A time to digest

Eat Taste Heal

These days, it feels like I’m ingesting more information about food than I seem to be ingesting food itself — which is a good trend for me, considering that portion control had been a major challenge for quite some time. Thanks to the genius design of ashtanga’s six-day-a-week practice (I mean, is there anything that maintaining this practice can’t help with?) and thanks to discovering the wisdom of Ayurveda, I finally feel like I’m eating what my body signals is enough food, rather than what my emotions felt was enough food — two very different scales, for sure.

At the same time, I’m awash in outstanding books on Ayurvedic cooking and on journalistic examinations into America’s sick and broken food system:

  • During a recent weekend getaway to celebrate our first anniversary, my husband and I picked up a classic to add to my growing collection of Ayurveda books — Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad & Dr. Vasant Lad.
  • For my birthday, my sister Alisa bought me Eat Taste Heal: An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Livinga gorgeous and brilliant execution of a cookbook that offers up recipes and then notes recommended modifications for people of different doshas. The recipe for roasted leek and fennel bisque, for instance, says that pitta-types should omit the walnuts, and that kapha-types should substitute eggplant for fennel and soy milk for cream.
  • I finished Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us a couple months ago, and now I’ve moved on to the audiobook of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, the national bestseller published back in 2006 that I’ve long been interested in but somehow never got around to read.

Dear journalist: What should I eat?

I love that from the get-go, Pollan writes that “Industrial food is food for which you need an investigative journalist to tell you where it came from.”

That reminds me that one of my favorite non-fiction books that I read in my 20s was Fast Food Nation. Yet somehow, reading that book wasn’t enough to spur any lasting dietary changes at the time. I mean, yes, OK, I had tried, in my 20s, to change my eating habits:

  • I tried to avoid some of the worst menu items at fast-food places, but I would still eat at fast-food joints from time to time (and I still craved the saltiness of McDonald’s french fries, even though Fast Food Nation’s accounts of how they are made should have disabused me of that).
  • I had a terrible experience at a Chinese restaurant in college and gave up pork on the spot (the bad experience was a plate of sweet and sour pork, and the pork tasted too . . . fleshy. It felt like an unhappy animal had died unhappily and had been prepared by an unhappy restaurant worker).
  • After college, I gave up poultry because I had read about the horrific conditions on poultry farms.
  • And eventually, I gave up red meat because I thought I should, for health reasons. (I always kept eating seafood.)

I made managed to make it a few years of not eating pork, poultry or red meat. But eventually, as my energy levels continued to be compromised and as my hair continued to thin — clumps would fall out whenever I washed my hair — I decided I needed to return to eating meat. My body was telling me that I was missing something crucial. I had been a lazy pescatarian, so I didn’t do any research about what I should do to balance out my diet. And one day, while driving, I had a vision of a hamburger. I figured my body was trying in a big way to signal to me that I needed to change something, so I started eating meat again, and I came back with a vengeance — even venturing, when offered, to try pate and veal. (I regret both choices to this day.)

This time, it’s different.

Another interesting thing happened — again, while driving — a few months ago. It was still the dark of winter, and I was headed one early morning to the yoga shala.

I ran over a rabbit.

He jetted out from the side of the highway and there wasn’t much I could do. But I felt terrible. Just simply awful. Sick to my stomach. I told myself that if I had been more alert, I could have avoided him somehow.

For whatever reason, I gave up meat that day. It’s not like I have ever eaten rabbit and felt pangs of guilt. But there was something so visceral about running over this little creature that connected me to the experience of eating meat that I decided it was finally time to give up eating those forms of flesh. (I haven’t been able to eat poultry for quite some time, and I barely ate pork and red meat anyway, but I pledged to go meat-free entirely that day.) I’m content to continue eating seafood at the moment — for now, my body is telling me that all that protein and those omega-3s are serving me well — but I could easily see there coming a day when I give that up as well.

So I am back to where I was some 15 years ago, once again going the pescatarian route. This time, however, I have a good feeling about these habits sticking. It’s not that I’m more informed, necessarily — even though I am. It’s that I have a consistent ashtanga and meditation practice — along with my Ayurveda program — to ground me, and to connect me to my intuition about what’s beneficial and what’s not. I think part of what didn’t allow my first go-around, in my 20s, to be successful was that I didn’t have any practices that kept me in tune with my intuition. Working the long hours that I did, living with the stress that I lived with both at work and at home, I kept drifting farther and farther from my sense of self. I was able to build up a thick coating of justifications for bad habits (“This microwaveable meal isn’t all that bad for me!” “This vending machine snack will be exactly what I need to get through until I get home” and so on). It’s a vicious cycle, and the thicker that coating, the harder it is to return to a state of mindful living.

I’m so very grateful to be where I am at now. While I still have a lot of work to do, I know it’s work in the right direction. I didn’t blog much about the spring Ayurvedic cleanse that I went through in April (I simply didn’t have the time), but the long and the short of it is that I felt digestive bliss for the first time during that cleanse.

By digestive bliss, I mean that I felt nothing. I didn’t feel discomfort after meals. My old friend acid reflux stayed at bay. In our asana practice, we know about sthira sukham asanam — about poses feeling steady and comfortable. For the first time, I think, I felt that way about my digestive system. The feeling of not feeling an out-of-balanced digestive system was refreshing — and surprising. That that state was a possibility was so deeply inspiring that I think it will help serve as a compass for times down the road when I will want to be tempted by less-than-advisable choices on the consumption front.

The Smart Fitter blog, which I’m a fan of, today posted on Facebook a piece about Michael Pollan in which he says, “Cooking is a political act.” The deeper I get into all this food stuff, the more I have to agree. (I wonder if it’s possible that that’s one many of the reasons why, over the past few months, I’ve been enjoying cooking at home exponentially more than I ever have in the past? 😉 )

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7 thoughts on “A time to digest

  1. Fantastic post, thank you!!! That cookbook looks like a winner.

    My first workshop, a couple years ago, was a month after my first yoga class- a couple from S. Carolina, rad/fun/solid Jivamuktis. On the sunday, there was a lively discussion on eating wild game that you’ve harvested yourself, that may have not made it through the next winter. And of course they brought the Vegan perspective…

    Their response was direct- we just can’t reconcile both using a bullet to take an elk and ahimsa. Hmm, yup, fair point. But then they said—but maybe you can-and maybe you’ve decided that by carefully thinking about the impacts of both choices. That, actually, is the key. At least think about it and the choices.
    You’ve clearly done that! :)

    • Thanks, Dave. The cookbook is a total winner. I highly recommend it.

      Nicely put; I agree that the key is thinking through the impact of both choices. Our intentions driving our actions matter tremendously. I also think our choices may develop over time, and they may have to change with different stages in life. A woman may have to make different choices if she becomes pregnant. Men and women may have to make different choices if they are ill or fighting a chronic illness . . . and so on.

  2. My two most inspiring food-related books are “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver and “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Somewhat at odds with each other philosophically, but both excellent. I think they also both stand up to critical analysis better than Pollan’s books. I don’t reread many books but I have reread both of these.

    • *Thank you* for sharing these. I will put them in the queue. I’ve heard of “Eating Animals” and it sounds intriguing, so thanks for the reminder. Not familiar with “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”…

      Would love to hear your thoughts on Pollan’s books and his perspective.

      • Well, my thoughts on Pollan are not that original. Rather, there is a vegan blog dedicated to dissecting his work. I was skeptical but it is actually quite rational and well thought out. Perhaps a tiny bit obsessive in its object but definitely food for thought.


        I do think Pollan will do and say anything to justify his wish to keep eating meat, rather than just being okay with it and not having to write books explaining it.

        As for the main point of his books, those are good points of course (the problems with industrial agriculture). But I think the Kingsolver book is much better in this regard. And so inspiring!!

        The Kingsolver and Foer books seemed much more thoughtful and honest and less “flashy” or journalistic when I read them. I have recently been flirting with veganism, and I was curious to read Kingsolver’s take on this (I love her as an author). Although I don’t agree with all of it, her arguments were fair and well thought out.

        • Interesting site — very good to have that perspective. I’ve not read Pollan’s other books, and I’m not even done with this one, but I will say that I do think he does a nice job of showing the viscous cycle that is the industrial agriculture model. There is so much money, worldwide, invested in sustaining this model.

          As for veganism…so cool that you’ve been flirting with it. I was surprised to realize at some point that as I continue to follow my Ayurvedic diet, I hardly ever do dairy anymore. Milk? Almond milk sits much better with me. Eggs? Haven’t felt like it, and I used to eat eggs several times a week because I craved them so much. I never thought being vegan was within reach for me, but most days, I feel like I’m closer to following a vegan diet than I am to following any other kind of diet. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve never felt better about the way I eat.

  3. I second the Kingsolver book! It was really eye opening for me and helped spur my current six chickens + garden + farmers’ market way of life. Granted, I did go through an obsessive phase where I only ate what I made (bread from home, cookies from home), but I liked it and had fun and knew where my stuff came from. That’s the biggest thing for me – knowing where it came from and acknowledging it’s life. Whether that is vegetable or animal. I want it raised in a sustainable way from my local farmers, if possible. I’m working on canning veggies this summer and fall so I have better options this winter. I haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant in 7 years and I don’t eat processed meals or foods (mostly, I still eat cereal and granola bars occassionally, oh and tortilla chips). It works for me. That’s the biggest thing – find what works for you :)

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