I’m a 39-year-old man who has struggled with my weight for a decade. It’s an odd time to start getting thin.

“I noticed that the weight came off faster merely for the fact that I wasn’t eating in restaurants or blindly grabbing a snack between classes.”

Aside from one season on a recreational swimming team and barely organized games of soccer and kickball during elementary school recess, I’ve never played sports. In my twenties, I started lifting weights and running, and while I was neither cut nor skinny, I maintained a healthy weight. More to the point: I felt good. Then after graduate school and a few years tending bar, I got chubby, then something more than chubby, and I’ve been solidly 50 pounds overweight for nearly all of my thirties. 

Now that I’m 39, I’m facing the prospect of having spent an entire decade at a dangerously unhealthy weight, with all of the attendant complications that come with it (fatigue, sleeping problems, high blood pressure). 

It’s obvious to most of us that if you’re buying, preparing, and consuming healthier meals, your body will likely respond in kind.

Along with those physiological problems, weight gain has, for me, engendered shame and led to some wild justifications about how I eat (I’m already fat, so why not have another margarita, cookie, one more bite of cake?). After enough time spent being heavy, even the photos of myself that once shocked me—the ones taken innocently by friends at weddings or holidays, the pictures that once made me ask How did I get so big?—stopped bothering me. This resignation was worse than the initial shock of shameat least shame took the effort of cognition. I had to look at the picture, think about it, and examine how it made me feel.

But resignation? That takes little more than diverting your attention from the complicated and crappy feelings that come from ordering a dessert. Add to this a sincere hatred of fat-shaming and a fear of alienating or embarrassing others when speaking (or writing) about my body, and you end up with a recipe for denial and avoidance. Avoidance of thinking or talking about nutrition. Avoidance of mirrors and cameras. Avoidance of my annual physical, which I postponed twice in 2020, partly because of Covid, but also because I wanted to lose more weight before stepping on the scale in my doctor’s office.

Last Thanksgiving, after weighing in at my heaviest ever, I downloaded a food-logging app whose ads have been ubiquitous on public radio and Instagram. Between last December and March of this year, I lost a little over 20 pounds. I’m happy about that, but one thing I struggled with under lockdown has been eating enough healthy foods—the fiber-rich greens and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed foods that we’ve long been told are the staples of a nutritious diet. 

A tomato patch in author Nate Brown's garden. September 2020

A tomato patch in the author’s backyard garden.

Nate Brown

In March and April, as stay-at-home orders were put into place in cities and towns across the country, I noticed that the weight came off faster merely for the fact that I wasn’t eating in restaurants or blindly grabbing a snack between classes (I teach creative writing). This is not an epiphany, of course. It’s obvious to most of us that if you’re buying, preparing, and consuming healthier meals, your body will likely respond in kind.

What is a revelation, though, is this: You can read articles about inequalities in the food system; you can understand that lower-income households are more likely to suffer the results of rising food costs and poor nutrition; you can even talk about these disparities, rail against them, and address the subject in your personal life and in your teaching, and still not fully understand that our bodies require more than quick calories, convenience foods, and snacks that fail to really nourish. It takes the eating itself (and the attendant privilege of having a car that I can drive to a big grocery store with a well-stocked hippie section). To say that maintaining good nutrition and a good attitude about eating well are socially, personally, and politically complex is to state the obvious.

A bowl of cherry tomatoes. September 2020

Nate Brown

Red zebra and Shenghuang cherry tomatoes from the author’s garden.

This summer, the heirloom tomatoes my wife and I planted this spring alongside zucchini, peppers, and a dozen herbs, have played some role in nearly every meal we’ve prepared. As the hottest days of July progressed, the tomatoes began to ripen in the yard. It’s hard, perhaps even impossible, not to think about the implications of how we eat when you harvest a three-pound Yellowstone tomato that you’ve babied for eight weeks. It’s hard, when washing a bouquet of purple basil, mint, oregano, chives, and lavender under the nozzle of your garden hose, not to be a little thrilled at the abundance in your hands. And it’s wildly heartening to hand that bouquet over to a masked friend who, in return, hands you two pots of perennial greens, things you’ve never heard of, Turkish Rocket and Good King Henry, and says unironically: “Eat these in good health.”

Nate Brown is a Baltimore-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Publisher’s Weekly, and LitHub. He is managing editor of American Short Fiction magazine, and he teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University.