You're Not What You Eat
For the present me, food is a life force, it's energy, it's community, and it's value in every essence of it's being. For the past me, and for the me that still makes me human, food can still make me feel shameful, hurtful, and life sucking. For years I felt completely robbed of the cultural pleasure of eating.
Unfortunately for the me who felt so incredibly sad after eating a meal, I didn't fully understand how the life, energy, community, and the value of food was always available to me, but it was just seemingly out of reach at the time. Growing up, society taught me that I was what I ate, and if I ate foods with sugars, carbs or high sodium I would end up shamefully fat, greasy and unpleasing. When health class approached in High School it wasn't about understanding the human body as a whole, but it was about how to change it when others didn't approve.
When I started studying Herbalism years ago, a quote kept popping up and that was "You're not what you eat, but what you digest". It's an old Ayurvedic saying that has stuck with me ever since. It's a saying that has held true for me ever since and I never looked at my body the same, thank goodness. Instead, my body was no longer something to punish. Food was never something I needed to deeply inspect for calories and to be sure my pasta serving was only the size of my palm. Instead, food became the motivator for optimal digestive support along with positive lifestyle habits and supporting herbs.
However, as I was learning and going through this process of fully understanding and becoming mesmerised by the human body and how it manages food within our unique bodies, at times I became extremely angry. I became angry because I didn't know why I was never taught that how we digest our foods and how our digestive system performs is the telling of our health, not the size of my fucking jeans. It wasn't about carb loaded pasta or sugary strawberries, it was about my body and how it was feeling. In the past when I felt my body in pain after a meal I translated it to "it's just because I am sad that I ate today", not "it's because that food was really heavy for my Kapha body, and cold raw vegetables were extremely hard for my body to pull nutrients from". How come I was never taught that my body is my body, only my body, and how no one else's works exactly like mine? Does society know how depressed they made me feel? How ugly? Shameful? For just eating food when I felt hungry? Yeah, I am pretty upset.
Understanding Digestive Health
In Ayurvedic Herbalism, it's taught and now heavily studied by many health care professionals, the core of our being and health begins in our gut. It's the center of our body and a core processing plant. Think of our digestive system as the burning sun. Within our belly we are holding some of our most vital organs that processes nutrients throughout us. While food can be the medicine and the disease, herbalists often look at how food was brought to your plate during processing and then how our body reacts to said food. In the same instance, food is the core of our being and wellness. We quite literally need it to live! With the abundance of nutritional philosophies clamoring and competing, the once-simple and often unconscious act of eating has now become complex, scary and unavoidable.
Even if one is being cautious of their carb or sugar intake for instance, and managing their macro-and micronutrients, they still may not be actually absorbing them due to a variety of digestive malfunctions that are possible in the process of eating such as breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and sending vitamins and minerals across the gastrointestinal tract. You may be surprised that almost all of us may not be processing the "good stuff" that we need from the "good foods". Thus, is it really about the pizza you had last night, or is it more about how your body is welcoming said food into your body? It's about the balance of foods and the mindful practice behind it. Without proper absorption of the food that we eat, the body cannot create the energy that we need to thrive. Did you know, approximately 75% of our immune system lives in the gut? It's true, and mostly in the small intestine.
With a compromised digestive system, the gastrointestinal tract will use up a lot more energy in order to turn food into energy and nutrients. When there is an imbalance in the digestive system, it becomes an inefficient machine, using more energy than necessary to do the seemingly simple task of eating, absorbing, and eliminating. Eating foods that are hard for the body to digest, eating too fast or in a non-relaxed manner, or eating foods that inflame or irritate the GI system also slows digestion down. We want our bodies to work more efficient, not harder than it already has to. That's why I have made it a huge practice to actually CHEW my food into complete mush before I swallow. It allows my digestive system to easily pass the foods and sort through the nutrients so it doesn't have to work as hard to break it down itself. It's teamwork.
The key to experiencing success through Herbalism is by having interconnectedness among ourselves and the universe. This trickles deeper into emotion, elements and energy. That is why lifestyle is looked at first, and when an herbalist understands your lifestyle and your specific body, only then can they suggest herbal allies for any sort of ailment. The primary focus is to treat clients as individuals and to stimulate their bodily functions through the use of holistic interventions. When our mind, body and soul are speaking together and working as one with the use of natural, holistic practices, then our whole being will respond with positivity and openness bringing us back to our conceived state of being. Our prakriti.
Herbalists often times will look at Aromatics for digestive malfunction, and then the taste of Bitter herbs. Aromantics help us digest our food because of an herbs high volatile oil content. Volatile oils relax smooth muscles, putting us into “rest and digest” mode. They slow us down and relax our nervous system, so that we can better assimilate our food. Bitters help us digest our food by increasing digestive secretions throughout our digestive tract. The very taste of bitter on the tongue gets us salivating, and then there’s a chain reaction all the way down. The bitter flavor stimulates bile flow, which plays a key role in digestion. This is why salads have been traditionally eaten at the beginning of a meal, it wasn't just because someone decided salads were an appetizer. The more you know!
Mindful Eating Practice
Practicing mindful eating has allowed many people to sort of.. distract, or re-process the brain thought process as one is eating. Often times when we eat we are challenging ourselves with negative emotions towards each bite, analyzing how carb loaded our meal is, gauging how much we can eat during each meal based on how much we ate during the previous meal, and if we worked out or not and how we earned this meal. It's a sad game we have all played before. This mindful eating practice is no easy feat. You may still find yourself wandering off in thought, and it may break a current routine such as eating while working or eating while you're on the go. No matter the obstacle, you can tailor it to meet your needs.
Before you have your meal, try to find a quiet space to be and pour gratitude into the meal you are about to consume. We are full of energy, and it’s healthy to give some of our own to the food that’s about to fulfill and nourish us.
Ask yourself how each and every single piece of food landed on your plate, down to the herbs. Where did it come from? How did it grow? What environmental impact did this food make to get here? How hard did you work for this meal that you’re about to have? Did the agricultural practices used to produce this food heal or harm the earth?Did the practices used to produce this food cause someone else to suffer pain, discomfort, and/or loss?Am I eating mostly whole, unprocessed food? Is my plate colorful, or monotone?
Can you begin to notice impatience within your mind as you’re asking yourself those questions? Are you feeling the rush to eat?
Next, I want you to say thank you. No matter how this food got onto your plate, no matter the impact it had, thank it for even being here today. There’s no guilt to be made, but rather a humble observation.
As you begin to eat, notice all of the textures and temperatures. Is it cold, warm, hot, smooth, runny, firm? Now, how about the tastes? Bitter? Sour? Salty? Astringent? Pungent? Sweet? Next, what are you smelling? Can you decipher every single ingredient?
Now you’re being nourished dear one, can you feel it? Do you feel your esophagus pulling down your meal? Can you feel it traveling through all of the canals to land up in your sweet belly? Is it feeling a bit fuller? Not yet? That’s okay, keep eating.
Can you notice emotional feeling? Is eating right now making you sad? Scared? Worried? Happy? Full of energy? Is eating a joyful experience, full of flavor, connection, and vitality? It doesn't matter here to analyze why exactly you are feeling this way, but to just check in and understand where you are at this time mentally. No judgement shall be made. You're doing great.
Where’s your mind at now? Perhaps you lost the patience to keep thinking about the finer details. No problem, it’s a practice. Begin again for your next meal and just feel alive while eating again dear one.