At a party the other night, I met a woman who is attending a school in New York called the Natural Gourmet Institute, whose mission is to train chefs in "health-supportive culinary arts." The idea, she told me, was to learn to cook whole foods for individuals who may need to make dietary changes because of illness, such as beginning a low-salt, low-meat, or high-fiber diet.
This is an intriguing premise, but I had to ask her: "How would you cook for individuals who have had eating disorders, and may have problems with restrictive eating to begin with?" She didn't have an answer right away -- she had only just begun the program this fall -- but she promised to get back to me about it.
Our exchange got me thinking again about food trends like the raw foods diet, the whole foods diet, vegan diets, and others that promote some form of restrictive eating in the name of health. I am usually uncomfortable around true adherents of these diets, or at least around those who are in a proselytizing mood, because I generally believe in the equation restriction --> binge. In certain yoga studios and other New Age gathering spots these kinds of diets are quite common, especially in combination with other self-purifying practices, and my tolerance for such drivel is really quite low these days. (Self-disclaimer: I practice yoga, too.)
That's not to say that I don't think that whole foods are important. But what does "whole foods" really mean? I am reminded of that classic anthropological text, The Raw and the Cooked -- haven't we humans been modifying our food for quite a long time? How whole is whole enough? Which food arts are too artificial? How can we support our health with whole foods without going crazy about the meaning of "whole"?
In my personal experience, bringing back whole foods into my diet was an important part of recovery, as the more whole grains, legumes, and leafy greens I consumed, the fewer cravings I had for sweet, high-fat foods. These foods, besides being filling and delicious, are also quite easy to prepare, and these days they fill the bulk of my diet. But I also enjoy things like white bread and cookies from time to time, and I've learned to believe that how you act towards food is more important than what you put in your mouth. That is, rather than worry so much about what I am eating, I would prefer to direct my energy towards how I eat.
For example: instead of chastising myself for eating white pasta (oh, horror!) for lunch yesterday, I find it more useful to celebrate the fact that my husband and I enjoyed the one free weekday we both share, and took off an hour in the middle of the day to make lunch together. He prepared the zucchini and cream sauce for the pasta, while I made a red lentil curry so spicy that it cleared out our sinuses completely.
This was not a "perfect meal" in the whole foods sense, but it was such a happy meal, such a complete dedication to each other and to the communion of good food, that I cannot consider it bad. And that, fundamentally, is the issue that I take with certain health-promoting diets that seem not to consider the meaning of our food, above and beyond its health benefits. This meal brought back our summer in Italy, with its zucchini and pasta, and ushered in fall with a hearty stew, all in one fell swoop. It joined my husband and me together in the bright hours of midday, and reminded us of the importance of doing things for ourselves, with our own hands, at a time when there are so many demands on our brains from all sides. This meal, if any, supported our health -- and I am glad to eat this way.