An almost real-life conversation about this article:
Boss: I was thinking that maybe you could write a story about your eating habits.
Me (confused): What about my eating habits?
Boss: Well, you know, how you don’t really eat all that well …
Me(confused): I don’t?
Co-worker (gently): You know. Like how you go to Popeye’s Chicken for lunch if you’re having a bad day.
Boss (a little less gently): Or how you eat LaMar’s donuts every single day.
Co-worker (not really gently at all): Or how sometimes you just eat candy bars for lunch.
Me: Wow. Do you guys really think I eat that bad?
Co-worker: You kind of eat like an asshole.
Out of all the things I’m really, really good at in this world — roller-blading, fantasy football, being a great friend, real estate investments, fixing car engines, church, Hungry, Hungry Hippos, getting Christmas presents, Power Point presentations, staying humble, never having to go to the bathroom on airplanes — probably the thing I’m best at is having a great smile.
But probably the thing I’m second best at is eating awesome food all the time.
I’m always eating all kinds of great food. Burritos. Tacos. Bratwurst. Cheeseburgers. Double cheeseburgers. Chili cheeseburgers. Cinnamon buns. Fried chicken. Milkshakes. Deep-dish pizza. Gumbo. Tater tots. Turducken. Italian sausages. Jalapeno Poppers. Chicken nuggets. General Tso’s chicken. Funnel cakes.
Basically, if there’s a good food out there, I’ve probably eaten it.
How it works is that I just sort of think about good food that I want to eat, and then I eat it. This is the way it’s always been.
I’ve pretty much tried to live my life the way Kevin McAllister lives his when he’s home alone, the main difference being that if Joe Pesci were trying to break into my house, I would probably just call the police instead of trying to burn his hair off with a blowtorch and hit him with paint buckets.
And nothing, I was convinced, was ever going to change that.
Completely real-life Google Chat from a month ago:
me: hey, i have to write this story about my eating habits for work. apparently my co-workers think i eat like an animal. can you think of any examples of this? it’s ok if you can’t.
nick nelson: you don’t even own plates to put real food on
nick nelson: you don’t own A fork
nick nelson: your fridge has only pizza boxes. most of them empty.
nick nelson: all you had for breakfast the other day was caffeine and sugar bread
me: ok, that’s enough.
nick nelson: you don’t order more than $2.99 worth of food at drive-thru’s
nick nelson: sometimes you don’t eat at all
nick nelson: you are winded after one pull-up …
It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, I became such a fantastic eater, but it probably dates to when I was 10 years old, a little ball of fury with a bowl cut and a perpetual Kool-Aid mustache.
At dinner, when I’d refuse to eat whatever disgusting vegetable my parents had decided to set in front of me, my mom — like all moms — would frown, shrug dramatically and say, “Fine. You can sit here at the table until you do.”
Now, most kids couldn’t last more than 20 minutes in this age-old game of dinner-table chicken. They’d start missing their “Mario Kart” or their “Boy Meets World,” and they’d break like a twig. Not me. I’d sit at that dinner table for four, five hours sometimes — arms crossed, lower-lip jutted out in rebellion — until my parents, ready for bed, had no choice but to set me free.
As time passed, I stuck to this strict dietary code of eating only food that I wanted to eat, and it served me pretty well.
I tried all kinds of exotic foods that I otherwise might not have, like cheese fries and Surge and Choco Tacos. And despite managing to ingest almost no fruits or vegetables in the past 15 years, I was able to maintain a pretty promising physique. (My body was once described — by me, in my diary — as “like something out of one of those Greek mythology books, only a lot better.”)
Anyway, eating became part of my identity. People would see me eating like a champion at some restaurant or dinner party, and they’d say: “Dugan, you’re obviously an incredibly gifted and successful individual, a young man who is not only a born leader, but a transcendent talent in the cut-throat and booming newspaper industry. How is it that, in addition to all of your other talents, you’re able to eat like such a champion all the time?”
And I would chuckle and tell them, “You’re right. I am all those things you said.”
And then I would explain that eating like a champion isn’t hard. It’s just about trusting your gut.
For instance, before deciding what to eat, I would often ask myself the following questions:
Would I rather have a Winstead’s triple cheeseburger, or some squash? Would I rather have a Philly cheesesteak, or some low-fat yogurt? Would I rather have this box of Girl Scout cookies, or literally anything else?
And it’s funny. The answers were always Winstead’s triple cheeseburger, Philly cheesesteak and this box of Girl Scout cookies.
In fact, the only time I ran into trouble was when I’d attempt to veer from this path.
Right after college I was working in Florida, living the kind of free-wheeling paradise existence most folks can only dream about, when I got it in my head that it might be a good idea to teach myself how to cook.
The first meal I attempted was spaghetti and Ragu sauce. I had it for four straight nights that week, and I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you: It turned out good. Real good.
It was so good, in fact, that I didn’t think twice about the curious cotton substance that began growing inside the jar of Ragu sauce after the first day.
I just kept on eating until, by day three, it felt like someone had twisted my intestines into a French braid and wrapped them in barbed wire.
As it turned out, the cotton substance wasn’t cotton at all. It was mold. A pretty treacherous strain of mold, apparently, because I spent the next few nights bent over a toilet seat, barfing up spaghetti and cotton balls.
When I finally got my bearings a few days later, I vowed that — even though I had absolutely no reason to be ashamed, because not realizing that you had to refrigerate a jar of Ragu sauce after opening it is a mistake anyone in the world could have made, and one that hundreds of thousands of people probably do make each year — I’d never make the mistake of trying eat healthy again. And so I didn’t.
For the next four years, I ate nothing but good food. I’m talking Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast. I’m talking pizzas for lunch. I’m talking Lufti’s Fried Catfish for dinner. I’m talking Lufti’s Fried Catfish for dinner the next night …
And I probably could have kept up that Boss Hogg-eating lifestyle forever if, last winter, I hadn’t happened to meet a cute young thing who was well on her way to becoming a registered dietitian.
Totally real-life conversation with my mom:
Mom: “What did you do last weekend?”*
Me:“I went out to dinner with this girl I met.”
Mom:“Ugh! You didn’t eat like you normally do, did you??”
From the start, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of cozying up to a dietitian.
I mean, I didn’t know what dietitians did, exactly, but I knew enough to know that they’re the kind of people who are always trying to keep you from eating really good food like cheeseburgers and corn dogs.
But this particular dietitian had my two favorite qualities in a woman — looks; said yes when I asked her out — so I figured I’d take a chance on love.
Right away, however, my new dietitian girlfriend set out to flex her dietary muscle. She had all kinds of weird, new-age dietary suggestions for me. “You should drink a glass or two of water during the day,” she’d mention. Or, “Maybe you shouldn’t have so much Mountain Dew before bed.”
I mean, just really crazy stuff like that.
Once, she tried to convince me that Diet Coke didn’t taste all that different from regular Coke.
“Listen, lady,” I said. “I might have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night!”
It went on like this for a while — me trying to eat really amazing food like onion rings and Cheetos, her trying to turn me into some kind of crazy health nut — until one night, a few months back, I reluctantly agreed to let her pack my lunch for me.
The next day at work, I opened my lunch pail to find a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, a container of Greek yogurt, a bag of grapes and a small container filled with a brownish substance I had come to recognize as “hummus.”
Now typically, I would have just pulled the turkey out of the sandwich, eaten it, and tossed the rest of the stuff right into the garbage can where it belongs, but I was particularly hungry that day and too busy to walk over to a nearby restaurant to get some real food. So I had no choice but to sit at my desk and eat what I had.
What happened next, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around.
As I sat at my desk that day, eating all of the things she’d packed, I was struck by one, unshakable thought: “This isn’t quite as disgusting as I thought it would be.”
That night, I told her as much, and over the course of the next few months she began introducing me to other new foods I had never thought to eat. Omelets. English muffins. Fruit.
I’d ask her about different foods I’d see her eating, and she’d share insider information with me that only dietitians knew, industry secrets like how strawberry soda doesn’t necessarily have real strawberries in it. Or how cheeseburgers, even though they have basically every food group there is if you count the bun and the cheese and the lettuce and the tomato, aren’t actually as good for you as you might think.
And somewhere in the middle of all this, it began to occur to me: Maybe being an awesome eater wasn’t just about eating whatever you want, whenever you want. Maybe it was about mostly doing that, but sometimes eating gross food like vegetables and yogurt, too.
Real-life phone conversation from a couple months ago:
The Dietitian: Did you eat dinner yet?”*
Me: “No, but I’m gonna grab something from the drive-through on the way home.”
The Dietitian: “I hope you get explosive diarrhea.”
These days, it can be hard to recognize myself.
Physically, everything is pretty much the same — same chisled jaw and flawless bone structure and perfectly sized ears.
I’m speaking more in an abstract sense.
I’ve been making all sorts of healthy choices lately, choices I never would have made in the past. I’ve been experimenting with vegetables, eating things like green bean casserole and mashed potatoes and gravy, and telling the Starbucks barista to hold the whipped cream on my peppermint mochas.
The other day at the grocery store, meanwhile, I did something I never thought I’d do: I picked up a sack of apples.
I didn’t buy them or anything — I just kind of looked at the bag for a few seconds before putting it back on the shelf — but the fact that I was able to physically pick them up speaks volumes, I think, for the dedication and willpower that I, as a human, possess.
As for the dietitian and I, things are going pretty well. Growing up, my mom always said: “Dugan, I love you like a son, but the way you eat is how a stray dog eats. And if you ever find a woman who can change that, you need to marry her, because there aren’t too many people in this world that would put up with your brand of nonsense.”
And so in November, on a chilly night in Chicago, I handed the dietitian a diamond ring and asked her to spend the rest of her life with me.
She said — and I quote — “Yes.”
Just because I’m marrying a dietitian, though, doesn’t mean I’m magically immune to the same dietary desires every other human being struggles with. Do I still eat, like, six cheeseburgers a week on average? Sure I do. Do I still have candy bars for lunch sometimes? Obviously. Did I recently eat a container of chocolate cake frosting for dinner because it was in my kitchen and I didn’t feel like driving to get take-out somewhere? Of course I did.
But I’m trying to be better, kind of, and isn’t that the whole point?
Relationships are about compromise, after all, and if this whole “healthy eating” thing has taught me one thing, it’s that I’m probably the best person I know at compromising and being reasonable.