Green Recovery: Katie’s Conscious and Wise Choices

by Gena on March 11, 2012

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Last summer at Vida Vegan, a young woman approached me and introduced herself cheerfully as Katie, author of the blog Vegan Noms. I recognized her and the blog immediately, but was surprised when she told me that she loved the Green Recovery series and wanted to send me a post. I told her I’d be delighted to hear her story, and that my readers would be, too.

Today, Katie shares an account of how an innocent effort to start getting “toned” at her college gym turned into an obsession with calorie counting and weight loss, and subsequently into a dance between restriction and binge eating. She then describes how veganism has helped her to make “conscious, wise, and non-obsessive decisions about how I nourish my body.” I am so grateful for her candor, and I hope you’ll all share your reactions through comments, or through visiting Katie’s blog.


My story began as many of them do: a 19 year old college student with time to kill in between classes and so why not tone up a bit at the rec center? What is still confusing to me is that before this all began I had a pretty healthy relationship with food. I ate when I was hungry or when it was meal time and I ate because I enjoyed food. Dieting or even taking a closer look at what I was eating was not on my agenda; I simply wanted some awesome abs. So it started with clumsily working out for a few weeks. But, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted and so I turned to the worst source possible: the internet. Not any old website, but the sites dedicated to women and weight loss with the catchy article titles and alluring promises of results with little effort. Through these sites I learned that I had to burn more calories than I was consuming to lose weight so that my oh-so-tone muscles would show.

This was my downfall. With my lack of nutritional knowledge and significant obsessive compulsive tendencies, this meant that I had to eat only as many calories as I could calculate having burned off during a daily work out. This spiraled quickly into believing that the calories a day I would allow myself must present itself on the elliptical’s “calories burned” display. I would constantly, repeatedly, obsessively, intrusively count and recount the calories I had consumed and would allow myself for the rest of each day. It took over my every thought. Food consumed me from that moment on, I no longer consumed it. It had so much power over me. I created rules based solely on calorie intake instead of the nutrients my body needed.

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This is me at my 20th birthday party, cutting up vegetables for snacks. I obsessed over what I would serve to my guests for weeks and had accounted for every calorie.

When my daily restricting became too overwhelming and my body’s hunger for nutrients finally overtook me I started to binge. It seemed to take a turn very suddenly and I became very depressed and agitated about not seeing or feeling the results I wanted. The food log I had started to keep began mocking me when I would lie about what I had eaten. My nightly binges would typically include almost a gallon of ice cream, 4 bowls of cereal, and either chips or cookies. I believed I could still exercise the calories away the next day, yet my previous drive to go to the gym was slipping as I headed deeper into my depression. I stopped caring about my schoolwork and eventually dropped some of my classes. I felt so utterly out of control and did not know how to pull myself out of my hole until one day I searched online for local counselors specializing in eating disorders. I took the information to my mom and told her everything that was going on with me over the last year and a half. She was incredibly supportive and was behind me every step of the way as I began counseling. My counselor was fantastic and gently guided me away from my disordered thinking and supported me as I began to feel whole again, and my obsessions and compulsions relating to food nearly disappeared. I am now halfway into a Master’s program in mental health counseling, coincidentally the same program my counselor completed, and know that the positive experience of having gone through treatment led me to choose this path.

It wasn’t until perhaps a year later that I discovered the veg*n lifestyle. My relationship with food had swung from obsessive and disordered to almost lackadaisical and centered on convenience. I still did not have an understanding or appreciation of how food nourished my body or how my choices affected my health. My launch into vegetarianism following a commitment to not eat animals for ethical reasons eventually led to becoming vegan after a few late night crying sessions in front various online articles, lamenting my taste buds’ relationship with cheese. Yet, with only a few stumbles I dove headfirst into veganism and have never looked back.

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With so many people believing that vegan “diets” are restrictive, I can understand how, at face value, an outsider might be concerned with someone who is recovering from disordered eating patterns choosing to live as an herbivore. Yet in the nearly four years I have been vegan I have discovered more foods, developed more cooking skills, tried more recipes, learned more information about nutrients and my body’s needs, and consumed more green smoothies than my collective years before the transition. Being vegan is not only about choosing what not to eat; it’s about choosing to invite (mostly) wholesome foods into your body. Being vegan is not only about opening your eyes to the horrors of the meat, dairy, and egg industries; it’s about opening your eyes to how food affects you, makes you feel, makes you energized, makes you smile.

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Vegan doughnut? Yes, please.

Becoming vegan has not only led me to make conscious, wise, and non-obsessive decisions about how I nourish my body; it has also given me the courage to return to exercise. When I became more mastered at interpreting my body’s signals, I eventually couldn’t ignore its pleading to get moving! From leading a basically sedentary lifestyle to now being involved in a local fitness group’s branch of the CrossFit enterprise (CrossFit Akron, represent!) I feel more energetic and powerful than I ever have. But more importantly, I have rebuilt my relationship with exercise and created something healthy out of something disordered and dangerous. I no longer concern myself with counting calories or weighing myself or timing those awful marathons on the elliptical machines. I count reps and push myself for the satisfaction of completing what I thought I never could. I feel a surge of pride when I can lift 5 or 10lbs more than I did before. I revel in the connection I feel with the other members and shout out encouragement to those who have done the same for me.

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Nutrition and health are no longer internal, lonely struggles. I have vegan friends and, thanks to the Vegan Con blogger conference, a worldwide network of vegan comrades with whom I can feel connected. I share my successes and innovations with these supports, as well as my fellow fitness members. I can openly discuss my experiences with other friends and family members and encourage the same insight into their overall health. I have embraced the role of “token vegan” and gladly invite questions about nutrition and the ethics of eating. Veganism has brought me so many gifts and I am truly grateful for Gena’s voice in the community and her offering of the opportunity to share our stories.

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Thank you, Gena!


Thank you, Katie!

The quote that most stood out to me in Katie’s narrative was this one:

Being vegan is not only about choosing what not to eat; it’s about choosing to invite (mostly) wholesome foods into your body. Being vegan is not only about opening your eyes to the horrors of the meat, dairy, and egg industries; it’s about opening your eyes to how food affects you, makes you feel, makes you energized, makes you smile.

When I talk to people about the link between my veganism and my ED history, I always say the same thing: veganism taught me that my food choices can do good. Good for animals, good for the planet, good for my health. With that realization came the confidence to eat without guilt, and ultimately to eat with inexpressible pleasure. I love that Katie clearly echoes this sentiment in her own, unique way: veganism has empowered her to feel well again, all the while making her more conscious of how other living beings feel, too.

I was also fascinated to read about how fitness and exercise were actually the catalysts behind Katie’s disordered eating; I’ve heard many stories that begin with a diet and expand to include exercise obsession, but few that actually begin at the gym. Could any of you relate to this? I was far from a gym goer during my initial bout with disordered eating at the age of twelve, but exercise played an enormous role in my college relapse, and it took me a long time to stop using fitness as a means of “counteracting” food choices. I’m curious to hear how you’ve all experienced the link—positive or negative—between exercise and self-appreciation.

With that, friends, back to my usual grind. See you back here tomorrow for some food!

xo

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby March 11, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Another great “Green Recovery” post, so big thanks to you both. But Gena, I have to admit that I was surprised to read that YOU were surprised that fitness and exercise were actually the catalysts behind Katie’s disordered eating. For me, fitness and exercise were most certainly one of the main catalysts for my disordered relationship with food and exercise.

I worked at a gym full of fitness athletes and bodybuilders who followed an extremely strict “clean” diet in which an apple was regarded as an off-limits food, something that I internalized and integrated into my own lifestyle. While the exercise started off as a healthy endeavor, it spiraled into an obsession that countered with my OCD and an increasingly narrow diet resulted in the first bout of extreme weight loss.

In the 10 years since I have drastically altered my diet and lifestyle to be strictly vegetarian and my exercise has done a 180 in terms of activities as well, but the exercise addiction is still going strong and I’m still drastically underweight as a result. I don’t think I’m fat–quite the opposite–but exercise has never been used as a vehicle for weight loss but rather anxiety relief. Yes, I eat more than a “normal” person, but not enough to compensate (thank you OCD and rigid food and exercise rituals.) However, the fact that it’s plant-based means the world to me and is something I never will change.

I’m rambling, but my point is that the initial catalyst was most certainly exercise before the food.

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Gena March 11, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Thanks for the great comment, Abby!

I wasn’t at all surprised by the deep link between fitness and EDs — but surprising though it may be, it was actually one of the first times I’d heard “I had a normal relationship with food before the gym-going, and the gym-going changed things.” Honest! But it’s important to be aware of, and fascinating to discover that this is likely all too common.

As always, thanks for participating in these conversations :)

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Casey March 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Thank you, Katie and Gena. This story really resonated with me. For years I’ve struggled with seeing exercise as a means to burn off bad food choices. I know intrinsically it’s so much more than that but I still struggle. The binge/restriction cycle is something I also know all too well.
Katie, you mentioned how much a counselor helped you. Gena, did you also see a counselor for your ED struggles?
I’ve resisted this for so long out of shame but I wonder if it’s the catalyst to recovery. Surely books, and support from loved ones is a big piece but is it enough?

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Gena March 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I did indeed–not the first time, during which I was under a physician’s care–but after my relapses, and I credit therapy enormously with the fact that the relapses ended. I recommend counseling strongly for ED management and recovery, and wished that I had embraced it even sooner than I did; it’s also worth noting that I continued to discuss food in therapy even after I was “recovered,” per se, simply as a means of expressing my efforts to stay recovered.

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Casey March 11, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Thank you for your response, and thank you for this series. I find strength and encouragement knowing that others have shared similiar struggles and OVERCAME them. I hope to get there. I know one day I will! xo

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Gena March 11, 2012 at 8:31 pm

You will, Casey! You will. Starting, I hope, with this moment. I absolutely encourage you to seek out help from a counselor/MD/health professional — it makes a world of difference, and it’s nice to have a private environment in which to talk about this stuff with someone who’s adept in helping you manage it.

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Audrey March 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Wow, Katie’s story sounds really similar to mine. I started out heavily restricting and then when my body rebelled I found that I couldn’t stop eating. My binges escalated into a headlong binge eating disorder, while my mind still wanted to restrict. I felt powerless and it plunged me into a depression and now anxiety. It’s been such a roller coaster. I have seen so many doctors and counselors and tried over half a dozen medications, but nothing seems to help. It gets so discouraging. I’ve been struggling with this through all of high school and had to drop out of college because of it. Well, anyway, this isn’t about me, though! I guess Katie’s story just struck a chord because it sounded so familiar. I’m really glad that she was able to get help and get better! I feel like something must be wrong with me because I can’t overcome this. Most stories I read, once they finally seek help they get better. I am just frustrated because I have been seeking help for almost five years with no visible benefits yet. I guess I just have to keep trying?

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Michelle March 11, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I am still trying to wrap my mind around if I have had (have) disordered eating. I think I do but I haven’t committed to finding a professional to talk with. I have found healing and comfort with raw foods and hence the vegan lifestyle. Even though I don’t like the label of vegan or labels with anything, I find myself eating vegan 95% of the time. I appreciate the evolution I’m on and the positive effects that they have made on family and friends, even if small.

I’m 29 now and 13 years ago, I never thought about food or restriction. I was also at my thinnest I’ve ever been (probably wasn’t getting or eating nutritious enough though). If anything’s fueled my mind’s obsession with food or periods where I counted calories, it was picking up my first women’s centered health magazine. Whether it be women’s health, shape, prevention, or health; that was the very first, I began to obsess over stuff I may be doing wrong/stuff I should be doing/how much I should be doing it/am I getting enough…etc. I’ve always hated magazines for their flippant reference to ‘loving your body’ on one page to ’5 tips to tone that tummy’ on the next page. It does nothing but send a mixed message.

So, in summary of my blabbing, I would say magazines affected me first and gyms second. I really appreciate your posts and Katie for sharing her story. xo

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Alex @ Raw Recovery March 11, 2012 at 9:15 pm

My own path with an eating disorder also started in college so I can relate a lot to this story. However, it always bothers me when people post how many calories they would consume (either restricting or binging) because this was a HUGE trigger for me when I was in my eating disorder. I know that reading posts that mentioned numbers made me want to lose more weight, but I guess I’m healthy enough that it doesn’t bother me as much now, I just feel for those who use even a good, recovery-oriented story to push themselves further into their illness.

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Gena March 11, 2012 at 9:22 pm

I’m sure you’re not the only one who feels that way, Alex! I edited out the number, though I do think the details about calorie obsessiveness on the whole are important.

Glad you can relate!

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Hannah March 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm

My disordered relationship with my body definitely began with exercising too much, then restricting food. Compulsive exercise became the forefront of my ED and it is taking me years to deal with it…now that I am a college student and ex-gym goer and simply a yogi, I am much more at peace with myself. However, I still struggle, and there are so many young women in school here who are clearly obsessed with working out. It’s so sad. I think it’s an issue that needs a LOT more attention than it’s been getting…

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Katie of Vegan Noms March 11, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Thank you so so so very much for hosting this series, Gena, and for allowing me and the other women who have experienced similar struggles to share our stories! I’m very glad to hear that my post resonated with people and that there were similarities in our journeys. Someone’s ED recovery *never* takes an identical path as another person’s, but there are definitely familiar aspects when reading others’ stories.

And for Audrey, who commented earlier: Don’t gauge your successes or setbacks by others’ paths – I can see why reading about how others’ experiences with treatment can make you put yours under a microscope. I hope you can find the right combination of treatment, support, and satisfaction with your progress! That’s why it’s called recovery and not being “cured” – I would assume that most, if not all, of ED survivors experience relapse or are at least on the brink of it during their lives, your situation is not uncommon. Will be thinking of you, I appreciate you speaking up!

Thank you again, Gena! Catch me at Vegan Noms, y’all. :)

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wendy (healthy girls kitchen) March 12, 2012 at 5:48 am

Thank you for sharing your incredible journey Katie. Way to represent NEO!

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Audrey March 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Thank you, Katie! :)

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Amey March 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Katie, thanks for sharing your story. It really is so important to speak up and discuss our difficulties with humility and without shame… both for the healing it gives us and for the healing it gives others. I was so stoked to meet you at VVC – you really have such a lively sparkle, so you must be doing something right. :) Amey

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Dani March 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I definitely see a link between exercise rituals, as well as food in general, to my eating disorder. I wouldn’t say I “over-exercise” per- say but if I’m not able to do something physically active each day I get anxious to the point where it’s not possible to abstain from it. I’m working on the flexibility piece and knowing my bodys needs and wants– which will be a good indicator of being recovered. I’m vegetarian, but vegan seems a bit too rigid in food choices for me and I don’t want to feed my disorder (no pun intended!) further with more food limitations. I’m working on, as well, being passionate about eating wholesome, local and vegetarian but being flexible when it’s not within my standards so that doesn’t isolate me from life.

How do you feel your relationship with exercise is as far as being flexible with it? Also, what would you call a “healthy relationship with exercise”? I’m curious to know!

Thanks so much, Gena!

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Heather March 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm

This is a really inspiring story, thank u for sharing Katie. I have been transitioning to a vegetarian diet for the past year and in my heart I know I will eventually be ready to commit to veganism. Thanks for the positive comments, I’ve definitely gotten a bit of enlightenment on this subject. Just as well it’s nice to be able to hear someone speak so openly on their own journey since I can relate completely in every aspect. Finding balance is still a struggle but one step at a time. Excited to check out your blog too!

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Angela March 11, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Another great post! Thank you, Gena and Katie!

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Karen March 12, 2012 at 8:26 am

What a wonderful, inspiring green recovery story you share, Katie!

I especially admire that you followed your instinct to seek out professional counseling. I echo Gena’s recommendation in the comments above. In my experience, an eating disorder left untreated/self-treated (even when adopting a nutrient dense/vegan diet) stubbornly remains and morphs into all sorts of other related undesirable behaviors. I believe that talk-therapy is integral to any chance of living life unencumbered by your ED tendencies. As much as I support this green recovery series, and deeply respect everyone who contributes, I do worry that the overarching message might overshadow the reality that EDs at their core are mental illnesses and as such are unlikely to be cured by simply tweaking one’s diet. My hope for every reader, is that you follow Katie’s lead in this respect and seek out professional assistance.

Thanks as always, dear Gena, for facilitating these crucial conversations.

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Dena @ 40 Fit in the Mitt March 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

thank you for sharing

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Ashley March 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

Thank you for sharing your story Katie! It feels very similar to mine. What I ate never concerned me much and when I decided I wanted to get into better shape in my mid-twenties, I turned to exercise…changing my eating habits still hadn’t occurred to me. It wasn’t until I had been working out for a few months that I finally thought “you know, I do all this hard work exercising and then sabotage those efforts by eating poorly…perhaps I should eat healthier.” And that was it, I slowly but surely started restricting my food intake, both in terms of what and how much I “was allowed” to eat, until it got to the point that I was training for marathons on very little food. I then had a similar experience to others here in that my mind and body both finally rebelled against the restrictive eating and I am now struggling with serious binge eating. I am trying really hard to get back to a place where I can just eat normally once again.

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Amber Shea @Almost Vegan March 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Thank you so much for sharing, Katie (and Gena!). There is so much wisdom in your story and turnaround; you should be very proud.

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Amanda @ AmandaRunsNY March 12, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Thanks for sharing this story. I love this series.

Interestingly, I would say that I really became really committed to with veganism (and thus began trying so many new foods that I know cannot live without) was when I was trying to find better ways to fuel myself during marathon training and stumbled upon Thrive.

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Laura C March 12, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Thanks for this story. Exercise was not the beginning of my ED but it certainly played in. For Katie it was wanting to see her abs- for me it was wanting to see the skinny body hiding inside me- alas, that isn’t how bodies work. The quote that stands out most for me, though, is “Nutrition and health are no longer internal, lonely struggles.” When I TA-ed for a course on EDs here the instructor emphasized that EDs are usually secret/provate endeavors, and sharing ones true thoughts about food and eating communally is a sign of recovery. Sometimes I think about that when I get an impulse to keep anything about my eating pattern secret from people in my life.

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Anastasia@healthymamainfo.com March 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm

This is such a beautiful and inspiring testimony! Thanks for a great post!

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Ela March 12, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Thank you so much for this inspiring post.
One thing that sticks out to me in this post is that the first thing Katie did was confide in her mom before seeking excellent expert help. Both you and your mom are so lucky! I think it’s awesome you felt able to take that step–absolutely transformative of the secretive/controlling aspect of ED’s. Sharing it all with your mom was a true surrender.

I know that my mom and I have also grown closer over my ED/recovery/relapse/recovery process. Compared with your situation, I feel deeply sad for my mom, because it was a shock to her, she never realized until I was in the hospital. But over the years, it’s definitely become a bond between us, and I think it became part of her motivation to pursue the healing arts more seriously.
love
Ela

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Kaitlyn@TheTieDyeFiles March 13, 2012 at 11:25 am

Another inspiring story! I appreciate that Katie’s journey encompasses both restricting and bingeing, as I’ve found myself on both ends of the spectrum as well. What truly strikes a chord with me is her mention of creating rules based on calorie intake rather than nutrients. This describes parts of my journey so well! I also admire Katie’s initiative in confiding in her mom and going to see a counselor. Both of these are things I wish I had done, and may look into both actions in my near future.

Thanks Katie!

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Jami March 13, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Thank you for sharing! I especially enjoyed your discussion of how now, through veganism and blogging, food and health and exercise are “open” and social subjects, instead of a dark secret that you are constantly alone with. How wonderful!

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Heather @ For the Love of Kale March 13, 2012 at 10:37 pm

This post is sooo beautiful, Katie! So proud of you and so happy that you have come so far in your recovery! The quote that Gena mentioned above also stuck out to me. It is something I can relate to as well. Becoming vegan, I too feel SO much more connected with my body. It really is amazing. :-)

Gena: To answer your question, I was an athlete my entire life, so exercise was already a part of my life. When I realized that I could use my active lifestyle as a means to lose weight, I became very obsessive. It was REALLY hard to train my brain to view exercise as a means of “health” instead of a means of “restriction.” I still struggle with that from time to time. What helped me was really embracing the idea of STRENGTH. To counteract those thoughts, I do a cardio and strength session every day. This allows me to do what I love, fight the voice and exercise for ME and not for my eating disorder voice.

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GetSkinnyGoVegan March 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

What a great read…….I feel like veganism has changed/awakened me about a myriad of other issues. I was just a “normal” vegan at first, eating vegan versions of what I ate on my vegetarian diet. But it was easier then, because we didn’t have “junk food” for vegans!! But the older I get, the closer I get to trying to eat closer to the earth. Grew up with one grandmother that only had dates for sweetener & carob for chocolate & I really couldn’t stand that she did not stock the fridge with ice cream bars like my mom’s mom!! But now it cracks me up that I am the one eating the dates and the carob, and loving it!! The ice cream bars were totally addictive then, but I was too young to realize it. Eating foods that don’t have stuff added to make you “want” or “need” more seems like a very integral part of a sensible lifestyle choice. It’s not a “diet” to lose weight, but if we cut out all the crap, very often we will lose weight, excess baggage, and not binge eat a box of ice cream bars!! And the super obvious, we aren’t actually sponsoring death with our dollars………..well, at least with our food.

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Kait March 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm

I must say…that photo of the two of you is simply gorgeous and speaks volumes about your health and vitality. You both are positively GLOWING…its a beautiful thing. :)

Thanks to both of you for sharing this amazing story.

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