You know how when you look at pictures of Asian girls, they all look super skinny, like fat is somehow anathema to Asian genes? And you maybe figure, well yeah they’re skinny. They work like maniacs over there and all they have to eat is a bowl of rice. Okay, so here’s the deal. Every single one of my Asian cousins is that skinny, but they can pack away food like great woolly bears before hibernation. I’m being literal when I say I’ve seen a 110-pound woman (my sister-in-law) put away 7 bowls of noodle soup in one sitting. But when they come to the States? After a few weeks, the pound creep begins. Suddenly they need to discover exercise regimens.
It works in reverse too. Every single person I know who was born and raised American but lived abroad for at least a few months has shed significant pounds, mostly not even knowing where the weight went because they sure weren’t scrimping on the eats.
How does this happen?
We’ve heard a lot about poor consumer habits and choices: eating enormous portion sizes or being addicted to salt, fats, and sugars. Jamie Oliver does big spiels on getting away from processed foods, and in the speeches I’ve seen he uses some pretty extreme examples of people who’ve grown up extra large because they just don’t know how to cook for themselves. But what about the people in between? The ones who do eat fruits and vegetables, and stay away from processed goods when they can? The ones who do cook for their families, but still find themselves struggling? There’s also a lot of talk about what the food industry does to almost all of our food, not just the ones in prepackaged boxes: genetic modification, added preservatives, inserting corn (read: calories) into everything (if you haven’t seen Food, Inc., please do – and read Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). Not only are these things related to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, there is also some concern (not yet scientifically proven) that genetic modification is increasing our children’s susceptibility to food allergies. It’s not substantiated yet, but we do know that food allergies among children are on the rise (not to mention childhood obesity).
I look at all this and I feel overwhelmed. I feel cheated, like all the time and care I put into cooking well has been sabotaged by my own lack of awareness. By the simple fact that at least half of the time, I don’t know where what I put in my mouth has been. I know a lot of it has traveled many, many miles to get to me. I know what the labels say (and most of it is a foreign language to me anyway, full of chemicalese). But I don’t know what has happened in those miles and I don’t know what the labels don’t say because the government hasn’t thought to include it. Or because a powerful industry lobby managed to prevent hortatory reform (laws that ensure full market information).
I decided it was high time I became more aware, more conscious. I want to be more mindful about what I am eating, where it comes from, and how I am eating it.
On a whim, I started looking into Ayurvedic nutrition. This approach to consumption is a bit daunting and intense at first, though it does emphasize eating mostly whole grains, unleavened breads, fruits, vegetables, and natural spices for flavoring. I’m not going to get into a full discussion of Ayurvedic nutrition here, but I found a lot of it fit neatly into my goal to be more mindful about my eating. I’ve started transitioning into an Ayurvedic inspired diet, but I’m doing it at my own pace and forgiving myself in the moments I don’t follow it strictly.
But here are some of the things I can do immediately.
* Eat foods in their most natural state possible.
This means avoiding processed foods and eating as freshly as possible. Buy local from local farmer’s markets. Side note: adding ground ginger to fruit or drinking a little bit of aloe vera juice goes a long way towards solving digestive problems caused by any foods that are more difficult to digest. (I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say this works and is far more pleasant than things like pepto bismol.)
* Shop for less, more often.
In Europe and Asia, you find that fridges are much smaller than they are here. That’s because Europeans and Asians don’t buy Costco-sized items to last for weeks. They buy just what they need for the next day or so. So what they eat is really fresh.
* Honor and respect the kitchen and dining area as sacred spaces.
Take negativity elsewhere. Cooking and eating peacefully reduces stress and irritation, making digestion easier, and bringing calm after the meal. I’m so bad about this. The table where I eat is also where I work and is also where we entertain and watch TV. When we move to Thailand, my first order of business is establishing a dining room table that is separate from my work space.
* Be present when you eat.
Have you ever eaten standing up, in front of your computer, or in front of the television and suddenly gotten to the last bite on your plate and felt unsatisfied? That’s me, in a nutshell. I am making an effort to shut everything off and focus on the ritual of eating. I try to chew slowly and chew each bite at least 20 times before swallowing (depending on the consistency of the food of course). I’ve discovered I get satisfied sooner.
* Take a moment to respect where the food has come from.
This is my bigger picture moment. This, right here, is why I’m offering up this post for the Bigger Picture Moment. Do you pray before meals? Do you thank the provider? If so, has it ever been just a habit to you…something that falls off your tongue without the words penetrating your heart and mind? Is it something you say without consciousness? I found something that will help me remember to respect that which sustains me. Before each meal, I look at the plate of food in front of me and take a moment to think about where it originated and what it took to get it to my plate. Sometimes I think of the vegetables as they were in the ground. Sometimes I think of the hands that plucked them. Sometimes I think of the oil that was consumed bringing it to my kitchen. Sometimes I think of it, as it might have been when it was alive.
Sometimes I know I don’t know where it has come from. And that is okay. The point, for me, is to just be aware. The point is to not eat lies I tell myself. These are the words I have added to my eating ritual to help me remember to respect my place in this world:
In this plate of food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Saying this helps me see where I fit in the bigger picture. Food nourishes, it comforts, it sustains, and it has profound effects on our entire psychology. It connects us to family and friends, but it is also our link to the greater world. I want this part of my life, which is such a large part of my existence, to be characterized by honesty and awareness, at least as much as it is characterized by flavor and variety.