If carbs don’t kill you, the cows will

There was a time in my life when I literally feared carbs. Now, two years later, it’s become pretty standard for me to devour half a loaf of bread in one sitting (with lashings of smashed avo). Things have clearly changed. I also eat whole cheesecakes, but that’s a tradition saved for birthdays.


Generally, in one day, I eat two breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners. I classify salad to be the equivalent of eating air unless it’s consumed from a bowl the size of three human heads. When out for brunch I’ll often polish off the remainder of my friends’ meals after finishing my own. It’s rare that you’ll find me not eating, or so my office colleagues tell me. If ever I don’t go in for thirds (or tenths) at dinner my friends and family will know something is terribly, terribly wrong. Clearly, I’ve built a reputation for my appetite.


Aside from the fact that this is all quite astounding for a 4’11 petite-figured female, these eating habits are wildly out of the ordinary given my brief history as a calorie-counting, carbophobic health freak who literally cried at the sight of apple crumble.


Yep, there was a chapter in my life when I strived so obsessively to attain perfect health that I actually became unhealthy. Whether or not I was genuinely orthorexic, it doesn’t matter – what does is that reality caught up to me quick.


Food intolerance or fussy?

For a solid 6 to 12 months of my life I identified as a gluten “intolerant”, partially vegan pescetarian that consumed a mainly ketogenic, sugar-free diet. Basically, I just ate salad leaves. Oh, and nuts, seeds and a few other low-carb vegetables. Oats were a special treat and fruit was evil.

I was forever paranoid that if carbs didn’t kill me, the cows would (what was really in the meat we were eating?). If I’d designed Hell’s coat of arms I would have sketched a three-pronged pitchfork – a kipper potato skewered on the left, fettuccine wrapped around the right. The middle prong would have donned a banana, like a fondu stick.


At least I wasn’t as bad as my friend who once believed that bread was a product developed by the government to keep populations unhealthy. Maybe if she were strictly referring to white bread her conspiracy theory wouldn’t have been too outlandish.


Commandment number 11: bread is evil

This humble block of cooked wheat was actually what reminded me of this chapter of my life. I’d been chatting to a young woman at the gym with my super fit, Grit-instructor mate (who considers a single orange to be ample sustenance for his day until dinner) when it arose that, in contrast, I eat half a loaf of bread as my mid-afternoon snack. First, she looked concerned, then appalled.


“You shouldn’t be doing that,” she said. “Bread is bad for you. You’ll get diabetes, have a heart attack and die.” Pause. “Do you eat eggs?”


I acknowledge that it’s obviously not a gold-star worthy eating habit and nor am I a nutritionist or dietician. However, for someone who never eats sugar-dense, processed or greasy fried food; drinks alcohol only half a dozen times a year; doesn’t smoke; and exercises regularly, I felt a little unsettled by her overreaction.


You are what you eat

This was the kind of comment and questioning that sent me to hospital (due to a weakened immune system), resulted in an iron deficiency and caused my temporary loss of social competency. I never spent much time socialising because in those unpredictable situations I couldn’t plan what I was going to eat (eating disorder symptom number one right there).


I looked the same but there was one major difference: I was a completely different person than I am today. My diet affected my mood, energy levels and, consequently, my character. Looking back, this is what shocks me the most: the profound influence of diet on personality. An extreme case would be vegans who carry on like pork chops and intrusively protest the injustices of eating meat (obviously an unfair stereotype that prevails). That’s an example of when diet comes to define our opinions and actions (though this particular instance is a “chicken or the egg” scenario, or shall I say, tofu or soy bean?).


My restrictive diet predictably led me to be an inadaptable, highly-strung, moody and short-tempered serial planner, and pretty much an outright bitch. Sure, I had friends, but I genuinely wasn’t a very nice person. It’s worth noting, however, that my over-prioritisation of university grades was an equal impediment on my social life. If we are what we eat, I had about the same substance as a lettuce leaf.


So where did this all begin?

Probably with the IGG 92. Like the growing number of people in the 21st century, I suffered non-life-threatening digestive problems where my biggest complaint was looking mildly pregnant 100% of the time.


It was one of those problems where middle-class people either blow tonnes of money seeking a prognosis for, or diagnose themselves using the world-renowned and 100% reliable medical practitioner, Google (who seems to be well qualified in diagnosing cancer).


I was the former of the two and spent a couple of hundred dollars getting the IGG 92 blood test, which told me that I was allergic to eggs and cow’s products. The solution: eliminate these products and then slowly reintroduce them. I did precisely this and, six months later, felt phenomenally better. I then figured, seeing as I had cut out animal products from my diet, why not also cut out animals? So, I became vegan.


Veganism gone wrong

It all went rapidly downhill from there. I would like to make clear: I’m not having a beef about veganism; I’m expressing my qualms with its execution. If you’re someone like I was who didn’t have the time, money or creativity to cook vegan meals that delivered all the necessary nutrients and provided enough energy then it can end pretty badly.


Sure, if we’re eating the kind of gourmet, power-packed meal that you get at vegan café Matcha Mylkbar three times a day then we’d probably be bouncing off the walls with pure, radiant health. However, we can’t all afford that quality of produce every day, and combined with a high intensity fitness regime, alarming levels of work-related stress and a lack of culinary education, veganism can go horribly awry in two ways.


First: we replace the new gap (where there once was meat and animal products) with a disproportionate amount of cheap and convenient foods, like bread, pasta and potatoes. The other extreme: if we’re carbophobic like I was, we don’t consume enough energy-dense food for normal everyday functioning at all.


For these reasons, veganism done well is something that puts me in awe. Take, for example, Kendrick Farris. He was the only American male weightlifter that qualified for the Rio Olympics and he attributed his success to following a plant-based diet.


Trial and error

When it comes to following a particular diet for health reasons (rather than environmental and ethical motivations), the meat of the matter is – there’s no “one size fits all”. At least, as a health foodie and non-qualified nutritionist, that’s what I came to discover when contrasting myself to others.


Fortunately, this miserable chapter of my fleetingly malnourished life arrived at a happy ending. On a side note it’s important to say that not all elements of my life went to shit during this period. Although it may seem that my limited food intake would have resulted in a loss of brain function and fitness performance, I somehow managed to score high grades and go to the gym twice a day (on what energy reserves, I don’t know).


After years of trial and error I’ve finally found the perfect balance of lifestyle, leisure and diet that allows me to consistently function at my optimum and enjoy life without unloading my starvation-induced anger on other people (the true definition of “hangry”).


In the era of green smoothies, the raw diet, paleo diet, superfoods, I Quit Sugar, flexitarianism and clean eating, this story of mine is not unique. So, when this chick at the gym (a fit 30-something-year-old) paralleled bread consumption with Satanism it sent off alarm bells and motivated me to share my story. For those of you that know me and generously comment on how healthy, strong and happy I appear, you now know that it wasn’t an easy road getting there.


How did I get out of that rut? I moved to Montreal and surrounded myself with cheeses, bagels, baguettes, deep fried you-name-it and maple syrup. Jolting myself out of routine was key, as was realising that life lived with so many restrictions was simply ludicrous and clearly quite sad. But hey, if I hadn’t gone through those experiments I would never have become the bright-eyed, brunch-addicted, carb-loving pretentious foodie that I am today who pathetically yet proudly Instagrams almost every meal she eats because, well, food is pretty great.

Mim Kempson