x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

When it comes to food, guilt can consume us

Obsessing over food can make us feel guilty, stress us out and make us sick.

Obsessing over food with negative associations, such as corn, diminishes the pleasure we get from eating.
Obsessing over food with negative associations, such as corn, diminishes the pleasure we get from eating.

"And that," finishes our host, "is why corn is evil." Six of us are gathered, hungry and rapt, around a table in a Mexican restaurant. We haven't even ordered yet and already the ethical and ecological implications of corn tortillas and tamales are settling thickly on our minds. We've just been administered a thorough but scathing diatribe on the dark underbelly of corn, that unassuming and omnipresent cereal whose industrialisation and insidious command of the food pyramid has been instrumental in the decline of family farming, among other unfavourable things. So, when the server returns to take our order, our table's shock at the host's request for corn flan is thinly veiled. "Come on, so what?" he shrugs, hopping down from his soapbox. "I have to draw the line somewhere. It's one thing to be informed and conscious and to make better choices as a result; it's another thing to give up most foods because they contain corn and to adhere to that principle at any expense."

I'm readily put off by almost any form of extremism. Call it a longtime fondness for playing devil's advocate coupled with a belief in the right to breathe, shift and evolve with my ideas. We have the dual burden and luxury of such staggering amounts of information at our fingertips that it can be difficult to know where to look first, especially when the last great testimony in defence of something as ubiquitous and controversial as corn is frequently trumped by an endless cycle of arguments that are sharper and fresher. Last year, I experienced a mix of bemusement and horror when the Corn Refiners Association, the Washington, DC-based national trade association representing the US corn refining industry, contacted me with both an e-mail and a press kit to my home address in defiance of a comment I'd made in writing. It was a reference to my personal preference for maple syrup over high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that I am still loath to consume, press kit notwithstanding. And call me corny, but there's a sense of relief, for me, in knowing that what most cosmopolites eat is still a choice, whether we embrace it as a conscious act or not. Now, the hard part: how do we know what to choose?

We eat too fast, we eat too much, and we make the wrong choices; it's impossible to be perfect all the time. "Tell me what to do instead of what not to do," says my friend with the strong opinions about corn. It is incredibly easy to feel bad abut the choices we make when it comes to our diets. When applied correctly, guilt can be a powerful motivator, but its impact is limited and its shelf life even more so. You can't effectively shame people out of their eating habits. And once we start obsessing over the origin of ingredients or calorie content or cholesterol, we begin to feel guilty and that we are making the wrong choices, which in turn diminishes the pleasure we get from our food, stresses us out, makes us feel hopeless and makes us sick.

The connection between body and mind is no great secret. If intuitive eating is transformational, could it be that the only thing more indigestible than a greasy, fatty fast-food meal is a chaser of negativity? The problem with so much of the food-related debates, exposés, tirades and rants is that, much of the time, little or nothing is offered as a solution. GMOs, rBGH, MSG: there is a set of legitimate concerns, paranoid neuroses and admirable defences for every acronym imaginable. Does that make all of this information more of a liability or an asset? Are there clear-cut answers that work for everyone, or do they not exist?

Some people live to be old on a steady diet of steak and cigarettes. Others follow all the rules of eating and living judiciously, then die of cancer at 32. There are mysteries and apparent paradoxes to the human condition that often have nothing to do with our lifestyles or our attitudes. Hippocrates believed in the body's wisdom. Our generation, with all its pressures and complexities, is in danger of becoming the first to begin dying younger than our parents' generation due to health issues. We enjoy modern-day technological conveniences for which we have paid dearly; our soil is sapped, much of our food is processed or engineered beyond recognition, and the nutritive value of our food supply is waning. We're fat, we have diabetes and we're getting old fast.

The book Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, presents the elementary concept of "eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full" with refreshing candour and immediacy. I read it a few years ago, then immediately bought copies for a dozen women in my life. The principles that resonated most with me included the authors' rejection of the "diet mentality", which includes liberating oneself of the idea that there is such a thing as bad foods rather than bad habits; learning to honour hunger as a biological signal; re-building peace with/trust in/respect for food, our bodies and our health, and learning to recognise and respect when you've had enough. I haven't ignored a craving since I read the book, nor have I overindulged habitually the way I did when I felt like I was trying to get away with it.

Positive changes don't take place overnight. Good health is about what we do most of the time, and for me, that means it includes allowances and exceptions. It also means a regular regimen of clean water, a varied diet of whole foods, relaxation, exercise and fun. Dine with people whose company you enjoy, chew your food slowly, eat seasonally, locally and organically whenever possible, try new things and know that it's OK to dislike certain foods. Most of all, focus on what you can eat - not what you can't or shouldn't - and when you stray from your usual plan, leave the guilt (but not necessarily all the corn products) behind.