Let’s say Grace . . .

The tradition of saying grace before eating is in danger of dying out along with the shared family meal.  If your household is like mine, where we grab food out of the fridge and eat standing in the kitchen, eat on the run or eat in front of the computer or TV, then it has probably been awhile since you have sat down with a beautiful plate of food in front of you and took a moment to express gratitude for the gift you are about to enjoy.

How about for a change we begin our meals, as well as our discussions on health and nutrition by “saying grace “? Doing so, in the way that I envisage, might mean a great deal more than a simple prayer mumbled mindlessly before tucking in to the bounty before us.

After months of reading everything I could find on the subject of nutrition, in an effort to cure myself of chronic hunger and the resulting problem with my weight, it suddenly struck me that I needed to pause for a moment and remember to “say grace”  like my mother taught me as a young child. The spiritual discipline of expressing thanks for food before thoughtlessly devouring it has more merit than we might imagine.  “Mindful Eating” is being taught to the generation who has forgotten how to feed themselves in an effort to curb overeating.  Saying grace is one way to eat “mindfully” and might have more to do with health and weight management than you may have realized! Because by saying grace we give thanks for one miracle and request another.

The first miracle is that we have food to enjoy and to nourish ourselves.  The miracle that Mother Earth, as much as we have abused her and taken her for granted, still graciously produces food for us to eat.   That the farmer still plants his seed, the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we still have the health and strength to work to earn a living and obtain food for ourselves and our family.  When our food arrives already highly processed and pre-packaged we become disconnected from the process by which it comes to our table and lose all sense of appreciation and awe for the fact that we have it at all.  A return to local, traditional, whole food goes a long way to bringing back this sense of wonder.

The second miracle is one that we ask for in faith:  That the food we are about to eat will nourish us and bless us with health and strength for the day ahead.  We ask that the food we eat will be good for us. The prayer we used to pray as children was: “Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” This ritual is a simple acknowledgement that we eat in order to care for our bodies, that it requires a moment of grace for this to be possible at all and that it is fitting to honor those whose labor, love and creativity went into preparing the food. However, as much as we may do everything within our power to prepare a healthy meal, given the current state of our planet and our food supply, it is more appropriate than ever to appreciate that whatever benefit we may gain from our food is a blessing not to be taken for granted.  In many cases this requires nothing short of a miracle!

Most cultures and religions have festivals and traditions around the harvest, food preparation and the sharing and enjoyment of the meal.  Although these have been largely lost in our fast-paced, deadline driven western life style, recovering them can be enormously beneficial.  Yoga therapist Brandt Passalacqua, teaches eating as a practice of self-care.  He recommends beginning meals with a meditation.  See “Make Peace with Your Plate.”  I particularly like this part:

Say to yourself, “Today I will nourish myself in the best way I know how. In this moment I am nourished. I have all that I need.”

How about saying grace, not just at the dinner table, but wherever food is an issue?  Discussions on the subject of diet can be remarkably ungracious.  They can become zones of conflict and fierce disagreement, or like-minded individuals can subtly use their particular diet as a way to create a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction at the expense of those that don’t happen to buy into their approach to food.  This is particularly true of  judgmental, condescending attitude made socially acceptable by “the cult of beauty” so revered in western culture.  One of my favorite Joey scenes from Friends illustrates the ungraciousness of it all really well:

My mother was a gracious lady who not only taught me to say grace before eating, but to behave graciously when sharing food with others.  Once incident from my childhood is especially vivid in my memory.  Having been raised a vegetarian, I had a hard time understanding and accepting that meat is food.  We were at a meal with friends and family where meat was served, and I must have said something childish and inappropriate, expressing distaste at the meat dishes on the table.  I was sharply pulled aside by my mother and informed that I had just behaved very rudely and that one never criticizes the food on someone else’s plate because by doing so you are criticizing and rejecting them and hurting their feelings.  I learned a valuable lesson that day, not only in social graces, but about the sacredness of food.  Just because it isn’t something you happen to eat because of personal or dietary preference, it is still food and still worthy of the proper respect*

In addition to often being quite unkind, diets are usually reductionist.  Food is deconstructed down to almost atomic level and the concern is almost exclusively with macro and micronutrients and calories.  What if eating “whole food” means more than not overly processing it physically, but also not over-processing it intellectually?  A big part of eating whole food is appreciating the “whole food.”  Not just what is in the food, but the food in it’s completeness and fullness: It’s taste, texture, color and smell.  The intricate natural process by which it was grown.  The physical labor and skill of the farmer. The effort, planning and creativity of the chef.  The family ties and social bonds that it reinforces.  The celebration that it invites us to join.  The beauty of enjoying it, not only as fuel but as food in which we delight and take great pleasure.

Michael Pollan discusses the problem of “nutritionism” and the resulting reductionism in “In Defense of Food”  in which we regard food as a “delivery vehicle for nutrients.” Since nutrients are invisible you need experts to tell you how to eat.  Experts that can help us look past the food itself to the nutrients it contains and use this a basis to dictate what to eat and what to avoid.  As Pollan puts it:

“As soon as you accept the nutrient view of science, you accept the expert driven food culture. It’s sort of like a religion . . . We need a priesthood to navigate the relationship for us.”

He goes on to say that food gets divided up into “evil” nutrients that we try to drive from the food supply, and “blessed” nutrients, that if we can just get enough of will cure all our ills and possibly allow us to live forever!  With nutritionism the whole point of eating is about health and what we eat ranges on a spectrum from destroying your health on one end to redeeming it on the other.  However, Pollan tries to remind us that throughout history people have eaten for a great number of other, equally legitimate reasons: Pleasure, Community and Identity.  He warns that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of food to a very narrow set of “nutritionist” beliefs, which wouldn’t be so bad if it worked.  However, he points out that reducing food to a question of health hasn’t actually made us any healthier!  Ain’t that the truth!

The nutritionist approach to food doesn’t work for my fledgling attempts to learn how to feed myself again, nor is it helpful in the Bold Experiment.  I can’t afford to leave what I eat up to “the experts” because so far they haven’t been able to help me.  Nor can I reduce food purely to a question of health via the demonization and deification of a list of macro and micronutrients.  Among other things I would like what I eat to nourish me and improve my health, but in so doing I don’t want to give up eating for pleasure, put strain on my relationship with others or lose my identity.  For me “nutritionism” is a recipe for disaster because it creates disordered eating – in my case yo-yo dieting and mindless binge eating when it all gets too overwhelming.  I am trying to avoid replacing my junk food addiction with “orthorexia” – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating! (Pollan)

I am learning to feed myself again.  Learning to say grace again.  It’s helping me and maybe it can help you too.  Before you open your mouth to put food in it, or say something about what the person next to you is eating, don’t forget to say grace!

* I believe that the respect for food should be extended to all whole foods.  The same is not necessarily true for processed food and junk food specifically when it functions as a drug.  This “food” should be named for what it is and put where it belongs.  However, the person consuming it should always be treated with the utmost grace and kindness.  If junk food calories are really the only ones available, one should still say grace over them, and hope they will do some good, but this is never ideal and the aim should always be to restore whole food to your own food supply and that of others.

“Open Wide” – Who’s feeding you?

I was reading some articles on nutrition and obesity yesterday and I had one of my “depressed and confused” moments that I get from time to time.  Ever since I have started seriously trying to figure out a good diet for myself, I have times where I get overwhelmed by how much contradictory information is out there.  When it comes to nutrition you can find an “expert” who will take a contrary view on just about anything.  Some will tell you that saturated fats are the devil, and others will say eggs and butter are perfectly healthy and should be back on the menu.  Some advise you to restrict fruit and eliminate all grains. If you read enough for long enough you won’t feel safe eating anything! If someone starts trying to prove that drinking fresh water and breathing clean air is bad for you I won’t be surprised. So what is an ordinary, struggling person to make of all this? I am not a dietician, doctor or personal trainer, but I have been to many of them, and have tried their advice with limited success.  I have no wish to become an “expert” on any of this, but I do feel compelled to learn enough to navigate my own way through the maze of nutritional advice in an effort to recover my health and well-being. After all, if my weight is my “personal responsibility” then I need enough reliable information to behave responsibly, don’t I? Yet when I see how even the experts can’t agree at the most basic level, I think I must be naive in the extreme to think that I can work this all out for myself.

The only way I can stop myself from going stark raving bonkers is to think about what has been going on in my own body in the last few months. I can’t help but conclude that something is working.  My diet is a success by every possible metric of success that means anything to me:

  1. My diabetes is controlled without medication.
  2. I am no longer hypertensive.
  3. I have lost 26 kgs and 5 dress sizes in 4 months.
  4. I sleep like a baby, have plenty of energy and get restless if I sit still for too long whereas I was barely able to move off the couch before.
  5. I have no cravings, never get ravenously hungry and love my food enough to eat this way forever.
  6. My skin and hair look noticeably better and healthier.
  7. People are starting to comment.
  8. I am no longer plagued by headaches, diarrhea, constipation, excessive thirst or getting up multiple times a night to use the loo.
  9. I get on the scale every morning and every morning I weigh a little less.  The weight loss will stop for a few weeks from time to time, and then resume on it’s own. This stop/start progress seems unrelated to my food intake or activity level in that I am eating and exercising fairly consistently whether I am losing or not.  But there is a definite, steady downward trend and as long as that continues I can just keep doing what I am doing for as long as it takes.

I should be over the moon, so why do I still have crushing moments of self-doubt? I’ll tell you:

  1. My diet is not low-fat enough for the low-fat people. Even though I have a pair of old pants so big that they simply drop off me (they fit a year ago!), I worry that I may be clogging my arteries with coconut oil or raising my bad cholesterol by eating too many eggs.
  2. My diet is not low-carb enough for the low-carb people.  Sure, I have cut out all refined grains, haven’t touched a white potato in months and have greatly reduced my sugar intake.  But I still eat any fruit I damn well please, pretty much whenever I feel like it and I flatly refuse to cut out whole grains and legumes.
  3. My diet is not low-calorie enough for the low-calorie diet police.  Without really trying I am eating far more human-sized portions and not having seconds, but I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and that means more calories than a committed calorie counter would think prudent and certainly far too many to explain my rate of weight loss under the “calories in/calories out” model.
  4. I cook too much of my food for the raw foodists and refuse to juice my veggies and throw away the precious fiber.
  5. The amount of eggs and dairy I eat would make a vegan cry.  (Raw milk btw, which is illegal in some countries!  Not mine apparently.)
  6. I eat no meat or fish at all and any self-respecting cave man would laugh me to scorn. (In my defense I supplement with fish oil, but that’s as far as it goes!)

By just about any diet theory out there I should be getting fatter, not thinner.  Sicker, not healthier. Robert Lustig argues that the common features of all successful, healthy diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber and that is about the only thing that makes a modicum of sense to me.  I think his argument at least partly explains it, because I get fiber every which way I can think of and watch sugar like a hawk (although I probably eat more than he would like me to and I do use alternative sweeteners like xylitol and stevia, which I understand is risky until there is more research on these).  However, I would suggest that there is a third feature of a successful diet that is just as important:  you have to love it enough to marry it and live happily ever after!  You can’t be fantasizing about when it will all be over and you can eat chips again!

My recent diet blues have given me a shocking insight.  I think the problem with the Western diet is that people no longer know how to feed themselves!  Food is a veritable battle ground and the struggle for control begins from the moment someone “plays aeroplane” with a spoonful of pureed carrots and tells you to “open wide.”  A critical part of early development is to move a child from breast milk to solid food, teach them the child to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and ultimately to procure and prepare food for themselves. But something has gone horribly wrong and grown adults have reverted to an infant state where we let a variety of “experts” play aeroplane with us while we “open wide” and swallow the whole thing!  Most of us have given up on feeding ourselves and alternate between letting the food industry or the diet industry feed us.  Or both at once, because the food industry has a product line for every recommendation the diet industry ever came up with!

Until very recently I believed that my weight problem was 100% my personal responsibility, just like the food industry told me it was.  Nothing anyone else could say or think of me for being fat was anything close to the hateful things I said to myself when I looked in the mirror. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my only emotion was shame.  The voice in my head said “You did this to yourself, you know!”  The problem was I thought taking “personal responsibility” meant “making healthy choices” in a supermarket, based on the information they saw fit to provide.  Once I realized that this “information” is concocted by their marketing department and the only motive is profit, I started to realize how heavily the deck was stacked against me all along.  The aisles in the supermarket are as gaudy and colorful as the Vegas Strip, and just as much of a gamble.  No matter how much you are tempted to roll the dice, just remember that the house always wins!

I just finished watching “The Men Who Made Us Fat.”  The inescapable conclusion is that taking “personal responsibility” doesn’t mean “making healthy choices” and going for a brisk walk after lunch.  It means telling the whole food industry to go to hell and take their “food products” and “labels” with them!  They never have and never will have our best interests at heart, so let’s be done with them as much as we possibly can!  I realize this may be well near impossible, but at least we can try to send a bit of a message. They can’t be trusted to put 2 ingredients together without jeopardizing our health so if you do buy anything from them it better not need a label or if it does, it should have as few ingredients as possible and you should be able to pronounce all of them.

I had a very different shopping experience the other day buying some fruit and veg from a local farmer.  She was remarkably unassuming, just standing behind a table filled with her fresh produce and a scale.  Not a price or a label in sight. There was nothing eye-catching, no “specials” no advertising, no “health claims” of any kind and I don’t think anyone was standing around to study my buying behavior!  She had grown it all, she hadn’t messed with it and now she was selling it.  Since she was there in person she could answer any questions I wanted to put to her:

“Hi, lovely tomatoes you have today.  Where do you grow them?”

She pointed, indicating just up the road – “Over there ma’am.”

“When did you pick them?

“This morning ma’am.”

“Are they organic?”

Sounding vaguely offended: “Of course ma’am, we only sell organic here.”  (I should have known better than to ask, she wouldn’t have been allowed to sell at this market if it wasn’t, no labeling required!)

Sure the small farmer also has a profit motive. She needs to make a living just like the rest of us.  But it’s a profit motive I can work with.  She just has a little to sell and, judging by the queues of people who, like me, have come looking for a bit of real food, she is going to sell out before the day is over.  And then she packs up and goes home.  She has no incentive to employ any special tactics to get anyone to buy more than they need.  She has some seasonal fruit and veg. If it’s not in season, you’re out of luck, if you want it you can buy it, when it’s sold out, that’s the end.  I leave this shopping trip, well pleased with the day’s purchases and start thinking about what I will make for dinner.

So why is my diet working?  I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with who is feeding me these days.  It’s not about personal responsibility but shared responsibility.  My part was finding a few reasonably honest people committed to producing real food, taking it home and making something decent with it.  Their part was not trying to push more and more food down my throat until I explode! 🙂

I am far from smug about this.  I realize that it is an unbelievable privilege to live within easy travelling distance of so much fertile farm land, and that some of that land is still in the hands of small farmers.  I am incredibly lucky that I have money to buy food and that the food I want and need is cheap enough to fit my budget.  I am one of a tiny percentage of people left in the world who can do this.  I shudder to think about people in inner cities with too little money and too many cheap calories and not a vegetable in sight.  Or people who have been alienated from their land, struggling with poverty, drought and famine who haven’t got enough to eat at all. Maybe it’s time to stop sitting in a corner feeling ashamed of our personal failings and time to start asking some hard questions about who is feeding us.  Time to learn to eat our veggies without parental or government supervision, prepare our own food and stop “opening wide” for the guy with a large fork and an even larger profit motive!  Maybe it’s time to share and make sure that everyone has enough and no one has too much.  Time for more real food, no more drive-throughs and definitely no more diets!  How’s that for a radical idea?

I took my money – and I left!

Local, organic produce

Fresh, organic produce from the Blaauklippen and Route 44 Markets in Stellenbosch

You know how it goes when two kids play together.  It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child.  Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry.  For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic.  There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left!  Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!

I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer.  Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.

Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues.  They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing!  But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”.  To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you.  But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.

The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate .  Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels!  The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body.  “Make healthy choices”  we are advised.  Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section.  But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!

These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood.  The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!”  Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it.  When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave.  No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”

For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area.  I then prepare everything from scratch at home.  I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety.  I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory.  Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!

I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject.  Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better!  It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013.  Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness?  If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time.  The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then.  Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals.  I am really playing catch up here.  It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.

The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry.  They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.”  Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public.  I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet.  I would choose taste and convenience over health every time.  Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option.  The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply.  This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people.  So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do.  For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!

In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.”  What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product.  I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products!  I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food.  Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.

Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now.  And that’s politics too.  That’s voting with your fork.  Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy.  People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan

That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep.  I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.