Disclaimer: I am currently freaking out about meat and reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and my brain is exploding. Please brace yourself for an introspective rant about my eating habits and fear of supermarkets.
Like most people, I inherited many things from my mother. First and foremost, a love of food. In my family, as in many others, food is a source of joy, comfort and love. Sharing a special meal together is our way of celebrating life.
My mother has always valued family meal times above all else. She loves to prepare food for a crowd, and one course is never enough. Our deepest discussions have occurred around the dinner table, with an impressive antipasto platter spread out before us. Cheese and crackers are a family favourite, washed down with wine and always followed by something sweet.
Growing up, food was firstly a source of pleasure, secondly a source of sustenance and nutrition. My mother always prepared healthy, balanced meals, but as a child I was disinterested in vitamin counts and protein content. I ate when I was hungry and food was magical, yet simple.
This began to change as I got older and became more aware of my body. I would love to say I never once worried about my weight or my appearance, but like many teenage girls I went through all sorts of emotions in regards to my image. Food began to take on a different role – it was still joy and celebration, but it was also something more. It was sugar, or it was fat. It was healthy or it was ‘bad’.
On the whole, I shrugged any anxieties off and continued to eat as I had always eaten – a relatively healthy, balanced diet, bar one too many sweet treats and the odd craving for a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
Slowly, as the years went by, I absorbed more and more information about food and nutrition. It’s hard to avoid it, once you start reading magazines and newspapers and cooking your own meals. And as my knowledge grew, I began to discover things that made me feel uncomfortable. Factory farming, artificial flavours, ingredients I couldn’t pronounce.
But, I pushed these things to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to think about them, so I didn’t. I actively chose to ignore inconvenient truths, than to investigate them further. I still do, in many situations.
Recently, however, these inconvenient truths have been harder to ignore. The more I learn about food, the more I question what I eat and why.
What special diet is Jess on now?
My exploration of food has become a bit of a running joke in my family. Recently I caught up with my father and stepmother. They live an 8-hour drive away, so we usually have a lot of ground to cover. After the typical conversation topics – siblings, work, hobbies – my stepmother asked something along the lines of: “So Jess, what are you eating at the moment? Any special diets we need to know about?”
I grinned sheepishly and Tom helpfully interjected: “Well, this week Jess is vegetarian.” (What he really means is that I’m currently going through an existential crisis and I have belatedly realised that beef is actually cow and that cows have beating hearts and minds and I’m not sure how I feel about eating them and other previously sentient beings for dinner).
Not long ago my stepmother’s question may have made me feel defensive or self-conscious, but I know myself well enough now to realise it comes from a place of kindness and genuine curiosity. And of course, humour.
In the past year alone, I have been gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free and Paleo – sometimes all at once.
I can see how my family finds this amusing. Especially as I have a tendency to get a bit carried away whenever I start a new health-kick. At the beginning of my gluten-free journey, I was convinced cutting out that pesky little protein was going to revolutionise my life and I would all of a sudden have boundless energy and vitality. I lasted six months before I decided my life was just that much brighter when it included pizza dough and Vogel’s toast.
I also get lazy and overwhelmed and lapse between caring deeply about what I eat and just wanting to enjoy food and focus on the positives.
I want to make one thing clear: I am not experimenting with what I eat to lose weight, although that would be a nice added benefit. My constant exploration of food comes from a much deeper place. For me, food is a question of philosophy and identity. Eating is a choice we make three times a day, if not more. How do my choices reflect my beliefs? How do my choices reflect the person I want to be, or the world I want to be part of?
Health, ethics and everything in between
My journey to better understand food probably began in earnest when I discovered I had an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. This is a big fancy word for ‘underactive thyroid’. I have had an underactive thyroid since I was 12, but it wasn’t until just last year when I went for a routine check-up that I realised what this actually meant.
My thyroid is slow and does not produce enough thyroxine (crude explanation: the hormone that governs metabolism) on its own. I therefore have to take a synthetic hormone daily. I never questioned why my thyroid was slow – I just accepted that it needed a little bit of help and TLC.
But then a doctor in London informed me that my thyroid was slow because my body was systematically attacking it. For a reason I am yet to understand, my immune system thinks my thyroid is a foreign invader, a threat that needs to be dealt with. So it tries to protect me by destroying it.
Other autoimmune conditions include Type 1 Diabetes, Crohn’s Disease, Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
This revelation shook me. Why would my body attack itself? How can I have so little control over this process? Surely there must be something I can do to improve my health and give my body a chance to recalibrate?
Hello, Dr Google. I spent hours and hours reading about Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and obsessing over ways to improve my wellbeing. I hated the thought of my body attacking my own tissues, and wanted to give it as much support as possible.
But what I uncovered through researching about autoimmune conditions is that being healthy is no longer as simple as eating more fruit and vegetables and getting plenty of sleep.
The more I researched about food and health, the more I realised how flawed the modern food industry is. What are we eating? How can we possibly nourish our bodies when food is sprayed with pesticides and meat is pumped with antibiotics? And where do ethics even come into it?
Food: fuel or fear?
I have been known to have the occasional mental breakdown in a supermarket. The sheer choice of products overwhelms me, as does the fact that each different brand is claiming to be better than the other. I become paralysed with anxiety as I read the backs of labels and try to make the best decision for my health, my wallet and the environment.
All the anxieties I have about food tend to converge into one big panicky mess when I am in a supermarket. To give you an insight into my brain at these moments, here is a list (in no particular order) of what I am thinking about when I am trying to buy food.
- Fat content/good fats vs bad fats
- Sugar content/dental health/waistline
- Artificial flavours/colours/sweeteners
- Animal welfare/factory farming/death
- Protein content
- Carbohydrate content/bloating/weight gain
- Calorie count
- Cancer/heart disease/illness
And probably more. Is this what eating has become? A source of anxiety and fear? Is diet the difference between heart disease and heart health? Will eating processed sausage meat give me cancer? Is there mercury in my tuna?
It all starts with food
I care about social issues, and lately I have been unable to separate the problems of the world from the way I eat.
Okay, that might sound a little dramatic. But let me explain. Long gone are the days when food was simply fuel or sustenance. Food is now a commodity. Food is big business. Food is social, cultural, political, profitable.
And because food is something I consume more often than anything else, I feel it is important that I carefully consider the implications of what I eat not only on my own health, but on the environment and the world as a whole.
I can’t change the world, but I can change my own personal habits. I can make a conscience effort to eat, act and live in a way that aligns with my personal values.
Because I have so much choice, I feel my consumer dollar counts – where will I invest it? What will I choose to eat? And how will I choose to eat?
Will I eat purely for pleasure and enjoyment? Will I eat simply for personal nutrition? Will I let morals enter into the equation? Price, convenience, seasonality?
It would be different if I had no choice, then these concerns would go out of the window and I would eat whatever I could in order to survive.
But I’m not living within that framework, so I must take responsibility for my choices.
This might come across as virtuous and brave, but actually I am writing about it because it exhausts me and terrifies me. I don’t know what’s worse: spending so much time worrying about food, or not worrying about food at all?
Should I adopt the attitude that life is short and just try to enjoy it, even if that means eating chicken pumped with antibiotics or food sprayed with harmful chemicals? Or should I rise above my taste buds and primal desires and try to eat in a way that is healthy and ethical and not destroying life on this planet?
As always, when I am feeling uncertain and confused, I turn to books. I am halfway through reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, a book I have kept at arm’s length for years as I was warned everyone who reads it comes out the other side a vegan.
I don’t really want to be a vegan. I don’t want to be an ‘anything’. I don’t want to have to label what I eat, or follow any rules, or fit in a certain category. I don’t want to be that awkward guest at the dinner table who has weird eating habits. I don’t want to have to say no to trying local specialities when I travel. And most of all, I don’t want to be judged.
I just want to eat in a way that doesn’t harm my body, the environment or other sentient beings.
Why does this feel so difficult and daunting? Is it just me? Do you also worry about these things, or am I overthinking to the extreme?
Writing usually leads me towards some kind of solution, or at least a personal reconciliation. But all I have are questions, questions and more questions.
Does anyone have some answers?