I was always complimented on my eating habits: “How do you eat so healthy? I see a bag of chips and have to eat them all!” “You’re so good” and “You’re like the master of eating well.” My preoccupation with healthy food was noticeable and acknowledged, sometimes with jealousy.
The problem was, I wasn’t “so good.” I was obsessed with eating only foods I considered pure (what these days people call clean eating). Meaning: unprocessed, chemical-free, non-GMO and organic. Which sounds healthy, right?
But there is a fine line between being healthy and being fixated on food itself. I should know: my preoccupation with the purity of food led to a six-year battle with bulimia (and almost as long a recovery).
Starting a new relationship with food was difficult, as I was continually rewarded for my damaging behaviour. My pickiness was seen as admirable and my need to exercise excessively was seen as exemplary behaviour (instead of as a sort of insanity). I now realize that a growing part of our society is infatuated with “clean eating.” And it’s harming us.
I went to China in 1992 and travelled to the villages of my great-grandparents in the Guangdong Province (formerly Canton). I remember that the arrival of my family from Canada was a momentous occasion – the first time foreigners had set foot in the villages – and one of the traditions was to roast pigs to celebrate.
A ceremony took place before we ate, where we each bowed three times before the pigs to bless the food and offer some of it to the good spirits. We then set off firecrackers to ward away any evil spirits. The noise alerted nearby villagers that there would be a feast and that they were welcome.
By the time we ate, there were small gatherings of people sitting on their haunches sharing the roast pork.
At the time, I was preoccupied with whether the meat was hygienic. (It was.) Looking back now, though, I’m more interested in the traditions surrounding the meal than whether the pigs fit my “clean eating” checklist. (Were they fed organically? Did they have enough room to roam? Were they killed humanely?) But it was the experience itself that was nourishing. The villagers were likely just grateful to be eating.
It makes me wonder if the way we eat is just as (or more?) important than what we eat.
The quest to eat “clean food” is understandable. We’re constantly hearing about food production controversies. The agrochemical and biotech corporation Monsanto’s patenting of genetically modified seeds has led to ongoing legal action and a growing number of citizen protests against them.
Watch any food documentary and you’ll see animals living in cages too small to move around in, before they’re slaughtered for our consumption.
These examples, if we pay attention, create anxiety around where our food comes from and how it’s grown and manufactured. It seems that the more we know, the more anxiety and anger is induced.
But is it possible to go too far in our concern? To reach a level of obsession, which, though perhaps warranted on some level, becomes an affliction in itself?
We need to separate the anger we feel at the companies who have turned food production into a more-money-at-any-cost assembly line and direct it back at them in the form of advocacy.
We cannot allow this anger to transform into anxiety at mealtime, where we re-consume it all over again. This is making us sick. Eating is a time to let go of these emotions and be grateful for the meal in front of us. If we can’t, then it doesn’t matter what we eat – we will consume even the most local, organic and chemical-free food with anxious thoughts about whether it’s “clean” enough.
A woman who is leading others through this and into a gentler relationship with food is Karen Prosen. Like me, Karen once struggled with an eating disorder and has had to re-program herself in terms of how she relates to food.
As well as offering individual and group sessions and retreats on this topic, she runs a program called Wisdom and Cycles, which guides women through a 6-week journey that aims to transform participant’s relationships with food.
The accompanying workbook, called The Sacred Plate, provides activities, exercises and the introduction of new tools one can use to replace their old habits.
She describes the program as a journey of “unfolding, uplifting, and healing through a merging with the cycles of the moon and the wisdom of the ancient ways.” Karen understands that our relationship with food is about more than food itself – and is teaching others how to create an approach to eating that works best for them.
Healthy eating has no room for obsessive thoughts and behaviour, even if our intentions are good. I believe that our cultural preoccupation with “clean food” can actually be dangerous and is creating a society of people balancing delicately on the line of Orthorexia, a type of eating disorder.
But if we remove anxiety from mealtimes, we will naturally make healthier choices without becoming consumed by them. Instead of dieting and putting food into categories of “good” and “bad,” let’s simply eat foods that make us feel satisfied and provide us with energy to focus on the wider world around us.