By Victoria Branson, L.Ac.
As a society, we are in the midst of a seriously disturbed relationship with food. Have you noticed? Whether obsessing over price to get the cheapest processed food possible headless of its origin, or punishing ourselves with limited diets and purges to cleanse our dirty innards, or constantly seeking new flavors and trends in foodie culture, there is a distinct lack of balance here. Even viewing food as medicine can be damaging if we only see food as only that, and are filled with worry seeking the perfect foods and diet to fix our problems.
On a deeper level, what is food? Eating is quite literally a communion between our precious inner universe and the beguiling outer universe. Second only to our breath, it is our most consistent interaction with the world outside of ourselves. Just as simple awareness of breath can provide immense healing, so too can a conscious approach to food. This does not mean fixation, obsession, analysis, or research. This means joy! Absolute joy and gratitude. You are the luckiest person in the world right now with an abundance of food like the world has never known before. Whether eating a delicious, nutritious home-cooked meal filled with love and intention, or chowing down on burgers, fries, and a milkshake at a restaurant, why would you ever be anything other than immensely happy and thankful for what you’ve been given? If you’ve spent your life seeing food as a chore, an enemy, a tool, or a pacifier then this an be difficult. Years and decades of habit can be challenging to change. Let’s look at a compelling reason why a more positive attitude towards eating can provide true healing.
Our bodies cannot differentiate between our inner thoughts and emotions and the outside world. What does this actually mean for us physiologically? When we experience stress, whether in the form of inner judgmental thoughts and stuck negative emotions, or outside sources such as driving, work, and relationships, these all trigger the same biological response in our bodies as being chased by a lion. We were designed to have this amazing response once in a while to avoid death, not dozens of times a day as is now the norm. When our sympathetic nervous system is triggered by stress, known as fight-or-flight mode, our energy diverts from long-term projects, like immunity, digestion, and sexual health, to our limbs to provide the energy to sprint away from danger, and to our lungs and heart to enable the increased breathing and heart rates necessary for such activities. The sensation of your heart beating quicker, of breathing faster and more shallowly, and a knot in your stomach are very real reactions to stress. If you are regularly triggering this system, and shunting energy away from your parasympathetic nervous system, known as rest-and-digest, how might this impact your digestion, immunity, and sexual function? It’s no wonder so many people have low immunity, poor digestive function, and diminished fertility. Learning how to manage our stress is paramount to our health and wellbeing. In light of this, acupuncture, yoga, gardening, dancing, tai chi, qigong, meditation, or whatever you find relaxing is not just a nice thing to do for yourself, but essential for us all.
How can we manage our stress and difficulties regarding food, eating, and nutrition? It really all has to do with perspective. Would you ever sit down to a meal with a stranger who told you quite emphatically that what you’re eating is toxic, that it’s making you fat, and that you’re a weak or crummy person for indulging in cake or whatever your favorite treat is? Of course not. So why would you allow your thoughts to do so? Our thoughts are powerful. They shape our individual realities, and we help to shape the world. Every time you sit down and open your mouth to eat, allow yourself to be filled with love, gratitude, and joy. This is true nourishment. Go ahead. You can do this. Feel the vast expanse of your open heart. The more you meditate upon the openness of your heart, the more open you become.
Another way to help to heal your relationship with food is to change your attitude towards your belly. People have some pretty serious hang-ups when it comes to body image. Our bellies are miraculous though, and it’s high time they get some love. The incredible process of digestion and absorption of nutrients happens primarily in our bellies. Is it possible to be truly nourished while thinking terrible thoughts about yourself? At the very least it makes a difficult job for your body even more difficult. Allow yourself to think beautiful thoughts about your belly. Whether it’s big, small, hard, soft, bloated, uncomfortable, irritated, or covered in stretch-marks, this is you. You have the power to transform your body by loving it unconditionally. Not when you lose a certain number of pounds, not when you follow a certain diet rigidly enough, or for any other reason. When you are happier, you feel better. You have the choice to be happy with yourself at any moment. Choose happy.
Modern life has led to a proliferation of processed and nutrition-devoid foods that are best avoided when possible. There is a seemingly endless amount of information to learn about the industrialization of food, how to navigate our food culture safely, and what to eat. It can easily get overwhelming. Knowledge can certainly be power, especially when you use it as a tool for personal empowerment in your own healing. However, the truth is that while it’s wonderful to be conscious of what you eat, where it came from, who grew it, the condition of the animals, the distance it traveled, and the means of preparation, there are times when you simply don’t have control over it. You can cook whatever you’d like at home, time and budget permitting, but when you go out to eat at restaurants and the homes of friends and family is the perfect time to practice acceptance, love, and gratitude for what you’ve been given. And of course there will always be times when you simply want to indulge in delicious foods that are in no way in line with your discoveries about nutrition, which is fine. Be kind to yourself.
In Oriental medicine, food and air are viewed as the two ways in our lives that we can produce Qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi is energy, vitality, our life-force. Consequently, ancient practitioners focused on understanding nutrition and how our bodies process food. Acupuncture and herbal medicine often get incredible results in healing digestive disorders. Perhaps this is in part because Oriental medicine can address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of the body as it is a truly holistic system, and issues with digestion are rarely only physical. When it comes to nutrition advice, I generally advise people to eat simple whole foods as often as you’re able. Grow what you can and really connect to nature and the abundance it provides. Engage in the dynamic flow of the seasons. There is no one diet right for every person or for every day of the year. We are always changing, just like the seasons. A sensitivity to some food now may transform in a few days or months. Remember that we are always healing.
People have an opportunity for empowerment by developing the capacity to trust themselves when it comes to food. Don’t only listen to the different experts and diets and cleanses out there, trust yourself. The information constantly changes, contradicting and confusing everyone. You are the expert on you. Eat mindfully, and see what feels right. Nobody can understand you as well as you can. Take the time to explore your relationship with food on all levels. Approach it with curiosity and an open mind and heart. You can access your own potential as a healer by utilizing meditation, affirmation, prayer, visualization, and breath to turn your relationship with food around. Food can become fuel for your personal growth. You can tell yourself beautiful ideas, that if a stranger was sitting with you for your meal telling you these things you might fall in love with them. So fall in love with yourself. For example:
This food is nourishing me completely.
With every bite I take I am healing myself.
I am filled with joy and gratitude for this delicious food.
All worries and cares leave my body as I eat and are replaced with an ocean of calm.
You feel better just reading these sorts of statements, let alone saying them with intention and meaning. If you forget to be mindful sometimes when you eat, that’s ok. If you feel silly and like you don’t really mean these positive statements at times, that’s ok. If you slip up and judge yourself harshly sometimes, that’s ok too. Patterns can take a while to change, and there are always ups and downs in life. Set your intention to use food and eating as a tool for furthering love and compassion for yourself and others. The better you love yourself, the more truly you can love others. Allow yourself to be filled with love when you eat, and you will truly be nourished. Take the time to nourish your joy.
Victoria is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and Oriental medicine practitioner in Beaverton, Oregon. She specializes in pain relief, digestive disorders, women's health, insomnia, and stress relief. Victoria loves to empower patients to heal themselves using meditation, tai ji, qi gong, nutrition, visualization, and affirmations. When not learning more about medicine and healing, you can find Victoria on adventures with her husband and dog, playing in nature, cooking, gardening, meditating, and getting suckered into giving her dog more food.