Are You Really What You Eat?

Yesterday for breakfast,  I had a bowl of braised kale with pancetta (yes, it was breakfast.  I’m weird that way).  And for a late lunch, I had a plate of brussels sprouts.

Roasted in bacon fat.  With bacon bits.  And a little bit of cheese.

When you take into account the carnitas I nibbled on while the brussels sprouts were heating (extremely delicious but made out of pork shoulder, a heavily marbled cut of pig), this meant that the only animal protein source I had thus far was from pork. Fatty pork.

This made me feel like I was bad.  I felt gluttonous, like I had violated some rule of decency or at least of good nutrition.  I felt … less than perfect.  Instead of rushing into self-flagellation, however, I asked myself why.  Why would eating a particular kind of food, in an appropriate quantity when I was hungry, have the power to define my worth, my essential goodness–or badness, as it were?

I’ve been conditioned to believe that eating lots of fatty meat, especially pork (a pig is a dirty animal;  pork is a low vibrational meat; pig factory farms are the worst of all), is bad.  When my dad was diagnosed with heart disease and high cholesterol, he immediately cut out bacon and sausage.  Our family doctor recommended we try turkey bacon (excuse me, what part of the turkey is the bacon from?).  Although I no longer pick the lean pieces of meat off the bacon strip and discard the pieces of fat, I’m clearly still prejudiced against fatty meat to some degree.

For some time, I’ve been trying to move beyond the notion that foods are inherently good or inherently bad.  So when eating too much fatty meat–even when accompanied by plenty of vegetables–makes me feel like I’m being bad, I need to remember to stop and ask questions.  But my brain doesn’t always cooperate and sometimes my anxiety kicks in.  Whether they are high fat, high carb or high sugar, certain foods trigger alarms in my head which, unfortunately, still reverberate long after my meal is digested.  

I know I’m not alone.  Just about every person I know attaches some type of morality to the consumption of food–the quality, quantity, or both.

“I was good today.”

“I was bad today.”

“I did really well on my diet.”

“I feel so guilty.  I ate a box of cookies after dinner.”

Why are we so quick to make judgments about food, to define ourselves by what we eat?  What is it about certain foods that compel us to categorize them as inherently bad or inherently good?

It wasn’t always this way.  Our ancestors didn’t worry about how much pork they were eating.  If they found and killed a wild boar before it killed them, they were lucky and they feasted on it.  They didn’t worry about packing in nine servings of fruit and vegetables;  they worried about maybe eating a poisonous plant.  Food was sustenance.  If it was there, they ate it because it might not be there tomorrow.  Starvation was always a threat, and recreational overeating never entered anyone’s mind.  Any food was good because a lack of food was bad.

As our world evolved, food stopped becoming a scarce resource and the threat of starving diminished.  We evolved further, and eating somehow become less utilitarian and more hedonic.  Wealthy people had chefs and entertained guests with multi-course banquets.  And today, food is inextricably intertwined with our lives.  It’s how we celebrate birthdays, how we mourn the passing of family members, how we elevate our status, how we show our devotion to our spiritual or religious beliefs.

And it’s how we define ourselves as well.  Whether we eat “healthy,” are vegetarians or paleo or are doing Weight Watchers, whether we eat a typical American diet (whatever that is) or Mediterranean or Asian or South American, whether we eat six small meals a day or two large ones, we are “good” when we eat in accordance with our beliefs and “bad” when we don’t. For example, when I’ve cut out sugar and am feeling squirrely with cravings, there’s still this smug superiority in the back of my mind that says “I’m better than the rest of them because I’m not eating sugar.”  The problem with putting myself up so high is that when I fall (as I always do), it’s much more painful and demoralizing to hit the ground.  I’ve set myself up for failure, not by eschewing sugar, but by attaching some sort of label to sugar, sugar eaters, and those who deny themselves sugar.

I could say I’m a victim of my culture and my upbringing.  Americans are notoriously schizophrenic when it comes to our appetites.  Our society began with the Puritans and the Calvinists and it seems like throughout our history, there have been violent swings back and forth between abstinence and excess.  A perfect example is Prohibition.  I’m sure the Euorpeans laughed at us during this failed experiment as much as they’re laughing at us now, what with our schizophrenic focus on both gastronomic excess and obsession with thinness.  I know that the French have a more balanced approach than Americans toward food.  Just as they are willing to tolerate a little more moral ambiguity in their politicians’ lives, they are willing to have dessert and wine every day.

When I was in high school, someone left a can of beer in my friend’s car one night.  It might have been me.  I don’t remember.  When my friend’s mom confronted her, telling her, “I found an open can of beer in your car,” my friend retorted, “So?”  I love this response.  This is not to say I wouldn’t kill either of my kids if this happened to me.  But the notion of simply acknowledging a fact, not permitting someone to impose their judgment upon you by simply stating what is, is so refreshing.  “You ate sugar.”  “So?”  When we expressed shock and outrage that French president Francois Mitterand had a daughter with his mistress, Mitterand himself (and the French people as well) gave a Gallic shrug and said, “So?”

What if I had said shrugged and said, “So?” to my parents, to my doctor, to the world in general?

I didn’t.  I think it’s unrealistict to expect a child, or even someone who doesn’t have a good sense of self, or who needs the approval of others, to say “So?”  But ironically, it’s the type of person who can stand firm to her beliefs, who has the confidence and wherewithal to say “So?” in the face of conventional wisdom, who truly attracts the approval of others.  I’m learning this.  But it’s still hard to leave those echoes behind.

Although I intended this blog to be a paean to the paleo/primal diet, I’ve moved away from that angle.  The diet podcasts I used to listen to obsessively are now kind of boring and annoying.  Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid  and couldn’t get enough of them for quite a while, but now that I’m distancing myself from black and white thinking, they just aren’t that interesting.  There are a lot of people who believe they’ve found the cure for what ails them by eschewing grains, legumes and dairy, and I say God bless them.  I don’t eat bread either.  I just don’t want to talk about it.  Defining myself by what I eat, or worse, what I don’t eat, is a recipe for disaster.  Because when I eat “what I don’t eat,” who do I become?

It’s comforting to live by a set of rules because then you know where you stand.  If you’re good in connection with the rules, it’s okay to feel good about yourself.  It gives you a connection to other people who have the same rules as you, and gives you a sense of superiority to those who don’t.  It gives you something to strive for.  Having those rules taken away is scary.  It forces you to listen to your internal conscience.  For someone like me, who’s silenced that internal voice for so long, I worry that it might be wrong, that by listening to it, I’ll eat all the wrong things, or too much of the right things, or–God forbid–too much of the wrong things.

But this begs the question.  There IS no right or wrong.  Eating too much isn’t bad.  It’s just eating too much.  The only time I can eat the right things or the wrong things is if I DEFINE them as the right things and the wrong things.

There are some moral imperatives.  Eating when you are hungry is good.  You need food to survive.  Survival is good.  Starving to death is bad. And not feeling good enough or strong enough to get through your day is also bad.  Eating food that supports your health is good.  Eating food that makes you sick is bad.  I used to love oysters until I realized that they gave me the worst type of stomach flu imaginable.  Oysters are not bad, but they are bad for me, and eating them would be bad.  It would not, however, make me bad.  Just sick.

And it’s not a bad thing to enjoy the food you eat.  I love cherry tomatoes.  I love chocolate.  And I love bacon.  When I let myself get hungry before I eat, I like the food I eat even more, and I need to remember this.  When I eat too much of something, I don’t like the food so much.  When I eat too many sweets, I feel bad physically–lightheaded, shaky, and then logy, tired and overstuffed later.  Eating too much of something that makes you feel bad is probably not a good idea.

But it’s not the food itself that’s bad.  Food cannot, without my complicity, be bad.  And I’ve decided not to let it be bad.

Yesterday, after my pork fest, I wound up eating what I thought was an excessive amount of chocolate.  I’ve been sick and it was the first time in days I could taste my food, and the chocolate tasted so good that it was difficult to stop.  I went to bed on a stomach that was a little too full for my liking.  So this morning, when I woke up and still wasn’t hungry, I didn’t eat till I was.  And although my brain said to me, “Finish the food in the fridge that no one else is eating, or else it will go bad and you’ll have to throw it out,”  I didn’t.  Instead, I ate what I really wanted to, which was some plain chicken breast, a handful of Brazil nuts, and a cup of black coffee (told you I was weird).  I guess all the animal fat and sugar I ate yesterday registered and this was my body’s way of regulating itself.  I’m a little hungry now, but I’m going to wait till I’m ready for a full meal, which I intend to enjoy regardless of what it is.

It’s nice to know that my body knows me better than my brain does.  Hopefully I can regain trust in my internal compass and relearn–or maybe learn for the first time ever–how to eat without being good or bad.

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