I make a pretty concerted effort to stick to the outside aisles of the grocery store when I shop.
I’ll typically start with produce, migrate my way to the natural foods section and finish off in the meat department.
I’ll occasionally make a detour for pantry staples like canned chickpeas or a new dish sponge, and I‘ll typically stop by the candy aisle for a bar of 70% dark chocolate, but for the most part, I spend minimal time grazing the inner aisles.
When I unload my haul of rainbow-coloured vegetables and organic brown rice on the checkout belt, I can’t help feel a secret sense of pride in my choices (I did it — I survived temptation once again!).
But I’ll be honest here: I also can’t help covertly eyeball the other checkouts I see stacked with cartons of soda and frozen dinners and family size bags of potato chips, and I can’t help judge what I see.
And that makes me feel like a hypocrite, because there is literally nothing in the world that entitles me to judge someone based on what they choose to put in their bodies compared to how I feed my own.
Food is the building block of all life — one of the easiest, most universal ways we can positively influence our health, it’s true.
It’s also one heck of a touchy subject.
I happen to have a lot of people in my life who are passionate about food.
I was raised by a vegetarian mom. I know she ate meat at one point in her life because she’s told me as much, but never growing up did I ever see her eat even a single morsel of chicken or steak.
She always had a strong interest in nutrition, with books on macrobiotics and the blood type diet influencing her cooking.
I wasn’t necessarily a picky eater as a kid, but I remember on more than one occasion being forced to sit at the table well past everyone else, surreptitiously spooning my steamed beet tops and creamed spinach in a napkin and stuffing it down the sides of the kitchen garbage.
My dad, meanwhile, was raised on a quintessential 1950s meat-and-potato diet and had no interest in pursuing vegetarianism. My mom, ever the saint, obligingly cooked up regular meals of chicken and pork chops in spite of never eating meat herself.
I always shared in these meals, never having any interest myself in not eating meat. My sister, on the other hand, announced at nine or ten years old that she was also becoming vegetarian.
In just the past year or so, my mom officially transitioned to a fully vegan diet.
Similarly, my sister — who, since her original declaration, never swayed from vegetarianism — follows a loosely vegan diet, one devoid of dairy but complete with eggs collected from her (very well-loved) backyard chickens and honey processed from her own well-tended hives.
I suppose my sister and I were both influenced by Mom’s interest in health and nutrition, which is why I eventually started learning herbalism and why my sister began studying to earn her holistic nutrition certificate.
In terms of my own eating habits, I wrote previously about how shifting my diet resulted in some pretty dramatic changes in my overall health.
I didn’t get into the details at the time because it wasn’t terribly relevant in its former context.
For the purpose of this story, however, I will say that eliminating gluten and refined carbohydrates from my diet and incorporating as many whole and nutrient-dense foods as possible — with an emphasis on healthy fats — changed my body for the better.
Because of my own interest in health and wellness, and that of the people closest to me, I regularly find myself engaged in conversations about diet and nutrition.
These conversations are often enlightening and informative, inspiring and thought-provoking, but they can also, at times, feel a bit delicate.
For instance, last Thanksgiving my mom, sister and I were talking about my Dad’s diet and his preference for salty, processed meats (black forest ham is one of his favourites).
The two of them, being vegan and loosely vegan, respectively, started talking about the detriments of an omnivore diet while I sat in the backseat of the car, increasingly antsy with frustration.
I was being ganged-up on because I eat animal protein! I was being made to feel like a crappy human being because of how I feed my body.
After a few minutes, I piped up, arguing how some bodies thrive better by consuming modest amounts of humane, organic, pasture-raised meats, and sputtering something else about the fish, blood and bone meal fertilizer used by organic farmers.
The facts of my argument — and theirs as well — are unimportant. What I’m trying to get at, rather, is how attacked I felt by their sentiments.
Like I was literally being treated as lesser for who I am as a person.
Food — how we choose to nourish our bodies — is a profoundly intimate affair.
The choices I make about what I eat are based on a multitude of factors: what makes my body feel good, what makes me feel good, what I can afford to buy and what’s available to me at any given time.
The foods I eat are based on my culture and upbringing, my traditions and experience, and are entirely unique to me as an individual.
I dress my Hungarian chicken paprikash with a generous dollop of sour cream because that’s how my grandmother always served it. I eat Cadbury cream eggs at Easter because they remind me of childhood. I sometimes buy conventional bell peppers instead of their organic counterparts because they’re dramatically less expensive.
Our diets, and how we choose to eat, are part of our identity. The foods we put in our bodies help to define who we are.
They’re part of our narrative.
I don’ t suffer from Celiac Disease, though I suspect I have some level of intolerance to gluten based on my belly swelling grotesquely any time I eat a wheat-based product.
The decision to eliminate gluten from my diet was based on information I learned through my herbal studies about digestion and leaky gut syndrome. I discovered I generally feel better when I don’t eat wheat, and my body responded by dropping the weight I’d been struggling to lose since my late 20s.
More remarkably, the anxiety I’d been suffering from for years all but disappeared, to the point where I quit taking my SSRI medication this past November. Cutting out gluten wasn’t the singular factor in overcoming years of anxiety, mind you, but wholly hell, did it ever play a part.
I’ve since kept my diet relatively free of gluten when I can. I also try and minimize my consumption of gluten-free alternatives because they tend to be highly-processed — chock-full of sugar and other questionable ingredients.
I won’t get acutely ill if I eat gluten, but I’ll probably feel pretty uncomfortable, and that’s enough to compel me to avoid it.
The fact I’m “mostly” gluten free has become part of my narrative around food. When we go to friends’ houses for dinners or gatherings, I debate whether I should mention I don’t eat bread, or suck it up and suffer the consequences.
When we go out to eat, I have to explain to my server that my modifications are “preference”, and not allergy, related.
I also have to accept that electing to be gluten free — even when it’s for the right reasons — probably makes the people around me secretly roll their eyes and pass their own quiet judgments about my diet choices.
Which is kind of the point I’m trying to make, I suppose.
Food is an intimately private affair, but we also all need to eat survive.
That means all of us — every single one — has an opinion on the matter. We’re all firsthand experts, in fact.
We just tend to forget that our opinions are based exclusively on our own personal experiences (“How can you not like mushrooms? They’re literally so delicious!”).
Food — diet, more specifically — tends to be a pretty sensitive area for most people because like it or not, our outer appearance is pretty majorly influenced by what we put in our bodies.
Which is why there are so many alleged experts telling us how we should eat, and why the diet industry has become such a massive business.
Scan the health and diet shelves of any thrift shop, and you’re bound to find no shortage of books reflecting decades’ worth of come-and-gone diet trends. People will always be seduced by the latest fad promising dramatic weight-loss and overall improved health.
But all this information can make things profoundly confusing.
My mom once commented how the 90s were about “low-fat” everything, until we clued in to the fact industrial food producers were compensating by increasing the amount of sugar in these foods, and thereby the number of calories.
Fast forward a couple decades or so, and I — and countless others— literally drink my morning coffee dressed with a blob of grass-fed butter and squirt of fractionated coconut oil.
The constant stream of conflicting information is what makes the matter of diet and food so frustrating for many.
It’s why engaging in positive discussions around food and diet can be tremendously helpful as we navigate learning how to better support our health through the foods we eat.
What’s problematic is when we start judging — and worse, berating — others for what they choose to eat. Because ultimately, it’s not any of our business.
I was at a barbecue once with a friend who made some insensitive comments about those of us who had chosen to eat meat.
While I understand in hindsight it wasn’t so much about making us feel badly as it was intended to help her feel more secure about her own choices, I understood well then the effects of making people feel ashamed about their diets.
My own experiences navigating food and diet over the past several years have shown me that nourishing ourselves well is something we learn by being willing to pay attention to our bodies.
And that there’s no place for shame and guilt.
My sister — the aspiring holistic nutritionist — was visiting earlier this summer and popped into the dollar store to grab a colouring book for my niece. On our way to the checkout, she also grabbed a package of neon gummy worms and a miniature-size can of Pringles.
“It’s all about balance,” she grinned.
Ain’t that the truth.