(^^ photo of a recent delicious meal I had in Nashville. It included ingredients (beans, cultured dairy) that I don’t usually have because they’ve upset my digestion in the past, and experimenting with eating them helped me learn that they no longer bother me. What I eat is an ever-evolving journey, not a fixed destination.)
"What should I eat?"
This question is a common one in my healing arts practice. The people who come to me (maybe you are one of them!) are highly motivated to feel better, and they want to know everything possible about how to create sustainable healing. They know that food matters, but maybe aren't sure what's best for them and their health issues, or maybe they don't quite believe it'll really make a difference.
This is one of my very favorite topics, as food and the energy behind eating was the entry point for my healing arts career; long before I became a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I attended holistic nutrition school and started a long exploration of many different eating philosophies. Here, I'm offering some places to start your own inquiry into how to flexibly work with food to learn what's best for you. Let me know how it goes!
Food is a really big deal, being literally how we nourish ourselves and all. A large part of our life force (qi) is made from the food we eat, and then our qi becomes flesh and powers our bodies and whole experience of life. It’s amazing that our innate self-healing mechanisms are so powerful that we could survive on nutrient-deficient diets made of soda and fast food for years, and our bodies would largely continue working (...for the most part, for a while...) before starting to show illness or break down. Our bodies are that strong, that capable.
But what we’re talking about here is not just surviving, but thriving. To keep our healthcare and healing in our own hands, we can make the self-repair processes much easier by eating super nutrient-dense foods that support our whole selves; learning what we’re truly hungry for by listening to our bodies; giving our digestive systems a break every now and then; and bringing more joy and connection into our mealtimes.
What to eat?
Short answer -- I don’t know what you should eat, no one does, and I think that’s good news! There is no perfect diet for everyone. There are a million different eating philosophies out there because each one works really well for at least the person who wrote the book about it, and might not work for you. What other people choose to eat is their business, and what you choose to eat is your business. You get to decide which foods, drinks, and supplements are for you, and by you, I mean not just your body, but all of your life. For example, you might feel best physically on a mostly vegetarian diet with some fish and chicken, but the right diet for how you want to live your life is a vegan one, because your values are aligned with veganism and those, for you, are more important. You get to decide what works for your life.
Eat when you eat
Pause all other activities (such as work, phones, screens, stressful / emotional conversations)...sit down, get comfortable...take a few slow deep breaths...say thank you for the food in front of you...take in the aroma and the visual beauty of it...then, begin to eat. This slowing down makes it easier for your body to switch into “rest and digest” mode and truly take in nourishment, and is actually the first suggestion I offer to people in my practice who have digestive issues; sometimes it’s more than enough.
I want to make a personal note here about avoiding stressful / emotional conversations during mealtimes. Stress has a massive inhibitory impact on our digestive processes, and linking stressful topics with eating can create a lifetime of emotional and digestive knots to untangle. This was a big part of my experience growing up, as mealtimes in my family were one of the only times we were all together. Instead of enjoying each other's company, mealtimes were used to review schoolwork, grades, extracurriculars; talk about uncomfortable topics; and even discuss our weight and bodies (all time favorite moment: being told I needed to lose weight as a teenager while we were at an Italian restaurant eating huge plates of fettucini alfredo). I often ate to the point of feeling stuffed during most dinners, because it felt comforting and provided a buffer to being under scrutiny.
Now, I get to hold boundaries in my relationships about the topics that are not welcome during mealtimes, and it's one of the best things I have ever done for my health. (Also, I get to draw boundaries around what opinions other people are welcome to share with me, or not; topics like my appearance are simply not open for comment, ever.)
Is it time to shift how you’ve been eating? I don’t know, but you definitely do. Most people could use more of these foods: lightly-cooked seasonal vegetables; fermented vegetables like sauerkraut; healthy fats like coconut oil, avocado, or ghee; spices, fresh herbs, and seaweeds; and natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as small fatty oily fish, flax seeds, or walnuts. Also, more filtered water and lemon water. And most of us could use less sugar (in all its forms, even the “natural” ones), processed foods, wheat-based and refined products, conventionally raised animal products, vegetables oils, dairy -- you know this, you’ve heard it before.
If you want to eat more vegetables and stuff, maybe don’t even worry about the treats and cookies; keep eating them, have at it! Just add in more fermented foods / coconut oil / and so on at each meal, and you might start to notice that those cookies don’t have the same pull they used to. They’re not as interesting or fulfilling now that you’re more satisfied with nutrient-dense foods, and your cravings for them calm down or disappear -- this called crowding out.
To me, the goal of eating health-engendering foods is not at all to constantly feel deprived of the treats you’re used to reaching for. It’s to feel gratitude for the nourishing foods you eat, and for supporting yourself by including *more* things that are good for you. See if it’s possible to get into a mindset of appreciation for the delicious healthy foods you’re eating more and more of every day, appreciation for yourself for doing so, instead of using a supposedly healthy diet as a stress-inducing punishment (which is the norm, by the way, and it’s ok if that’s what you’re feeling. The message that healthy eating is supposed to be a miserable experience has been very strongly programmed and reinforced in our culture).
Intuitive eating experiment
How about letting your intuition decide what to eat, when, and how much? Ask yourself, “what am I hungry for, really? Is is food? What flavors, what textures? How will this food make me feel, and do I want to feel that way?” You might also discover that you’re actually not hungry -- you’re thirsty. Or you’re hungry for the connection with friends that happens when you get together for dinner, not the food itself. Or you’re hungry for affection, laughter, conversation, or sex.
Maybe it’s time for a cleanse. A cleanse can take infinite forms -- whatever constitutes a break from your regular habits. It can be intermittent fasting, or a fast, or an allergy elimination diet, or a Whole30. It can be as simple as avoiding cheese for a week, if that’s something that’s a huge part of your diet, or quitting coffee, or avoiding processed wheat or sugar -- or all of the above. There are a lot of options you can read about in this area, but whatever you choose, start with something that’s not too demanding or dramatic. The idea is to (gently, lovingly) give your digestive system some kind of rest, not do the most hardcore thing you hear about.
Btw, other types of cleanses (digital detox and closet cleanses, I’m looking at you) can also be indirectly beneficial for your digestion.
You might also consider creating your own rituals around meals, starting with bringing a little more beauty and ceremony to everyday eating. Where do you eat? With whom? What’s the lighting like, and do you use candles? Do you set the table? Are there flowers? Which plates do you use, and which napkins? Would you use the special glasses/silverware/plates on a Tuesday? Do you say a prayer or offer gratitude to open and close mealtimes? Are there interesting topics you’ve been wanting to bring to the table?
If you eat alone most of the time, ask yourself how you would feed someone you love. How might you use mealtimes to show them just how much you appreciate them, and honor their preferences, and want them to feel cherished? Now, feed yourself that way.
Play around with the setting and way you connect with your dining companions, with the intention of creating more nourishment, pleasure, and connection in your mealtimes.
Some books you might look into:
- Just about anything by Geneen Roth
- Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Staying Healthy with the Seasons by Elson Haas
- The Whole30 by Melissa Hartwig
- What to Eat by Marion Nestle
- Visualization for Weight Loss by Jon Gabriel
- The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig
- The Microbiome Diet by Raphael Kellman
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Maria Kondo