Right now I feel safe.
Right now I’m living inside well-defined boundaries with lots of rules and restrictions. I don’t feel trapped here. I’m way more afraid of what’s outside the boundaries, so in here I’m happy as a cow penned up to pasture. But I’m afraid right now too because the boundaries are temporary and I don’t know what I’ll do when they’re gone. I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle the freedom, that I’ll abuse it and undo the work I’ve done here in this season of restriction.
And that’s what bothers me way more than the dangers outside my pen: my own discomfort with freedom. My distrust of myself.
I’m on a cleanse right now. I do this a few times a year because I get kind of out of control about food. Too much wine and sweets and bread. I’m Italian; it’s an occupational hazard. Cleanses let me hit a reset button. I rediscover what a grumbling tummy really feels like, and I find that my cravings usually have nothing to do with true hunger. Once trigger foods like wheat and alcohol and sugar are out of my system, I see how they affect me. And when I’m slimmer and clearer-thinking at the end of a cleanse, my eating is less compulsive.
I’m good at this: indulgence and restriction. What I’m not good at is moderation. For example, after the holidays my pants weren’t fitting so well and my sister’s wedding was coming up. With visions of myself in a sundress (and not a muumuu) by May, I got my arse to the gym. I was eating healthy too, but without specific restrictions. I had five months, I could take the gentle middle road. Then the kids got sick back-to-back and I couldn’t get to the gym. Date nights and birthdays slowly eroded my moderate eating habits until mid-morning scones from the natural food store (because that makes them healthy, right?) and craving-inspired drive-thru runs were daily occurrences. I caught myself, hardened my resolve, and started again. And again. And again.
By the end of April, with one month until the wedding, I had made zero progress with my slow and steady tactic. It was time for the big guns: a cleanse. This involves breakfast and dinner as liquid meals, and a long, boring list of foods I don’t eat. It’s extreme and difficult, but now that I have my marching orders, I’m fine. I’m almost halfway through and I feel strong and steady and excited for the results. I can do this. What I couldn’t do was make consistent healthy choices without harsh boundaries.
I hate that. Why am I so comfortable with restriction and so incapable of moderation? In all other categories of my life, I hate legalism. I hate the idea of turning off my mind and following a black-and-white rule system. Life has so many grey areas and we need discernment, not dogmatism, to find a wise and loving path through. Rules let us feel like we’re doing the right thing without getting our hearts in the right place. I want to live under grace, not slavery to formula. When I face hard choices, I want to delve into my convictions, not pat answers. I want to embody my beliefs, not be governed by them.
But with food? I can’t do it. I cling to rules for safety, but cleanses aren’t sustainable long-term. Without the rules, I blunder, and fail, and my body suffers.
This isn’t just about weight or overeating. My body is like a canary in the coalmine with food. What doesn’t obviously bother others can take me out. Since puberty I struggled with being slightly overweight. The insecurity I carried was an even heavier burden than those extra twenty pounds. In my early twenties I went on my first diet program and the weight virtually melted off me. I felt confident in my skin for the first time since 5th grade. It was amazing.
Then, at age 23, I started getting ocular migraines–the kind with flashing lights and blind spots. At 24 I learned that I also had an autoimmune condition and thyroid disease. Additionally I had chronic joint and stomach pain that couldn’t be explained. I felt sick all the time, like I was being slowly poisoned. For about a week the doctors thought I had a benign brain tumor and I was actually relieved that at least there was a course of treatment. But after x-rays, isotopes, oscopies, brain scans, blood-work, and any other test the medical specialists could think of, all they could give me was thyroid medication and aspirin for migraines. No cures for my diagnosed conditions, no answers for my undiagnosed sickness. I’d come to the end of the line.
That was when I reached out to alternative medicine. A naturopath put me on to avoiding inflammatory foods, like wheat, dairy, and sugar, to support my autoimmune condition. I learned that soy is an endocrine disruptor, especially risky to women and anyone with thyroid issues. And I learned that the processed diet foods and artificial sweeteners I’d used to get myself skinny were full of chemicals and neurotoxins. They were making me sick to my stomach and giving me migraines.
I used to get horribly sick on Saturdays—after cleaning house, I eventually realized. Now I use only natural cleaning products and feel fine. I foreswore soy and artificial sweeteners. I avoid inflammatory foods, take supplements, and see a Naturopathic Doctor. I cleanse. And I’m constantly learning. My health has improved, but I’m still sensitive to anything with negative impact. I can end up with a migraine from red food dye, put on weight and get puffy from too much wheat and dairy, and feel generally awful if I’m not exercising and taking supplements.
You’d think this quick feedback system would prompt good choices, but I still struggle. Because I love and enjoy food. I love to cook and I think food is part and parcel with love, hospitality, creative expression, and the good life. But the healing food my body needs is not always the comforting food my body craves. I’m divided between food as pleasure and food as medicine. But why must there be a division between the two?
This is really a much bigger question. Why don’t we do what we ought to? Our baser natures fight against our higher ideals. So we waffle between constraint and overindulgence. For me it’s food. What is it for you? Shopping, substance abuse, sex, screen time, escapism? All of the above? Because wherever we want more health and life and freedom, the demand for instant gratification and comfort will kill our efforts.
But there’s something else. As I’ve taken a hard look at my ineptitude at moderation, I’m seeing that it’s not just me I have to fight against. What I think of as freedom—to eat what I want to eat and care well for my body at the same time—isn’t easily available. The freedom I imagine doesn’t take into account the forces that actively seek to entrap me in addiction and overconsumption, and as a byproduct make me sick.
Food in America is business. Big business. The food industry needs people to buy more food each year. They need us to want more products and they need to make them as cheaply as possible. Profit is the endgame. Genetic modification, antibiotics, steroids, and artificial preservatives, food dyes, and flavorings—these are common practice to serve that end. It is an end that has no consideration for the good of people, the land, or the animals that become food products.
Modern wheat, which has been modified in the last fifty years to barely resemble its original form, is now an addictive opiate. Casein, the protein in dairy, is also an opioid. Sugar? Yep, it’s an opioid too. They dull pain and give pleasure, neither of which are inherently bad, but they also make us insatiably crave them and experience withdrawal symptoms without them, and that is something serious indeed. We become slaves to the makers of these products, compelled to buy and consume. It’s not an accidental outcome because the food is just so yummy. Our entrapment is engineered and intended.
Freedom isn’t really free. I’m beginning to realize that a no-holds-barred approach to food simply delivers me into the hands of another prison, just as bad as legalism. Worse. And this applies just as well to consumerism or sex. The industries around them are as hell-bent on our addiction as any drug-dealer. They’re just better at packaging.
So if freedom isn’t free, and legalism is no way to live, what do I do? A girl has got to eat, doesn’t she? That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now: everyday eating. The more I begin to understand that most of the food industry is my enemy, I think the answer lies in how much I participate with it.
I heard someone say recently “Eat anything you want. Anything at all. The only rule is you have to make it yourself.” Think about it. You probably won’t have cake, ice cream, and French fries for dinner if you have to make it all from scratch. Food writer Michael Pollan says of this rule, “It will keep you from eating a lot of junk. Because you’re going to do what most people do, which is buy the best quality raw ingredients you can afford, and cook it as simply as possible.” Letting restaurants and grocers make your food is to submit your body to their ethos. Some truly care about their customers’ welfare, but most care more about their bottom line.
I have a few weeks before my cleanse is over and I’m not sure what it’ll look like on the other side. One smoothie meal replacement a day instead of two? Can I even sustain that? Can I live without toast? (No, no I can’t.) I can denounce processed food, but I know I’ll still have it sometimes. I don’t want a new law, I want wisdom. I want to freely choose well for my palate and my body. So maybe I learn to bake gluten-free bread. And maybe I try to choose only prepared foods that are fully replicable in my own kitchen. And maybe I have everyday restrictions and dinner party freedoms. I don’t know yet. But at least I know I’m not my real enemy. And that’s one step closer to trusting myself.
J.M. Roddy is a domestic creative, food enthusiast, and children’s author.