“What is this green stuff?” my Southern grandmother said as she pushed my roasted asparagus around her plate. “It’s asparagus! It’s so good,” I replied hopefully. My Southern family’s reactions to my attempts at serving a healthy meal were akin to serving something foreign, like whale blubber (more on the taste of whale blubber later). We didn’t do “green stuff” growing up. We did variations of beige and brown: love served up in the form of fried potatoes, cornbread, sodas, sweet tea, and fried pork chops. Many of my friends were raised this way too — in fact, it’s how a lot of folks in the South grow up.
Growing Up in the South
My family lived in a food desert, where grocery stores were few and far between, and options that were limited to what was affordable. We didn’t wonder what was in season, and instead ate what was on sale. Growing up in the South meant we didn’t walk anywhere, (it was far too rural for that) exercise was done in the form of manual labor in the garden or around the house, and no one dared to ask for different food. These reasons might be why my eventual breakup with Southern food was complicated.
Life-Changing Obesity Stats
In 2009, an article in Time Magazine reported eight out of 10 of the top states with obesity and hypertension issues are in the South. Nine years later, a study found the same eight Southern states are amongst those with the lowest life expectancies — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. The leading cause of premature death? Heart disease — a typical result of obesity, poor diets, poor exercise habits, and diabetes.
Combine these bleak statistics with my grandmother’s distaste for vegetables and her diabetes diagnosis, and I knew I had to do something to alter my own relationship with food.
Dumping Southern Food
In college, I made better choices than when I was living at home, but I was still the girl in my dorm hall that drank up to five sodas per day, eating whatever I could get my hands on, and rarely thinking about water, fruits, or vegetables. I continued to oblige my cravings and told myself there would be plenty of time for boring, healthier choices later in life. I told myself I could slim down for Spring break by “fasting” or by just plain starving myself.
Everything changed when I married a health-nut from California. He was fit, in the Army, and drank water like it was his job. He motivated me to treat my body better.
This new relationship with health and happiness pushed me to slowly break up with Zaxby’s chicken, McDonald’s sweet tea, and Cookout milkshakes.
The cravings were brutal and I gave in once in a while, but dumping Southern food was a step toward a path of discovering my life as a fully-realized, healthy adult woman.
Food Choices on the Frozen Frontier
When we moved to Alaska with the Army, I relocated to a place that was not only freezing but only supplied frozen fruits and veggies as opposed to my beloved fresh produce from the South. We ate wild game, drank too much coffee, and yes — we ate the aforementioned whale blubber, a native delicacy known as muktuk.
During the summer, prices for fresh produce were reasonable enough, but the winter was a totally different story. I once paid $8 per pound of fresh asparagus at our local Fred Meyer, only to find it rotten 48 hours later. I was heartbroken. Sure, boxes of pasta-roni were perfectly fine complements to elk or moose but didn’t do much for our bodies nutritionally. I had no idea how much nutrition would really mean to me, though, until I got pregnant.
Eating to Get Pregnant
My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and I felt my body once again had betrayed me. It was a few years after we got married, and despite taking vitamins, cutting out caffeine, and hydrating like crazy, we still experienced the loss. I was tempted to regress and seek comfort in my favorite foods from home, but treated myself sparingly and set to work. I was determined to change my mindset completely. I had been viewing my health as a punishment for so long. I acted as if “healthy eating” was me admonishing my body for its numerous trials and errors at achieving its peak.
Before we’d try for a baby again, I completely changed my outlook on food. I began to see food for the true reward that it was when sourced responsibly, prepared properly, and yes — when it was thoroughly enjoyed. It felt like I was eating a lot more, but there was so much goodness to it. My husband and I meal planned, shopped for the necessities, and ate a lot. We consumed copious amounts of fish, lean meats, and avocados — foods all known to increase fertility. We practically gorged ourselves on Greek yogurt and fruit.
It was only after these healthy eating marathons that I began to recognize my past would not dictate my future, and the way I began my relationship with food did not have to be the way it would remain.
Years later, we have an incredibly healthy rainbow baby. She’s a little girl who gobbles up sweet potatoes, salmon, and mango every chance she gets. It took becoming a mother to understand becoming healthier would be a lifelong process. Establishing good eating habits for my daughter was well worth the sacrifices of Southern comfort food. We’re raising her to love and respect her body, and to fill it with the best and tastiest foods.
When the time comes, I fully expect to treat her to some Southern delicacies, of course — because sometimes, a little rebound is just what the spirit (and tummy) needs.