Why I can’t stop worrying about food

This blog post is what happens when you listen to a news report about factory farming, feel disgusted, and then belatedly make the connection between the steak on your plate and this guy here. Do I want to eat cows? Do I need to eat cows? I wish my brain would be quiet on the issue of cows, as I really like hamburgers, but unfortunately it's not that simple.
Flickr // Creative Commons

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).

Anyway.

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
  • Antibiotics/additives/preservatives
  • Packaging/plastic/landfills/waste
  • Protein content
  • Carbohydrate content/bloating/weight gain
  • Chemicals/pesticides
  • Health/digestion/energy
  • Calorie count
  • Price
  • Convenience
  • Cancer/heart disease/illness
  • Freshness

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?

Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Woman’s Syndrome by Dr Libby Weaver

Dr Libby

“Remember to see the wonder in the world. It’s everywhere, it keeps you young, and lights up your heart.” – Dr Libby

Dr Libby Weaver is a ‘Holistic Nutrition Specialist’ from New Zealand. If you have seen any of her YouTube clips or Facebook posts, you will know she is a veritable bundle of energy, ready to come at you with all the optimism she can muster. Yep, I like her.

You can probably find her books Rushing Woman’s Syndrome and Accidentally Overweight in the self-help section of your local bookstore. And let’s be honest, who likes to linger around self-help? I have to admit, I nearly didn’t start reading her work because I thought to myself “I don’t need these books! I’m not one of those accidentally overweight people or rushing women!”

What is it they say about denial?

Sure, I’m reasonably healthy and happy. But since when were these books only written for people in the depths of despair, crying over littered chocolate wrappers and last night’s takeout? Since when was being ‘averagely healthy and happy’ reason enough to shun all dietary advice and er, self-improvement?

So, one hungover Sunday morning I delved deep into self-help territory – and well, I haven’t looked back since.

I’m about to make a big statement: I think every woman should read at least one of Dr Libby’s books. I learned more about my own biology in Accidentally Overweight than I did in years of school science classes. I almost couldn’t believe that just a few weeks before reading her research I had been walking around completely unaware of how simple processes in my body worked.

Those little things called hormones? Yeah, they are quite important. And, digestion, that is a pretty essential process too. And don’t even get me started on what I learned about food. Or should I say ‘woke up to’ about food – because reading Dr Libby’s books feels like waking up to reality. You know those moments when reality dawns and the earth seems to shake a little beneath your feet, because you realise with anger and resentment the absurdity of the messages clever marketing has been feeding to you for years on end?

Every day we are told different things about food, about health, about what we are supposed to eat and drink. “Don’t forget your vitamins!” “Have you had your probiotic yoghurt this morning?” “Do you get enough grains?” “Are you allergic to gluten?” “Meat is bad, no meat is good!”

Food is a multimillion dollar industry. Next time you go to the supermarket, walk down every aisle and observe the advertising screaming at you from the shelves. No matter how much sugar, artificial flavourings or processed nasties a product contains, the manufacturers will try and make you believe that your body needs it. Cereals are perhaps the worst. Nutri-Grain? Don’t worry about all the sugar it contains, you need to eat it if you want to be strong! Special K? Eat it and you will be running along the beach in a skin-tight red swimsuit in no time!

I mean, it’s completely ridiculous right? But let’s be honest: we all want to believe it. That’s why it works. Of course we want to think that eating sugary breakfast is good for us, or pre-prepared microwave meals really are packed full of nutrients.

Dr Libby shakes it up a bit and tackles these false truths head on. In fact, she makes the message pretty simple: “Nature knows best.”

Say what now? You mean, the way food comes in nature is good for you? It doesn’t need to be refined, processed, coloured, then refined and processed some more before it contains all the nutrients you need?

Reading Dr Libby’s work is like being punched in the face with common sense – in a good way. We are fed so much crap – literally – from food giants, that women who opt for salads over sandwiches when out for lunch with their friends get berated for ‘being anorexic’, or those who eat organic are told that they are just paying for the word ‘organic’.

According to Dr Libby, “Organic is the true price of food”. It takes more energy, time and patience to cultivate. But the result is ‘real’ food, just as nature intended. Isn’t it sad that we now have to differentiate between ‘real’ food and ‘processed’ food? It now is a ridiculously difficult and expensive task to try and fill your shopping trolley with only nourishing food. And that’s just from a practical and financial perspective.

The emotional challenge lies in defending your food choices against people who judge you for being ‘boring’.  You realise the full power of food manufacturers when you are judged for choosing health and happiness, as if looking after your body and your mind is an outrageous pursuit. I can’t count the amount of times people have judged my food orders and said, voice full of condemnation, “You’re so healthy“, as if healthy is a dirty word. Sorry, should I eat food that makes me feel sick just to conform?

Anyway, I digress. Dr Libby’s two books Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Women’s Syndrome both explore and explain how the body works, how it processes food, and what foods you need to eat in order to support your body in the best way you possibly can. In addition, they both explore how hormones, such as stress and sex hormones, impact a woman’s happiness, health and weight.

Written from a biochemical perspective, Dr Libby’s work is scientifically sound and may even have you looking up words in your dictionary. Yet it also covers the relationship between emotions and food – something that I personally found enlightening and empowering. And by emotions I don’t mean crying over a bowl of ice cream – I mean emotional attachment to certain foods, such as eating chocolate after a hard day at work ‘because you deserve it’, or reaching for a bag of chips when you’re stressed. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this (heck, I eat chocolate on daily basis) – but it helps to be aware of why you make the choices that you do.

If this review has made you feel somewhat disgruntled or depressed, then I would definitely suggest you read one of Dr Libby’s books – they are meant to make you think, to shake up your current beliefs. And if you are reading the review whooping for joy because you know all this stuff already, then the books are only going to help cement your beliefs (and trust me, they take a little cementing… I’m still yo-yoing between putting my health first and heading straight for the chocolate muffins)…

But we’ve all got the right to choose.

Jess x

My Stroke of Insight by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor

“When we are being compassionate, we consider another’s circumstance with love rather than judgement… To be compassionate is to move into the right here, right now with an open heart consciousness and a willingness to be supportive.”

I never thought I’d fall in love with a non-fiction book about a stroke survivor. But Dr Jill Bolte Taylor’s story, ‘My Stroke of Insight’, is one of the most memorable and beautiful tales I’ve read in a long time.

Dr Jill was 37 when she suffered a rare form of stroke called an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). A large hemorrhage impaired functionality in the left side of her brain and had to be surgically removed.

This event, although traumatic, may not have been book-worthy if not for one interesting fact: Dr Jill is a brain scientist.

By suffering a stroke, she was in the unique position of being able to observe her brain “from the inside out”. Having spent most of her adult life studying the brain, she was now witnessing the deterioration of her own – an event that must have been frightening as well as enlightening.

And the best part is, she survived to tell the tale.

Dr Jill’s book is about her eight year journey to recovery, and is therefore an invaluable resource for anyone who has suffered a stroke or known someone who has.

However, this is not what made me want to read her story. I was inspired to buy this book after watching this TED Talk online.

In this 18-minute presentation, Dr Jill herself talks about her experience and refers to what she calls her “stroke of insight”.

One of the biggest revelations that Dr Jill had when parts of her left brain were impaired was that she could reach a state of peace or ‘nirvana’. Her language centre was harmed by the hemorrhage, as was that ‘little voice inside her head’ constantly speaking.

She said that she experienced complete silence and removal from years of emotional baggage – and this made her feel “at one with the universe”.

Gone were her insecurities, fears and anxieties. Instead of worrying about what other people thought or letting her imagination run wild – or her ‘story-teller’, as she likes to call it – she was at peace. She didn’t feel like a separate entity, a living being removed from everything else: she felt connected to the world.

The way she talked about this experience intrigued me, because I’d never really thought about my brain being separated into two halves. I’d heard people talk about left and right hemispheres, but I didn’t have any idea how they really worked – and this concerned me.

How is it that I’d learned so much random information, yet I still didn’t really understand how my brain functioned?

I thought it was about time I found out.

Dr Jill’s book explained the basics of brain science to me in an accessible, enjoyable way. Not only was I reading about the brain, I was reading about her journey to recovery and her spiritual enlightenment.

My Stroke of Insight is a feel good story about the human brain’s capacity to regenerate cells and heal itself, as well as the capacity people have to love and nurture the world around us.

It’s also a story about being gentle to yourself and looking after your brain and body: about aiming for optimum mental and physical health.

After her experience, Dr Jill is adamant that we possess the power to select and control our own thoughts – a belief that is shared by many people around the world, only Dr Jill draws on science to back this theory up.

She talks about how the brain is programmed to follow familiar paths, so that if you constantly think negatively it will fall into the same cellular pattern on a regular basis. She encourages people to own up to the power of their minds and focus on positive, healthy thoughts and creating empowering brain patterns, as opposed to damaging ones.

Dr Jill ultimately it believes that we have a responsibility to ourselves and the world around us to “tend carefully to the garden of our minds”.

“Without structure, censorship, or discipline, our thoughts run rampant on automatic. Because we have not learned how to more carefully manage what goes on inside our brains, we remain vulnerable to not only what other people think about us, but also to advertising and/or political manipulation.”

Food for thought, no?

Whether you are interested in achieving the state of nirvana that Dr Jill describes or simply want to better understand how the human brain works, I would highly recommend this book. It’s a quick and easy read and full of insight, humour and compassion.

Plus, in a world where the prevalence of mental illness is only continuing to rise, I think it’s important that we all have at least a little understanding about how our brains operate.

But if you can’t spare the time to read the whole book, then there’s always the TED Talk – this sums it up pretty nicely:

Bookmarked quotes

“Take responsibility for the energy you bring.”

“For me, it’s really easy to be kind to others when I remember that none of us came into this world with a manual about how to get it all right. We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around. I recognize that mistakes will be made, but this does not mean that I need to either victimize myself or take your actions and mistakes personally. Your stuff is your stuff, and my stuff is my stuff.”

“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”