If cooking is my time for experimentation and expression, eating is my time for appreciation and contemplation. When cooking, I let myself give in to impulses and allow my mind to bounce around the kitchen. But when I sit down to actually eat the food, I try my best to quiet my mind and pay attention to what is right in front of me. It has taken a huge amount of discipline to pay attention to my food instead of using it as a distraction. Before I embraced the art of eating with allergies, whenever I sat down to a plate of food, my mind had one goal and one goal only: “Get in my belly NOW or forever hold your peace!” It was as if every meal was the last meal I would eat, and afterwards I could barely even remember what happened. Like I had blacked out! I’ve had to retrain my mind and even the hand that takes food from plate to mouth, to slow the heck down.
The same meal that used to take me 10 minutes to eat now takes 45, not only because my body can no longer handle such speed, but also, as a result of my particular digestive issues, I only get to eat two meals a day with no snacking in between. So, when I sit down to my meal, it is special. I want to be there with my food and actually experience and appreciate it.
Now that I am eating with allergies, a meal has become about so much more than the food itself. I say a short prayer before and after the meal, not as something religious, but to mark it as a ritual. It’s my designated time in the day to be present and singularly focused and I don’t want to take that for granted. Because of the tumultuous relationship I’ve had with food over the last couple years, it’s also important to prime my body for digestion. I still hold on to a deep-seated fear of food because it caused me pain for so long, and it is necessary to reassure my body that it’s okay to be hungry, it’s okay to feed myself, and it’s okay to take joy in food. Just because it hurt me in the past doesn’t mean that food needs to hurt me now, and a gentle reminder is never a bad thing. After all, food is one of life’s great pleasures! I should get to enjoy it, too.
I spent a long time convinced that I would only enjoy food again once I could eat all of my favorite gluten- and dairy-licious meals. I had vivid daydreams of pies, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, and ice cream dancing through my mind on a constant rotation, and I was only eating such healthy foods to heal enough to be able to eat my old faithfuls. I thought the only way to get satisfaction from food was to binge on high calorie processed junk, and I was going to get back there come hell or high water. However, after cooking healthy, nourishing meals for myself for over a year, I’ve realized that that way of thinking was just part of the transition into evolving a different palate altogether. My old favorites are just a memory, and I don’t want them anymore.
This evolution has happened in large part because, instead of focusing solely on how quickly I can get food from plate to mouth, I’ve embraced eating with allergies and turned it into a full-on experience. In order to achieve the feeling of satiety that I need from a meal, I have to involve all of my senses. While I’m cooking, I tune in to the texture of my vegetables as I wash and chop them. I smell the different herbs and spices that I use as seasoning. I listen to the vegetables sizzle in the pan until they are the perfect amount of caramelized, and to the splatter of olive oil as I garnish my plate. And even before I sit down, I have a feeling of satisfaction and my body knows that it’s time to eat.
While I’m eating, I actually take the time to chew the food, to smell the food, to look at the food, and to pay attention to not only its flavor, but its texture. And as a result, simple, healthy meals are just as delicious as the old things I used to crave. In fact, they leave me more satisfied afterwards because I was present for my meal instead of constantly focusing on the next bite until the food was just gone. My cravings now are for the foods that truly nourish me because I focus on what my body actually responds to. My brain isn’t the boss anymore; my body is. My mind can tell me all sorts of outlandish things about what to eat, but if my body doesn’t respond well, I’m not ingesting it!
Together with being present for the food that’s right in front of me, I’ve become much more attuned to all of the processes that the food had to go through to get to my plate. Because my body is so sensitive, it’s part of my life to know where my food is coming from and how it has been handled. I need to source the highest quality ingredients possible and I’ve spent more hours than I can count, researching their origins and nutritional profiles. Don’t get me wrong – ignorance was bliss. Not knowing or needing to know how my food was sourced made life a LOT easier.
But now that I’ve opened that Pandora’s box there’s no going back, and I feel a much greater sense of connectedness to my surrounding environment knowing how much time and energy went in to cultivating my food. It didn’t just magically appear in the grocery store, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and I appreciate it all the more for that. On top of which, if the food is whole and real, it was alive once too, and yet it gave itself up to be here on my plate, giving me nourishment. And how could that not fill me with gratitude?
My digestive issues have taken a lot from me. I won’t deny that. But the deeper I go down the rabbit hole of health, the more this process is giving me in return. Here’s the thing: it isn’t the food itself that has always had such a hold on me. It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes from it. And through this both enlightening and agonizing process, I’m understanding more and more the difference between what my brain wants versus what my body needs. As the blinders are coming off, it’s increasingly apparent that I can get equal or more satisfaction from my healthy, vegetable-laden meals as from decadent gluten-filled treats – if I turn it into an experience and give myself the time necessary to do so.
My old one-track-mindedness when it came to eating was actually blocking me from the greater comfort that comes from seeing the food in a wider context, acknowledging both the medicinal benefits it provides for my healing body and the sense of connectedness it creates between myself and the surrounding world. This shift in perspective is one of those things that is simple but not easy. It’s all there if you just look for it, but if the blinders are screwed on too tight, it’s going to take something radical – a health crisis, perhaps – to get them to come off.
Eating with allergies has taught me to love whole foods, the ritual of cooking and my surroundings in ways that I never could have imagined. And for that, I am grateful.
To read more about Anna’s story, please visit Anna’s Corner.