Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Failing at Live Below the Line

I had been afraid that all of my obsessive planning would be for naught because I lack the willpower. Anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time knows that I have had trouble sticking with any kind of diet. My Weight Watchers ups and downs are what started this whole blog. Since then I've tried other things but haven't been able to stick with them for long.

Willpower was not the problem this time. I was determined to stick it out as long as I could and felt no urge to cheat.  Lack of experience being hungry was the problem. I didn't know what I should plan to eat.   I thought we were set.  We had our meal plans all laid out on a spreadsheet. We were going to have pretty much the same thing for breakfast every day and try different kinds of cheap dinners: beans and rice, lentil soup, and macaroni and cheese.

We started at sundown on Sunday and cooked up a big pan of beans and a similar one of rice for two nights' dinner:

The problem here was that I could barely choke it down. Because I was trying to keep my spice use to a minimum, I made the dish way too bland. It was horrible.  I ate as much as I could and gave the rest to my husband, who was happy to have the extra calories.

Breakfast wasn't so bad, I have learned to like oatmeal and we had some raisins for sweetener. I put in a little cinnamon-sugar mix we had in the pantry, but not too much.  I had 1/4 of a grapefruit so between the raisins and the grapes, managed to get a fruit serving in.  I had black tea, since it is much cheaper than coffee.

I saved my teabag for lunch and reused it. I managed to get almost four cups of tea out of one teabag.  Not too shabby. We had bought the cheapest white bread (39 cents!) we could find and a peanut butter sandwich was the main course. I toasted mine because I'm not a big fan of white bread. The first day, I burnt it. It still tasted great.  The peanut butter was about the only fat I had all day, as the beans were made without any oil.

I spread out my lunch, having a snack that I took to work with me.  I drank tap water in that snazzy aluminum bottle.  I found it very hard to work by day two.  My brain got fuzzy and I was tired and unmotivated.

Dinner on the first full day was a repeat of Sunday's beans and rice. I added a little extra salt and pepper and it still tasted bad, but while I was really hungry, I could eat it. Once I took the edge off my hunger, though, I couldn't stomach it. I gave the leftovers to my husband again.  He didn't mind it and we sure as heck weren't going to throw away food. 

I don't have a picture, but we each air-popped 1/4 cup of popcorn and spritzed it with three hits of a cheap canola oil spray and sprinkled it with salt. This was the only other fat the first day. My first day's calories were right around 1100.

On the second day, I had the same breakfast and lunch. Then, because I could not face beans (or lentils) at dinner, I went to the store to look for other deals.  Weirdly, the cheapest way to buy eggs was by the 1/2 dozen, unless I went for the huge two dozen package. I couldn't use that many eggs before they went bad so I went for the 1/2 dozen. I also found milk for $1 for a half gallon.  And I bought a cheap Jiffy corn muffin mix.  The dinner plan was a scrambled egg (cooked in the canola oil spray) and 2 muffins each. We would have leftovers for breakfast. I redid the spreadsheet and the math worked out.

The dinner really filled me up for the first time in two days.  But I was hungry less than an hour later. We had our snack early, and I went to my French lesson. I almost fell asleep during it. I had no energy.  The French teacher had brought some treats, but I said "merci, non," because free food is not allowed.

Because the meal seemed bigger and more satisfying than the first night, I assumed it would have more calories.  Wrong. I did the math this morning and it brought our calorie count for the day to just under 800.  We were both feeling so terrible that we agreed to end our experiment early. My husband is a high school teacher, and I am a professor. Neither of us has been able to think or work as well as we need to. It's the end of the semester and we have a lot of work to do. I have had a headache since the evening of day one. I am toughing it out until dinner tonight to make it three full days.

Today has been easier, knowing it's almost over. I don't feel as hungry. I couldn't finish my breakfast in one sitting so I saved part of it for later.  I feel nauseated and don't want to eat.  I was on campus today for a meeting and I felt lightheaded. We couldn't have made it the full five days.  My husband said he was daydreaming about a big coffee drink with lots of milk and sugar in it.  He drinks his coffee black, so that was kind of weird.  Both of us are going through caffeine withdrawal. That coffee drink sounds amazing right now.  

What did we do wrong? Part of it is that we didn't work out the calories to make sure that we could get a minimum of calories. Plus, we tried to eat like healthy people on a subsistence budget. There is a reason that poverty and obesity go together in this country -- we could have filled up on bread and snacks if we hadn't tried to have some fruit and vegetables. When you are eating them on an empty stomach, fruit and vegetables are nauseating.  And it also hurts that I'm somewhat of a picky eater. The food was just too bland for me.  If I had been able to choke down those beans and rice, I would have had enough calories for my brain to work properly.  I purposely chose something I liked, but I liked those white beans and tomatoes with plenty of seasoning and a nice drizzle of olive oil. Without those, they were so disgusting that I felt my throat close just thinking about eating them. I remember hearing that my grandfather, who grew up very poor, put ketchup on everything. He could eat anything anyone ever gave him because all he tasted was the ketchup.  If I were going to do this again, I would have to budget for some hot sauce or something.

I don't think I will do it again, though. I learned a lot from this experiment, but mostly I learned that I'm not smart enough to live this poor.  It's too much work, too much mental energy, and too emotionally draining.  People (mostly well-off suburbanites) talk about a "poverty mentality." If there is such a thing, I know where the poverty mentality comes from. It's from having to spend so much time figuring out how you are going to feed your family that you don't have the energy to think about anything else. It's about being so hungry and tired from not getting proper food that you can't think straight.  Plus, people who are really poor don't get to quit after a few days, like I did.  

I didn't do much fundraising, though that was part of the goal of the experiment. I posted on my personal facebook page and got one donation, from Debbie. I made up the rest myself -- I figured it was the least I could do.  If you would like to donate to the Live Below the Line campaign and help end hunger worldwide, you can go to the main fundraising page and click on your country, then click Donate. On the U.S. donation site, you can choose a partner charity. They are all good causes, so you can't go wrong.

I bought a lot of different groceries when we were trying to figure out how we were going to eat. Weirdly, our pantry was overstuffed while we were doing this experiment.  In the mail today there was a flyer about the Stamp Out Hunger program run by the United States Postal Service. They are collecting this Saturday. I  have two bags filled and waiting by the door. I don't want anyone's kid to go to school feeling like I did the last three days.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I applaud your effort for attempting this challenge. You have a new understanding of eating on a very limited budget and made a thoughtful donation. It wasn't a total fail.

  2. I, too, applaud you for attempting the challenge AND for bringing awareness of the issue to everyone you know. As for not finishing, I'm sure you and your husband both know what this means:

    DLF > DNF > DNS

    Kudos to you both.

  3. As I read, I thought of the book Hatchet (1987, three-time Newbery Honor, wilderness survival novel) by Gary Paulsen. The main character has to feed himself, in winter, with what he can find/kill. Basically all he had was a knife. I also thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood.

    Lyn (Escape from Obesity) gained most of her weight while surviving with several small children below the poverty line and using food banks. She ate a lot of donuts and bread. The food banks had a lot of non-food and low quality bread products.

    I went on a tour of a major garden many years ago. It was basically a hobby of an older couple that grew totally out of control. The largest kitchen garden I have ever seen. They used and gave to friends and family, but most of it went to food banks.

    Where are you in your own process coming out of this experience? Did it help you center your focus and priorities (or however you look at it) or did it do the opposite because of the deprivation? Curious to know if you feel like writing about it. The AFTERS can be tough. Might be hard on you since you quit (even though I agree that was absolutely the right thing to do).


    did your cat have pancreatitis? I can't remember.

  5. Anonymous2:03 PM

    It's not a fail - you learned a lot, right? You have food to donate to a good cause, too. And some enlightening blog posts. This was/is a difficult challenge.
    Re Vickie's post, I thought of the book Into the Wild, a good and thought provoking read.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07