I’m writing this post on the last day of Summer, so this could just musings on the transience of the seasons. And yet, today’s post is a brief history of the 30+ year experiment in “healthy” eating that is my life.
Beneath the nutty quest that took me from every extreme food ‘religion’ to another was the idea that there is a pre-ordained way for people to be. That there is some kind of imaginary Eden in which people lived and ate a certain way that was perfect for all human minds and bodies. That if we could only rediscover or reconstruct this paradise before the fall, we could live in perfect harmony and health.
This idea first crossed my path when I was thirteen, probably from one of my mom’s healthy eating pamphlets. I promptly decided to become vegetarian. Teenage rebellion and a rejection of my father’s hunting ways surely had a part to play as well. So for the next four years I followed a vegetarian diet, which was in those days highly unusual and rarely catered to. I didn’t know much about nutrition, so I just ate a lot of bread, cheese and spaghetti with tomato sauce. I was a pasty, un-athletic punk living a nocturnal life, but had the innate health of a lanky teenager, so I was basically OK.
When I was 17 I came across a book extolling the virtues of living on raw foods only, and this is when I got serious about the idea of discovering the “perfect” human diet and increasing up the nutritional content of what I was eating. Raw foods seemed to make sense – after all, that’s how animals eat; cooking seemed like a wrong turn that mankind had taken by mistake. I switched to a diet of huge salads, lots of fruit, raw milk and soaked and sprouted grains. This worked quite well until I moved to London in the depth of winter, surviving in a youth hostel with not a lot of money. I lived off fresh and dried fruit and yogurt until my teeth started collapsing in on themselves. I still have gaps in my molars from those brutal days.
I didn’t put two and two together then, blaming it on poor dental hygiene. I added more foods such as gigantic amounts of vegetables, olive oil and sprouted grains. I ate and ate and ate, and still felt hungry all the time, even though I was so bloated that I couldn’t sleep. I was freezing continuously, and pale and tired, but it was Thatcher’s England after all; I was poor, and worked long hours in fast food joints, so I didn’t think to blame my diet.
I spent a few months in Southern India, living off Indian Vegetarian food, got a stomach bug and came back with a BMI of 16. I worked in cafeterias and had crazy binges late at night. I blamed myself for my lack of self-control, not realizing that my body was fighting for survival. I added back “bad” cooked foods, mostly bread because digesting huge amounts of vegetables was painful. For years after I basically lived off bread, boiled vegetables and a bit of fruit and yogurt. That I didn’t get sick is a miracle. I worked during the day, went to classes and studied at night and weekends, often falling asleep in my bed with my books. I had so little energy.
During college, without a kitchen I tried my hand at veganism, subsisting mostly on whole wheat bread, fruits and vegetables, with a bit of peanut butter thrown in. What saved me then was an insatiable, and totally explicable desire for smoked mackerel. I beat myself up over slipping from my almost-vegan ways. My body was craving fat, protein, omega 3s. Again, I was often tired, and also quite timid and very scared in general of my much more confident, well-educated and affluent fellow students. I spent much time in hiding, studying, walking, rather than fully engaging in student life in Oxford. This is still look back on as perhaps the greatest waste of my life. Food was only a part of it but it didn’t help. I don’t live life with regret, but if I could rewind any part of my life, this would be it.
Over the next few years I added a bit more variety, like beans, hummus and tuna. But I didn’t escape from this dietary limbo until my thirties, when I met my husband who is an excellent cook. It forced me to straighten out my bizarre and highly deficient diet. But right up until then I still thought I my diet was exemplary and supremely healthy, and pretty close to perfect.
Things got better since then, apart from a dalliance with low carb eating which left me weak, tired and emotionally flat.
Then, in a final tussle with dietary dogma I started eating a paleo diet two years ago. Once again, a diet that promised to deliver mankind from original sin, by literally encouraging to eat as we would in some imaginary Eden.
I still do believe that the basic tenets behind paleo eating are sound if you mean unprocessed food, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, starches. But to appropriate and brand this kind of eating – which encompasses a very broad range of foods and ways of preparing them – seems silly to me in retrospect.
I’m finally waking up the idea that the idea of chasing some kind of ideal is ridiculous, given the broad diversity of healthy and thriving populations across the globe. That civilization isn’t just some malignant intrusion on primal perfection and that pleasure has always been a fundamental need, and isn’t an enemy of living “right”.
Also, please don’t think I’m criticizing vegetarianism, veganism or raw food eating. I’m sure there’s ways of making them work, but I couldn’t. They just made me dogmatic, obsessive and forever guilty about not sticking to them 100%.
Oh, hindsight …
But our lives are our lives, with all their wrong turns, seeming dead-ends, discoveries, revelations, obsessions and reversals. I’ve learned a lot on this crazy journey, and thank god I came out just fine.