, waking up in the morning feeling like almost nothing had happened.
But something had happened. I got it stuck in my head that I NEVER wanted to go through that feeling ever again. I began obsessing about how much fat I was consuming, and tried to limit myself to 15 grams of fat for every single meal (don’t ask me why or how I came up with that number, I’m not sure it had any sort of solid foundation, it just sounded good to me at the time.) Of course, we’re talking about the mid-90’s here, when “low-fat” diets were all the rage and avocado toast hadn’t even made its official debut.
The thing is, I soon started trying to keep my fat intake as low as possible for every. single. meal. I was still dancing at least five days a week (more on competition weekends), so the weight kept falling off. By the time my fourth grade year came to a close, I was a “skinny Minnie” and so much more in-line with what my ideal vision of a “professional dancer” was.
By the time I was in sixth grade, I had added basketball and volleyball to my extra-curricular resume. Once seventh grade rolled around, I was dancing, playing volleyball and basketball, running track and swimming. Don’t ask me how I did it all…I’m not so sure myself! With all of this activity, it’s no wonder that I got thinner than I had ever been before. But I was eating enough to get me through the day, and that’s all I cared about at that point.
In ninth grade, I had to make a choice and decide what sport/activity I was going to focus on for my high school years (and beyond.) I was lucky enough to get noticed by an amazing volleyball coach, and I soon decided that this was going to be the path I was going to take. I played on the Junior Varsity team my freshman year, but by the end of the season I was told I’d most definitely be moving up to Varsity the next year. I spent the off-season playing club volleyball in San Jose, making the 45-minute drive to practice two to three times a week, with tournaments all over Northern California on the weekends.
Because I was so active (and so happy with how volleyball was going for me), I slowly realized that I could get away with eating a little more, and became what I would say is a healthy-looking athlete. Never fat, but not quite so afraid to have a grilled cheese sandwich every now and then.
By junior year I was getting scouted by Division I college volleyball programs, and the summer before my senior year I committed to play at the University of the Pacific. I felt GREAT. My grades were good, and volleyball was even better. I had gotten a full-ride scholarship to a Division I, private institution and didn’t have to worry about the whole application process during my last year of high school, which left me more time to focus on volleyball and getting to know my future coaches and teammates.
Things kept getting better once I started at UOP the next fall. I busted my butt, and by mid-season I had earned a starting spot as a freshman. Then, it happened. It was one of our last home games of the year, and we were doing hitting lines during our warm-up. Our setter set me a slide (it’s similar to a lay-up, where you take off behind the setter on one foot) but it was just a little tight to the net. Since this was warm-ups, and I had no block up against me, I decided to go for it and really show off. I ended up hitting the pole on my way down from my jump, which caused me to land off-balance. My leg gave out from under me the moment I came down. We soon found out I had torn my ACL, and that the impact from that ligament going out had also caused sprains of both my MCL and LCL, and multiple stress fractures from the bones crashing together at impact.
Luckily, I had access to the best doctors and athletic trainers and, although the recovery process was long and hard, I worked incredibly hard and was cleared to play again just six months after surgery (which is pretty quick for a complete ACL replacement.) I came back at the end of my freshman year spring training season, and surprised everyone with how fast and strong I was, even after just coming back from such a severe injury.
I had high hopes going into my sophomore year, but it seemed that things had changed. Despite me continuing to show strong results in all of our strength and speed training drills, I was sitting on the bench during games and playing on the “B” team during practice. I was crushed. I had worked so hard to come back, pushing myself to my limits, yet it seemed that, despite my quick recovery, my coach had given up on me and pushed me to the back of her mind.
This feeling of inadequacy quickly started taking its toll on me. I didn’t know what else I could do to prove myself at practice, and I began questioning myself and all that I had worked so hard for the past six years. Had I really worked this hard and come back from such a big injury to just be sitting on the sidelines?
The feelings of desperation and low self-worth quickly started making their way into my eating habits. If I couldn’t control whether or not I was getting time on the court, I could at least control what I was putting into my mouth. Although it eventually got blown out of proportion, I think my initial thought process was that, if I wasn’t playing in games, then I didn’t need to be eating as much as my other teammates who were playing all the time.
Looking back, I realize how silly this was. Our games were just 5 hours out of our week. Our practices took up at least 18 hours a week, sometimes more. We were practicing at least three hours a day, often at a very high intensity, with weight training and conditioning mixed in. How foolish of me to not be giving my body the proper fuel it needed.
Eventually, my coaches took notice of my weight loss and signed me up to go see the campus nutritionist. I went to my appointment, but seeing as I wasn’t suffering from anything extreme (I was still eating, so I wasn’t anorexic, and I wasn’t throwing up my food, so I wasn’t bulimic) they told me how many calories I should be consuming each day at my current activity level and sent me home.
I look back now and realize that what I was probably suffering from what we now know as “orthorexia,” but that didn’t exist back then. As you can imagine, the sort of “treatment plan” I was given was pretty easy to ignore and toss aside. If I wasn’t going to be a star on the volleyball court, I was at least going to make sure I didn’t gain any weight.
After my junior year, still not seeing any significant playing time, I decided to put in my resignation and finish off my last year at college as just a “regular ol’ student.” I couldn’t take the feeling of failure any longer, and I wanted to focus more on what I was excelling at, which was academics.
But the feeling of failure still lingered. If you know me, you know that I’m a perfectionist, and I hate when something I work so hard for doesn’t turn out. In my mind, I had failed at volleyball. And because I was no longer practicing or playing over 18 hours a week, I decided I needed to eat even less and be in the gym at least two hours a day to maintain the “athletic” body that I had created over the past few years.
The summer between my junior and senior years, I took an internship with an event production company in Honolulu. I packed up a couple of suitcases and relocated my entire life to Hawaii for three months, staying with some family friends for my short time there. For the first time, not only was I away from home, but I had no one else looking out for me. My parents weren’t a short drive away, and I didn’t have any friends, roommates or teammates around, and I took that as a sign that I could really start minimizing my food intake and working out as much as I could. Who was there to tell me I shouldn’t?
Back in school for my senior year, everyone commented on how thin and tan I looked, and of course this made me feel just great about myself. I continued to thrive in academics, and used my newfound free time on nights and weekends flexing my entertaining skills, hosting wine tastings in my off-campus apartment or making dinner for the men’s volleyball team with a couple of friends before we’d go watch the women (my old teammates) play. On the days that I had big entertaining plans for the evening, I would literally starve myself the entire day so I could eat (and drink) whatever I wanted to that night. Of course, I realize now that this was CRAZY and so unhealthy, but it just seemed like what I had to do at the time to maintain my “physique.”
When I graduated, I found myself moving back to Honolulu to work full-time for the event management company I had interned with the summer before. The work was intense. On top of the normal 9-5 hours during the week, I’d sometimes find myself working 12- to 18-hour shifts on event days, on my feet for essentially the entire time.
At first, I tried to keep up my minimal eating habits, but soon I realized there was just too much delicious food that I was missing out on (we worked with many of Hawaii’s celebrity chefs, such as Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong) to NOT be eating it. Plus, I would be famished by the end of the night (I usually squeezed in a workout BEFORE I headed to my long event shift), just in time for all of the leftover food to be sitting in the back kitchen just waiting to be eaten by all of us staff members.
About a year into my time in Hawaii, I met a guy, which eventually turned into a long-term relationship. Although I can’t say I completely loosened the reins on my eating habits at the time, I was happy, and it became harder for me to justify my crazy ways when I was frequently responsible for feeding another human being. I became a bit more lax, and settled in to a fairly comfortable routine. I gained a little weight, but by no means was I in danger of getting anywhere close to “chubby.”
It was thanks to my job at the event production company that my passion for delicious food and drink slowly came to light. I was exposed to amazing, world-renowned chefs, and got to taste their food on the reg. I also began to realize how much food and wine play off of each other, and how pairing the two in different ways can truly transform a dish.
Eventually, I decided to leave the rigors of the event production job and explore this new passion. I enrolled in culinary school on Oahu and got a part-time line cook position at a local French bistro. I also began studying for my Level One Sommelier exam. Pretty soon, every waking hour was devoted to food and wine. Although my calorie and fat consumption was still always in the back of my mind, it became harder and harder for me to justify the rigorous guidelines I had previously been imposed on myself.
About three years after I moved to Hawaii, I could no longer shake the continual homesickness I had felt since I moved there, and I decided to move back to California. My passion for food and wine continued to grow, so naturally I started looking for jobs in the Napa Valley. Shortly after my move back, I was hired at a historical, prominent winery and thus embarked on this new Wine Country chapter of my life.
It is truly this chapter that I credit for being the biggest help in breaking me of my disordered eating habits and helping me find my balance. I mentioned how infatuated I was being exposed to all of the celebrity chefs in Hawaii, now multiply this by, oh, one thousand, and you have what I experienced once I moved to Napa.
We all know that Napa Valley is THE mecca for award-winning food and wine. When you live there, and especially when you work in the industry, you are literally surrounded by it 24/7. Networking events are held at wineries (with complimentary food and wine, of course), you go out to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants on just any old day, your front door is literally steps away from The French Laundry garden, and on any given night your friends might text you to say that they have a case of opened 2007 Napa Valley Cabs that need to be drank TONIGHT. No joke. This is real life.
No way was I going to survive on my old eating habits while living here (and if I tried, well, life would just be miserable.) I soon realized that, if I fueled myself with all of the delicious fresh produce that was grown here (right next to the wine grapes) MOST of the time, I could afford to attend that industry mixer or go to that delicious dinner that I would be lucky to ever have the opportunity to get invited to again.
What I now like to call the “80/20” way of eating (because I hate to use the word “diet”) was actually incredibly easy in Napa. The agriculture and produce industry in the area is second to none (why else do you think it produces such perfect grapes for winemaking?) and there is always delicious fresh produce, bread, meat and dairy right at your fingertips. The farm-to-table movement is strong here, and there’s no other way you’d want to be eating.
Although I was incredibly happy with my Napa Valley life and all of the friends and connections I had made there, my heart was itching to get a taste of one of my other favorite areas of California, Santa Barbara. I was soon given an incredible work opportunity, packed up and moved six hours south to another part of CA Wine Country.
When I got to Santa Barbara, I realized that it was quite the interesting combination of Napa Valley living and its close neighbor to the south, Los Angeles. Although your friends aren’t necessarily going on juice cleanses every week, they are a lot more health-conscious and fitness-minded than what I had experienced up north. On the other hand, the liquor industry does incredibly well here, day-drinking on the weekends is the norm, and there are plenty of delicious restaurants to explore (albeit perhaps not Michelin-starred.)
I found this dichotomy interesting, and it took me a year or so to “find my footing” in the diet and exercise world of Santa Barbara. I continued to enjoy as much fresh produce as I could (it’s certainly bountiful here as well) and my daily activity level actually increased (thanks to the prevalence of amazing beach volleyball and access to incredible hiking trails.) But I also continued to enjoy good food and drink, not afraid to enjoy a cheese platter with dinner or have a mimosa at brunch on a Sunday morning.
I like to credit my time in Santa Barbara with helping me truly realize that my body tells me what it needs, what it likes and doesn’t like. Do I completely abstain from packaged potato chips or warm, fudgy brownies? No, but I notice the difference in how my body feels after eating something like that as opposed to digging in to a huge, healthy salad. I still do it, but I’ve learned that I just don’t like the way I feel after eating the more processed, unhealthy stuff. Given the choice of a superfood bowl or a burger from In ‘n’ Out, I’d honestly probably choose the superfood bowl. Because it makes me FEEL good.
On a related note, I try not to “never” eat something or tell myself I absolutely cannot have a certain treat. You will never find me calling myself gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free or anything else –free. By not imposing any restrictions on myself, my self-control has improved by leaps and bounds. Sure, we keep ice cream in our freezer and an open bottle of wine in the refrigerator, but because I don’t restrict myself, I never feel the urge to binge on any of these not-as-good-for-you things. If I want ice cream, I’ll have a scoop and I’ll be done. If I want wine, I’ll have a glass (maybe two) and I’ll be done. And, you know what? I don’t hate myself the next day. Life was meant to be LIVED!! There’s no other way to do it.
So what do I hope for by sharing this story with you? I hope that, if you’ve practiced restrictive eating, you find the strength to forgive yourself and take a step towards balance. I hope that, if you’ve experienced similar struggles in the past, you find the strength to share your story (with me, or with someone else) and find the support and encouragement you need. I hope that, by reading this blog, you realize that there is a healthy middle-ground, both in eating and in life. Overall, I hope that it empowers you to live the life you were meant to live, and that you enjoy it to the fullest.
Thanks for taking the time to read my story, and I hope it was helpful for you in some way. As always, I’m here for you if you feel like chatting or telling your story. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from my little corner of the blogosphere, it’s that there are a lot of us out here that have gone through the same or similar experiences, and we’re all here to listen, talk and give advice. Remember…