Our Food Affair

I find food to be fascinating. No one can do without, yet I don’t think there is anything as controversial as food (ok, maybe politics…). Should food be vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher, halal, GMO-free, sugar-free and/or fat-free? Ask ten people and they will probably all give you a different answer. When you eat too much of it, that’s not good. When you have too little of it, it’s not good either. It seems that when it comes to food there is but one truth. We have this twisted affair with food: we call it “beautiful” when we like it, label it as “#foodporn” on Instagram when we love it, but it becomes the devil when it makes us unwell. The way we relate to food is not much different from how we relate to other people. When we are in love, the first thing we think about when we wake up is that special person. Yet when that special person lets us down, we feel distraught and the last thing we want is to be reminded of their existence. How do you get over a break-up? Ask ten people… But in the end, we can only know what serves us well when we have a serious relationship with ourselves.

Yesterday I wrote that I’m obsessed with my decadent breakfast smoothie. Today, I fell in love with it. At the same time I felt like I was cheating and my mind got a little confused. I added dragon fruit to the blend, instead of berries, and it turned into the most beautiful color pink. It also looked like bubble gum.

It was as if I was eating food straight from a cartoon – something that wasn’t real and actually shouldn’t be eaten. Our minds are conditioned to not eat food that doesn’t smell fresh, that doesn’t look appealing and that has an extremely vivid red or yellow color, or any combination thereof. Or at least that’s how it used to be. When we were still living in caves, running around in loincloths, and eating whatever we could find, our survival depended (partly) on our ability to distinguish rotten food or poisonous plants from edible ones. Nowadays that skill doesn’t seem important anymore, but it should be. Think about it: there is no natural color that could create the blue cover of an M&M or the turquoise hue of Gatorade. And even worse: if we leave a McDonald’s hamburger in the back of a car for 6 months it won’t change shape, color or condition. It won’t even smell bad. So no wonder our relationship with food is troubled.

Just like football (or soccer), you either love food or you hate it. I mean really. Food is like your best friend, and can be your worst enemy. I know many people would love a big bowl of pasta with cheese and a glass of wine after a rough day at work and a cold and wet walk home. Particularly women – yes, I am one of them – seem to gravitate towards chocolate whenever they are sad or grumpy. Little kids love a bottle of warm milk when they are upset or can’t sleep. Why? Because those foods act like a warm blanket, they comfort us; they make us feel better at some level. However, that same bowl of pasta can have torturous effect on someone with celiac disease. Too much chocolate can make your skin brake out. Babies that are lactose intolerant will only get more upset after that bottle of milk. We need to eat carbs when we are planning to run a marathon, but should stay away from them if we want (or need) to loose weight.

Picture your best friend. Why do you like them, love to hang out with them? Probably – or if I may say so, hopefully – because this person nourishes you, makes you feel better when you are down, inspires you to be the best you can be. Think about someone you dislike – in my hope you do not actually have any real enemies. How do they make you feel? Likely, words as: angry, upset, depleted, irritated, come to mind. With food it is not any different. Food, in the first place, should be nourishing. After all, food is fuel for our body. So let that fuel be as efficient as possible. Just as an example, instead of eating two slices of white bread, choose one slice of whole wheat bread. Rather than drinking sugar loaded (or artificial sweetened) energy drinks after your workout, choose coconut water. Pay attention to how you feel after you have eaten. Does that bowl of pasta actually make you feel good? If so, great! But if it doesn’t – and it’s only the idea of eating it that does – because you feel guilty, bloated or sleepy afterwards, choose a different friend to cheer you up.

Since we appear to have lost our innate skill to tell if certain foods will help us survive – or not – how do we know what actually nourishes us? Or maybe the more important questions are: how did we loose that skill, and how do we get it back? In my experience, many people live a short distance from their body, to paraphrase James Joyce. In the Western world, is seems as if we don’t need to be connected to our bodies. Social media, magazines and movies will tell us how we should look, how we should eat, and especially what we should eat to look a certain way (bikini diet, anyone?). Do you want to be as radiant as this famous yoga teacher who is a vegan? Let’s start juicing! Are you aspiring to this killer body of that movie star who is abiding to the Paleo diet? Fire up the grill and get your steak on! Yet, we seem to forget that we are all unique. What works well for one person may do harm to another. To speak for myself: I know it is “good” for me to eat a lot of vegetables, preferably raw. However, when I do so, my intestines get upset and I feel as miserable as when I eat too much bread. So rather than looking outside for help, we’d be better off reaching within.

When we are not in touch with our body, when we are not really “in” it, how can we know what is good for it? To bring up the best friend again: if you don’t talk to them, spend quality time with them and become close to them, how do you know if you should invite them to go to the movies or go watch a sports game to make them feel good*? In other words, we need to become intimate with ourselves in order to know how to feed ourselves.

An excellent and very effective way to become (more) acquainted with our body is the mindfulness technique called the Body Scan. It is a guided meditation that – as scientific research shows – has a profound effect on how we relate to our body and our ability to be present with it. When we are present with our body, we have the ability to actually notice how certain foods make us feel. We may notice that – contrary to popular believe – milk is not good for us, because it creates mucus in our body and congests our sinuses. We may become aware that a sugar loaded cereal bar gives us the desired energy boost, but leaves us feeling exhausted 30 minutes later. We may pay more attention to how our food actually tastes and realize that certain artificial sweeteners or preservatives have a nasty flavor. This way we will be able to choose our foods according to our own needs and desires, and feel more nourished and cared for. This doesn’t mean we will never eat pizza again, yet if we do it will be a conscious choice. After all, sometimes we just like to invite our best friend out for drinks and dancing even though we know we will be floored afterwards. When we can fulfill ourselves, we not only become our own best friend but will be a better one to others too. If you’d like to give the Body Scan a try, feel free to use this recording. For the most effect, practice the Body Scan meditation daily for at least a week. Thereafter, you could do a daily shorter version: just one or two minutes already make a difference.

When you know the way, you don’t need a map. When you know what serves you, you don’t need other people’s advice. And when you know which foods replenish you, the only diet you’ll need is called Your Truth. Bon appétit!

* Assuming there is such a thing as “making someone feel good”. I actually believe that we can only make ourselves feel good, but that as a side note.