If you could look inside the part of my brain that dictates my relationship to food, you would see a carnival of emotion: all the wild excitement, anticipation, and thrills that come with the fairgrounds. For me, getting on a ride is not all that different than eating something particularly delicious and experiencing the layered satisfaction of each bite. I love food… but food doesn’t always love me. Now insert the inevitable letdown that comes post-carnival, when you realize that baked/fried treats named after animals are just never a good idea (elephant ears, bear claws, or corndogs) and that the inevitable penance for your sins (shame-spirals, panic workouts, or new restrictions) may not be worth it. It can be a rocky relationship indeed.
When I was asked to do the SATTVA cleanse so that I could write about it, I knew it would be difficult. Like so many people, my relationship to food has always been emotional rather than practical. In North America, we eat for many reasons, the least of which is often hunger and, while some of us simply lack nutritional education or basic salad know-how, the reasons for unhealthy food habits often lie deeper within. Nutritional knowledge doesn't necessarily mean nutritional execution.
Mind the Gap
Often, we eat to bridge a gap, whether it's a gap in self-esteem, security, pleasure, contentment, or peace. In an anxious and hectic world, dark chocolate is often a quicker solution than therapy, consistent self-care, or real change. As we work through the cleanse, the deprivation of "comfort foods" bring our cravings into the light of day. In this place, we can get a good look at them, notice what they're related too, and make some changes. Since starting the cleanse, I have had to face up to some of my own gaps. I eat for pleasure and to calm anxiety; however, the truth is that food doesn't really solve my problems in the long run. It is simply an ineffectual avoidance strategy. To undertake true change in our relationships to food, we need to acknowledge and address the gaps we are filling.
Be Responsible to Yourself
The cleanse has also reminded me of the social politics of eating. When you abstain from unhealthy foods in a group scenario, others around you tend to feel guilty for indulging, sometimes causing things to take an awkward turn. I learned this the hard way when, after sharing my journey with food, a friend chose to condescendingly refer to my healthy choices as a "fad diet". While this was discouraging and frustrating, I learned that: a) I needed to expand my social group to include people with shared nutritional goals and b) the way I treat my body is 100% my choice. We each must live with the impact of unhealthy food on our bodies and, though it's easier to put something on your plate than qualify all of your food choices, it's not worth it in the long run. In times like this, actions speak louder than words. Do what is best for your body and leave your defensiveness at home. If someone asks you why you are eating the way you are, have a short answer and only elaborate as much as the relationship warrants.
Have Grace (and better goals)
None of us are perfect. Your desire for unhealthy foods will not change overnight and self-control takes time to cultivate. When things don't go as planned, keep your goals in mind over your mistakes. If your relationship to food is an emotional one, think of it like a breakup. Rarely, in relationships do we experience a clean break. This is why the word “rebound” exists! If food has been a significant relationship, allow yourself a period of transition, while setting your eyes on goals that are reasonable and achievable. When it comes to these goals, choose wisely. It’s easy to look at all the “fitspiration” that plagues the internet and idolize someone whose only qualification as your hero is their perfect body. Are they also a good person with a balanced life and healthy relationships? Help yourself redefine success by looking up to better role models who have more than just their pant size and spray tan working for them.
Ultimately, improving your relationship with food is not something you will do in a day. It will take time for your brain to want new things, to accept new goals, and believe that you deserve a life built on a nourishing foundation. Whether you are cleansing with us or not, I hope you will take the month of May to reflect on this crucial relationship and eat with a little bit of grace.