Thoughts on our love affair with food and how we can get it to love us back.
The other day, I scrolled through my iPhotos and noticed an abundance of food images. Meals I was either proud of or impressed by, colorful dishes representing various courses and food groups. Some intended to be shared with others, photo snapped just before the fork destroyed its composition, and some savored alone. Some even made it to my Instagram feed! (just realizing we call it a "feed"...hmmm) As I looked at each image, I felt happy inside. What the heck is that all about?? If we are simply supposed to eat to live, this intrigue I have seems paradoxical. Turns out good food is...well...good.
A Rocky Road Relationship
In my young adult years, food was always either Friend or Foe, depending on my weight and what I was engaging in to control it. Key word...control. The more prescribed the program, the better...as long as I lost weight, and the plan made sense to me, it was a good one. Speaking of good..."good" and "bad" became the default descriptors for whether or not I was following the plan to the letter, not a reference to how things tasted or how I felt. I was always in one category or the other. (Anyone?) And regardless of my goal or if I was on track, an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's at the end of a long day could always fill my soul (at least in the moment).
I made peace with this pattern as I learned more and more about physiology and psychology. My body was not made to function like this...and my mind was not any healthier than my body as long as I stayed on this path. So I gleaned a few good habits from the roller coaster over time and decided to enjoy the ride. Food still occupies a good portion of my time and mental energy, now with my health at the heart of my choices in addition to my hips. It's not perfect, it never will be, and that's OK.
A Southern Staple
Southerners aren't the only humans on the planet who equate food with love, and we
certainly aren't the only good cooks in the world either. But many of us have had Mamas or Mamaws whose life mission was to supply good food to her favorite people. My grandmother's fried chicken tasted so much better than anyone else's (even though we tried to make it the exact same way) and she always had a gallon of peach ice cream in the outside chest freezer. My mother, who modeled good hospitality, wouldn't dream of having anyone in our home without offering them something to eat or drink. The Southern Spirit shines brightly when we show up with a casserole for the funeral or new baby, cole slaw for the church picnic, or homemade cake for the neighborhood block party. We love to share recipes...or maybe we keep some of them secret. (Yes, that's a thing, even in the Internet age where there really are no secrets and millions of recipes live on the web.) One of my dear girlfriends from Alabama who prides herself in making excellent cornbread kindly declined sharing the recipe with me, which I still find oddly charming (although I think I've figured out her secret ingredient).
Food As Art As Food
Food offers a creative outlet for those of us who need one, with a very useful and gratifying end result. It's the purest form of taking a bunch of unrelated things and assembling them in a particular way, thereby turning them into something else. I'm still an average student of garnishes and "presentation," so I especially appreciate when others have mastered it. There are as many colors in food as there are in nature (which is not coincidental) so the eye can be fed along with the stomach. A beautiful table setting is not just about centerpieces and china, it's also about the variety of shapes, textures and smells among the culinary creations and how they are arranged. This must be why chefs are considered artists.
I have to confess I have an unusual affinity for cookbooks. I love owning them, displaying them, rifling through them imagining if I could/should/would attempt a challenging recipe, admiring the photography or the person's imagination who wrote it. Like a work of art! Last Christmas, I lovingly and painstakingly published book of collected recipes from Nanas, Moms, Aunts and Sisters for my family. I'm pretty sure those books are going generally unused (because someone would have caught the mistakes by now) but it made me feel strangely fulfilled to rescue those traditional favorites from vanishing forever and pour out the creative energy required to see it through. At least the photos I peppered in look pretty in the cookbook stand.
Diet, Dietitians and Doctors
Now, the meaty part. (pun intended) Although my overall health is good, as I've aged, I've developed what I call "conditions" which can be managed by diet. My mission is to stay off prescription meds as long as I can get away with it, so I regularly research and read and re-evaluate the trade offs presented at meal time. I have a decent handle on what foods make me feel better or worse -- and when I don't care. Recently, two experiences enlightened (or reminded) me we really do have the power to impact our body's response to aging beyond "eat right and exercise" if we are willing to put some thought and energy (and money) into it. So, I have made this my pseudo-hobby while I still have time to enjoy the benefits, or at least see if there's any validity to all of this advice.
Dietitians have the higher level of education I felt I needed to take this "food as medicine" thing to the next level, as some recommendations I discovered seemed in conflict. So I Googled "dietitians in St. Pete" and found Wendy Wesley, who is close enough to my age to understand my language and also shares my passion for food insecurity. (topic for future blog post) What I liked most about her, above and beyond her entrepreneurial spirit and simple approach? She was real. She gets that we are social creatures and don't want to be "that person" whose food issues limit how we interact, invite judgement, or become inconvenient to a host/hostess. She gets that we likely have others living with us who may not embrace the changes we desire. She gets that fresh food is not cheap. She offered me some easy tips (below) and the grace to simply do the best I can.
• 85/15 Rule - 85-90% of food choices should serve your body and nutritional needs. The other 10-15% can be restaurant and/or party foods. Life is for living and a life without friends, parties and restaurants is just not sustainable.
• Eat The Rainbow - fresh foods are colorful, white all the way through black, and each color provides unique nutritional attributes.
• Display fruits and vegetables on the counter and/or at eye level in the refrigerator. Makes them easier to choose and prompts you to eat them before they go bad.
• Before every meal and snack, ask yourself "Where's my fruit? Where's my vegetable?"
• Keep a wooden cutting board next to your stove and invest in a good knife sharpener. It will make cooking fresh foods easier and more enjoyable.
Functional Medicine is a term I had not heard until recently, although I was apparently already a believer in its core values. It's holistic and science-based with MDs at the helm. Through an online presentation by Dr. Valencia Ray called The Four Keys to Prevent and Reverse Chronic Medical Conditions and Aging, I ingested a fascinating short course on how our systems are connected and our symptoms tell us something is off. Traditional medicine, she said, is like treating the branches of a tree independently without treating the roots. And the roots can often be traced back to some form of stress. Spirit, mind and body...everything working together...fearfully and wonderfully made. Amen!! What does this have to do with food? What we put in our bodies directly affects how the systems function. Sounds so simple. Yet it doesn't always feel that way, because simple doesn't automatically mean easy. (darn it)
Some nuggets from Dr. Ray's presentation and links to more information are below.
• Four mistakes women make in relation to stress and overall health:
- Accepting annoying symptoms as a normal part of aging
- Following outdated diet advice
- Not getting enough sleep
- Doing intensive exercise when adrenals are overwhelmed, leading to inflammation
• Four Key Stressors (root causes of symptoms):
- Thoughts and Feelings
- Sugar/Insulin Regulation
- Sleep (or lack of)
- Inflammation (i.e., gut issues)
So how about some of those recipes?? When time permits, my plan is to open a separate page on Mavens In The Middle to compile and share some old and new favorites. I hope you will send me some of your own (unless they are secret, of course) so the collection will grow like my appetite is right now from writing about food all morning. :)
One last thing. Before you decide I've gone nuttier than a fruitcake...my intention is not to "save" anyone besides myself. No lifestyle or diet plan or healthy practice is one-size-fits-all and I am eating this proverbial elephant one bite at a time. I love people and pastimes way more than process and proselytizing! I also love intelligent conversation, so I welcome the knowledge, wisdom and ideas of other mavens on a similar journey. You may also catch me diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry's from time to time...Cherry Garcia or New York Super Fudge Chunk, to be exact. Bon Appetit!