I’ve been a food nerd for a long time. Anything food, nutrition, or health related tends to be a giant passion of mine. And I’ve got a long history of interest with these things, from being raised vegetarian in a holistic health-minded home, being vegan for the first four years of my twenties, having been a raw-foodist for half a year, having eaten organically for the last 20+ years, with a focus on whole foods, green veggies, a healthy pH balance, and staying well hydrated, having experimented with many dietary lifestyles like eating for my Ayurvedic dosha, for my blood type, for my genetic type, and even gluten-free (something my body doesn’t require, but enjoys), to now trying small amounts of fish to see how my body responds to it. I’ve also got a two year degree in medicinal herbalism –with honors- and I’ve aced every nutrition course at my local community college. I’ve read and studied dozens of books on food, nutrition, and wellness in my free time, and have discussed diets and different perspectives on nutrition and wellness with countless people.
This is all to say, I consider myself having a well-rounded perspective on these things; I’m not just viewing health and wellness through one lens of experience and education, but through many.
The greatest wisdom that I have found in my 20 years of food-nerding, aside from coming to understand the vast importance of eating real food, is recognizing the mentality behind the way many people eat. And that there’s an identity enmeshment that often happens with our dietary choices that can be crushing to our health experience. By this, I mean that people get their egos wrapped up in how they eat, they defend how they eat as if their life depends on it, they want others to morph to that lifestyle as well, and they feel they can't separate their identities from their chosen diets.
We seem to forget that food is meant to be nourishing for us on all levels, rather than disheartening.
In my experience, there’s an Eating Spectrum for all of us, with a lot of people living at one extreme end or the other. The first extreme is those of us with the “Life is Too Short So Eat However You Want” mentality –those of us who have never known eating well, or have given it up to eat indulgently whenever we want to, who eat mostly crap “food,” and who have health and wellness problems because of it. And on the other end of the spectrum, the extreme “Health-Nuts” –those of us who abstain from and demonize a bunch of foods, ironically losing our connection to actually enjoying food, in an attempt to eat "right."
When did we go from regularly eating well and enjoying our wide array of foods with others to this imbalance of either not caring about quality food or neurotically obsessing over it?
I've known many health nuts who seem to completely over-identify with their chosen dietary habits as if they silently fear they won’t be a good enough, "pure" enough, worthy enough person who's still living a valuable life if they don’t eat rigidly minimalistically. They tend to lecture others and even look down on them for not following the same rules of eating in an attempt to feel better about themselves (reinforcing their beliefs) regarding their strict food choices. There's a term for this condition, actually. It's called Orthorexia. You can read more about it here at Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating Pure. (I have empathy and concern for this condition because I've lived through it. Our ego lies to us, telling us we're healthier than others not living the way we do. But we all deserve a more well-rounded view of how to be health and happy.)
So, we have a bunch of people running around with really poor diets and health, and a bunch of other people running around wanting to be their puritanical purest, when it comes to food, but often forgetting to enjoy the process and not alienate themselves and others, because people have forgotten what it means to be somewhere, healthfully balanced, in the middle of that spectrum. We’ve lost, as a society, what it means to know, be connected to, and enjoy our food. We’ve lost our healthy perspective on nourishment. We’ve lost what it means to have a balanced and loving relationship with this thing so central to our needs.
On one hand, we’ve got people who are so far removed from real food, they eat everything out of a box or bag from a factory they found on a store shelf; we’ve got children who don’t recognize basic vegetables and fruits because that’s not how they’re seeing them and eating them at home and at school; we've got people binge-eating comfort foods and then hating themselves for it; we’ve got people feeding themselves and their children with no core understanding of what real food is and why it matters. On the other hand; we have so-called health nuts who shame, alienate, and/or look down on those who aren’t health nuts in the same exact way that they are; we’ve got people driven to “health nuttery” out of a sense of awakening or inspiration but with no basic understanding of whole and integral nutrition; we’ve got the war between PALEO and VEGAN eaters, and others; we’ve got people attempting to perfect themselves and their identities through how they eat rather than nourishing themselves and each other.
Nourishing ourselves goes beyond our physical bodies, my friends.
Nourishing ourselves isn’t done by food alone. Take it from someone who ate ONLY incredibly nutritious, “clean” foods for years –I mean, daily veggie-packed green salads for lunch and dinner, daily pints of juiced kale and ginger, antioxidant rich berries and soaked almonds for snacks, and no breads, dairy, sugars, caffeine, or any alcohol whatsoever. All of that radical health food wasn’t enough on its own, though; we’re more than just our digestive tracts. What I didn’t understand at the time was the significance and history of food being a social bridge for us all; I thought people coming together for food was a societal weakness that ensured none of us would break the mold and start making healthier choices. Predictably, I slowly-but-surely blindly removed myself from being able to be close to anyone in my life who wasn’t eating the way I was. All because I was fanatical and obsessed with trying to purify my self-esteem through food rather than being in a healthy, balanced, loving relationship with food and with myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my health nut phase and the insight it gave me into eating incredibly nutritiously. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It taught me a lot and showed me that eating well can feel really amazing. When it’s done right, our bodies love it!
I’m just here to say that there’s more to eating than being rigid, fanatical, and egotistical about our food; there’s more to living well than separating ourselves from those who are on a path of making different dietary choices for themselves.
The thing is, food isn’t just nutrients; it’s memories, like the way grandma’s cooking smelled on Thanksgiving; it’s fun and bonding with others, like eating together in the cafeteria at school or trading your trick-or-treating candy with your friends for the ones you love most; it’s celebratory, of our culture’s holidays, weddings, and the like; it’s enriching to our friendships and families, like enjoying dinner together, teaching our children to cook and bake, gardening and enjoying our own home grown food that we worked on together, and preparing soups and hot herbal teas for our loved ones when they are ill.
In this way, food is both physically and psychologically nourishing. If we aren’t living on one extreme end of the spectrum, that is.
I think a lot of us fall into the trap of forgetting how crucial it is to support our emotional and psychological health when we are stressed. I’ll give you a very personal example. When my daughter was born, she couldn’t latch her mouth onto my breast properly; she couldn’t swallow the milk in her mouth and hold her latch on my nipple at the same time. What this meant was every time she swallowed a drink of milk, she lost her latch and began to suck in an extremely painful way for me. It got to the point, pretty quickly, where she was ferociously hungry every hour, I was wincing, crying, and not sleeping at all, and pretty soon I was bleeding into her mouth. Gruesome, but true.
I called my lifelong doctor, bless his beautiful and generous soul, and asked him what to do. He told me that my baby getting my breast milk wasn’t the only aspect of importance here; she and I also needed to be psychologically well together and bonding over our feedings –not crying and dying, or so it felt.
I didn’t believe him –rather the guilt in me didn’t believe him- but I felt like I had no choice (I was in pain, completely sleep-deprived, and still solely responsible for an energetic almost five year old son, our home, getting groceries and cooking, my work, and more, as my “partner” contributed nothing to us). And pumping milk for her had only caused me mastitis multiple times. So, we switched to formula and bottles. My militant “breastfeeding only!” midwife stopped talking to me and checking on us for not continuing to breast feed –the way a lot of naturalists believe is superior in all situations (a stance greatly lacking in empathy and life experience, if you ask me). And guess what. At 6 months old, my daughter was STILL losing her latch on her bottles when she drank. Had it not been for my doctor’s compassion and understanding of whole health, I would’ve attempted to keep breastfeeding her while my nipples were literally shredded.
It was then that I started to catch a glimpse into the detriments of people and their dietary “health” snobberies.
It was then that I began to glimpse the significance of letting go of my own nutritional fanaticism and opening up to a wider, broader understanding of what it means to be well on every level.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned: food is not the enemy. How we use it as a crutch for other issues in our lives is the real problem at hand. HOW we eat is at least as important as WHAT we eat, if not more so.
This isn’t an argument in favor of endless chips, pizza, beer, and ice cream, by the way. That would be the other end of extremism here. This is an argument in favor of meals that include both mega-nutritious foods and foods that warm our hearts and souls; this is an argument in favor of food bringing people together and nourishing our sense of belonging and community; it’s an argument in favor of wholeheartedly respecting the food choices of other people as they are not ours to make! This is an argument in favor of balance and integrity.
Because diets are a privilege. I know, I know. I just lost a lot of the readers who actually made it through this whole thing, but I’ll say it again. Diets are an aspect of privilege. They’re eliminatory and they’re expensive. And for most people, they’re hard to acquire, afford, and sustain. And, historically, we had NEVER shunned FOOD before its processed counterparts began overflowing every grocery store shelf and restaurant dumpster. In other words, diets are unnatural.
What’s natural to humans is to eat the foods that grow naturally and locally to them: meats, animal milks and eggs, vegetables, nuts, small amounts of fruits and honey, rice, lentils, and other grains and legumes. This is how the human race has survived and thrived. Those in Africa, for example, who survive on cow blood, meat, and milk might gape at one’s rantings about veganism. Or the Alaskan cultures who survive mainly on blubber, as well. Those relying on rice and potatoes might baffle at Paleo dieting. Those still thriving on wild harvested foods (or fresh from the farm foods) might wonder why the heck we turn our food into processed things that make us obese, sick, and riddled with cavities.
Returning to our roots of eating real food, food raised and grown locally when possible, the foods our ancestors knew, and enjoying ourselves in the process –via potlucks and parties, homemade desserts and celebratory cakes, cultural traditions, and family feasts- is the key to returning to our friendship with food. We’re meant to churn butter, pull kale from the garden, bake bread, and share in the dining on it by a warm hearth with happy friends and family, full belly and contented heart. This is true nourishment. And it’s delectable.
© Lindsay Swanberg – 2015. All Rights Reserved.