So today was a day I’ve been looking forward to all week, meal #21.  I really enjoy meal #21, it is my “sanity meal”, if you will.  It’s the meal that makes the other meals pale in comparison.  It’s the holy grail of meals.  It’s the gold at the end of the rainbow.  It is Bono showing up to sing at your birthday party while Thomas Keller makes the food.  Yes, I’ve built this one meal a week up in my head to epic proportions, and made it a big deal. That’s probably a sign of a problem right there, and trust me, I’ll get to that.

Meal #21 is my cheat meal.  I tend to operate on a 20/21 plan where 20 meals a week are all things deliciously healthy–and measured and weighed and tracked within an inch of obsessive behavior–and one meal where I eat what I please and I don’t worry about it.  The rules are: no more than one a week and it must be preplanned, tracking is preferred but optional.  No stopping at McDonalds on a whim or randomly snarfing down some alfredo, this meal requires advanced notice.

This particular cheat meal, a return to a favorite local place that has the best hot dogs I have ever had, has been on my list of cheat meals for weeks.  I have been looking forward to this meal for weeks and it wasn’t supposed to happen until next weekend, but plans change and it happened today instead.

I didn’t need a menu, I knew what I was having long before I stepped foot on the deck: a chili cheese dog with chile cheese fries and some fried pickles.  I even had a Sprite for extra fun and excitement.

It was good. Sloppy good.  This chili dog has to be eaten with a knife and fork.  Picking it up just leads to Tide sticks and pain when the plop of hot chili mixed with gooey cheese hits your crotch or your cleavage.  It was beyond lovely.

I’m not sure why this Hebrew National dog is better at this one location on the planet (Flip Flop Burger, Reliance, TN) than anywhere else on earth, but I suspect they deep fry the unsuspecting dog.   Add crinkle fries with equally fork-worthy chili and cheese and we are in business.  WOOT.  If that isn’t a cheat meal I don’t know what a cheat meal is, oh, must not forget the deep fried pickle chips.

I ate the dog, savoring every bite with big slurps of Sprite.  It was exactly like I remembered, and it was just as good, if not better.  The chili was hot and flavorful, the mustard subtle but just there enough, and the onions were freshly chopped.  The cheese was as ooey-gooey as ever.  The dog was hot and salty and full of flavor and larger than the typical dog.  I demolished the dog then I went after the fries, slurping the Sprite, forking fries into my mouth.

And faster.  and faster.  and faster.  It did not take long before I realized that I was shoveling the food in.  Gobbling.  Shoveling. Snarfing it in. Chewing some, but probably not enough.  Faster.  More. Faster.  At some point the eating was not for the taste of it, not because it was satisfying, but I was getting a “fix” and faster means a better fix.  I wanted the carbs with sugar on fat on carbs on fried fat and the best way to get a good buzz off of food is to do it fast, apparently.

I stopped.  Put my fork down, and looked at my two fellow Everesters H and M.

J: “I’m inhaling my food, like, wolfing it down”

H: “Yeah, you were eating pretty fast there”

J: “It’s like a drug, it’s like I was trying to get a fix, like it wasn’t even food”

H or M: “Yup, can’t get enough in fast enough, it’s like any other drug”

J: “The minute you think you are doing better, you get reminded that you have work to do”

H & M: “It’s a marathon not a sprint”

Both people I was sitting with have conquered their own weight loss demons repeatedly and continue to win the good fight.  One lost 75 pounds on Weight Watchers and the other has lost over fifty through intense exercise and diet modification.   Both continue to exercise on a regular basis and are losing/maintaining.

These ladies know what food addiction is, what it feels like and what it looks like.  I packed them a lovely lunch today–fresh quinoa with a dash of citrus vinaigrette with fresh mandarin oranges, dried cherries, fresh ginger and cucumber along with almonds, cashews, pistachios and crispy coconut slivers with a side of teriyaki garbanzo beans–and jokingly said it was made by 310 To Everest Catering.  This salad is the bomb, if I do say so myself, and super clean and flavorful and when you eat it you feel nourished by your food.  There have been entire years when I didn’t feel nourished by my food, but this year is not one of them and this salad is the El Capitan of feeling nourished.  But I digress.

When I eat things like that quinoa salad with beans I NEVER feel or behave like an addict.  I eat at a reasonable pace.  I hear the internal gong go off when I’ve hit the satiation point and I usually stop with one or two bites after that.  I’m working on stopping at the gong, no worries, fat habits die hard.

Anyway, my point is that when I eat an extremely healthy diet, I am in charge of what goes in my mouth. Of course, I’m always in charge of what goes in my mouth, but when I am away from processed food and sugar and assorted junk I feel logical and sensible about food.  I eat reasonable amounts and feel full.  I eat at a normal pace.  I make good choices with minimal effort.  I don’t have overwhelming feelings of self-loathing, depression and self-doubt when I eat super clean.  For me–because I am fortunate where many are not as lucky–the battle against clinical depression can be won with consistently clean food choices.

This is not a new revelation.  I have long known that on the mornings I indulge in one of my favorite lactose containing things, an everything bagel with cream cheese, by 11:30 I want to have a Coke and a Snickers with a side of cheesy poofs for lunch.  I’m left both hungry and filled with cravings that cannot be satisfied all day long.

That said, the relationship has never been clearer to me than it was as I was frantically forking fries into my mouth faster and faster like a fry loving feigning addict–I’ve got food addiction issues.  Apparently, I like to get a high from my food, but it isn’t even a very good one, so what’s that all about?  Ugh.  So much emotional heavy lifting and work to be done and introspection and all of that good stuff.

The easiest way for me to control these issues is to eat an extremely clean diet.  That way my emotions are the only triggers I have to work on during any given day, rather than the ones caused by food triggers–and I have found the emotional triggers are far fewer than the food inspired triggers.  I’m lucky in that regard.

This kind of takes the fun out of Meal #21, when I find myself wishing I had just stuck with the usual food and called it good.  It wasn’t that the food tasted bad, I’d be lying if I said it tasted like anything other than the best damn hot dog I’ve ever had–just like the last time I had one of their dogs–but I did not like how it changed my approach to food.  I did not like that I was reminded of other addicts and their unsavory behavior, because we most dislike in others what we dislike in ourselves, right?

I did not like how I went from hungry person to addict person with just a few bites of food and slurps of sugar.  This is the battle that I think so many Americans are facing–the spiral of food influenced addiction–but they aren’t aware of it because they’ve never had a clean food cleanse.  That’s my term for it, because it takes me a good week of eating clean to stop feeling food-initiated addict behaviors, but everyone is unique.

There is a reason why Doritos aren’t allowed in my house, and that reason is simple: I will eat them all.  I will eat them, stop, tell myself I’m done, put them away, get them out, eat them, tell myself I am finished, put them away and this cycle will continue until all of the Doritos have been destroyed by my teeth.

So this is what progress feels like–a little disappointing, a little sad, a lot enlightening, helpful,  irritating, revealing–examining what I think makes me happy versus what actually makes me feel good.