The Sane Diet: What is Joyful Eating?

A good few years back, I went through a really difficult time in my life. I had just moved to America from England, leaving behind my family and friends. I had a newly minted PhD but couldn’t find a job, and had no academic connections in the U.S. And I knew pretty much no one in America, besides my new husband’s family. New house, no job, and an entirely different culture to deal with. Not to mention homesickness. Not surprisingly, I also began to have panic attacks.

Ridiculously (but I was only about 26 in my defense) I did not give myself permission to feel anger, grief, or upset about these changes. Instead, I blamed myself and internalized everything, thinking there must be something wrong with me for not being able to adjust to them. Jobless, I had a quite a bit of time on my hands with which to ruminate on fixing this problem…

The ‘answer’ I rationalized, was to ‘improve myself.’ The anxiety I felt was my fault, therefore I had to become a more serene, healthier, happier person. I really didn’t stop to think that I had very good reasons to feel anxious!

At around this time, I picked up a book on eating healthily with a plant-based diet. I also started attending yoga classes. I became vegetarian and practiced yoga every day, with a view to becoming a yoga teacher. I started reading lots of books on spirituality, especially Buddhism. A trip to Whole Foods could take two hours because I carefully read the ingredients of every single item I picked up in an effort to avoid any processed or refined ingredients.

Now, this is actually a pretty healthy lifestyle, right? Arguably, yes. But, here’s the thing. I was practicing this lifestyle for all the wrong reasons.

I was feeling so out of control of my own life, placing all of the blame for my negative feelings on myself, that I had turned to diet and spirituality as a means of gaining a modicum of control. Every time I checked the food labels, I felt empowered and in control. In reality, I was anything but. And, crucially, it didn’t make me much happier…it certainly didn’t make me a ‘better’ person (what did, IMO, was gaining confidence at work, and being less serious and more lighthearted about life).

Don’t get me wrong, yoga and healthy eating are both great. I still try to practice both. But I’ve quit the obsessive label-checking; the flirtations with veganism (which, again, I think I flirted with only because I was down this path of food control = moral purification. In other words, it was a way to feel ‘in control’ again) and the self-help/diet book reading. I would like to be vegetarian again, however. I fell off the wagon two years back, but I care deeply about animal welfare, and still feel guilty when I eat meat! I think that is the right reason to be vegetarian, though.

What I’m getting at here is that deep down, you know when you’ve been hijacked by your own desire to ‘self-improve.’ You know it because you feel anxious about food, weirdly ‘high’ when you eat healthily for a whole week (or some other self-imposed goal) and, perhaps the biggest giveaway, you feel like you are on some kind of ‘journey’ or ‘quest.’ Let me tell you, this is a quest that you can never achieve, because the only place it leads is more self-doubt, recrimination, and anxiety. Once you’ve reached one goal, all you can do is replace it with another more restrictive one. Where’s the joy in that?

If you’re wondering why I felt compelled to suddenly share my thoughts on this topic, it’s because I just finished reading an article about a new eating disorder that’s appearing on the DSM V: orthorexia. This is defined as an obsession with food and diet as a means to self-purify, to the point where it negatively impacts one’s health or ability to function in the world.

I don’t think I was even CLOSE to this point…orthorexia is a radical condition, and fairly rare. Still, all disorders appear on a continuum and I perhaps splashed about a bit in the paddling pool end of the spectrum.

So, how SHOULD one eat? What is joyful eating? Really, it’s simple. Too simple for control-freaks like me, perhaps, but all the more healthy because of it’s simplicity! As author Michael Pollan suggests, “eat food, mostly plants.” If you’re eating a well-balanced whole-food diet, getting exercise, drinking enough water, and cutting down on sugars, you’ll be just fine. Cook at home. Eat some chocolate when you feel like it. Avoid binges (which is pretty easy when you’re not dieting) and don’t think about food too much. And, by all means, practice yoga. Yoga, in fact, is the one exercise that keeps me feeling sane and balanced. I just don’t obsess about getting the ‘perfect pose’ anymore. I do it for me, and to feel good – not to prove something to my teacher or to myself. I also highly recommend mindfulness practices. It really helped me deal with my anxiety and accept rather than to seek to change it.

Right now, on this green beauty journey I’m on, I’m careful not to get obsessive about ‘purity’ because I know this is a flaw in myself that can be a problem, especially when I’m feeling out of control or low-confidence. So if a product isn’t 100% clean, I’m OK with that. I don’t want my old food issues to simply transfer to another locus of control!!

I hope this advice proves useful to you guys, and that as 2015 approaches you can put it to some use as you crack out the resolutions journal…

Have a happy healthy Holiday season…and eat joyfully!

Liv 🙂

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For The Days You Don’t Feel Beautiful…

I remember clearly the day I stopped feeling beautiful. I was in 9th grade when a boy (why is it always a boy?) thought it would be oh-so hilarious to pull a chair out from underneath me as I sat down in science class. I must have looked like a deflated stilt-walker as I toppled from my confident upright position to a heap on the floor. As a teenager you have no option, of course, but to dust yourself off and laugh along with everyone else. But inside, something shifted…

‘I am not worthy of a seat,’ was the message I received. And because it was a boy who had played this trick, the thought crept into my heart and lodged there like the splinter of ice that chills Gerda’s heart in “The Snow Queen.” And worse, it spread; feeding itself with the desire to understand.

Until one day, I understood: ‘I am not pretty enough to be worthy of a seat.’

After this realization, things changed. Where once I had held my head up high and teased the boys and laughed loudly at mine and my friends’ jokes, now I kept my head down, ignored the boys and when I laughed I covered my smile with my hand or arm, embarrassed because my teeth were crooked and I had an overbite. I turned this into a grotesque party trick that people would ask me to do: laugh with my hand over arm and turn three times around in a circle.

Instead of taking pride in my looks or experimenting with hair and makeup the way many teenagers do (and who, I think, are wrongfully accused of narcissism) I took a different course and ignored my looks altogether. I tamed my brown frizzy hair into a ponytail every day and avoided looking in the mirror when I could. And when I did it wasn’t to check on my appearance, which I had learned not to care about. It was to check and see if anyone else was looking at me.

Things got worse when the one place where I felt beautiful and at home in my body – ballet class – became instead a place of fear. My teacher began to admonish me for my ‘thick’ thighs and too-big boobs. Once, I had been light on my feet and confident in my movements. Now I was so aware of my body and its ‘wrongness’ for the task, I stood at the back of the class and prayed the teacher wouldn’t notice me. Even switching ballet schools did no good. Perhaps out of jealousy, or simply spite, the girls at my new school decided to ignore me completely, and as my misery increased so my passion for dance faded.

It wasn’t until much later that I began to feel beautiful again. I was at University, at a party where I knew no one: every fresher’s nightmare. Everyone was dancing wildly to the music (Pulp, if I remember rightly) and I was trying to be brave, repeating like a mantra that University MUST be fun; that all I had to do was loosen up and get to know people. Of course, I knew that this wasn’t going to happen –at least not here, not now. Suddenly, a guy walks over and asks, “Why is someone as gorgeous as you all on your own?” I knew he was just flirting, but he said it with compassion and a conviction that moved me. The shard in my heart moved a little, and I began to question the rightness of my long-held belief, ‘I am not pretty.’

What if…what if I was?

I won’t say that overnight I turned into a confident, strong woman. I wish that were true. It wasn’t really until I left University that I managed to find my footing in the world and figure out who I was and what I was worth. But I did start to feel that fairy-light feeling that young women feel when they start to realize they are beautiful; that they are worth looking at, and that, yes, it feels good.

We like to preach that beauty doesn’t matter. That only inner beauty counts. Try telling this to a teenage girl. Try truly, deep down believing it.

What I will say though, is that outer beauty follows inner beauty as sure as night follows day. I know it because I lived it. As soon as the shard in my heart melted, as soon as it stopped being truth, I felt easier around men, and they noticed me more, complimented me more, and I met my first serious boyfriend…who is now my husband.

It’s a rocky road to acceptance, and the people around us don’t always make it easy. But hang in there. Because one day, that little piece of ice in your heart that seems so much a part of ‘you,’ will melt, and you’ll realize that you are beautiful. You are worthy. And the girl who tumbled to the floor? She will stand up, brush herself off, and get on with what she was doing without giving it a moment’s more thought.