Giftmas 2019: Our Relationship to Food

I’m proud to join a host of others in the 2019 Giftmas Blog Tour, organized by Rhonda Parrish. It’s a fundraiser for the Edmonton Food Bank, where, because of the infrastructure and organization they’ve established, one dollar donated equates to three meals. The funds are in Canadian dollars and are done through Canada Helps, a reputable organization to give you the peace of mind and assurance that your donations are going where you expect them to go, and where they need to be.

Donate to the Edmonton Food Bank here.

To encourage people to take part and donate to this great cause, there is also a Rafflecopter that you can enter for some sweet prizes.

Finally, there’s also a snowman drawing contest you can enter here. If you can draw circles, you can definitely enter the contest!

What’s my part in this? Well, today I’m going to contribute by talking about our relationship to food.

Food is something that’s easy to take for granted, and I say this not to invoke guilt, but rather as a stepping-stone toward greater empathy, of which the world can never get enough.

Being hungry sucks. I’ve been very lucky to have spent most of my life with this basic need met, but I do have some experiences that have afforded me a greater understanding of just how great an impact hunger can have on a person’s life. It is by no means the same thing as struggling for food every day, but I think it can offer a similar lens to understand what that struggle might be like.

I have ulcerative colitis, which is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) affecting the colon. It means that I’m very sensitive to certain foods, to stress, and that I will need to be medicated for the rest of my life. I’m doing well now, but it wasn’t always the case.

During the many years before my diagnosis, I spent a lot of time in pain, and I lost a lot of weight when I couldn’t properly absorb nutrients. My relationship to food began changing dramatically at that point. I started to make adjustments to find out what would be safe and what wouldn’t. Getting advice from others was a loaded gun, because it came packaged with a lot of judgment, which in turn translated to a lot of self-criticism and feeling bad about what I ate when I was already feeling terrible.

Even after getting diagnosed, this pattern didn’t go away. In fact, in many ways, it got worse, because I knew what my condition was, and felt responsible for managing it. This included keeping a running, confusing and often contradictory list of foods that were safe to eat, which sometimes conflicted with the foods that were good for long-term health. It also meant saying no to a lot of foods offered by hosts, as well as alcohol.

I was astonished at how much this change in diet affected my relationships with others. Suddenly there was this layer of judgment, a distance that grew between me and many others, and there was often a perspective that my dietary restrictions arose either out of pretence or a need for attention. Neither could be further from the truth.

I’ve also spoken to friends who define themselves vehemently by what they eat (for example, a love of bacon and a hatred of all things vegan). Where would they be, and what would they do if they discover they can no longer have these foods, and have to cross sides? I wish there wasn’t so much identity attached to food, but the old adage of “you are what you eat” carries more weight than we like to admit.

The way I think and look at food has changed forever, and although I’ve tried to be kinder to myself, I still at times fall into the trap of hyper-analyzing what I’ve eaten, when it’s a much more complex matrix of factors that influence whether or not I have a flare-up. I think about food far more than I used to, partly because I’ve spent so many periods of flare during which I couldn’t hardly eat anything at all.

There was a study on hunger (back before there were restrictions on this type of harmful research) where groups of college students were starved for varying levels of time. What they found was the students became pre-occupied with thoughts of food. When they watched TV, they would have tunnel-vision on scenes with food. It was all they could think about during lectures. (This is a phenomenon that is sometimes called a scarcity cycle, where the lack of something leads you to behave in ways that are not conducive to getting more of that thing, but that’s another topic)

Years later, the participants of that study report still having an abnormal fixation on food.

The point is that going without food, even for a short time, has permanent, long-term effects.

Many of us have goals and plans that stretch into the far future, dreams and aspirations that we build toward. When someone’s hungry, their cognitive capacity to think and see that far ahead is diminished. In a very real sense, it kills some of our ability to dream.

I’ve experienced this effect myself. It takes far more effort than it used to for me to cast my gaze into the far future. Part of my mind is, I’m sad to say, always thinking a little bit about food, and about the near-term possibility that I will have to starve for a few days because of my illness.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m by no means saying my experiences are the same as long-term starvation. I think that maybe I’ve had a small taste of the effects.

This is a very long way of saying that I support the Food Bank because everyone should be allowed to dream. Everyone should be allowed to have their basic needs met in such a way that they can cast their spirits into the possibilities of what they might bring into the world, and into themselves, tomorrow, next week, and next year.

If you’re in the fortunate position to have great food over the holidays, consider making a donation to help others have that security. If you’re not in the financial position to do so, that’s fine.

My hope is to increase understanding and empathy between people with differing relationships with food, whether that be from dietary needs or scarcity. If you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve given you something to think about in terms of your own relationship with food, and how that translates to others. Do you define yourself by what you eat, and judge others in kind? I hope that if you do, you’ll consider another approach: not letting food be the barrier between people, but instead be the bridge that lets people bring out the best in themselves. And possibly giving a donation to the people for whom lack of food is in fact a barrier to living a full, happy life.

Thanks for reading. I wish you as much calm and warmth as possible in this season that can come laden with too much baggage. Let’s not let food add to that baggage. Happy holidays, everyone!

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