The Sacrament of Eating: Discovering Food as Holy and Why I Will Never Eat Paleo

I love food. I don’t mean that I really like food or that I have a few favorite dishes that make my mouth water when I think of them. I don’t mean that I (like many people) have a sweet tooth or that I really enjoy a nice meal after a long day. I mean I LOVE food. I wake up in the morning thinking about all the things I will eat that day (or even later that week). I spend my free time making lists of the things I will eat when I return to America, drooling over pinterest recipes, and watching cooking shows. During our last vacation, we spent several perfect days doing nothing but moving from one café or coffeeshop or gelateria or restaurant to another- eating, drinking, talking, and reading in each one. For a while my dream was to own my own bakery (though the business side of things always keeps me from pursuing that too realistically) because I am absolutely captivated by the way sugar and butter and flour and eggs combine in endless variations to make a thousand different cakes and pies and cookies and custards and cobblers and crumbles and brownies and sweet breads.

Admitting to loving food feels a little like to admitting to watching porn or non-ironically liking Real HousewivesWhy is that? Because as a woman, I’ve often felt ashamed of my appetite. Because I can easily eat the same amount as my husband even though he’s 8 inches taller and 50 lbs heavier. Because I have never in my life said, “I don’t think I can finish this ice cream cone.” We live in a culture where women are expected to have dainty appetites unless they are naturally very thin, in which case they can eat as much as they want and people are amused that someone so thin can put away so much. But when you’re on the rounder side of things, you are expected to go to restaurants and order a side salad with no dressing, not the bacon alfredo pasta and a glass of wine.

Breakfast Bagel from my amazingly talented fried at "This Wild Season". Click for the recipe and more gorgeous images.

Breakfast Bagel from my amazingly talented friend Asharae at This Wild Season. Click for the recipe and more gorgeous images.

I freely admit that much of the time I don’t love my body. Not because of the way I’m shaped so much as the incredibly fragile balance I have to strike to maintain a healthy weight. I have always lived on the cusp of what is medically considered overweight for my frame and height and I gain weight very easily. I can gain a solid 6 lbs in one week of vacation. I have done the diet thing. I have struggled with self-loathing because of my weight and shed tears over the size of my thighs. For me, the problem with gaining weight is not just being unhappy with how I look or feel, it’s truly a health issue. I believe that my body is a gift and am convicted that I should treat it with respect by maintaining a certain level of health and fitness.

There’s a saying that I’ve heard dieters use for motivation, “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. I can think of many things that taste so good I would rather have them than have smaller thighs. (For example, cheese. Could I live without it? Sure. But why would I want to?) For me to have smaller thighs, I would have to consistently say no to some of the things I love most in this life. It’s simply not worth it to me. I’m ready to find another way.

Lemon-Glazed-Blueberry-Donuts_This-Wild-Season-8

Lemon-glazed blueberry donuts from This Wild Season. Click for recipe. Now, imagine not ever eating these. A travesty.

In the past, I thought the crux of my problem was that I loved food and if I could just stop loving food so much I would be able to choose being thin over eating. But I’m beginning to wonder what it might look like if, instead of trying to change this part of myself, instead of trying to curb my appetite or denying myself certain things I’m not “supposed to” eat, I embraced that food is something I love. That creative medleys of flavor make my soul sing the way music moves the violinist. I am coming to genuinely believe that loving food (like, really loving it) is part of being me. It’s part of what makes me uniquely myself, as much as crying all the time and loving words are part of who I am. And that part of myself is GOOD. *

Chicken-Tortilla-Soup_This-Wild-Season-6

Chicken Tortilla Soup from This Wild Season. Click for the recipe.

It seems we all have people in our lives who have been sucked into the Paleo craze. Many of my family members and friends have jumped on that bandwagon. I have heard them use the language of addiction to describe my kind of passion for food. If you aren’t familiar with it, the basic premise of Paleo is that we were biologically designed to eat a certain way and that through modern technology we have come to eat many things that our bodies were never intended to process. All of this “unnatural” food causes a variety of health problems (not to mention obesity) that can be resolved simply by cutting out the foods we were never intended to eat. Paleo diet adherents eat grass-fed meats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. No grains or starches, no legumes, no sugar, no dairy, and nothing processed. The diet (and it’s a lifestyle, not a temporary diet) is essentially the diet of a caveman (hence the “Paleo”) and is based on eating only things that would have been available to the caveman.

I deeply admire and agree with the concept of eating natural things that have grown from the earth and aren’t full of chemicals. I also am sympathetic to eating less grain and starches as my own body doesn’t process these things well.** Where I get tripped up is the assertion that we shouldn’t eat these things because they go against our nature. Because we weren’t intended to eat them. I reject that. And the main reason is Jesus.

I think about the Last Supper and I envision Jesus and the disciples gathered around that table, coming together for this holy meal that their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers for generations back had eaten, every bite dripping with significance. I see Jesus picking up, not the lamb or the herbs or the vinegar, but the bread and the wine. Holding the crumbling bread in his hands, saying, “This is my body.” Staining his lips and tongue purple with wine saying, “This is my blood.”

I simply can’t accept the idea that the bread-eating, wine-drinking God-made-flesh was knowingly “poisoning” his body with what he ate. I understand that Jesus lived embedded in a particular cultural context. But even still – I don’t think he would have chosen bread and wine as the sacramental elements to represent his body and his blood for all future generations all over the world if they were things we were never intended to eat.

wine and bread

Here is the bottom line. I don’t believe we were meant to live part of a life. I believe in living a full, rich, abundant life. And for me that includes tasting everything. There are times when I choose to cut out some sweets or starches for a while because my body is telling me that’s what it needs in that season. And it is important to me that I honor and respect my body.*** But I will never stop eating those things completely. Not because I can’t, but because permanently removing those things takes away some of what abundant life means to me. Shauna Niequist**** puts it so well when she describes her life on a rigorous diet of no gluten, dairy, caffeine, alcohol or sugar:

“I felt great. I lost some weight, started sleeping better, didn’t ache at all. Success! But at the same time I felt like I wasn’t living in the same world everyone else was living in. It was like choosing to live with the volume turned all the way down, or going to the beach and not being able to put my feet in the ocean. My senses were starving. Eating such a restricted diet on an ongoing basis wasn’t going to work for me…There has to be a way to live with health and maturity and intention while still honoring the part of me that loves to eat, that sees food as a way to nurture and nourish both my body and my spirit.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have come to believe that there is something holy and sacramental about food itself-the way we nourish our bodies with the gifts of the earth that God has provided for us. And the more I’ve thought about this, I’ve been struck by the sheer beauty of food as a sacrament. Could the act of eating itself be worship? Could working with our hands to prepare the gifts of the earth for the table be a form of gratitude for God’s provision that spills glory out into an ordinary moment? Could savoring the common elements of paper-thin pizza crust covered with sweet pears and creamy gorgonzola and spicy arugula, drizzled in balsamic be a way to experience uncommon grace? After all, why do we speak words over our food and call it grace if not because there is grace there to be received?

“You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the concert and the opera,

And grace before the play and pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

G.K. Chesterton, “A Grace,” Collected Poetry

________________________________________________________

*Of course, I don’t believe that any amount of love for and enjoyment of food excuses overeating or gluttony. I would never try to make the case that I should feel free to eat as much as I want of whatever I want unchecked. I think it’s wrong when I eat far beyond what I need, or when I eat to try to satisfy some appetite that isn’t really physical. These things don’t get a pass just because I am embracing my love of food.

**A few years ago after many doctors and a couple of years of tests, finding and removing polyps, and chalking up lots of digestive issues to the all-inclusive “IBS,” I tested off-the-charts positive for a bacterial overgrowth in my small-intestine (SIBO). This was treatable by an unbelievably expensive antibiotic, but according to my doctor, once you have this problem, it almost always comes back. No one knows what causes it, and there is no cure that prevents it from ever coming back. However, the bacteria feeds on starches. So when it is flaring up, one of the best things I can do to manage it is to cut starches out of my diet. Also, like many women, there is a direct correlation for me between the amount of starch I eat and my weight.

***I am learning to find balance by listening to my body. If the SIBO is active and I’m not feeling well, I stop eating starches until the cycle is over. If my clothes are tight because I’ve been letting my appetites run out of control, I treat this as a physical symptom I need to address for my health. Obviously, if you have some sort of serious food allergy, you have to listen to your body in that as well. Believe me, I’m not advocating that someone with celiac should think having regular bread is more important than being healthy. I’m talking about my own feelings for my particular situation.

**** This is from Shauna Niequist’s excellent book, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table.

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12 comments

  1. Many of us still eat all those things Lil. Just keep them in their place. As “mouth entertainment” and not sustenance. And sugar is as “addictive” as any other “addictive” substance. And much of the behavior that surrounds every other addiction.

    Not saying this is you, and not trying to salt up your blog, but I watch people eating themselves to death every day. Losing legs, strokes, open heart surgeries, strokes, diabetes, obesity in their 40’s and 50’s all because damnit they are gonna enjoy life.

    Grace may cover the “guilt” of actions. It won’t erase consequences.

    And please don’t take this as being judgemental. There are not many roads in life I haven’t spent some amount of time traveling on. I appreciate your perspective and love you:)

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    1. I agree. Which is why I think embracing a love of food and positive view of it only works if you also cultivate respect for your body as a gift that you have a mandate to nourish and care for. And of course, I don’t believe that any amount of love for and enjoyment of food excuses overeating or gluttony. I would never try to make the case that I should feel free to eat as much as I want of whatever I want unchecked. I believe in eating things from the earth instead of artificial things created in a food lab. I believe in eating grass-fed beef because I understand that when cows are fed corn, they get sick and have to be given antibiotics to survive, which means antibiotics in that meat and I don’t want that (for myself or the cow). I just don’t believe in cutting out whole swathes of natural foods.

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  2. It’s like the “moderation” vs. “abstinence” debate. It’s just that those with that curious capacity for moderation are typically those who have never even wrestled with the question of whether they needed to.

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  3. This is probably my favorite post you’ve ever written. I agree x1000. Also, I really hope that someday we’ll live close to each other so that you can come over and we can cook that pizza (or 2) with sweet pears and creamy gorgonzola and spicy arugula, drizzled in balsamic… my mouth is watering. And my heart is full. Thank you for your beautiful words… I love this post!

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  4. Thank you for a great post Lily. I have been vegan for around 4 months now and I’m starting to …dwindle. There are times where I feel so strongly about it (mainly for the sake of sustainability) but the quote you used above summarises my feelings towards it as of late.

    “I felt like I wasn’t living in the same world everyone else was living in. It was like choosing to live with the volume turned all the way down, or going to the beach and not being able to put my feet in the ocean. My senses were starving. Eating such a restricted diet on an ongoing basis wasn’t going to work for me…There has to be a way to live with health and maturity and intention while still honoring the part of me that loves to eat, that sees food as a way to nurture and nourish both my body and my spirit.”

    I feel isolated. I am eating more unnatural foods (veggie alternatives) and I don’t think I feel better anymore. I have to put in so much effort to ensure each meal contains a balance, and my essential nutrients that I feel food has taken this new role of the enemy. I’m sure it will pass, but I feel life is for learning. Maybe this isn’t the way forward. You’ve made me think a lot, and for that, I am very grateful.

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    1. Hi Sarah. I totally get what you’re saying. There’s a part of me that also thinks a vegetarian or vegan diet would be a noble thing to try and that there are lots of good reasons for doing it, but I also find that it ends up being far less “natural” than it seems like it will be because you end up needing to eat so many alternative foods or add in supplements for things you can’t get from your diet. When I think about food as fuel for my body and how my body has certain nutritional needs, it makes the most sense to me to try to meet those nutritional needs in the most natural way possible – by eating a mix of foods that contain everything my body needs for optimal health. Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t have occasions (even seasons) where I eat a lot of things my body doesn’t need, but in general I think eating well and living well are connected, both in terms of eating things that meet your body’s needs and eating things that you enjoy. 🙂 I also completely relate to that frustration of feeling like you have to spend so much time and effort thinking about every little thing you eat. I also find that exhausting. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you can come to a place where eating is a joy and not a chore. 😉

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      1. Thank you for the reply…I completely agree. It’s a challenge… our relationship with our animals, and with our food is so entrenched with stories, emotions and opinions that making big changes are tough. I feel on the one hand, I’m drawn to fight for veganism, and on the other I’m drawn to total self-sufficiency and I can’t see a way forward with that, without animal products. What a quandry. Thank you for the post – it’s provided good food for thought 🙂

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