Food seems like a rather simple aspect of life, though it
turns out that it is very complex. At least, we’ve made it that way.
Between being a raw vegan for the last 34 days and experiencing varying extents of food deprivation (which is related to my finances, rather than the contents of my diet) the last month and a half while living on the road has forced me to seriously reevaluate my relationship to food.
It hasn’t been pretty. I’ve faced down a lot of demons and have had to look my past square in the eye.
Admittedly, I feel a bit silly writing on this subject, but it must be done.
The Purge of Filth
What I’ve had to contend with perhaps most potently is food addiction. I’ve realized that in the past I’ve been far more addicted to food than I was able to realize at the time—and I’ve considered that food addiction is far, far more pervasive in our society than any of us is ready to imagine or admit.
The idea of addiction to a substance necessary to survival is a tricky one. Yet, it is very real.
Of course, much of the “food” consumed in American society can hardly be said to aid survival at all. The basic reality is that foods that are less healthy (i.e. less helpful to survival) are more addictive.
I’ve been on a path of steadily improving my diet for almost 4 years, and I purged most processed foods from my diet about 3 and a half years ago. As I write this, it is July 2016. There are quite a few popular “foods” I haven’t eaten since February 2013, including cake, pizza, soda, antibiotic-fed and artificially-preserved meat, white bread; and, there are a host of others I haven’t had in over a year. On top of that, I’ve been vegan since May 2015.
Even so, thoughts of these foods still pop into my mind every now and again. In fact, it seemed that such thoughts became especially frequent during my first 30 days as a raw vegan. I didn’t dream much about the rice and lentils that were staples for me before going raw. No—French fries, hot dogs, ice cream, and a slew of other filth would pop into my mind. Stuff I haven’t eaten in years.
However, this would last for only a couple seconds at a time, and I wouldn’t feel attached to the thought or like I had to act on it. The thoughts would simply come and pass. Since hitting the 30 day mark I haven’t noticed these thoughts nearly as often: I haven’t had any today so far.
There is no genuine or solid desire behind these thoughts. The likelihood is that the spontaneous thoughts of junk food are the traces of a dying addiction—an addiction that has been dying slowly over a long period of time.
I will not hold back at all when I say that I was addicted to junk food at one period of time. Of course I was. If I wasn’t addicted to it, why the hell else would I eat it? Junk food isn’t good for anything except feeding the addiction it produces. That’s why it’s junk.
As a young child I somehow raveled myself into a pattern of needing to eat sugary dessert after dinner. Yes, NEEDING it. “Sugary” didn’t mean fruit, of course—it was usually ice cream or cookies.
I recall incidents where I expected to eat dessert (usually ice cream) at some point later in the day and in the end not getting to, for whatever reason. I would feel empty and deprived, as though I was facing some sort of profound existential crisis. I’m sure I even cried a few times.
I would genuinely fear all the dessert in the house getting eaten by someone else before I got to it. Similarly, my mind would be so preoccupied with the thought of getting dessert at the end of the day—sometimes for hours. But I didn’t perceive this as being a problem at the time. I took this state of affairs for granted.
The addictive nature of all this didn’t become apparent to me until I was 16 years old—specifically, in February 2013. After having gone vegetarian the month before, I decided it was time to really step up the game. I was ready to go to territory I had never conceived of before. I was going to go a week without eating added sugar—not a single gram.
It must be known that added sugar isn’t the stuff you put in your coffee yourself. It’s not just that, anyway. Added sugar is any sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in a food. If you look on the ingredients label of a food and it says, “sugar,” then that food contains added sugar. You’ll find it in potato chips, granola bars, plant-based milk, breakfast cereal, packets of oatmeal, ice cream, cookies (and other desserts), a host of pre-prepared foods, and sometimes in cow’s milk, bread, and nut butters. Fruit doesn’t count because the sugar isn’t added to it by humans (you could argue we’ve bred fruit to be sweeter, over the years, but that’s beside the point).
This no-sugar challenge would have been hard enough if I wasn’t a teenager who didn’t buy any of her own groceries. The cravings… I don’t even want to think about the cravings. I wrote down recipes for cookies that I planned on making the week later, because my mind was so preoccupied with needing to consume added sugar.
I must add that I was anorexic at this time, and that added fuel to the fire of difficulty. However, while my anorexia didn’t last long (a few months), the fundamental dietary changes I made at that time did. I made it through that week without added sugar, and I’ve never looked back since. Things have not been the same.
My perception, in hindsight, is that I underwent an incredibly difficult week of withdrawl, and that catapulted me into 3+ years of continued dietary improvements and a strong ability to abstain from foods I deem as wrong for me.
Since then, it’s been much easier (though not always easy, per se) to undergo similar changes with other foods and food groups, including wheat (i.e. gluten), corn, soy, peanuts, animal products, and now, most recently, cooked food.
The common thread connecting all the foods I’ve given up in the last several years is that I was addicted to them. I couldn’t see that, however, until after I gave them up. My incentive for giving up these foods is that I felt they were causing me more harm than good—and, once I gave them up, I felt better. To me, that was the cue to keep going—and to continue going, as I now do.
Over the course of about 2 and half years, I steadily developed and fed an addiction to peanut butter. Yes, I am talking about peanut butter with no salt, sugar, or palm oil added. Just straight up peanuts. By the end, in late 2015, I was eating almost half a pound a day. It felt so awful—I would have to go to bed right afterward (yes, I would eat that all at once).
The last time I ate peanut butter was in March 2016. My family was on vacation, and I was home alone for a little while. The first couple days I succumbed to the desire for peanut butter a few times. Then, finally, I put the jar of peanut butter on the dresser in my parents’ room, locked the door, and forgot about it for the next week. That was the end of that.
I know it sounds reasonable to say that junk food is addictive, but once you start applying that term to foods like peanuts, wheat, and cooked foods in general it probably sounds stranger.
I used to think that too. Then I went raw… dun dun dun!
In my last several months of living at home and eating cooked food, I really thought the way I ate was healthy—especially the last month. Breakfast would usually be a few bananas with an orange and raw nuts. Dinner would usually be mostly-raw vegetables with rice, lentils, and an avocado. No added salt, sugar, or oil to anything (I sautéed vegetables in water). No pre-prepared or processed foods. Nothing of the sort.
Doesn’t that sound healthy?!
I thought so. Yet, for years I had always been reluctant to tell people that I ate healthily, even if in their eyes my diet was impossibly healthy. Why? There would always be some incongruence present that I was at least subconsciously aware of… There was always something in my diet that I knew had to change, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what yet.
At the end of my days of eating cooked food it appeared that I had gotten rid of all those somethings. What could possibly be left? Yet, something still was wrong.
At the end of dinner every night, I’d basically be in a daze. All I wanted to do, at the end of the meal, was go right to bed. Cleaning up the kitchen first felt effortful—a little too much so.
Every night, I ate until I was absolutely stuffed. I’d made a habit of it over the course of years. I took the feeling of bursting at the seams for granted.
For the most part it didn’t seem like that much of a problem. Eventually I reached a point where I could still function after dinner and stay awake for a few hours. My weight slowly increased from the age of 16 (post-anorexia, of course) until nearly-20, though I’ve never exceeded 107 pounds (i.e. average weight, borderline-skinny).
This probably doesn’t sound like much. You’d be right, in a way. It was easy enough to justify all this.
Yet, the questions hung overhead… Can I eat myself into a coma every night and call myself healthy? Why the hell do I do this? Is it really necessary?
The truth is, it felt very difficult to keep myself from eating to the point of being stuffed—even impossible. It was painful, but I couldn’t help it.
On top of that, I got so into a daily routine that I would look forward to this large meal almost incessantly. Occasionally I’d look at the clock and think, I don’t know how I’m going to make it to 3 o’ clock without going off the rails and stuffing my face. Considering that I normally ate dinner no earlier than 7 P.M., that was a little much. It harkened back to the little girl who needed her ice cream.
I wasn’t as addicted to food at the age of 19 as I was at 9. I could, and still can, go 20 hours without eating, no sweat (and longer, with some sweat). Missing or delaying a meal generally didn’t, and still doesn’t, push my buttons too much.
Yet, when I did get that meal… I was a slave to it. I had to consume it until it consumed me.
And as far as I could see, there was no way out of this.
Moving out of my parents’ house and into my car was like crash-landing on to a new planet. Everything changed—suddenly.
Suddenly, I didn’t have a place to cook anymore. I didn’t have refrigeration. For the last 19 years and 11 months, my diet had been completely dependent on these things. Now they were gone.
Not only that, but for the first time in my life I had to buy or otherwise get all my food myself. Even if they gave me money, no one was going to do it for me anymore. Every choice now laid squarely on my shoulders.
It became quickly apparent that if I was to stick to my healthy-eating standards, I would have to buy mostly raw foods. In fact, if I wasn’t going to cook at all, I’d have to buy all raw foods. So that’s what I did, and still do.
The first two weeks I managed to have cooked foods a couple times. The last time was the worst. I felt bloated, in pain, heavy, sluggish, fatigued, constipated, and useless. I ate the same meal that I’d always had when I lived at home. Now, after eating mostly-raw for two weeks, it felt worse than ever.
That was when I knew it was over. This relationship could no longer continue on as it was. It was harder to stay than to leave. So left, I did.
Eating 100% raw is so very different from eating cooked foods. When I think about raw foods, they seem to have a very light essence about them. Think about a ripe banana, for example. Light and airy—sweet, but not too much so. The thought is delightful.
On top of this, I’m not attached to the thought. I don’t need it. If raw foods could talk, they would say cheerfully, “Hello! How are you?”
When I think about cooked foods, on the other hand, they seem to have a toxic aura about them. I hear a demon licking his lips, hyping himself up, ready to feed this addiction. There is a darkness present in the depths—just out of sight; yet, I can feel it there. If cooked foods could talk, they would say, COME ON, EAT.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. I’d like to think that brown rice and black beans are innocent things, but I can’t honestly say that that is my experience of them right now.
Eating 100% raw hasn’t been the only factor at play here. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve undergone relative food deprivation the last month and a half. It hasn’t been a constant, static thing. Instead, it’ll be a lack of calories for a few days, then a lack of some micronutrient for another few days, and things cycle back and forth like that. But it’s certainly not 45 straight days of I’m dyinggggggggggg! Hence, I call it relative food deprivation.
Combine this with the fact that I haven’t had any set eating time for myself. I try to keep it similar to how I used to—one meal in the late morning, another toward the end of the day. But it’s not always like that. Sometimes I’ll eat in the middle of the day, or I’ll have three meals in a day, or just one. I have no routine. There’s no certain time of day or part of a chain of events where I can expect that food will now magically appear. I just eat whenever.
That may not sound like a big deal, but think of how ingrained eating becomes as part of a routine. Oh, it’s 6 o’clock. It’s dinnertime, kids. Drop everything you’re doing and come eat. Similarly, Oh, damn, I just woke up! Because this event occurred, the next event that logically follows is breakfast! Whoopie!
Overall, the combination of 100% raw foods + having no expectations as to when or what I’ll get to eat (basically, instability) has reset me. At least, I’m in the process of being reset. On days where I haven’t had much food, for instance, I’ve had to consider, What shall I do instead with this time?
That is a very serious question. It is not to be undervalued.
How much time to you devote to food? If you’re a housewife who cooks for a family every day, it’s probably at least 2 hours a day. It could be even 3 or 4, depending on what you make, how much you make, and how long you actually spend eating.
Then, of course, there are grocery store trips. That probably amounts to another hour per week or so.
What if all of a sudden you didn’t have to eat anymore… Would you know what to do with that time? Does the thought of having all that time and space freed all of a sudden scare you? Does it sound like staring down into the abyss of your life, wondering whether anything lies inside except darkness?
Another significant change has been that my mind is much clearer overall. Introspection is easier. Pulling myself away from time-wasting activities happens more quickly. In general, I don’t feel as attached to or needy about things. I get more insights than ever.
Additionally, I don’t feel nearly as tired, bloated, or in pain after meals. Sometimes I don’t feel that way at all. Stomach pain has been a frequent physical issue I’ve had throughout my life, and this is the most tame that issue has ever been. Overall, I can eat- quite a lot, even- and then just keep right on going.
Steps Toward Change
I have yet to forge a healthy relationship to food. It steadily improves over time, and I’ve been thinking quite a lot about it lately. Yet I still have a ways to go—not just in regards to nourishing myself properly, but also relating to food mentally and emotionally.
And I’m not going to let you sit there and laugh at me. You have a ways to go, too. We all do. No one has figured this out. I say that without hesitation.
How silly it seems, that it’s so difficult to wrap our heads around a thing that keeps us alive...
Food should be very simple, but it’s not. It’s especially not when it exists in mass quantities and all you have to do to get it is hand someone in a building a few pieces of paper in order to get it.
It’s especially not-simple when so much of our food has been deliberately altered to make us physically and psychologically addicted to it.
It’s especially not-simple when bad habits and addictions are so hard to see while you’re immersed in them.
It’s especially not-simple when people succumb to defensiveness and denial and feel the need to justify their current ways of being—no matter how destructive those ways of being are.
It’s especially not-simple when we haven’t come to a consensus about what truly is good for us.
I don’t have an answer right now, but it seems my life has been pushing in the direction of figuring it out—or, at least, making some sort of dent.
There are a couple things I know. One is that being skinny does not mean the same as being healthy. It’s better than being overweight, but it doesn’t equate to health. I’m living proof of that (at least, my child-self was). Being thin as a rail while shoving artificially flavored cream made from cow’s milk down your throat day after day does not mean that you are being kept healthy by some magic. It is quite possible to be thin and simultaneously fatigued, foggy-minded, out of shape, constantly sick, and of course addicted to the food that is making you sick.
Number two is that the purpose of food is to nourish ourselves. Our culture has become plagued with a deprivation-model of food. We see food as being all about weight loss and maintenance; and, simultaneously, as excitement to fill the emptiness of our lives. We have taken something very pleasurable and used it to chronically deprive ourselves.
Whenever you eat, focus on simply nourishing yourself. It’s a simple heuristic, but if all you did with food was use it to nourish yourself, then, well… what problems would remain? I can’t imagine.
Finally, your diet includes ALL the food you eat. If you tell me that your diet is healthy because you eat cleanly 6 days a week, and then on day 7 you go off the rails right at midnight and order everything off the menu from KFC, you’re not healthy. Your diet is a function of everything you eat. Don’t get silly and denial-ish with me. I will bonk you on the head.
On top of this, there are a couple key things I can suggest. #1 is, if you have a persistent, nagging feeling that there is something you need to change, face up to that feeling. Maybe it’s a subtle sense that something is wrong with what’s on your plate. Maybe you wonder whether your life is run by food. Maybe you feel out of control. Or maybe it’s a big, honkin’ stomach ache at the end of every meal that makes you want to flop down on the couch and jerk your head to the side as your proceed to projectile vomit all over the place.
Whatever the feeling is, acknowledge it. Lean into it.
#2 is, experiment. Whatever idea that nagging feeling gives you, play with it. Take some action. Try a little something. Just for one day, don’t eat that thing that you think you can’t go without. Ideally, go 30 days. At that point it’s easy enough to go either way—stick to the change, or go back to the way things were.
Let me tell you—I have gone through the process so many times of thinking that there’s no way I’ll get by without that food… And then I do. That’s when I find everything else I’m eating to be so much more wonderful.
You aren’t some hopelessly addicted stomach-creature. You’re not doomed from “womb to tomb,” to eat what you’ve always eaten. The course of your life doesn’t have to be determined by mere dependencies. You’re more powerful than that. You can deliberately choose what you will put in your body. You can change.
#3 is, don’t take feeling badly for granted. I constantly felt sick and in pain throughout my childhood—I thought something was just wrong with me. Then when I started to eat differently I realized that my body was actually quite functional, and I had simply been putting things in it that weren’t good for it. Consequently, I experience far less illness, fatigue, and general physical-malaise now than I did in the past.
If your stomach constantly hurts, your blood pressure is high, or your mind is always in a fog, please don’t think you just have a messed up body. Your body is more powerful than you realize. However, if you feed it incorrectly, it will get sick.
It’s possible your experience isn’t the result of what you’re eating, but how can you know that for sure? How can you know until you try eating differently—and I mean really try, full-out? Don’t be half-assed about this. Don’t give up gluten for a day and say, “Oh, gee, that didn’t work.” Experiment relentlessly and with commitment. The body needs some time to change. You have to give it a chance. If you do, it just might amaze you.
Eating is one of the most intimate, vital, and frequent activities you partake in. Everything you eat must come from the Earth, and everything you eat must return to the Earth. Do you like what you’re putting on the Earth? Do you feel good about what you’re putting inside yourself?
What you do to yourself ultimately affects all of us, and what all of us do to ourselves ultimately affects you. You aren’t alone in this. None of us are. The only way humanity has any hope of changing its ways substantially is if we change together.
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