Cooking to support health

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.


HeatherOhio said...

You are a MIRACLE of what recovery is/should be from an eating disorder. You provide for me an example that its possible to have REAL human relationships and at the same time keeping good wholesome food in its appropriate and needed context. THANK YOU

Lisa said...

Thanks for the anthro shout-out :) And for another lovely, insightful post. If a meal leaves you feeling satisfied and happy, then I think it counts as "whole" - maybe not in a nutritional sense, but for its holistic impact on your life.

PS Heather I'm from Ohio too!

Carrie Arnold said...

Wow- a beautiful post. You're an inspiration.

And I think that's what some of the health-food-zealots are missing: the nourishment of food and eating goes beyond just the nutrients in the food. It's the experience.

Ai Lu said...

Thank you, Heather, for dropping in to say a word. I am so flattered and humbled by your comments. Wherever you are writing from, in whatever stage of recovery, I hope that you are finding the support you need online and in your life outside.

Funny -- we seem to have a crew of Midwesterners here. I live in New York now, but I was raised in Minnesota. There are a lot of interesting, political food issues coming out of that part of the country, too. I feel so grateful to have grown up in a region dedicated to agriculture, because it gives me yet another perspective on food, in terms of its environmental and socio-cultural impact.

Lisa: I harbor secret dreams of being a medical anthropologist, but have to content myself with clinical psych. I would love to know what texts you are devouring these days and which, if any, are related to food.

Carrie: Good to see you here again! I hope we can meet in person someday.

Much love,
Ai Lu

Emily Jolie said...

Dear Ai Lu,

I completely see your point of view, and I agree with you. I also would like to offer a different perspective, that being that there can be a lot of freedom in structure. The importance, then, is to differentiate between structure and rigidity. I do believe one can have the prior - to a healthy degree - without going to the not-so-healthy extreme of the latter. I am currently on a quest to find just the right degree of structure for myself that will allow me the greatest degree of freedom and have me feeling great in every way! :)

much love to you,


Ai Lu said...

Emily Jolie:

Your perspective may be different, but I do not think that it is at all opposed to my own! I love what you say about there being "freedom in structure" -- by setting limits for ourselves, we are able to work more comfortably within those limits, no doubt about it. There was definitely a time when I needed more structure in my diet than I do now, but that degree of structure is always changing for me, as it probably does for all of us. I am not trying to advocate a no-holds-barred approach to food, but rather a more exploratory attitude, one of "let's see where I am today, and where I might be tomorrow." I want to challenge some of the food rules that I used to live by, because by doing so I steal some of their power away from them, and they have less of a hold upon my habits and my life.

This is where I am right now: I am becoming more aware of some of the RIGID structures that used to guide my eating, and finding ways to keep some boundaries without going crazy about those limitations. I think we are not so different in our approach, and I hope that my questioning the whole foods movement was taken just as that -- a questioning. I don't have the final answer yet, I am just trying to figure out what works for ME.

Ai Lu

Emily Jolie said...

Dearest Ai Lu,

I by no means thought of my perspective as an opposing one to yours... more a complimentary one. :) I really appreciate your approach, Ai Lu, and, quite frankly, it has helped me a GREAT deal in my personal healing! I am very grateful to have crossed paths with you!

For a while, I was doing a lot of reading on the Body Ecology Diet, by Donna Gates. She has a book by that name, as well as a website, and newsletters that I receive periodically. I truly believe that this diet can help us to heal in many ways... and I also have found myself turned off by it more and more. The way the newsletters are written (this may just be my own issue, but...), for me, they produce a lot of guilt or feelings of inadequacy and not being 'good enough' if I don't follow the diet, knowing what I know from their research just how 'bad' sugar and other foods are.

Reading your blog and Shauna Ahern's book Gluten-Free Girl (have you read her book yet? If not, I think you would really like it!), has offered me a new perspective on food again. A perspective that tells me it's okay - no, more than ok - it's GOOD! - to savor the little pleasures in life and find delight in all kinds of foods!

The Body Ecology Diet is great, and I feel really good on it, but, ultimately, I find it much too socially isolating. I spent several years isolating myself with my eating disorder, and now I don't want to continue doing that by adhering to a strict diet that makes it difficult to share food with others unless I've prepared it myself.

So, Ai Lu, I very much appreciate and respect your point of view! My intent was really not to question it, just to add another dimension or perspective to it. :)

Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

with love,