For the past year, there have been many posts about "Clean Eating". While the phrase began as a movement to reduce the amount of processed food consumed, unfortunately "clean eating" now signifies much more. Clean eating has become a fad diet - gluten-free this to almond-milk that- chia pudding to coconut oil-infused veggies, the whole thing is starting to smell quite rotten to me. This morning I read a NYTimes articlethat articulated exactly what I have been thinking for some time now.
I've been thinking a lot about food and my relationship with food because I am finishing an 8-week attempt at the Whole Life Challenge (WLC). What NOT to eat has been weighing heavily on my mind. As part of the 7 "daily habits". the daily habit of nutrition is perhaps one of the hardest for me to control. On the WLC, you can choose which nutrition regimen to follow based on how strict you want to control your diet. For my first WLC, I chose the middle of the road nutrition plan called "Lifestyle" and have been trying to stay compliant with the foods on the list. These past eight weeks have been consumed by monitoring wheat, soy, dairy, and sugar consumption among other foods. To say it has been difficult would be an understatement. And as a vegetarian, these specific non-compliant foods are especially hard to curtail in a country where the meat substitute is often tofu and the fallback dishes when dining out are mostly carbohydrates covered with cheese. And never mind the hidden sugar in almost everything.
What I have realized over these past few weeks and what this article helped me articulate is that I have been approaching this diet and my food consumption for the past eight weeks (and past few years for that matter) with absolute fear. As I sneaked a peanut butter cup from my kids' Halloween stash this past Sunday after they went to bed, instead of enjoying it, every bite was filled with guilt. As I accounted for my score on WLC every night, I realized that all my reflections were more or less about how I failed in the nutrition category- by consuming forbidden or non-compliant foods. The constant analysis of what I was eating, how many points each transgression costed me, and the effects on the scale, all meant that I have not lost any weight AND felt miserable about food all the time. And that doesn't sound right or healthy to me.
Food is so much more than just its ingredients (and calories). Reading this article today, I was reminded of the good qualities of food: that eating food can be pleasurable, satisfying and nourishing. It shouldn't be met with fear of eating this or not eating that. Food is the center of most celebrations, events, holidays and special occasions for a reason- food unites people and brings people together. Food has the ability to transport people back in time and let one experience a moment again. Food is powerful and should itself be celebrated, not feared.
In my family, food is super important. My mother is the most amazing cook I know and her cooking has marked most of the special occasions of my childhood. Her Thanksgiving feasts were simply that, pure feasts of the imagination. And because I grew up in my mother's house with food central to our family, food continues to be the ruler by which I measure my life's moments. I can still remember an amazing brunch of local cheeses, jams and bread in Germany I had with my college roommates while backpacking through Europe more than 16 years ago. I can vividly see (and taste) the dinner that was created for my then-new fiance and me upon our engagement more than 11 years ago. I can experience the dinner that celebrated my brother's graduation from his PhD program that was met with much happiness and laughter. I can still taste the warming, and very pungent, foods my mother gave me upon the birth of my daughter to increase my milk supply. While it was the food that features quite prominently in these memories, the main star was the food's ability to bring people whom I love together and for creating moments of deep connection. I wouldn't trade any of these meals for the gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, sugar-free quinoa crap that I found myself eating last week alone in my office.
So what does this all mean? As I end the WLC this week and approach the holidays, for me, I will take from "clean eating" what it was meant to be initially- to try to eat pure ingredients, food how it was meant to be eaten before Big Food manufacturers started spraying everything with chemicals or re-configuring ingredients for taste or longevity. But that's where I will leave clean eating and any "fear" of my food. I will rejoice in the qualities of food that are good, nourishing and bring people together, and enjoy the upcoming holidays, even if it means eating "dirty". And when I am in Paris in a few weeks, you can be sure to find me at the local patisserie, indulging, and finally enjoying, that chocolate croissant.