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.

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What’s for Breakfast?

In my post, Top 10 Tips for Winning the Hunger Games, I wrote about the strategies that work for me in managing hunger.  This was a brief overview and probably too much for one post, so I thought I would write a series of posts going to each “tip” in greater detail.

Let’s start the series where I start my day, with breakfast!  If you identify with my description of “unnatural zombie hunger” and want to do something about it, just start eating breakfast if you do nothing else. Yes, your annoying mother was annoyingly right when she told you that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”  So if breakfast is the most important meal, I say it should also be the most delicious!  When you wake up in the morning, how awesome would it be if your first thought were not that you need to check email, rush to get ready for work, sort out the kids but “what’s for breakfast?”  Yum!

I can already hear the excuses: “I am not hungry in the morning.”  “I don’t have time.”  Yeah, yeah, I know you people, because I was you people 🙂  Let me give you a clue:  You are not hungry in the morning because you are hung over from your TV and snacking binge of the night before. What’s more, you can find time if you get organized and make a few minutes to throw something together before you rush off into your stressful day.  The bottom line is if you don’t eat breakfast, plan to stay fat, hungry and miserable!

I started my breakfast habit by drinking a meal replacement.  Not ideal but better than nothing and it allowed me to gradually transition to smoothies and then to a full main meal.  Start with whatever works for you and just have something every day and soon you will wonder how you ever got by without it!

My breakfasts include:

  1. Fruit: I choose berries for anti-oxidants and deliciousness!  I get a month’s supply from Hillcrest Berry Orchards.  They have a great variety and their quality is out of this world! I then divide the berries into 100 gram portions in Ziploc bags and keep them in the freezer.  I normally indulge in 200 grams of 2 or 3 kinds a day.  This special treat alone is enough to keep me showing up for breakfast every morning without fail!
  2. Protein:  My go-to choices are eggs, whey powder or Greek yoghurt.
  3. Healthy fat: Favorites are nuts or a bit of Coconut Oil.
  4. Fiber:  Chia seeds are the perfect choice because they keep you full for hours and can be eaten on their own or added to just about anything.
  5. Whole grain.  If I am having grain on any given day I make sure at least one of the portions is for breakfast.  My new discovery and current favorite is puffed amaranth, but also love whole oats.

Need an exotic breakfast idea?  Here’s one that includes all of the above that I keep coming back to:

flapjacks, berries and ice cream

Puffed Amaranth and Chia flapjacks with berries, nuts and homemade ice cream

I love this breakfast because besides being so decadent that it should be illegal, it allowed me to make creative use of the interesting ingredients I have been collecting from The Ethical Co-Op and local Farmers Markets.  I have Ashley of Edible Perspectives to thank for the fantastic amaranth recipe (she calls hers French Toast but mine came out more like flapjacks because I made the batter a bit wetter.)  Between the flapjack and ice cream layers are blue berries, black berries, raspberries, brazil nuts and pecan nuts. Sigh. . .

This would be a great time to introduce my new recipe page.  Swing by to get the ice cream recipe for this breakfast and see Edible Perspectives for the Amaranth French Toast recipe.  Hope you like it and that it  inspires you to begin your own Breakfast Adventure!

Fat People Are Hungry! – The misery of being overfed and under-nourished

Listen up!  The Diet Industry, self-help gurus and self righteous skinny bitches need to stop telling fat people that they need to eat less!  It is cruel, ignorant and spectacularly unhelpful!

Now I realize I have just uttered diet blasphemy.  But before you try me as a heretic and burn me at the stake, please hear me out.  I think I can make my case.

Here’s what I know as a soon-to-be-formerly fat person.  For most of my life I have been really, really hungry.  Anyone who saw how fat I was and knew what I used to eat on a daily basis would wonder how this is possible. But trust me, it is.  And I don’t think I am the only one.  Our kind are real and we walk among you! I was hungry (or starving, more accurately) for the simple reason that I was eating the wrong “food” – and a lot of it!  “Food” that was high in calories, low in nutrition and deliberately engineered to make me keep eating without ever addressing my hunger.  It would make a great plot for a horror movie:  the more I ate the hungrier, and the fatter, I got! I was suffering from something I have affectionately named “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Fat people are often encouraged to do a great deal of introspection, hand wringing and soul searching to answer the obnoxious question of some well meaning personal trainer, therapist or parent who looks them in the eye and gravely asks “why are you so fat?”  This line of questioning usually ends with a tearful confession about some childhood trauma with the interrogator nodding in sympathy and self satisfaction at their ability to get to “the heart of the problem.” Well I have asked that question of myself and finally found an answer that makes perfect sense to me. No, it isn’t because I have poor self-esteem, am seeking my father’s approval or didn’t get cuddled enough as a baby.  It is also not because I am lazy, have no impulse control or just “f’ing love cake” as Ricky Gervais so eloquently puts it.  I am fat because I was hungry, plain and simple! Now I realize that this answer is not sensational enough to get me a spot on a reality TV show, but it is one of the greatest insights of my life and the first huge step in my recovery!

Hunger is a basic human drive, like thirst, sex, or breathing!  It is a necessary component of our biology without which we would not survive.  However, we can seriously mess with hunger and turn it into a monster that controls our every waking moment. Simply put, we do this by not eating the right food in a timely manner and then eating way too much of the wrong food.  The big problem for me is that I had no idea that my hunger wasn’t the normal healthy kind, it was the diabolical make-you-fat-and-kill-you kind!  I experienced hunger as an intense physical pain in my gut so extreme that I needed to eat with the same urgency as one might feel when needing to empty a bursting bladder! I classed it as the same level of emergency as needing to take a pain killer for a migraine headache! For me being hungry meant: eat as much as you can, as fast as you can and eat foods containing as many calories per bite as possible!  And I had no idea that this was not normal.  In that state I was eating purely to alleviate physical pain, not for pleasure and most certainly not for nourishment! All I knew was the word for “hunger,” and my physical experience of it.  I didn’t realize that this was not how everyone experienced hunger.  I just thought that skinny people had ironclad will power that allowed them to live in perpetual agony without giving in to the drive to overeat the way I did on a regular basis.

This blog will explore the question of why I was so hungry and what I am doing about it in greater detail.  But here’s a sneak preview:  all my previous attempts at dieting and weight loss were epic failures because they were founded on an attempt to “eat less.”  The problem is that eating less is a really dumb idea if you are starving! Of course I didn’t know I was starving and nor did anyone around me, because I was a great big fat person. But now that I know what the problem is, I know exactly what to do about it.  I have started eating more!  Or, more accurately, I have started eating real food and stopped eating drugs masquerading as food.  “Real food” meaning whole, unprocessed, nutritious food that my body recognizes and knows what to do with. Result:  I am no longer hungry, I don’t have cravings and although the volume of food I take in has increased, without really trying my calorie consumption has dramatically decreased.

So yes, I am mad at anyone who simplistically tells fat people to just “eat less” because I feel that this only aggravates the problem.  This doesn’t mean that excess calorie consumption, especially the wrong kind of calories, isn’t a serious issue that inevitably results in weight gain, among other things.  But this problem is, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, solved by first getting a hungry person to eat more of the right foods until they no longer suffer from “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Not everyone oversimplifies the problem of course, and there are many very insightful, caring professionals who provide excellent advice.  I appreciate the insights of Michael Pollan, for example, who sums it up beautifully and simply with the often quoted: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  My contention is simply that we first need to stress that people should eat a diverse plant-based, whole foods diet (as opposed to fake “food” products), and then the “not too much” will follow as a matter of course.

So I say again – stop telling fat people to eat less!  Doesn’t the statistic that 90% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back make anyone realize that this advice is completely useless? Having said this, fat people like myself are not victims and we can and must take personal responsibility for our health. For me the best way to do this is not to “go on a diet” but to eat more delicious healthy food, thereby crowding junk food out of my diet, and gently, kindly and sustainably shedding unwanted weight in the process!