Food Is Not the Enemy

Thanksgiving Table, monmart, stock.xchng

I wanted to write a post discouraging people from considering the foods they love as being part of their identity to the point where they cannot bring themselves to try new, healthier foods. The post was to ask people on a weight loss journey, like me, to not get so caught up with food, but to put food on the back burner and focus on the other things in life that make life great. I have been trying to shift to being able to proudly say, “I am not my food!” by reining in my thinking about food, to not let the sights, smells, and tastes of my favorite things dictate how I live my life. But then I watched a couple of episodes of chef Anthony Bourdain’s now defunct show “No Reservations” on Netflix, and it gave me pause on the defiant stance I tried to take, to compartmentalize my feelings about food and separate them from the rest of my life.

Yes, there is much more to me than the food I’ve eaten–what I’ve inherited as favorites from being an African American, and also from living in the Philadelphia area (cheesesteaks stand up!!!). There is also more to me than what I’ve picked up from my travels and friends and family–more than the conch fritters I’ve eaten in Florida and bread pudding in New Orleans, or being enthralled by the beautiful colors and smells of Indian food served at a friend’s parents’ house, or identifying the rich saltiness of dried smoked shrimp that dances in and out of bites of West African food made by my husband’s family. But eating is essential to life, and food is inextricably situated in the various cultures that we are exposed to, and participate in, on a regular basis. Food is not the enemy, and food is not something we can quarantine from the other aspects of our lives. We can just make wiser choices, and learn to make those choices more objectively.

“No Reservations” really brought that home for me. This show is all about people enjoying food, wherever they are in the world, with the people they love or enjoy the most. I’ve seen Icelanders commemorating the end to ancestral food supply issues with a feast day. A Brazilian woman inviting the strange TV crew, led by the cynical, yet xenophilic chef and author, to her home for her take on her country’s beloved feijoada, and temporarily causing Bourdain to put his bad boy snarkiness on safety. I’ve watched the Inuit in Canada and bushmen in Namibia savoring food that they have fought to capture themselves–food that many might not dream of eating, like raw, bloody seal, or uncleaned and barely cooked warthog entrails–and celebrating as a group with the pride of being self-sufficient in ways that many of us have never had to consider. Each episode of this show that I watch reminds me of how magical food really is. How good it can taste, how rewarding it is to cook for others, how you can spend a wondrous 3 or 4 hours with good company and a good meal. This made me do a 180 on my previous notions about food.

Food is a gift from God, as are the bonds we create by eating with or cooking for others. Food is a blessing, but we treat it like a curse when we vilify it for our weight gain and for only temporarily lifting our mood when we eat to forget or to soothe ourselves. Food is obviously inseparable from our lives, because we need it to survive, but we can do better with the level of respect we have for food–and for ourselves.

In the course of losing weight, I have gone from being controlled by food and my desires, to trying to control my thoughts on food by identifying “good” and “bad” foods and banishing the bad ones from my plate and my kitchen. Bread, pasta and fried chicken have been my biggest enemies. (I tell myself that French fries and should be enemies, too, but I just can’t seem to get there.) As much as I try to distance myself, though, I must ultimately realize that these attempts at control are still giving power to food in a way that I shouldn’t.

It still means I’m  giving food the power to captivate and overwhelm me. Trying to resist certain foods only sets you up to eat more of them than you had ever considered eating. Some people (like my husband) can eat a serving of ice cream–from the container, no less–and just walk away before hitting the bottom of the container. That’s not a skill I’ve had. But it’s a goal I need to keep in my sights–to come to a truce with food.

One scene from “No Reservations” sums this up best for me: In an episode filmed in Cleveland, Bourdain sits down with Marky Ramone from rock group the Ramones in a restaurant that puts a postmodern spin on traditional Midwest fare. In this segment, Bourdain is basically eaten under the table by Ramone. Bourdain, who, in attempt to sample everything a restaurant has to offer, regularly scares and amazes me by eating copious amounts of rich food on the show, to the point of exhaustion. Yet he has met his match with Ramone, and is amazed by his delight with the food and gusto for more.

Ramone, who is in his mid-50s according to Wikipedia, and who still records and performs, has a pragmatic set of thoughts about eating:

“I can eat three steaks. I can eat a whole pizza. I can eat 50 pieces of sushi… But then again, it’s a vicious cycle. You have to watch your weight, you have to fit in your clothes, you have to play.”

When Bourdain repeats his amazement with Ramone’s uninterrupted eating from a never-ending line of small plates, Ramone simply says, “I gotta go on the treadmill later, that’s all.”

My goal is to get to a point where I can be this objective about my eating, yet not lose the sense of enjoyment it gives me. To not be at the mercy of food, but rather to strive to have the majority of my food decisions made to maximize nutrients in a modest amount of calories and fat. And to do this without sacrificing taste. (It can be done.) My life should be lived in such a way that at most times, my food choices will be healthy and reflect the rainbow of colors in which fruits and vegetables come. However, I should also be able to make peace with myself that, at other times, the colors of the food I eat might come from laboratories, with strange codes for names, or that the words “crispy,” “rich,” or “creamy” might be part of their names on a menu. But the food should always be eaten in an appropriate portion, and considered with whatever else I plan to eat for the day. And I should not be obsessing about it before or after I eat. This, to me, describes a healthy relationship with food, and one in which food is not an enemy.

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