October Unprocessed: My Three Rules

I’ve met Andrew Wilder, the proprietor at Eating Rules and the host of the October Unprocessed challenge, only once. At last year’s BlogHer Food conference, I tried to stab him with a giant fork. We happened to be standing next to each other in the long line for a photo booth, and the three-foot long fork was a photo prop. It was the closing dinner event, and I may have had a glass or two of wine. So I tried to stab him, and then we introduced ourselves. The only reason I bother to mention it is that the fork may figure later in this story. I may also be stalling because I don’t think I’m going to come out the other end of this post looking too good.

October Unprocessed is all about giving up processed food. The strictest adherents to the challenge will eat no processed foods whatsoever for the month of October. However, Andrew invites us to treat October Unprocessed as an exercise in awareness, and tells us to take the pledge “on our own terms.” He sets out a general, evolving definition of unprocessed, but leaves plenty of room for us to consciously craft rules that will make the challenge work for us. So far, more than 2,100 people have signed the October Unprocessed pledge.

I’m grateful for the flexibility because, while I enthusiastically signed up, I realized that I was going to have to keep the challenge simple to make it meaningful for me. Right now, I don’t want to worry over everything I put in my mouth — for example, I won’t stress out because the balsamic vinegar we bought at Trader Joe’s contains “caramel (color).” Though, really, now that I’ve just grabbed the bottle and looked at the label, I’ve got to say I probably won’t buy it again. I’d like my vinegar to be made of vinegar. How hard can that be?

But again, I digress, because I’m still putting off telling you about the two very bad food habits that I intend to surrender this month.

For the most part, I have a healthy diet. It looks a lot like the photo at the top of this post — locally grown and made at home. In theory, that’s what I’m all about. That’s what I value and, if you read this blog every now and then, you already know it’s true. So what’s with the Twix? For the answer to that, we need to talk to this kid . . .

Six, 1972

I grew up an only child in one of the wealthiest places in the world — Marin County always makes the list of the richest counties in the United States — but we weren’t rich. We lived in an apartment complex that, as I remember it, housed quite a few young, single mothers, like my mom was. She was proud and she worked incredibly hard, but sometimes we needed food stamps. Not understanding what it meant, I thought the food stamps were super cool, like Monopoly money we could take to the market to buy stuff.

My dad wasn’t around and my mom worked nights, so I was alone a lot. We had neighbors that took good care of me, and my grandparents were a huge help. But I would describe my kid-self with these words: sensitive, smart, angry, lonely — and anxious about pretty much everything. Back then, I found two things to soothe the rawness. One is that I would go door to door in the neighborhood, knocking and asking to visit with any and all of the local pets. I instinctively knew that animals would keep me calm. The other is that I ate candy — as much as I could beg, buy, or steal. For all they say about kids and sugar, I know that candy, too, had a strange way of keeping me calm. It gave me focus: It was something to want that I could actually get. It was something to do that, at the time, made me feel good. By the age of seven, I’d developed a hardcore addiction to cheap, sweet food in brightly colored packages. Candy is my drug.

My mom still blames herself for this. She didn’t want me eating sugar and kept it out of the cupboards, but if we were having a bad day or if it was time for a special treat, we’d go out for ice cream. Most everyone gets these kinds of mixed messages about food, don’t they? I’d say the responsibility lies with American industry and advertisers much more than with all the moms in the world, who for the most part seem to be trying pretty damned hard to do the right thing. My mom didn’t feed me candy, but what crafty kid doesn’t know where and how to get it?

The thing is, I still have this addiction, and a seven-year-old’s habit doesn’t sit too well on a forty-five year old woman. Especially not one who is essentially a locavore with a commitment to organics. I’ve worked hard on it, but I’m still known to hit up gas stations and convenience stores between healthy meals — especially if I’m tired, stressed, or worried about something. I don’t eat candy in anything like the quantities I used to (even a few years ago) but still, it’s time for me to fully accept that gas stations are for gas, not for things to eat.

And then there’s this habit (also quite gas-station friendly), which was most definitely of adult onset:

When it comes to Diet Coke, it’s primarily the caffeine I crave. For years, a 20-0unce bottle has been the way I cope with the restless slump of mid-afternoon. Funny, though, it started as a social habit. I used to work closely with a lot of women who were Diet Coke addicts — no Pepsi drinkers, please. It’s what I saw them doing, so I started doing it, too. I hated the taste and feeling of it at first, but I quickly got hooked.

There’s plenty of sound information out there about why diet soda is bad for you. It’s made of almost nothing but health-sapping chemicals. That’s all I’m going to say about it, except that I want to stop drinking it. If, for now, I need that caffeine in the middle of the day, I’ll go for green tea. Or maybe a nice cup of Earl Grey. Afternoon tea is a simple pleasure I’d all but forgotten about.

Um, I think this is coffee. Please pretend that it is tea.

So here are my three rules for October Unprocessed and — if all goes as planned — beyond:

1. No packaged sweets. I’m not limiting it to “candy,” lest I start hearing voices in my head telling me that Pop Tarts and Oreos aren’t really candy.

2. No diet soda, period.

3. Read all food labels. I’m going to read the labels on all the packaged food that crosses my path, all month long. I think that this will help me make some easy changes — like switching to pure vinegar from a local maker instead of the TJs version sitting in front of me now. Also, I have a feeling that further increasing my awareness of what’s in my food will naturally lead to right action in terms of other general dietary changes that might be good for me. I’m big on taking baby steps in the direction of real change; for me, small changes that build on each other are more likely to last.

My rules are simple, but they won’t necessarily be easy. I’m glad to know there’s a big community of “unprocessors” out there this month, supporting each other. In addition to posts on Eating Rules, you can follow the unprocessed challenge on Facebook or on Twitter, using the hashtag #unprocessed.

Now, about that fork. If along about 3 o’clock in the middle of an afternoon that’s lagging for lack of candy and diet soda, someone finds poor Andrew slumped over his desk with a three-foot long fork stuck in his back, you’ll know who to look for.

Let’s do this thing!

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26 comments to October Unprocessed: My Three Rules

  • Good luck, it sounds like a great challenge. I give up the packaged sweets for Lent every year. Every year I say I won’t go back to it, but I do. It is an addiction, or something very much akin to it. This is, however, how I kicked my soda habit so it is possible. Hang in there. The first week is the most challenging but if you can get through that, you can do the rest with relative ease in my experience.

    • Shae

      Thanks, Beth! The first two days have been hard — especially on the diet soda front — so I really appreciate the encouragement. Also, today I bought a Dagoba chai chocolate bar without even thinking about what I was doing, like it didn’t count because it’s good chocolate that I bought at a natural foods store. I caught myself as I was about to unwrap it and ended up giving it to Stewart instead. It takes a lot of practice to change a habit!

      • Keep it up! It does take practice, and unfortunately it will take discipline from now on. What I didn’t say about kicking my soda habit (six cans a day) was that it took several years of Lenten discipline to do it. But I did it, and you can (no pun intended) too.

        BTW, For the first few rounds I replaced soda with sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice or slice of lime. Then I just switched to plain sparkling water. Turns out, what I really wanted was the fizz more than anything.

        Hang in there and be proud of each better choice that you make.

  • Good on you for making the commitment, Shae! After many, many years of almost no packaged candy, I have to say that most of it tastes awful to me now: it’s like all I can taste are chemicals and corn syrup. But it did take years for my palate to adjust; and put a bowl of Reeses peanut butter cups in front of me and I’ll still gorge myself sick.

    And I have to wonder if Diet Coke secretly *does* still contain cocaine: years after I had given up every other form of soda (with the exception of Reed’s ginger beer, which I don’t really think qualifies as “junk”), I would still crave a Diet Coke now & then. Then I would have one and think: “Why am I drinking this crap? It’s horrible.” But I would finish it. Our food hooks are so much more than taste or nutrition.

    My one guilty pleasure? Black licorice. Not even the pseudo-healthy black licorice from the organic market: Trader Joe’s black licorice Scottie dogs. I can easily eat an entire tub of them in one stressful afternoon of data analysis. Oh-so not local, whole food. I can’t even convince myself, like I can for chocolate, that there is something in there that is good for you. Maybe, in solidarity, I’ll try to give up Scottie dogs for October. But if I get a particularly knotty analysis to do… I can’t make any promises. :)

    • Shae

      Kaela, yes, it’s crazy about the Diet Coke. When we were at our cabin in Alaska for a month, I had no candy other than really good chocolate, and no diet soda at all. But what was the first thing I went for when we got out? Diet Coke and M&Ms (plain, never peanut). The soda tasted so harsh that I could hardly drink it. It was terrible. And I finished it. And I had one the next day and the next. Wacky. The other thing is that, I’m sorry, but I love picturing you popping black licorice Scotty dogs. I think it would probably be better for you to give them up, but it’s a charming image all the same.

  • I like this concept, Shae. The less processed food we eat the better. I tend to be most weak in this area when I travel, specifically when I stay in hotels with minibars. I cannot refuse those small canisters of Pringles potato chips. This only occurs when they are inside a hotel minibar, otherwise I don’t give them a second thought. It’s very strange. I don’t think I’ve actually purchased Pringles and eaten them at home in over a decade. I will be staying in two hotels during the month of October. Perhaps I should commit to making those hotel stays Pringles-free. This could be rough. I’ll have to think about it. Food and memory, our habits, and those triggers that make us want to eat certain things. It’s all very interesting.

    • Shae

      Argh, traveling! For me it’s road trips. Driving and candy eating and diet soda drinking go hand in hand — or hand to mouth, I should say. That’s going to be one of the most challenging patterns to change. Pringly or not, I do hope you have good trips in store!

  • meg

    Beautiful, tender post Shae. Thanks for sharing your story with us.
    I should do the unprocessed thing. I did it a year ago or so and it was great and eye-opening. But I know I just can’t do it this month. It’ll send me over the edge. I’m glad I’ll get to follow along on your journey and others.
    Oh diet coke. I had three today. Three. Though, truth be told, I’m hungover and it has helped. I don’t think about it much anymore- except when I’m out and it is a super fizzy cold fountain soda and then all bets are off. Interestingly when I drink kombucha I stop craving it. Not only don’t crave it, but it doesn’t even sound good.

    • Shae

      Oh, Meg, I love how we can always count on you to tell it like it is. And I’m actually heartened by all of these local and organic eating Diet Coke drinkers coming out of the shadows, because I don’t feel so lonely anymore. What do they put in that stuff? You are so right about the Kombucha. I’ve had that same experience. Of course the Kombucha sometimes makes me a little drunk . . . :-)

  • good on you Shae! what a great post – I resonate with a lot of what you’ve written, those words could have described the kid-me also. I had a chocolate addiction for years – the crappy kind that is full of junk. after years of learning about healthy eating and finding what feels right for me i can happily say that I’ve lost interest in junk food. it just doesn’t have the appeal that it did for so many years. now if I want a treat, I make it myself so I am sure if what is in it. now it really does feel like I am ‘treating’ myself and not eating something that I will feel bad about.

    enjoy your challange this month. oh, and afternoon tea is where it’s at! :)!

    • Shae

      Thanks, Tigz! I love hearing the stories of crappy-food addictions turned healthy. I believe it can happen. I do know that feeling of having nourishing and satisfying treats. That’s the best. It has so much to do with the emotional state I’m in when I approach food. Though some of that stuff, you could hardly even call it food. I guess that’s a good place to start: I want to eat only food. Raising my cup of tea to you!

  • There have been studies which show that those things denied to us by well-meaning mothers are often the things we crave most and what we go for the minute the voice of authority steps out of the room. I find when I have it in the house I eat less, and after the first bite I am sated.

    I have eaten less sweets since I started my huge canning attempt this year-and my jams taste way better anyway. But soda is a hard one for me to give up. I don’t have the patience to wait for tea or coffee to get cold enough to be iced and leaving it overnight in the fridge isn’t fresh enough tasting. But I am trying.

    I bought a bottle of balsamic the other night. I too read the colors and flavors included in some brands….its sad when something as simple as vinegar has to be flavored and colored to pass as itself.

    • Shae

      Angela, I’m absolutely with you on the jams. I find that eating a tablespoon or two of my own homemade jam in a day goes a long way toward satisfying my craving for sweets — in a much healthier way. The diet soda is such a tough one. We have a seltzer-water maker, so I’m working on having fizzy water with a twist of lemon when I feel too impatient — or too warm — for tea. Two days in, it’s feeling like a poor substitute, but I’m hoping I’ll adjust.

  • Pat Benson

    Been there with the diet sodas and I have to say it really takes awhile to kick them…I was substituting them for real food, like breakfast and lunch. When the work schedule eased up and I had time to actually cook during the day they were out of my life. Now, I hope wine is not considered a “processed” food because that will never be out of my diet. Here’s to you, Shae!

  • Shae

    Pat, it’s great to hear from someone who’s been there and done that with the diet soda. It gives me hope! There’s a whole discussion on Eating Rules about wine, the upshot of which is . . . drink up! (And did you notice I just fixed up those little vowels for you? I can skooch around the back end and do that.) :-)

  • Mia

    I try to eat unprocessed as much as possible. I gave up sodas in college years ago. Every so often I really crave one and the neighborhood sandwich shop around the corner from me will let me get one for free. I get enough Sprite for like 3 sips and realize after the first one I don’t like it anymore. (The three sips is why they let me get it for free!) My best friend was addicted to diet coke and had to give it up as part of a diet change for a medical condition. She had the worst migraines for a few weeks while her body slowly adjusted to not having it anymore. You do become physically addicted to the artificial sweetener in the diet sodas.

    And since I have started canning more, I am using less and less sugar and more honey. And canning more. Now to go see what I can have that is local for lunch and unprocessed.

  • Just found your blog this morning through “Food In Jars”. I visited and couldn’t leave once I started reading this post. LOVE IT!

    In the last 3 years I started canning our garden harvests. I am knew to canning so I did a lot of research and just dived into it and have enjoyed it and even more enjoy the tasty things from sauces to brandied peaches to canned meats. Love that I can control what goes into those jars of goodness.

    Due to my canning I am trying my best to not have the boxed food from the grocers, like cake, stove top stuffing or canned gravies and the like. Baby steps is my thing too. I have an assortment of dried ingredients that I purchased slowly and made my own mixes through learning from others, to make my own gravies, pudding, cakes, white sauces, etc. Having these mixes on hand makes it handy to grab and add water and heat or what ever is called for to accomplish the task. I however have yet to get used to it, summer came just after getting those mixes done and summer is for us to cook outside. Now that winter is soon upon us i’ll be making more meals that will call for those mixes, I can hardly wait to get into it.

    • Shae

      Sassy, isn’t it nice to know what’s in your pantry? I haven’t even touched a pressure canner yet, but someday I will! I’m glad you started canning and stopped by here.

  • Kael

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post for October Unprocessed. I totally agree that one can become addicted to Diet Coke. I have no idea why, but it’s awful! The only way I was even able to quit drinking it was I had a bad case of a stomach virus. After that, it just didn’t taste the same anymore. You will be surprised how you feel not drinking the stuff. More energy, you don’t feel draggy during the day or first thing in the morning and you won’t have as much bloating! I wish you good will-power for the month of October and look forward to reading about your successes and, hopefully, some funny stuff along the way!

    • Shae

      Kael, I’m glad you kicked it, too. I am starting to feel better. Thank you for your encouragement — and for the reminder to post an update or two about it. I will do that!

  • I’m a bit of a lurker, but this post has caused me to comment ~ first of all, congratulations on your decisions! The first step is realizing the issue. Second, I totally empathize with you. When I was a young thing off in college, taking way too many credits & still trying to live it up, I used to drink pepsi quite a bit. I soon moved on to Jolt ( all the sugar & twice the caffeine). One day, in one of my chemistry classes, we did an experiment where we took pepsi, coke, mtn dew & jolt, & put various items in the dish with them. One set had raw meat, another pennies, & yet another some nails, & I believe a piece of cloth. By the end of the weekend (objects soaked over a weekend) the meat dishes were complete sludge ( imagine body parts….), the penny was brilliant & clean, the nails were rusted, & the cloth had holes in it & very little color. (Coke also works as a laundry aid to remove stains & oil, & can also remove oil from the driveway). This experiment changed my life & how I viewed foods & especially soda forever after.

    Maybe it can help you as well. And as one of the other posters said, although you go through migraines while you are withdrawing, I can guarantee it will be worth it!! You will be able to think more clearly, & faster, & you won’t feel that awful sluggishness-if-you-don’t-get-your-fix feeling.

    I wish you all the best in the world with your endeavor!!

    ps ~ does it help any to think that those soda companies purposely made the stuff addicting so that you would spend your $$ on it without a second thought? I used to mentally think about how I was keeping them from at least my own measly patronage every time I purposely walked away from purchasing soda. It’s what we’re doing when we refuse to buy crappy processed foods & buy local instead, too.

    • Shae

      Cara, I have heard about experiments like that, but having you recount your actual experience with it is powerful incentive to continue to go without this junk. I’ve been off it for a week now, and I think that yesterday was the fist day that I suspected I might be moving through the withdrawals and into a place of feeling truly better without it. I am so glad I’m doing this! Also, I want to thank you for speaking up. I love to meet lurkers! :-)

  • Oh, Shae, I have the same problems. I find it much easier to give up the diet sodas than the candy, and I’m a brittle diabetic! That stuff is like suburban crack! I have to just not let it in my house. Like, I’ll stab you with a three foot long fork if you bring candy into my house kind of a stance.

    A tip for the soda problem, make sure you have several alternative beverages around. I’m talking about really strong coffee, strong tea (English Breakfast?), a flavored iced tea (try Peppermint!), and whatever else blows your skirt up. It’s hard enough to give up the diet soda, no sense in lowering your chances for success by going through caffiend (no that’s not a typo) withdrawl, having bored tastebuds, and being thirsty to boot. After all, we have poor Andrew and the giant fork to consider…

    • Shae

      Grace, I love this comment so much, and I thank you for sharing it. I haven’t heard the phrase “blows your skirt up” for a long time. It made me smile. And you are so right. Alternative beverages made all the difference to this now non-Diet-Coke drinker!

  • Sue Blando

    Hi, Shae – I just found your blog through the Food in Jars site (LOVE that site!). How did you do with October Unprocessed? I’ve been trying to wean my family off of processed foods and it’s a slow arduous plan. There are far too many indulgences in the house (my husband loves to grocery shop at Aldi – don’t even get me started about them! Dunno if it’s true, but supposedly the food comes from China and is packaged here. We know what they did with toys, I don’t want them messing with our food. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced, our guidelines are not the best but better than China’s.) I digress…I refuse to buy pancake mix because I can make homemade pancakes almost as quickly – 5 minutes longer – than measuring out prepackaged mix. I’ve debated making my own mix, which I may still do, because I would know from whence the ingredients came. My latest pet peeve is the little package you snip & pour into cooking that is uber condensed chicken broth. I get how we’re all in a hurry but what is really in that condensed little package? Life is good, food is awesome (especially food from my first garden this year) and we’re all here with the opportunity for amazing lives as we navigate the bumps that inevitably come to everybody. Let’s not screw it up with feeding ourselves less than good food. Thank you for having a place where I can rant! You’re on a great path, thank you for sharing it.

  • Shae

    I wanted to say thanks again to all of you who left stories and supportive comments about my goals for October Unprocessed 2011. I’m very pleased with the results of my month. The biggest deal, by far, is that I kicked the Diet Coke to the curb, and I honestly think I’m done with it for good. Mid-month, I decided to cheat and I bought myself a bottle. By the time I finished it, I had the shakes and a splitting headache. After that, I didn’t want it again — until November 1, when I decided to buy another bottle to see how it would taste to me. I took three sips and couldn’t finish it. It tasted and felt terrible, and I haven’t had a craving for it since.

    Instead of Diet Coke, I’ve been drinking homemade fizzy water with fruit juice, fruit infused ice teas, or hot tea. Sometimes coffee, but not often. An unexpected benefit has been that I’ve pretty much given up artificial sweeteners altogether. I’m not sweetening any of my drinks with Splenda anymore, which I used to do without thinking. I’ve decided that a little bit of raw sugar is better than the calorie savings of lab-made sweetener.

    On the candy front, that’s not tasting so good to me now, either. Some quality chocolate, sure — but if feels much easier to pass by the other stuff.

    I guess the only thing I wasn’t so good about was the label reading. I did it some of the time and found that each time I did, I learned something useful that would often guide my choice of one product over another. But label reading didn’t have the same urgency as the other two goals for me, so I wasn’t as rigorous about it. It created a good foundation for next steps, however.

    Thank you again for being a big part of helping me to take these positive steps!