Growing up, I never put too much thought into the food that I ate. Of course, I kept in mind that salads were a healthy alternative to hamburgers, but I nevertheless enjoyed late nights at In-N-Out with my friends from time to time. I ate primarily balanced meals at home and enjoyed dessert in moderation. My day-to-day life was always filled with physical activity. I rode my bike five miles to school every morning, dog-walked four times a week to make a little extra money, taught children’s dance classes and then took my own classes as well. On weekends, I would take hikes with my friends and family as well as go running atop the hill behind my house. Thus, I never put too much thought into the foods I was eating because all of my physical activity balanced out the food that I would consume.
Going to college was the first time in my life that I would be living away from home. I would now have many new responsibilities, one of them being managing my own food. Fully wary of the freshman 15, I decided to pay close attention to my diet and exercise routine in order to avoid falling into this common fate.
In the beginning, my plan bore nothing but favorable effects. I ate fruit with my breakfast each morning and made sure to balance every lunch and every dinner with a salad. I enjoyed checking UCSB NetNutrition before serving myself in the dining commons, just to be knowledgeable about the ingredients I was putting on my plate. I began drinking more water and tried to exercise every other day. These were all positive changes in that they got me into a healthy routine among a time of such great change. My skin became clearer and I no longer fell into exhausted slumps after eating as I sometimes would after consuming those heavy In-N-Out burgers. I had never really paid attention to nutrition while living at home, so I felt a mature sense of agency through being able to control the way in which I was powering my body.
While these were positive changes to begin with, the goodness was not to last. My careful attention grew into an all-encompassing obsession that bled into every aspect of my life in innumerable negative ways. The health-conscious decisions that started as choices became rules to be followed at all costs: Always drink coffee before breakfast to suppress appetite. Never eat meat. If there is a low-cal alternative, always choose it. Bread, pasta and and rice are all absolute no’s.
Checking NetNutrition became the definitive criteria for picking a dining hall. If my friends invited me to Ortega but Carillo served more balanced options, I would formulate some lie explaining why I could not join them, then walk all the way around the lagoon alone in order eat a light meal of low-calorie polenta topped with microgreens. I was never one to skip class in high school, nor at the beginning of college. However, as my fixation progressed, my priorities began to change. If I knew that I would be expected to eat cake for a friend’s birthday that evening, I would skip class in order to make time to exercise so that what I burned would balance out what I ate.
Weighing myself became as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth. I tracked every calorie I ate down to a pinch of vegan parmesan atop my zoodles. I fidgeted throughout all my lectures because sitting still meant minimal calorie burn and minimal calorie burn was bad. When not in lecture, I could be found on a Rec Cen elliptical, pushing my undernourished body to its max. Though I was already quite lean upon entering college, by the end of my freshman year, I had lost 15 percent of my body weight.
Although these behaviors arose when I went away to college, they did not cease when I returned home for the summer. I remember getting invited to a pizza party by a dear high school friend. Although I had no plans for that evening and had not seen my high school friends in six months, I declined the offer. I valued saving the calories by staying home alone more than sharing pizza and good times with friends. The few times I did see my friends, they noted my weight change and concernedly questioned my well-being. I blamed the “pesky dorm plague” for my lack of appetite.
I knew that my tendencies were detrimental to my everyday life, but I was so fixated upon the number on the scale that I didn’t care. I stopped getting my period, stopped enjoying spending time with friends and stopped caring about things that were non-food-related.
There was one thing, however, that my fixation did not destroy: my dream of studying abroad. After only a few days in Paris for a family vacation when I was 10, I became infatuated by the French language, music and way of life. Since then, I aspired to spend my junior year of college sipping warm espressos reading Le Petit Prince in cozy cafés.
I was struck with elation upon receiving my acceptance email from the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) for the University of Bordeaux’s study abroad program. In a few short months, my decade-long dream would finally materialize. Yet, before departing, I would have to fill out all the mandatory paperwork, one of which was the housing preference form. My options were single apartment, shared apartment and homestay. Pondering these options, my head began to swirl. I knew that living in a homestay with a French family would be the best way for me to truly experience the French culture in which I so yearned to be immersed. However, choosing a homestay meant living by someone else’s rules, adhering to their schedule and, by all means, eating their food. I shuddered at the idea of willingly forfeiting my diet of kale smoothies, cauliflower rice and tofu scrambles for the rich, creamy, meat-heavy, veggie-lacking French cuisine.
Despite my fear of gaining weight and renouncing all the “healthy changes” I had made during my first two years of college, I did not want to let my obsession tarnish my long-held dream. I checked the homestay box on the form, then closed my laptop with trembling hands.
When I arrived at my homestay, I walked into a home very different from what I was used to; it was exactly what I had dreamed of and more. My host mother’s dwelling was classic Bordelaise, crafted of white limestone and furnished with sun-faded vintage wood. Verdant plants surrounded the living room piano, and books with yellowed pages bound to cracking spines filled the shelves. Her kitchen had 50 of everything — spoons, forks, knives, bowls, plates, cups, wine glasses — and with these abundant apparatuses, she had delicately prepared an exquisite dish of spaghetti Bolognese to welcome me. When I saw the steaming plate on the table, my excitement extinguished in a snap. Red meat, olive oil and carb-heavy spaghetti — it was three evils in one, all teaming up on me to corrupt my regimen. Nevertheless, I knew that sharing the meal was the right thing to do. I pushed aside my thoughts and got to know my host mother over our plates. Her warmth made me feel welcome and comfortable, and my anxiety about the food began to slip away.
Throughout my first few weeks, each meal felt like a mountain to be scaled. Yet, after reaching the summit and laying my cutlery aside my plate, I felt not accomplishment, but guilt. However, over time, I learned to enjoy the view. The creaminess of warm-buttered purée, the tantalizing juices of duck confit and the heavy richness of quiche Lorraine … These are all plates that I never would have dreamed of tasting before studying abroad but now cannot imagine my experience without.
I enjoyed the new flavors and began to seek out more. After hearing that France’s best-rated viennoiserie was situated in Bordeaux, I eagerly took a special trip downtown to sample its chocolatine. On a weekend trip to Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital, I eagerly tasted the buttery culinary specialty of foie gras. Throughout my study abroad experience I sampled canelés, the classic Bordelaise pastry flavored with rum and vanilla, from multiple shops, in order to discover the best one.
My newfound joy for food spilled over into other facets of my life. I rediscovered interests which had been so long ignored while I was carefully counting the cherry tomatoes on my salad and logging them into my calorie-counting app. I now had the time to create things and started writing a blog about my study abroad adventures. I went out to bars with friends and ordered the drinks that looked appealing to me — even if they were made with non-diet tonic water! I spent lazy Saturday mornings reading poetry in my sunlit living room, fidget-free and entirely content. I finally saw the value in a life centered around the pursuit of joy instead of a quest to fit into double zero jeans.
Reflecting on the past four months, I am astounded at how much I’ve changed. Living with a French host family incentivized me to stray from my “perfectly clean diet” in order to create true familial connections. Being surrounded by a gastronomy-centered society prompted me to let down my guard surrounding food in order to experience its cultural beauty in entirety. Thus, studying abroad gave me more than just change of scenery; it also allowed me a change in the way I view my life.
I’d be lying if I said that my conscience doesn’t sometimes flicker when I take a bite of chocolate cake. But the relics of my past mentality never trump my newfound desire to engage in life’s pleasures. I love food, as well as the countless lessons and connections that it can bring. Thus, I have no reservations swallowing my rules in order to fully digest life.
Miya Herzstein seeks to inspire anyone and everyone to experiment with new flavors.