Food is for Sustenance, Not for Pleasure

One Sunday in Catholic Christian Formation class—I think it was in eighth grade—we were discussing something, and the teacher cited 1 Corinthians 6 19-20: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. I don’t think gluttony was specifically mentioned in this discussion, but in my head, I felt a jolt of guilt I had never experienced before. I knew that my diet which at the time revolved around cheese, chocolate, potatoes and the occasional fruit or vegetable was not healthy because it could eventually lead to diabetes, heart disease and a shortened life. But I had never considered that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in eating the way I did, I was dishonoring God. Did this new realization and the guilt and shame it inspired motivate me to change my lifestyle that day? Unfortunately, no. In fact knowing me, I probably went home and had a brownie or bowl of ice cream to drown my sorrows.

Fortunately, I would learn through the course of more bible studies as I got older that God doesn’t expect perfection, only progress, and gradually, over the course of several wake-up calls, I have made gradual but steady progress toward living a healthier life that honors God. In seventh grade, I vowed to at least stop eating mindlessly at holiday gatherings. In eighth grade, although I still ate too much junk food, I vowed to at least eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, and in so doing, I actually came to discover that some vegetables I hated when I was little weren’t so gross after all. In my freshman year of college after a doctor visit revealed a slightly elevated Hemoglobin A1C level, a risk factor for diabetes, I became much more mindful about not overdoing it on sweets, and started walking on the treadmill religiously. After each of these changes, I would lose weight and be so proud of how slim and healthy I was for a time, but then gradually gain weight back. Then a couple years after college, I would discover Dr. Fuhrman who outlined research that showed that true health requires a radical change in the way western cultures eat. I knew that sugar and processed foods were harmful, but was surprised to learn that foods I thought were healthy like milk, meat, and even olive oil really aren’t healthy at all. He advocated a radical nutritarian diet comprised almost entirely of fruit and vegetables. Raw, unsalted nuts and seeds contain important nutrients, but because they are high in fat and calories, this diet limited them to one ounce a day. Unrefined whole grains were limited to one cup per day. Everything else—oil, salt, animal products and sugar—were to be completely avoided for six weeks. After six weeks, lean meat could be added back into the diet, but this doctor recommended that animal products comprise no more than 150 calories per day. After an embarrassing meeting with a job coach where I was told that my clothing wasn’t the most flattering—he didn’t say it but I knew that he was referring to the fact that my shirt was a little tight and caused my stomach to bulge grossly—I decided to challenge myself to follow Dr. Fuhrman’s strict program for six weeks. I started a blog about that experience, and the posts I have linked to were originally written for that blog. (A few weeks ago, I decided to import the posts I wrote at that time to this blog, but they were originally written for another blog I started called Allison the Nutritarian.) For some reason, I couldn’t find the inspiration to write religiously for this blog which is why there were only three posts. But I did adhere to this program strictly for six weeks, lost about 14 pounds just in time to start my first job, and was so proud of my slim figure and how much better my clothes fit!

Some principles of the nutritarian lifestyle, I have done a great job of continuing these past three years. Every day, I eat at least a cup of legumes. On workdays, they are in the form of bean salad which my awesome mother prepares for me. A couple of my coworkers who have been there since I started tease me because I have never changed things up and eaten anything other than bean salad for lunch, but I don’t mind. I don’t give it back to them, just smile when they complain about not feeling well after carrying in junk food from some restaurant, while I feel great! Every morning before work, my breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal, a banana and an apple. Every day, but especially after work, I enjoy having a giant salad, and a big scoop of whatever hot vegetables Mom cooks for dinner. On the days I don’t work, I usually have scrambled eggs with lots of vegetables mixed in, and a small pile of potatoes browned with just a little bit of oil for breakfast, and for lunch I have bean soup which I started making in the crockpot when I went part-time. But gradually as I went about the busyness of life, I let my discipline slide in other ways. I loved peanut butter: in fact, to my surprise when I was on the six-week program, it was peanut butter, not chocolate or cheese or meat that I craved most. (I could have had natural peanut butter, but since there were already nuts and seeds in the salad dressing I was eating at the time, I feared peanut butter would cause me to exceed the strict 1-ounce limit and I wouldn’t achieve the results I was hoping for.) So after the six week program, I switched from Jif peanut butter to natural peanut butter, and even bought a cool gadget that made stirring it a breeze. But I overlooked the importance of portion control when it comes to nuts and gradually stopped measuring and just gave myself a heaping scoop of it on each apple slice for breakfast or lunch each day. In addition, I would allow myself to eat a Larabar (made of dates and nuts), or a paleo muffin from Simple Mills (made of almond flour) for dessert each day. Simple Mills also makes delicious crackers out of almond flour, and after a long day of work, or if I just got the munchies on one of my days off, I would enjoy a handful of those too. In the first months following the six-week program, I strictly adhered to the one cup limit of grains or starchy compliments, so if I had oatmeal that morning, I would ask Mom to use pasta made out of lentils, or I would just make myself a can of vegetable soup instead of what the rest of the family was eating. (I know canned soup is high in sodium, but I didn’t have time to chop vegetables and make my own meals, and since the rest of my meals didn’t contain much salt, I was sure I wouldn’t exceed the recommended limit of 2,000MG a day by eating canned soup, and in terms of fat and calories, it was way healthier than going for a plate of meat and potatoes or pasta.)But I felt guilty asking Mom to modify the meal for me or eating canned soup when she had prepared a wonderful dinner, and when my job became stressful, I gave into cravings for something tastier than vegetables. By February 2017 when my job no longer caused such stress and anxiety because I had a new position and switched to part-time, I had become so entrenched in my old ways of eating that I never scaled back. All of these realizations caught up with me on November 15 when I went to the doctor for my annual physical and was shocked to hear from the physician’s assistant that I weighed 186 pounds! I prayed that when the doctor came in, she wouldn’t notice this number, but to my shame, she did, and told me to think about keeping a food diary to find out where the calories were coming from, and decrease the portions of high-calorie foods, and to vary my exercise routine. I told her I walk two miles a day on the treadmill which she said was great, but noted that since my muscles were accustomed to this workout, I wasn’t burning as many calories as someone new to treadmill workouts.

When the physician’s assistant escorted me back to the waiting room where my mom was waiting, she could tell I was upset, so I told her the news. As with every episode of weight gain in my life, Mom tried to comfort and encourage me. That day, she suggested I just try and decrease the portion of everything I eat by 25 percent. My diet was overall healthy, so I didn’t need to give anything up, just eat smaller portions. She also went online and read articles about rowing machines which she had recently heard provided an excellent full-body workout.

I knew the doctor and Mom meant well, but the first couple hours after coming home, these suggestions only made me feel more humiliated, sad and frustrated. I don’t want to keep a food diary! I actually tried to keep one after another episode of weight gain a few years earlier, using a website with a food database where I could select the foods and it would add up the calories. It was easy to track processed foods, but for homecooked food, it was a massive pain, as I had to search for EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL INGREDIENT. After spending a whole morning searching for all the ingredients to calculate the calories of one home-made muffin I had for breakfast that day, I gave up on this endeavor. I enjoy going to the gym to swim sometimes, but I didn’t want to commit to going to the gym regularly to use a stupid rowing machine, especially since I cannot drive and thus would have to go at someone else’s convenience, and when it is convenient for them to take me, I might be at peak inspiration in my writing, or engrossed in a good book and not interested in dropping everything. But most of all, I didn’t want to cut portions. After a hard day of work, I don’t want to come home to a pitiful, tiny plate of food. I even found myself a little angry with God, asking why I couldn’t enjoy the pleasures of a heaping scoop of natural peanut butter on each apple slice, or a big plate of brown rice and a larabar after work when I know people who live on junk food and don’t walk on the treadmill at all, and yet are skinny as toothpicks!

And then the thought occurred to me, or perhaps God put the thought into my mind that my whole mind-set toward food was wrong. God created us to desire food because we need food for sustenance, and for most humans throughout history, gluttony was not something they had to worry about because they lived a subsistence lifestyle. In many parts of the world, people still live a subsistence lifestyle. But in modern Western society where food is so available, we no longer eat with a sustenance mind-set, but a pleasure mind-set. Treats, which the dictionary defines as “out of the ordinary” have become part of our everyday diet, and even though I thought I was living a healthy lifestyle, I too was still influenced by this culture. I also thought back to numerous bible studies that asked us to consider what idols we may have in our lives that distract us from God, and realized that maybe my idol was food. Just a couple weeks earlier when the church leadership challenged everyone to a day of fasting, I wanted to attempt the challenge, but chickened out. (For medical reasons, my parents advised me not to completely fast, but just eat very small meals). But I chickened out on the idea of even eating smaller meals, as I couldn’t imagine a day without things like peanut butter or my larabar. I will even confess that sometimes on Sunday mornings during church, my mind would wander to the wonderful lunch I was going to have when we got home. Every semester, our choir meets for an extra retreat on a Saturday from 10:00 to 3:00 for an extended rehearsal and a potluck lunch. While I love everything else about this choir, I hated these Saturdays. I have to bring my own cold lunch to these potlucks because of my Celiac Disease. Mom usually makes me tuna salad, and normally I actually really like tuna salad. But some of the food other people always bring to share would smell so good it made me feel sad that I couldn’t trust that it was gluten free and partake of it, and then angry that we have to have this stupid potluck. Why couldn’t we just get all of the rehearsing done in the morning and then let everyone go home so I could at least have something more delicious like soup, and an apple with a heaping scoop of peanut butter on each slice.

The title of Dr. Fuhrman’s signature book on living a nutritarian lifestyle is Eat to Live. I think he gave the book this title to imply that if we follow this nutritarian lifestyle, we will live longer and not fall victim to pre-mature death from preventable conditions like heart disease. But in a section where he gives tips on how to stick with this lifestyle long-term, he advises people not to make food the center of their lives, but spend more time pursuing other interests. If we are going to a social setting where unhealthy food will be served, we should eat before-hand, and make the event about the people, not the food. I think God also intended for us to eat to live because while there are many bible passages that mention people gathering together for food and fellowship, the fellowship is always emphasized more. So on the evening of November 15, I decided from that day forward, I would strive to live counterculturally. I would still exercise a little more: I have added some abdominal exercises three times a week using a bosu ball I bought back in January but hadn’t used much. But I wouldn’t exercise obsessively. I wasn’t going to keep a food diary or limit myself to tiny portions of unhealthy food. I was going to eliminate the foods I idolized altogether. I wasn’t going to give myself excuses to cheat such as a holiday or difficult day at work, and promise to eat healthy again tomorrow. I was just going to live a healthy lifestyle every day, no exceptions, by reminding myself every day that food is for sustenance, not for pleasure. Fortunately even before being shocked by the scale, I had acquired an appreciation for the flavors of vegetables. When my parents will saute a whole bunch of vegetables like zucchini, peppers, onions and mushrooms in just a little bit of olive oil, I don’t choke them down. I genuinely enjoy them. This already gave me an advantage over many of the patients Dr. Fuhrman works with whose brains are so addicted to the intense sweetness or saltiness of processed food that they have to acquire an appreciation for fresh fruit and vegetables. I have also come to see my Celiac Disease as a blessing in disguise, because it meant I already had a lot of practice smelling luscious foods like pizza and potluck dishes that I couldn’t have. I just had to eliminate a few foods like peanut butter and larabars that have some health benefits if eaten in moderation, but which I had come to idolize, go back to being strict about eating no more than one cup of grains or starches a day and only a small amount of lean meats like chicken or turkey, and “just say no” when tempted with unhealthy food, even if I knew the unhealthy food was gluten-free.

This post is getting long, so I will share more thoughts on how this lifestyle is going in the next post. But for now I will just say that although I have already been put to the test several times, overall, I am succeeding. While the “re-training” of family and friends has felt awkward at times, and although right now I still think about how much I miss treats, especially with all the Christmas temptation in the house, I know that once I get used to this lifestyle, this new lifestyle will offer an incredible sense of freedom, as I won’t have to fret about my weight or make new year’s resolutions like most Americans. I will just be able to live my life, and treat the annual physical exam as just a formality to check off the to-do list. I also look forward to the new opportunities God may throw my way as I focus less on the pleasures of food and more on things that truly matter.

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