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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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