Shuffle shuffle shuffle, shplop, clump, clump, clump…(that’s the sound of me hauling in and climbing up on my soap box, actually no, let’s go with it being me setting up my 2 cents booth, and special for you, today only, there’s no charge!…)
So a study came out and suddenly everyone’s all abuzz with the Mediterranean Diet all over again. Perhaps you’ve heard?
Which I suppose must be nice for the Mediterranean Diet and all, given it was probably feeling a little dusty and lonely and ignored from several years of being quite out of the spotlight. And maybe, if things go well, it’ll get some people to eat a little extra olive oil and seafood.
But, here’s what I worry. I worry that this is just going to add back one more way we measure ourselves and judge ourselves when it comes to what we eat. It provides one more set of potential boxes to constantly fret about ticking off so that we can feel good about ourselves because we “were good” that day, and to feel bad about ourselves if we deviate from because we “were bad” that day.
This is actually my problem with all the diets I hear about these days be they “paleo,” “vegan,” “raw,” “4-hour body,” “bullet proof,” or what have you. It’s not a problem with the diets themselves, actually, but a problem with how we – or, well, let’s personalize this, how I – respond to them emotionally. They make me judge myself. And if there’s one thing I don’t need extra help with, it’s judging myself. I’m super good at that all on my own, thanks.
When I’m trying to adhere to one of these carefully delineated ways of eating it becomes a constant rating game, just like so much of the rest of life can feel. When I’m getting praise at work or I’m on a run of eating no grains at all or something, inside I start jabbering, “I get a star for this, ooh that means I’m a good person. Must try to maintain stars at all costs”… and then I get worn out and feel bad about myself because I’m just trying to maintain my internal idea of how many stars I have, and then I do something “wrong,” like eat a scone or get a negative comment back from a journal I’ve submitted a paper to. “I get a big black X for that, oh no! disaster!! despair!!!!!! I must be a bad person. I am a horrible person…” And then I feel bad about myself.
Either way, it turns out, I feel bad about myself because I tie myself to my rating system of the moment (and I have a feeling I can’t possibly be the only one who does this, including with regards to food). And with diets, this winds up making me feel frightened of my food. And I’m quite certain that when you’re frightened of your food, it can’t really nourish you, no matter how many micronutrients it might contain.
When I get into one of my states of being frightened of food I may, ostensibly, be eating extremely healthfully – all kale and salmon and whatnot – but I feel terrible, and quite unhealthy. Food becomes a source of worry, depriving it of all its latent potential for enormous beauty and creativity. I sit around and wonder about that piece of white toast I had. “That’s probably going to give me cancer,” I torture myself. The thing is, probably a piece of toast here and there won’t. And probably getting stuck in fear driven thought patterns will.
When I read all these books about different diets based on this bit of science and that bit of science, I start bombarding myself with endless thoughts and calculations about my food and become so very listless and uninspired. And that winds up carrying into other parts of my live as well. I feel unwell and uninspired all around. Clearly that can’t do me any good.
What shakes me out of it are examples of people eating beautifully, and thoughtfully, with care and intention and boundless joy, and nothing whatsoever to do with science (and that includes having nothing to do with “foods” that are created by science, a la nearly all the snack foods and fast foods and things in packages everywhere). Reading Tamar Adler’s work or Julia Child’s, for example, makes me feel empowered and healthy and ready to cook gracefully and lovingly with whatever good, real ingredients I have on hand, knowing that it is all about balance.
Seeing the ladies at the Canal House and their endlessly varied lunches, too, makes me feel so excited to eat well because you can see in those lunches the balance and natural limits that come from the true love of savoring food and flavors, rather than strictly imposed bounds. Some days they’ll have grilled bacon, gruyere and dates on olive bread (which I’ve tried and is unbelievably good, by the way) or fried chicken sandwiches, but then on other days they’ll have freshly grown vegetables with a spiced yogurt sauce, or a piece of poached fish with the newest spring peas and herbs, or a half avocado sprinkled with sea salt. Not because they feel penitent about the fried chicken – they may joke of penitence sometimes, but you can tell they don’t mean it, really – but because on those days that is what was beautiful and right to eat. And you can tell they relish their time eating together.
How many of us eat our breakfast on the go, scarf our lunches while working at our desks, and eat dinner without ever stopping to put our forks down and converse for a few minutes. And, I can’t say it’s completely our faults. We are surrounded by signals that tell us, “you’re busy! You’re so busy! Being busy means you’re good and productive and being a good worker. Being un-busy means you don’t contribute, you don’t really have a right to be here, and you probably are boring.” When we get those signals and allow ourselves to believe them (and it’s so freaking hard not to believe them) of course we rush through our meals.
But that gives us no opportunity to notice what we are eating, to be mindful of the flavors and textures and scents and how the food was prepared and who we are eating with. And if we don’t notice those things, we are left hungry, and we do feel bored because we didn’t actually have the experience of being there. And being hungry and bored in a world that is also constantly pushing snacks and stuff that looks like food but is actually crap (that is one place where I think strict-ish limits should be drawn) on us, well that’s a dangerous situation.
The busier we are, the more rigid of boundaries we set up to give us some feeling of control. But being in control doesn’t mean we are free. We have infinite choices but we are not free. It’s sad. And the rigidity of the boundaries leaves them so susceptible to cracks. A crack here and a crack there usually sends us into feeling unhealthy, and correspondingly behaving unhealthy, because it is a tenuous and frightening situation. What we need is to shatter completely.
What I need, that is, is to shatter completely. I’ll (try to) not presume to put feelings into anyone else’s heart.
When I stop judging and defending and judging and defending, I make better choices anyway, and creativity blossoms again. Not that I ever remember that when I’m stuck in my judging and defending pattern.
Of course, if you have an intolerance you should avoid that food. If you are already sick you should possibly eat in a more particular pattern. I’m not saying no to limits. But I’m saying no to judgmental limits, and yes to natural limits, the limits that are born out of actually loving and wanting the best for yourself, and really loving and wanting the best from your food, and as often as possible remembering that eating food is a social and cultural act meant to be shared, not dissected by the scientific method.
Listening. Trusting. Loving. We need more of that in our diets.
I pulled myself out of one of my self-loathing, food-fearing funks yesterday by reading through a couple of really gorgeous cookbooks, gorgeous in that earthy way that makes you want to cook, not just ogle. And when I pulled myself out of the funk, boy did I cook. We had a couple good friends over, and we had lamb meatballs in a spicy sauce with yogurt; orzo tossed with giant bunches of chopped herbs and crumbled feta; a salad of citrus, avocado, and olives; plus another salad of spinach, dates, and pickled onion with spiced pita croutons; and to finish one truly spectacular chocolate chip cookie each.
The meal pretty much wasn’t anything free. There was gluten, and dairy, red meat, and nuts, and a little sugar, and a huge assortments of fruits and vegetables. It was gorgeous and colorful and entirely made from scratch. We sat for several hours eating and laughing, and I felt perfect after it, just barely full (small portions, friends! small portions.), balanced, and happy. I defy anyone to tell me that wasn’t a healthy meal.
So there you go. I’ll be back in two shakes with a few good recipes, now that I’m getting my cooking groove back, but for today, that’s all I have. My soapbox…er, my two cents.