So, I’m crazy about food. I think about it constantly. What will I eat? What will I make for my son? Is it time to eat again? I learned to bake from my grandmother and mother and I learned how to really cook in France. I’m concerned about chemicals on my fruit and veggies, I worry about carbohydrates and I obsess over calories. One of my biggest concerns before leaving for the Camino was that I wouldn’t find any food. I actually made no-bake granola bars for the first two or three days of the hike and anyone who met me along the way knows that I always had a small grocery bag of food stashed away. Starving is one of my biggest and silliest fears. I start to panic at the first sign of hunger because I become grumpy and tired and generally act like a toddler who needs to be fed.
My food issues are not completely unfounded, though. I come from a household that was always “trying to lose five pounds” but never left a plate uncleaned. I have gone through strange and maddening food cycles in my life. As an adolescent and teenager, I was a vegetarian who played softball and couldn’t go to sleep without exercising first. I became so thin and anemic that I would get dizzy everytime I stood up.
As a late teen and early adult, I was employed in the fashion industry and became even more obsessed with calorie intake, but less so with exercise. Fashion models don’t have big muscles. Cigarettes and cocaine helped curb my appetite and I maintained my thin frame, but burned out quickly.
In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat. I was convinced that I had done the damage to myself, although my cardiologist reassured me it was most likely hereditary. Despite the arrhythmia and a prescribed daily dose of beta blockers, it took me a few more years to finally drop cocaine from my diet regime. The last, er, straw, was a near overdose and chest pains so debilitating that I ended up in the emergency room more than once. How did I finally kick coke? I sold everything that I owned and moved to France. Not the most conventional route, but I’m not the most conventional gal.
I have said privately and now publicly that France saved my life. It is the ideal place for learning to appreciate the food that I put into my system. French culture demands quality and purity and a general appreciation for conscious eating. Meals are eaten at a table, with friends and family at very specific times with a small snack in the afternoon. Coming from a society that eats in the car and relies on a grab bag of diets, French traditions are breath of fresh, baguette-scented air.
One of the most popular questions on Camino forums is “Did you lose weight while hiking for a month?” Even (or especially) my mother was sure that I would return from Spain malnourished and gaunt. Here’s the truth: I gained a whopping 3 kilos (6.6 pounds).
First, i have to explain the Northern Spanish diet. It consists of ham, ham and more ham. I joked once that I saw every farm animal while hiking, except pigs because they are already in the butcher shop.
Then, there are tortillas. The equivalent of a French omelette, but stuffed with potatoes. They are chockful of yummy carbs, especially when served on a fresh baguette.
In small villages, grocery stores are scarce and in the Meseta (the flat, dry land in the middle of the Camino) the only thing growing out of the ground is wheat. So, I stocked up on bananas, avocados, almonds and juice boxes whenever possible, like a crazed squirrel.
So, that’s how I gained those three kilos, right? Um, sorry, nope.
When you hike 25 to 30 kilometers (15 to 19 miles) per day, you could pretty much eat a chocolate cake and still maintain your weight. The weight that I gained was not fat, but muscle. Think heavier but with loose clothes. What’s a number on a scale anyway? Muscle is heavy and dense and takes up less space than fat. Our bodies really are like machines. Energy in, energy out. Any excess and it is stored for later in the form of fat. When we exert ourselves, our bodies need to be fed to keep going. And, if not fed enough, we go into famine mode and our bodies hold onto fat that we would normally burn for energy.
The lesson that I took away from munching on the Camino is to not fret about calories so much. I will think of my body as a finely tuned machine that needs energy to function. Energy in, energy out. Like a mantra. Those three kilos a few years ago would have sent me into a dieting frenzy. I also realize now, that one day of overeating is not life-ending. If I don’t burn it today, maybe I will burn it tomorrow. The conscious effort to eat well and treat my body with respect is what matters most.
And, now, a fun video about calories! I didn’t think it was possible. Check out what 200 calories looks like in different food forms. Spoiler: the Big Mac is super tiny. Dommage!