Letters from Boot Camp: Not-So-Super Foods

Michael's having a hard time shaping up his eating habits. He's not digging this whole "super foods" thing.

“Guess where I went last weekend?” Champagne Lady Pia asked me Tuesday morning, as we started doing our step-ups on the side of a playground barrier. Pia had missed Boot Camp the week before because she was still sore from doing the Broad Street Run, which would have left me in traction. Grunting as I attempted to keep my balance while securing one leg onto the ledge as I lifted my opposite knee to my chest, I grunted back, “Do tell.”

“The Franklin Fountain,” she said, almost like a dirty secret. Which in Boot Camp it certainly qualifies as. At the end of each week’s outdoor workout Lt. Eric drills all of us on how much food journaling we did, and then quizzes us on that week’s readings from The Book of Gavin. (This week’s “eating challenge” was “Add Super Foods to Super-Charge Your Body.” More on that later.) Like a 1970s adolescent piqued to discover the details hidden inside his brother’s Playboy, I instinctively turned briefly to make sure Eric wasn’t in earshot. “Details,” I huffed between leg lifts.

Aside from my own dropping-to-the-knees moment of weakness in Week 2, I hadn’t had ice cream at all since the beginning of this seemingly never-ending Charge of the Light Brigade of push-ups and planking. Which is sort of amazing. If you are a comfort-food junkie you have certain triggers, certain foods you crave the way addicts crave heroin or crystal meth—my friend Cissy once picked a still-warm uneaten piece of fresh-baked apple pie out of the trash. (And then, taking the hint, quickly joined OA.) For me, the deadly sins are fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. So I was naturally curious as to how Pia fared venturing behind enemy lines.

“I had chocolate marshmallow,” she said dreamily, the way you would about making out with that ridiculously hot Cuban guy on Dancing With the Stars. “It was soooooo good.” (Also what I imagine you would also say about making out with that hot Cuban guy on Dancing With the Stars.) She went on to say that it had been Mother’s Day and she felt she was owed a treat, so she had taken her mom in and they had both had a grand and tasty time.

Thinking about ice cream during Boot Camp is like thinking about sex during church: Wrong, somewhat immoral, and most unhelpful. Later, as we Campers moved on to squats, passing a 20-pound backpack between partners, I was paired with Cortney, a wonderful young mom with the sparkle of a sloe gin fizz who had also managed to complete Broad Street. As we squatted—To the left! Pass! To the right! Pass!—shuttling our backpack to each other, I remarked that as part of editing the magazine’s annual “Best of Philly” issue this year, the food editor had assigned me to judge the category of “Best Ice Cream.” (I now had frozen treats on the brain.)

I thought she was going to drop the backpack mid-squat. “What? Oh my God, that’s so unfair.”

Yes, in our alternative Boot Camp universe, it is. But it’s also my job. I could have gotten out of it, but I didn’t think it was fair to play the diva diet card, and more than that, I had something to prove, which was that I could supervise something like this and not fall apart. That I could somehow manage to research something as dietarily toxic as ice cream and not end up tumbling into a tub of it myself.

Which brings us back to Gavin and his eating challenges. Along with our regular inspirational readings from The Book of Gavin we get each week, we also get these, which are supposed to supplement our Gestapo workouts with mindful eating so that we don’t undo all of the progress we’re making in Boot Camp. Makes sense. Except that during Boot Camp someone is in front of you, barking at you to lift that weight and tote that barge, and you have a roomful of people to keep up with for motivation. When you live alone, as I do, there is no one to stand in front of the refrigerator to say, “Don’t eat that.” Or, better yet, to make sure you don’t buy it in the first place.

My first week of Boot Camp I went to the Super Fresh and bought all of the things you’re supposed to: Pears. Strawberries. Lettuce. Peanut butter (for protein). Whole-wheat bread. A few weeks later, when we got the “eating challenge” to clean out our cupboards of the bad (read: good-tasting) stuff, I dutifully complied, tossing soda, snacks, and anything that had even the faintest whiff of white flour. There was just one teensy problem.

I discovered, rather quickly, that I hate eating healthy.

The pears, untouched, rotted. A few weeks in I couldn’t face another apple. I have managed to eat health-ier, emphasis on the –ier. But good God, people. I read Gavin’s list of “super-charged foods” this week and knew I was in trouble when I didn’t recognize three-quarters of them. Acai? Camu Camu Berry? They sound like the names of Polynesian dancers. Glancing down the list, I could imagine whipping up a soufflé with propolis (what the hell is that?) and bee pollen, or perhaps I could sit down for a sumptuous meal of chia seeds, kelp, yacon root, and cats claw. Mmmmmm. Yummy.

Are you serious? They sound like stuff a witch puts in her brew. Of the more than 50 “super foods” Gavin helpfully listed, I realized, with not an insignificant amount of melancholy, that I had eaten only seven, and only two of those—garlic and avocado—regularly. Look, it’s not like I expected the list to include mashed potatoes or bacon. (But let us pause for a moment and fantasize it did. Aaaaah.) But the healthy foods I do eat and for which I was hoping to get a gold star for (carrots, asparagus, tomatoes, for example) didn’t make the list.

[Insert heavy sigh here.]

The most vexing part about this is not just that I am not still eating the right foods (or, at minimum, enough of them), but that I have also in recent weeks most definitely been eating too many of the wrong ones. While I have managed not to become a regular at any cheesesteak purveyors, I have begun to “treat myself” to the occasional doughnut or similar Thing I Should Not Be Eating from time to time. I argue with myself that it allows me to stick with all of this, that if I were to go hardcore (broccoli and barley grass shake, anyone?), I wouldn’t last a week. But it’s a fine line, and I know myself well enough to realize it. It doesn’t take much—bad day at work, big bill, obnoxious driver cutting you off—for the “occasional treat” to devolve into the slippery slope. And then this whole thing is going to unravel. I’ll simply be the fat guy who exercises. And that’s pointless.

Realistically, I don’t think I can manage an existence of hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and goji berries. I wouldn’t know a goji berry if it attacked me. But a “super food” sprinkled here and there? This I can probably manage. Now, pass the bee pollen.


Michael Callahan, the executive editor of Philadelphia magazine, hates working out—which is what makes this little experiment so very awesome. He blogs about his boot camp experience—the good, the bad, and everything in between—every Friday on Be Well Philly. Catch up on the series here.