April 23, 2009

A few years ago I worked with someone who I now, in somewhat-more-aware retrospect, would consider borderline anorexic. She was thin, though not emaciated, and rigid in her eating habits. She described to me once how she ordered her days vis-a-vis food, and it was a sad tale. Every day, she said, went like this: breakfast was a bagel with jam, no butter, at her desk at exactly 9:30 a.m. Lunch, at 1 p.m., was a carton of yogurt with Grape-Nuts sprinkled on top (at her desk). Dinner was a salad with nonfat dressing. The big challenge came when she, very occasionally, went out to dinner with friends. Then, in preparation, she needed to work out extra hard or skip lunch.

Where is the joy? I wondered as she matter-of-factly went down her list. Her regimen sounded comfortless and stern, as do all such disordered eating patterns. But in actuality her program was only one step farther down the path toward behavior that's being urged upon all of us: to look upon food warily, as something to control, something to make smaller in our lives; to chronically starve ourselves a tiny bit in the name of health and fitness and looks.

The problem is that starving our bodies inevitably, though sometimes imperceptibly, starves our souls. Food is not just sustenance but comfort, companionship and communication. It is both a connection with our most elemental, animal selves and with the physical world outside of us that supplies our needs. In that connection, and in the plain physiological reality of eating, there is a joy that can be transcendent, if we let it be. The truth and logic of this fact have become so lost recently that, oddly, we've turned the idea around: We're more likely to think that in starving -- or, at least, in being stingy with how we feed ourselves -- lies our salvation.

Why do dieters see intense hunger as pleasurable?

"Dietary restraint -- holding back on either amount or types of food for external reasons -- has become so pervasive that people see restricting their food intake as normal," says Ellyn Satter, M.S.W., a registered dietitian who specializes in treating eating disorders and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (Kelcy Press, 1999). "And it's applauded by the dietary powers that be. It's become completely accepted that eating for emotional reasons is bad, that one should simply put fuel in one's body as if it were a car."

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines advise people to "eat five fruits and vegetables a day," while in Canada that same advice reads: "enjoy five fruits and vegetables a day," points out Karin Kratina, M.A., R.D., a dietitian and nutrition therapist at the Renfrew Center of Florida, a resident and outpatient treatment facility that specializes in eating disorders and other related mental-health issues. "We've forgotten about the pleasure principle," she says.

In some people -- those most dedicated to dietary restraint -- the pleasure principle has actually been turned on its head. "Many dieters train themselves to experience intense hunger as pleasurable," writes Michelle Mary Lelwica in her new book Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems Among American Girls and Women (Oxford University Press, 1999). That feeling of depri-vation, she says, can feel pure, holy, more "right" than being physically satisfied. She believes women's eating problems express a "spiritual hunger" that many women are trying to feed, paradoxically, with more hunger: achieving satisfaction and salvation by rising above the needs of the body.

Strange though it sounds, that idea isn't new. It both reflects our hard-to-shake Puritanical heritage, in which self-denial was the surest route to the soul's salvation, and echoes an ancient (medieval) tradition of fasting in the name of spirituality. That tradition, called anorexia mirabilis (a miraculous, or holy, loss of appetite tied to the idea that starvation proved one belonged more to the realm of the spirit than of the body), was almost entirely a female one, according to historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Plume Books, 1989).

The oddest thing is that, amid all these impulses to reach some sort of purity through starvation, we've always known in our hearts that food itself nourishes the soul. Even our religious traditions tell us that, packed as they are with feast days and food rituals: the Jewish seder, the Christian Eucharist, the Buddhist ideal of "mindful eating," even the simple practice of saying grace before meals. Food is sacred, something humankind has worshiped for millennia as the element most essential to life. Now many of us worship instead the sense of control that enables us to turn away from fat- or calorie-laden foods, from the fries or steak or even bagel that our stomachs are growling for.

What's wrong with feeding our emotions?

It's not hard to visualize what is lost when one eats like my former colleague -- that is, in a ritual of deprivation, resolutely denying the emotional power even a lowly meal can carry when shared with the right person at the right time.

Certain foods are indeed soul foods, with an emotional content that goes far beyond their physical reality: the cheesecake you used to share with your high-school best friend, the spaghetti carbonara from Maria's Kitchen that you fell in love over, the rice pudding your mother made when you were sick. These foods soothe us, take us back in time, and unite our bodies with our hearts and our minds.

Amid the pressure to deprive yourself, what can you do to recapture the inherent soul-fulfilling capacity of food? One answer can be found in the Eastern religious tradition of mindful eating. In its most literal incarnation, mindful eating involves picturing the food's transformation from golden fields of wheat to brown loaves of bread, from a black-and-white Guernsey to a pristine glass of milk or a lusty Camembert -- and reflecting on the gratitude this transformation demands from us. In more down-to-earth terms, it simply means eating slowly and consciously, noticing and savoring flavors and textures, enjoying the act of eating in a way that's as far from "fast food" as it's humanly possible to get.

The Western version of soulful eating is perhaps best embodied in the old-world tradition of the Sunday night dinner: wine, family, cooking and eating together in a celebration of the pleasures of life. An Italian friend once described the family meals she grew up with, at which cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents talked, argued, laughed, stirred pasta and risotto, drank wine, then let enough hours elapse to return once again to the kitchen for midnight pasta; the food was inseparable from the emotion. These are the foods we cannot live without -- and fats, protein, and carbohydrates have nothing to do with it.