I always thought of myself as someone who is mostly healthy when it comes to food. I haven’t had any eating disorders, for example. I’ve also considered myself someone who eats healthy – after all, I avoid junk food most of the time.
But over the past two months, as I changed my food practices to live in accordance with Ayurveda, the Science of Life, cooking and eating in a mindful way, something unexpected happened. In addition to feeling great physically on so many levels, I started healing (digesting, you can say) some of my deep-seeded unhealthy associations with food that I developed over years of being a human.
Food is such an integrated part of our lives in every way – starting with our relationship with our families, who were the first to feed us, and moving on to our adult relationships with friends and significant others. Combine that with American society’s obsession with photoshopped skinny models, and it is truly hard NOT to have an unhealthy relationship with food for anyone. I learned that I’m no exception.
Here are some of the big issues that came up for me:
Cooking is a Woman’s Job
Growing up, my mother was always the one cooking for the family and taking care of the house, even when she was working. She loved it – cooked with love, with pride. Her food was healthy, delicious, and made us all happy.
But I had ambition. I wanted to do things with my life. My parents always encouraged it – to get an education, to get a great career. They sacrificed a lot to come to America so my siblings and I would have a world of opportunities waiting for us.
I looked up to my dad – he was considered the “smart” one and I wanted to be like him.
I went out of my way NOT to learn how to cook. I made sure not to even help with my mother’s cooking by cutting vegetables or anything like that. At the dining table, I followed my fathers lead – sat at the table waiting to be served.
I did not want to be the one doing the cooking and all the chores one day when I had a family. Deep inside, I thought that if I was bad at cooking, I wouldn’t have to. I told myself that I hated cooking.
Needless to say, my adult relationships had problems when it came to food…
My first out-of-college boyfriend did not cook, and I refused to take “the wife” role, so at one point we went out for dinner almost every single night for a year, indulging in fine dining. While he was the type who never gained weight no matter how much he ate, I slowly ruined my body and health.
When I switched my food to a food service which brought pre-prepared healthy meals to my door on a daily basis, he resented me for abandoning him to fend for himself when it came to food. Eventually, he reluctantly signed up for the same food service as well.
In a more recent relationship, things were a bit better. My boyfriend took on the cooking role and he was great at it. But he liked to eat a HUGE dinner late at night, which I knew at this point was super unhealthy for me, but he would be sad if I didn’t eat with him.
He also cooked foods that were unhealthy for my body type, like rice and very spicy food which aggravated my anger issues (in Ayurveda, I’m a fiery Pitta type).
I learned early on that when someone cooks for you, it’s considered an act of love. So I ate his food – it was freshly cooked and delicious after all!, even at the expense of my own health and the health of our relationship (note to self: unhealthy anger is not good for relationships…).
Now, with Ayurveda, I’m learning how to cook and eat in a way that is healthy for me personally. I’m not “the wife” when I’m cooking for myself. Instead, cooking is a beautiful act of self-love and self-care.
Looking back, I can see that me not taking responsibility for my own food-related health in relationships out of my deep-rooted fears of becoming “the wife” was not the best route to go. But that is all before I discovered Ayurveda.
I don’t plan to enter into another relationship any time soon – I’m enjoying the amazing relationship I’m building with myself way too much right now – but by helping me digest the past and learn how to maintain my health in the present, Ayurveda is helping me feel empowered.
When (or if) I do enter another relationship, I know that I will be able to express my physical and emotional needs around food much more clearly (now that I know what they are!) and figure out the boundaries necessary to stay healthy both for myself and my partner together.
Fat is Bad
Whenever I go visit my grandmas, I get a judgment about my body. If I’m fat, they tell me I’m fat and will never attract a husband this way. But there’s a catch! If I’m skinny, they act very worried and ask me if I’m eating enough!
If someone in my family gains weight – a counsin or my sister from going to college for example – it becomes a big family intervention. Everyone is recruited to talk to this person to tell them about how unhealthy it is to be fat.
I was the subject of this type of intervention when I visited my super fat (actually obese) uncle in Europe who I love dearly – seems like the body shaming only applies to the women in our family…
Every long-term boyfriend I’ve had has told me at some point that I’m getting fat as I gained weight during the course of our relationship. It didn’t matter if the boyfriend was way fatter than me to begin with (one of them was obese the last time I saw him a few years after our relationship). But maybe when a skinny boyfriend said it, it made me feel even worse.
And while it’s easy to say I should have broken up with these boyfriends right away, maybe being used to this from my own family growing up has made me forget my self-worth at times.
While the Western standard of beauty revolves around super skinny models, Ayurveda recognizes that there are different body types and teaches how to live in the best way with the beautiful body that you have.
Here is how Ayurveda describes a person who has the “Kapha” body type – what might be considered to be fat in Western society (this happens to be one of my body types):
“In Ayurvedic terms, you would be called a kapha type. ‘Kapha’ means water. Like water, you go with the flow. You are easygoing, methodical, and relaxed.
As a strong sleeper, you may have a little trouble getting going in the morning, but once you get started, nothing gets in your way. You have tremendous endurance and an impeccable memory. You are steady, strong, loyal, and calm. You may have a tendency toward shyness, but you are an excellent listener.
People come to you with their troubles and seek your advice. You are the glue for any contentious work situation, because you are a peacemaker at heart.
In terms of your body’s structure, you probably have larger bones, large eyes, smooth skin, and thick hair. You may gain weight more easily than your friends, but that’s okay because a little extra weight looks good on you.”
“You may be a latecomer to intense exercise, but it will do you more good than anyone else, and you have the stamina to do almost anything. You have strong bones and muscles that can handle hard work.”
Wow! If you’re this body type, tell me you don’t get a bit teary-eyed reading this beautiful description. Just imagine if that’s how we talked to “fat” kids.
After reading these type of descriptions over and over again in different Ayurvedic books, I became proud of my body type. I learned how to focus on the strengths, the positives of my body and the best way I could control the negatives.
And there are negatives for each body type – you’re not alone with this body type! For example, I learned that the people with the model skinny body type have a hard time sleeping, have bad digestion, get injured easily, are prone to fear and anxiety, and have a hard time focusing.
Instead of body shaming anyone, Ayurveda acknowledges each body type neutrally (it’s not better or worse to have a “skinny” vs “fat” body type, it just how you’re born) and teaches how to properly eat, exercise, sleep and follow the seasons specifically to balance your beautiful individual body type.
Food as (Toxic) Love
In my family, food is love. Food is made with love – this is in accordance to Ayurveda. But there is such a thing as too much love…
If you don’t like food that grandma made, she gets very personally hurt. You’re rejecting her love after all! Usually – that’s not a problem. Grandma knows exactly what I like and makes it for me 🙂 But it is a problem when the portion size is way too big and you have to finish the food despite being overly full out of guilt.
That also means that my family’s main way of expressing love is through food, which could sometimes result in constant force-feeding.
When I visit my uncle (the chef!), he cooks me a giant breakfast. I will then go sit down on the couch to recover only to have my sweet aunt come over, ask me if I’m hungry (no… I just ate that HUGE breakfast…) and bring me more food regardless of my response.
Recently I visited family friends from the same culture as my family. Whenever anyone from the family saw me not eating – calmly sitting on the couch reading for example – they would get visibly upset and tell me to eat!
Eating this way growing up, I learned that I should always be hungry. And I should eat as much as possible! Stuff myself until I can’t breathe for every single meal.
Whenever I wasn’t eating, I was thinking about food and getting hungry. And when I’m hungry, I can’t think rationally or control my behavior. I need food right away and anything that gets in my way gets destroyed (sorry old boyfriends…).
With Ayurveda, I’m learning to reclaim my body’s natural hunger response. I’m regulating my meal times – eating a light breakfast, a big lunch, a small dinner and fasting in between. It’s made a HUGE difference.
I learned that I’m in fact not as hungry as I always thought I was… And that I don’t really need that much food. I can now regulate my emotions in between meals because I don’t get crazy hungry and angry out of nowhere anymore. And my mental state has improved so much, I feel like my body and mind have time-traveled back 10 years!
It’s like I have a second chance at life again.
As you can see from my personal experiences, our relationship with food involves many complicated factors that we might not even be aware of. I’m sure you can think of a few from your own life.
It’s understandable that following the Ayurveda dietary guidelines might be extra hard when you have all that past baggage with you. It was super hard for me to learn to cook mindfully, for example, because a strong part of my identity revolved around hating and refusing to cook.
But I do hope you give it a try and you find it just as healing as I did in your own special beautiful way.