When it comes to food, I have always been more successful practicing abstinence than moderation. One cookie turns into eight cookies, but zero potato chips can stay zero potato chips for months. Any diet that includes moderation (aka, the diets that actually work long-term) breaks down for me because the wolves of sugar and fat and salt addiction help me make excuses for overconsuming. I’ll end up feeling gross from the food and guilty for failing to adhere to the moderate lifestyle.
With this natural tendency in mind, five years ago I decided to attempt a silly, year-long abstention from a single “food group.” This became a practice I repeated each year. I would not choose something that I ought to eat (like vegetables) or something that I really liked (like chocolate). For every “food group” I chose, there were alternatives. I never gave up “sweets,” so dessert was always within reach.
I did not do this to lose weight, to give up the food forever, or to win any prizes (sadly, none of these three came to pass). I don’t know why I did it, other than I enjoy dumb personal challenges. I have abstained successfully for four of the last five years, but, for reasons described below, this practice will end with the 2020 season.
2016: Colorful Candies
During my inaugural year of needless abstention, I did not eat “colorful candies.” I defined “colorful candies” as any candy with added, intentional colors (chocolate has a color, but chocolate is not colorful). No Starburst, peppermints, candy corn, M&Ms, gummies, etc., from January 1 to December 31. Some time in the fall I forgot myself and ate an M&M cookie, but I was on vacation–an exception I more or less allowed thereafter.
Once the year was over, I had a lingering aversion to ingesting chemically, artificial colorful candies. I no longer feel this aversion.
2017: Pre-Made Cookies and Cakes
My sophomore year of silly self-denial focused on “pre-made cookies and cakes”–an amorphous term that I essentially defined as “cookies and cakes that are not made on-site.” Homemade cookies and cakes were all right. If they were made in the bakery from which I got them, that would be OK. Oreos, Sara Lee cakes, Little Debbie Snacks, and a lot of other confections were out. I believe brownies were included in this equation, as they are more or less the best version of a cake.
Cookies and brownies are a big weakness for me. Despite what soulless Weight Watchers leaders will tell you, the last brownie in the pan does taste just as good as the first one. The best way for me to not eat 1000 brownies is to not eat the first one, so I felt like this year’s abstention helped me dodge a lot of baked bullets.
2018: Cheese (unsuccessful)
I am not, and have never been, a card-carrying cheese lover. I don’t relate to folks who say they cannot live without cheese. Regardless, cheese is in everything. And it definitely makes food taste better.
If the challenge was “don’t eat pieces of cheese” I would have been fine. As it was, by February I allowed myself some vacation cheese on tacos, and I never looked back. It wasn’t that I needed to eat cheese all the time. I just didn’t want to negotiate with every server over every meal for an entire year.
2019: Ice Cream
My fourth year was more successful, though I do love ice cream. During one vacation I had some gelato and some vegan ice cream; otherwise I found it easy to just not eat ice cream. Unless you order a lot of pie or go to a lot of children’s birthday parties, ice cream is generally not served without actually asking for it.
By the end of 2019, I realized that I probably shouldn’t eat ice cream anyway. I’m mostly lactose intolerant, and dairy makes my face break out. I think I’ve had dairy ice cream once since this year ended, and I’ve fully embraced soy, coconut, and almond milk versions.
2020: Fried Potatoes
Folks took this one personally. No “fried potatoes” meant no french fries, tater tots, potato chips, latkes, or certain hashbrowns. Sweet potatoes were included in these calculations. If I happened to go to Miami, I would absolutely have eaten papas rellenas under my vacation exception, but that did not come to pass. (Edit to add: I did eat fries once on vacation in Manistee, which many consider the South Beach of the Midwest.)
I consider one serving of french fries “however many are in front of me,” but if I don’t start eating them I am just fine. Due to the pandemic, I have not found myself in the situations where fried potatoes are likely to tempt me–parties with bowls of potato chips, bars with baskets of fries, and the like. I didn’t have to decide whether Waffle House’s hashbrowns were “fried” or not. I might have soothed pandemic panic with takeout sweet potato fries, but I didn’t and that was OK.
I added a new layer on my abstention starting this Lent. After thinking about it for many years, I began to eat a vegetarian diet for reasons of animal welfare. I am hesitant to label myself anything in particular; I am willing to eat humanely raised/killed animals, but I generally just choose tofu. Also, I want to taste great ethnic cuisine where I find it, so I will play that by ear/stomach when the time comes.
With meat and fried potatoes cut out of my diet, it has been easier then ever to avoid fast food restaurants. Since I am just feeding myself, and since I live in the alternative-eater haven of Ann Arbor, I have been able to find a variety of meat-free options for cooking and takeout.
In a surprise twist to finish out 2020, I was diagnosed with celiac disease this month. If you have looked at this blog lately, you will know that baking has been a serious part of my life for the last two years. I have long thought that it would be cosmically funny if I was intolerant of gluten, and here we are. The universe is really laughing its ass off.
Most of the “food groups” I previously abstained from are affected by this change. Gluten is lurking in all kinds of processed foods. Cookies and cakes are completely upended. Cheese and bread or pasta are made for each other. Ice cream is best eaten in waffle cones. Fries are sometimes breaded, and often fried in the same oil as gluten-y foods. Many vegetarian and vegan protein products contain gluten. Now I am become one who must negotiate with every server.
Removing all gluten from my life is a tad overwhelming, but I am working on it. Unlike lactose intolerance, it appears that gluten is not something you can eat from time to time (consequences be damned). I have about 40lbs of wheat flour to deal with, in addition to a variety of products in my pantry, fridge, and freezer to review for sneaky gluten. I am more bummed than I expected to lose beer. I’ve come to really love IPAs, and the gluten-free beer offerings in my area are paltry at present.
Shout out to my mom, who has been the most supportive possible person this month, foregoing all kinds of Christmas traditions to help me be gluten-free.
My years of abstinence were doable because they were voluntary, temporary, and inconsequential. A lifetime of abstinence from something as ubiquitous as wheat is difficult to conceive of. Presently, I mourn the loss of my starter, Bradley, whom I must put to sleep. Also, I am sorry that I cannot in good conscience complete my New World Sourdough project. There were so many delicious things I looked forward to baking, though the last bake I made was a disappointment. In lieu of the blog post, which I can’t be bothered to write, I will post photos below.
I will bake again, but I will be starting from scratch, if you will. For now I will simply work on how to feed myself with the restrictions I didn’t choose (and one that I did). With so many non-negotiable food limitations, I am ceasing my annual abstention program. There’s enough on my plate already.
New World Sourdough: Honey Oat Tin Loaf
I was eating a piece of this bread when I got my celiac diagnosis. I didn’t finish it. I can’t believe my last piece of bread was so disappointing.
I really love Bryan Ford’s New World Sourdough. It introduced me to many breads I’ve never tried, and it made me enjoy baking for the first time in a long time. Perhaps, one day, I will learn to bake gluten-free breads, and I can apply that knowledge to Ford’s book. Until then, please eat some mallorcas for me.