In high school my mother used to warn me that I had tunnel vision. And she was 100% right…
I believe the first time my mother warned me of the dangers of becoming too focused on one thing was during wrestling season in high school. I got a late start in the sport – in fact, I never stepped foot on a wrestling mat until my freshman year in high school. Soon, wrestling became extremely important to me and I had to make up for lost time since some of the people I was competing against had been wrestling since, well, when they could walk. Full dedication to the sport of wrestling shaped my world view, arranged my priorities for me and became my identity. In my sophomore year of high school, I was so focused on becoming the best wrestler I could be I decided to fully commit myself and wrestle year-round. And, it worked! By the time I was a senior, I was getting recruited by a number of Division I colleges.
Reaching the goals I set for myself in high school meant in addition to the typical wrestling season practices and matches, I was working out before school, working out during lunch, running after practice and sometimes even taking a train to the New York Athletic club to practice with high caliber athletes from around the world. Outside of the high school season, I was training almost as hard – I was competing in tournaments all over the East Coast most weekends – sometimes I would even have two tournaments in the same weekend. This meant that I gave up football, missed way too much of hunting season during my high school and college years, didn’t fish nearly enough, and would often choose running over doing something with the family. When I did, whether by decision or force, to attend a family outing instead of training or competing, I felt guilt and was never fully engaged. I can only imagine what it was like to deal with a younger, training obsessed version of me. Still, my parents were fully supportive every step of the way while simultaneously working hard to enrich my life beyond wrestling.
Perhaps it was the close association between wrestling and diet or perhaps it was my own obsessive nature, but my tunnel vision for training for wrestling also spilled over into all other aspects of my life including food and diet.
Looking back, in some ways I still maintain there were aspects of this that were very positive – most importantly, this desire to compete at my best level kept me away from alcohol and drugs. But, my approach to diet was obsessive. I was using whatever information on diet I had access to – at the time it meant Muscle & Fitness magazines. For some reason, I thought there was a correlation between the diet a bodybuilder required to compete and that of a wrestler. Perhaps what was even more unrealistic was that I believed the authors of the articles were unbiased and had the health of the readers best interest in mind! Both couldn’t be further from the truth!!!
Training at the level I was attempting to reach required planning and preparation.
Sunday nights were reserved for me to plan my diet for the week. While the rest of the family were gathered in the living room watching television or playing a game I literally spent hours at the dining room table surrounded by
- a stack of Muscle and Fitness magazines,
- the Complete Book of Food Counts: the book that counts it all,
- a calculator,
- graph paper,
- note pads,
- pencils and
- a ruler.
Armed with the dietary recommendations from the Muscle and Fitness magazines as my personal nutritionist, I used the book containing the nutrient breakdown of food along with my calculator to plan out my diet for the week – literally down to the exact calorie and gram of protein, fat and carbohydrate. I was so neurotic about it I even began to wonder if my body would accumulate calories by smelling the food my mother was cooking in the kitchen for the rest of my family. I was convinced that I had a firm handle on exactly what my body needed and what these foods offered me in terms of nutrients – down to a fraction of a gram.
A 20-pound weekly weight swing
When I started college the obsession remained, but how I implemented it all changed - drastically. I was taught the “proper” way to control my weight during the season at a Division I wrestling program by my coaches and team mates. The first time I “made weight” in college was during my freshman redshirt year in order to compete in an open tournament at West Virginia University. I lost 21 pounds in a day and a half! This ended up becoming a normal amount of weight I lost weekly during the season and my weekly weight loss routine became standardized.
A typical week during wrestling season in college would go like this…
- Monday and Tuesday, I would start restricting food.
- Wednesday, I would begin restricting water (because it is heavy) by using a combination of a sauna, a tongue depressor (long story), plastic suits, and stationary bikes I would begin the three-day long process of losing approximately 20 pounds each week
- Thursday and Friday - continue restricting water with above techniques
- Friday afternoons, the team would weigh-in and then the coach would bring us all to Bob Evans as a “reward.” After days of fasting and water restriction we all thought that this was the best thing in the world – free food and plenty of it!
- We stuffed our faces with food in between the frequent trips to the toilet that always accompanied these meals. Our severely dehydrated bodies and our excretory systems, that hadn’t been operating for days, were in no way ready to take on this amount of food and drink. I averaged about three trips per meal to the toilet and, by the last trip, I finally had something besides clear liquid spewing from every orifice in my body.
- When we could not eat any more food, we ordered extra meals to go and left armed with our doggie bags to prepare for another gorging session later that night.
- The next day, Saturday, we competed.
- How ironic it was that when we stepped on the mat we were almost back to the original weight we started at earlier in the week! And, of course, so was our opponent.
- We celebrated (or drowned our sorrows depending on how we did that day) the rest of Saturday and Sunday eating unregulated amounts of food.
- Then the whole process would begin again on Monday.
Outside of the wrestling season, we were told to attempt to put on as much muscle mass as possible. This meant that out of season our eating (as well as drinking) was completely unrestricted and our weights skyrocketed. I wrestled at 158 pounds but maintained a weekly high of about 180 pounds during the season. Outside of the season, my weight would skyrocket to over 200 pounds. We were told to carbo-load and took advantage of the all you can eat pasta nights at a nearby campus restaurant. We were urged to take supplements such as Creatine that we could conveniently purchase directly from one of the assistant coaches.
Thankfully, many things have changed in college wrestling since I competed to help make sure these extreme weight loss practices are no longer followed. But, it took three college wrestlers dying in the same year to do it! In 1997 wrestlers Jeffrey Reese from the University of Michigan, Joseph LaRosa from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and Billy Jack Saylor from Campbell University all died trying to make weight.
I was overly obsessed with diet to the point that I did physical and psychological damage – we all were. Now I believe that any success I achieved in wrestling was not as a result of how I ate, but, rather despite the manner in which I approached feeding my young body. Everything I did – from planning out my weekly diet in high school to the precise, or what I believed to be the precise calorie and gram of protein; to extreme weight loss swings, dehydration, and calorie and water restriction during college wrestling season; to off-season weight gain - shaped everything about the way I view my relationship with food, my health, and my body even to this day.
Changing My Whole Approach to Food & Diet
As I learned more and more about real food and traditional foodways I became angry . . . angry that I had been lied to this whole time. Angry that I had been misguided by so many people I looked up to – my coaches, my doctors, my nutritionists, even Muscle and Fitness magazine! I had it all wrong – my whole approach to food and diet and health and self-image and I had to do something about it. When my wife and I started our own family getting it right became even more important to me because I had other mouths to feed.
So, what did I do? What I always do –
I put my head down,
and refocused my tunnel vision –
This time to learn everything I could about
and I attempted to make every single thing I fed my family entirely from scratch –
This has been my approach to feeding my family for over 15 years now – it has been an amazing journey. I have learned a ton and, at times, have actually reached my idealistic goal to cook every single thing my family eats entirely from scratch. I forage, hunt, ferment, bake cure and culture. My weeks used to be dominated by acquiring the best raw ingredients (such as the four-hour round trip drive to Pennsylvania to get raw milk I take every other week) and my days used to be dominated by cooking most of the time I am home. I pride myself on feeding my kids the most meaningful nutrient dense food on the planet.
After all, it was all about the food, right?
Food on the Edge
After dreaming about attending the Food on the Edge symposium for the past two years, I was so excited when Jason O’Brien invited me to join him this year as a part of the Food Evolutions Project! The following passage from the Food on the Edge website describes the event well:
The aim of the symposium is to challenge our perspective on food and our connection to it. Approximately 50 chefs speak over the two-day symposium. All are chosen for their innovation, passion and influence on today’s food culture. Each speaker, with their own unique perspective, talks for 15 minutes on the cultural, social, environmental and education aspects of food. The emphasis for the talk is on their vision for the future of food and how we can make things better on both a local and a global level.
This event is literally a meeting of some of the most influential chefs in the food world and exactly the sort of information and inspiration I am on this Food Evolutions journey to discover and bring back to the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College. I spent the weeks leading up to Food on the Edge eager with anticipation to be inspired and learn to hear how chefs are changing the foodscape all around the world.
The first day of presentations began exactly as I had hoped – tons of information about chefs sourcing high quality ingredients and forming relationships with local suppliers. Some chefs were talking about the innovative ways in which they were incorporating more foraged wild food in their menus. Some chefs were talking about how they use whole animals and were butchering on site. And, certainly, zero waste was a recurrent theme. Chefs were exploring news ways to work with previously ignored ingredients and discovering meaningful ways to connect people with their food. The program was so very exciting and contained presentation titles such as, “Sense of Place: Shaping Identity through Food and Culture” and a panel on the Future of Finnish Food!
Slowly, as the symposium progressed I realized there was an undercurrent in the presentations I didn’t anticipate. Increasingly, there speakers presented on topics that seemed outside the scope of what I was expecting from this symposium. Tales of pushing the boundaries on foraging, and fermentation and nose-to-tail and zero-waste were being replaced by topics such as empowering local communities and mental health in the work place.
For instance, Saqib Keval, the co-founder Chef of the People’s Kitchen Collective a community restaurant project focused on storytelling and radical community organizing through food presented on using food as a tool for resistance. Abeer Najjar, a self-taught chef and blogger talked about her identity as a Palestinian immigrant and the unfortunate fact that traditional food is often s source of embarrassment for immigrants where it should instead be a source of pride. Quique Dacosta, chef and owner of 3 Michelin star Spanish restaurant, Dacosta didn’t speak about his innovative approach to food that earned him three stars. Rather, he talked about stopping world hunger. He was repulsed that more, we now have more food than ever and have more hungry people than ever. And, Anna Haugh, former executive chef at Bob Bob Ricard didn’t talk about how she reorganized the kitchen and modernized the restaurant. Instead, she gave a presentation on the silent kitchen and spoke about bullying and suicide in the restaurant industry.
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for had arrived. Magnus Nilsson, is the head chef at Fäviken, took the stage. When I first saw the speaker line-up for Food on the Edge it was Magnus’s name that stood out to me. It was from his work that I thought I could draw the most inspiration from to bring back to the Eastern Shore Food Lab. My pen was poised over my notebook ready to transcribe each and every word about how he transforms the wild, seasonal food he harvests from the northern Swedish landscape into dishes that connect his diners with the Scandinavian terroir.
What he delivered in his presentation, however, was something completely different. Magnus spent his 15 minutes passionately speaking about the importance of taking time off and how it is okay to do so!
He felt that we should not be limited by a system in the restaurant industry that people before us created, which, he feels is broken. He wanted to create a system at his restaurant where someone is not indispensable and where his staff also had the opportunity to truly enjoy life and their families. And then he went on to describe how he reduced staff hours to 40-45 hours per weeks with a 50-hour cap. He instituted 5-week vacation for his staff whereby they were even allowed to take 3 consecutive weeks! The people that worked for him actually had time to get sick and take vacation. This transformation was not easy, however. In order to accomplish it he needed to almost hire more people, add more seats, and increase prices. But, it worked and he was very proud of what he was able to create in his restaurant. I firmly believe that at that moment, what he was most proud of was not the restaurant nor the menu nor even an approach to food. Instead, it was the system that he built allowing his staff, from both front and back of the house, to have the time to enjoy life and to be human.
What did this all mean?
Mind blowing and game changing… that is the only way to describe it. I took away so incredibly much from this symposium, but not at all for the reasons I expected. I went there to feed my tunnel vision focus on food, but what I came away with was a whole new appreciation for all of the other things associated with the level of health and connection to our food, our environment and one another I am seeking. It is about seeing the forest for the trees. It is about not forgetting to stop and smell the roses.
It is about taking lessons from the past in order to transform our approach to life, NOT just to food.
My wrestling career at Ohio State came to an end when I blew my knee out during my third year in college. I was at the top of my game – I had won varsity spot at 158 pounds on one of the best wrestling programs in the country. Coming home for Christmas break that year during the middle of the most important season of my life seemed more like a distraction than a chance to spend time with my family and I wasn’t about to lose sight of my goals. So, I spent one of my very few nights home traveling on a train to the New York Athletic club like I had done so many times in High School. It was that night, on that mat, when I should have been enjoying quality time with my family, that I blew out my knee. I am not quite sure how I made it home that night hobbling several blocks to the station, taking the subway then a train, and finally hobbling another mile home from the train station. That night was the defining moment that initiated a dark spiral that essentially ended my wrestling season and eventually resulted in me failing out of school.
In retrospect what was it all for? What had I given up to reach my goals and where did that leave me when it was all gone? Having goals and working hard to achieve them is both responsible and commendable. But, not doing it at all costs. The journey to the podium should not be at the expense of everything else in your life. The approach was all wrong – it was all tunnel vision by all of us – coaches, trainers, and wrestlers… We are operating without any consideration to the rest of our lives – what had we given up to be there? Did we ever consider how much fuller our lives, and the lives of the people around us would be if we had thought about more than just this one thing…if we hadn’t suffered from tunnel vision. Was it enough to be the best? Of course not. Because I am so distanced from competing now my hindsight on this chapter of my life is 20/20. However, it was only recently that I began to notice I have been suffering from the same tunnel vision with my approach to food and diet over the past 15 years.
These innovative chefs at the Food on the Edge symposium, whom I came to hear speak about food, ironically are the ones who helped me see that it is not just about the food.
Food without context is meaningless.
The health problems facing the modern western world today are not just a product of food choices and cannot be addressed simply through a change in diet. Our relationship with food does not exist in a vacuum. That is why diets don’t work – they are always out of context because they do not take into account all of the other aspects of “life” that are so important to us. The manner in which we acquire, process, store, share and consume food is uniquely human and embedded in practically all aspects of our lives.
Learning to eat like humans again is really about learning to live like humans again.
Some behind the scenes shots from Food on the Edge
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