Year for the Planet Week 1: What I’m Eating is Actually Killing Me

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is when I deal with my food choices.

To start this challenge, I got a blood test to see what my current diet is doing to me. When it comes to eating for the planet, in taekwondo terms, I would guess that I’m a blue belt. That is, I’m not completely clueless about what I’m eating, but I don’t really go through my habits with a lot of rigor. I’m just too busy.

Although I grew up with a lot of processed food and meat, I gave most of that up a decade ago on a martial arts retreat. I spend a lot of time writing in cafes, and I have a sweet tooth so I would usually give in to saccharine temptations when I was hungry. Five years in New York also gave me a pizza and pasta habit a few times a month, as well as fueled my love for cookies because Trader Joe’s was on my school’s block. But for ten years, I had already given up almost all red meat and chicken. I train in taekwondo four to five times a week, and I neither smoke nor drink alcohol. My eating habits are the healthiest in my meat-eating, Spam-loving, Coke-chugging, sugar-feasting family. So I thought I was doing quite well.

Knowing my starting point

You can imagine the shock when I opened up my blood test results and saw that, Holy Mother of Carbon Emissions, my Cholesterol Levels. Are. Through. The. Roof. My uric acid levels were even more alarming; it was almost twice the accepted upper limit. One look at my results and I thought, yikes, I actually might die. Why didn’t I see this coming?

Heart disease runs in my mother’s side of the family, and gout in my father’s side, so I suppose I wasn’t terribly shocked. And yet, here I was, pescetarian, a second-degree black belt, a regular exerciser, and only realizing now that I was not in the vicinity of good health. Despite my perception of health, I was actually the least healthy in my meat-eating, Spam-loving, Coke-chugging, sugar-feasting family. (Except for my dad, who refuses to take a blood test.)

Ok, so I am not in the best of shape. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the truth shall set you free. The next step was choosing a path to walk on. And write it down.

I took a hard look at my diet, checked the labels on my food, the dishes I would order in restaurants, and I realized that I need to cut out a lot of carbs and sugar. Most of these creep into my diet in my moments of weakness, namely three: 1) In the morning, when I need to have coffee which I need to be iced (no judgment, please) so I buy the canned ones you can put in the fridge, 2) After I work out since I get hungry, 3) A few hours into writing at night when I need a break. Also, I never drink soda, except during one exhibition two years ago when I remember chugging down two cans before a fashion show. Stress during deadlines is a big trigger.

There might not be meat on my grocery list, but there are a lot of unholy things in there. Processed cheese is a carryover from childhood that has been hard to kick, and carbs such as rice, bread, and pasta are a daily occurrence. The triad of Coffee, Cheese, and Chocolate is one of the things that make my world go round. I have to find a way to balance my health and my cravings.

Knowing how I go

This is a project about choices. Choices are dictated by our habits. Habits are a buzzword in many a self-help book last year. I can’t say that I blame writers; habits make up the gears in your system, and those gears run without us having to think. To make better food choices, I must revamp my habits.

Among the many books on habits out there, I really liked “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin (of “The Happiness Project” fame). She categorizes people into Four Tendencies, and in a nutshell, these are:

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

I took her questionnaire on The Four Tendencies a few times on separate occasions last year (which you can do online here) and it always spat out “Questioner” as my tendency. Ha. So I question all expectations and meet them if it makes sense to me internally. I was a bit surprised by this result. I thought I grew up an Obliger and that people now expect me to be a Rebel. But knowing this, my art practice and the ideas I have that people usually find unusual make a lot more sense to me now.

Knowing where I’ll go

Knowing that I question everything makes this project a lot more important to me, because I believe that at the core of living sustainably is how we choose. All human choices matter from the tiniest of decisions to the more world-changing ones—from what we eat when we wake up, to whom we vote for, to what beliefs we teach our children, to what vision we shape our businesses.

And yet, many people feel that their choices are made for them. This is particularly true in many countries where segments of society are powerless. Even in more egalitarian places, most people may be too busy to think about their choices that they just make the same ones that others have before them. I think my beliefs on food were those that were easily reachable, the ones that didn’t require me to think very much because the agencies of these choices are available. To choose how to choose is a huge step, not very different from switching religions, I suppose.

Also, if I don’t do something now, I may very well die of a heart attack years from now. And well, no one wants that.

***

Choosing well for the planet turns out to be choosing well for myself. I thought this challenge was going to be more about shopping with reusable bags or eating more vegetables or buying food in bulk. Isn’t that what all those zero-waste blogs say? Now it seems as though it could save my life as well.

In martial art terms, to know your enemy is to know oneself. I just didn’t realize it was going to involve cholesterol counts.

 

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