edge of seventeen

Twenty-odd years ago, I had a girlfriend who would, not infrequently, lament that the best year of her life was, and always would be, when she was 17.  At the time I thought it was preposterous — not simply because we were, chronologically, so close to 17, but also because the idea that my best days were behind me seemed, knowingly or not,  impossible to bear.

Her rationale lay with two key concepts about being 17:  1.) physically her body was in the best shape it would ever be, and 2.) the level of responsibility she carried was lower than it would ever be again.

I’ve thought a lot about her belief over the years and, at different developmental moments, have returned to ponder it. In recent months it’s popped into my consciousness a lot — often when people comment on the fact that I seem to look younger. In more private moments, it occurs to me when I notice a renewed vitality.

Since changing my diet, I have experienced some major shifts in my body.  The size of my jeans has dropped from 36 to 32 (and the 32s are getting loose this summer). My hair is growing faster and stronger than it has in five or six years.  My skin is clearer. I have greater strength and endurance. I routinely only need 7 hours of sleep. In short, I’m more like my youthful self than I’ve been in many years — and I’m curious as to how far diet, exercise and lifestyle can go to returning me to as close to my 17-year old body as possible.

I don’t have illusions. Some things are not going to change. The grey in my hair and the thickness of my hairline will not return to what they were. I’m not going to lose the wrinkles around my eyes or get pearly white teeth again.  I will never have the 28 inch waist I had at 17.  But I’m curious about how much diet and life choices are responsible for those things we reflexively chalk up to age. For a long time, I attributed the thickening of my body and the slowing of my metabolism to an inevitable process.  I believed that my lack of stamina was a consequence of being over 40.  Now I know that I was wrong. 

I’m also now aware, that at twenty I was already starting a rapid retreat from my 17-year old body.  The carbohydrate-dense food served to me during my freshman year at college did several things:  it saved my college money by filling us as cheaply as possible; it made me docile; and it put 25 pounds on my slim frame. No one questioned the “freshman fifteen” in those days, simply assuming that filling out was growing up. Perhaps a final thing it did was train me to eat in certain ways — and to ultimately buy food and cook it in ways that continued to push me quickly out of my prime.  I didn’t have the criticality around food to think any differently.

Today, I think about food in a pretty simple equation. Besides setting aside a few common food elements — like sucrose (table sugar), meat, most forms of dairy, and gluten (primarily, in reference to my old diet,  wheat, rye, and barley) — I also think strategically about the calories I take in. I try to eat food that is as nutrient dense as possible — with very few empty calories.  This enables me to fuel the engine without stressing the system. It also, perhaps not surprisingly, leaves me a diet that has a lot of whole foods and foods rich in micronutrients / antioxidants.

I haven’t really commented on the second half of my girlfriend’s rationale, but I think the question of carrying responsibility cuts both ways.  Yes, today I an responsible for my life and my survival in ways I couldn’t conceive at 17.  I also have a level of control, autonomy and agency  — I am a center of decision making — that was unknown and impossible given my 17-year old circumstances. I wouldn’t trade my progress in this area.

Holding my tongue firmly in my cheek, perhaps what I’m looking for is the animal vitality of my 17-year old body and the measured power of my 44-year old experience?  Regardless of my conscious or unconscious motivations, it’s good to feel good again.

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