Sometimes, you read a book and feel relief to know someone has shared your experience, for better or worse or both.
So it goes as I read "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater" by longtime New York Times reporter and restaurant critic Frank Bruni. It is his honest, funny, sometimes sad, always insightful personal tale of growing up Italian, in a family where every occasion and gathering revolved around food. Where love was measured in meatballs and any Grandma or aunt worth her linguini considered "diet" to be a four-letter word.
Bruni, after years of battling food and self-image demons, finally finds balance and a healthy perspective about food and exercise. But his journey is long and tumultuous, yo-yoing with the size of his waistband and his latest lose-weight-fast scheme.
I was not born round, but there were years in high school when I thought I was -- and counted calories vs. miles logged accordingly. (There I am, at right, baking cookies with friends. I would fret over the calories, even though I was underweight...) I was too thin, too obsessed with rice cakes and apples and fat-free this or that. It was unhealthy, but I was determined to reach a number on the scale.
Never mind that it wasn't realistic or right for my height. Never mind that it was too low even for my petite frame. Never mind that I had zero muscle tone. Amid all the tumult of a difficult childhood, it was the one thing I could control. And so, Type A personality in full force, I did. 100 calories at a time. One pound at a time. Celebrating the move from triple digits to double digits.
Like Bruni, I come from an Italian family where love is expressed through the Sunday gravy and meatballs simmering on the stove and the cheesecake baking in the oven. "Did you have enough?" Grandma Colavecchio always asks. "Here, have another meatball." So like Bruni, I struggled with the dichotomy of the abundant food all around and my determination not to lose control around it. His struggle was to eat too much; mine, eating too little.
Looking back, it was unhealthy and just not fun. By college, something finally clicked and I snapped out of my calorie-counting. I found a healthy attitude about exercise and eating, channeling my "issues" into a desire to build muscle, endurance and energy. Today I revel in the rush of a great workout. I don't panic if I gain a pound or so after a bad week of too many cocktail hours or cookies, because ya know what? They taste good. And I find happiness in helping others get stronger and overcoming their own self-image issues.
For Bruni, his healing came years after college, shortly before he moved to Rome as the Times' bureau chief. Recalling how he finally learned to balance exercise and healthy eating, he recalls the early sessions with his trainer:
"I despised him and adored him and knew either way he was my best hope. ...He was my yardstick, my checkup, my one-man Weight Watchers. ... And I behaved, partly because the rhythm of my twice-weekly appointments with him allowed me to stop thinking in such big, daunting, long-range terms, and to start thinking in increments....The old adage was true: nothing succeeds like success. And I was exhilarated by my success."
I share with you all Bruni's story, and mine, as a reminder that struggles with eating and exercise extremes are nothing to be ashamed of. You are not alone if you have them. And you can overcome them.
We are all so much more than a number on a scale. Measure your love for yourself in the pace of your 5K, not the meals you skip or the donuts you consume in an emotion-driven binge. Find strength and joy in the actual exercise instead of always calculating the calories it affords you.
Be exhilarated by your success, not by your excess.
If Grandma wants you to have another meatball, it's because she loves you. And that is worth every calorie.
Coming up: Badass on a budget