You Are What You Eat?

We are possibly the worst family in the world to invite over to your house for dinner.

When we moved to Berkeley 4 years ago, eager to meet new people and create a circle of friends, we opened up, and were well received right off the bat. One of the first things that caught my attention in the social events in  our new place was that when someone invites you into their home for a meal for the first time, they almost always raise the question of dietary restrictions (this didn't happen in Spain). My family has so many, it's embarrassing. Besides, who wants to make someone who has kindly offered to cook for you work even harder? Life is busy enough here as it is. To make it doable (or rather, to make ourselves likable; after all, we were trying to make friends!), I learned to either let the host know that we would bring something our whole family could eat, or send a list of the foods friendly to the four of us (all vegetables, fish and seafood, some grains are a good start), which is more helpful than enumerating the long list of things we can't eat, and forcing them do the Venn diagram you need in order to meal plan for us.

Would you really like to hear it? OK, here goes: My husband has a series of serious allergies that kicked in when he was around eight years old, namely, all legumes and poultry (yes, poultry!). The first time he asked his mom for a note excusing him from cafeteria food, she thought it was a clever way to steer clear of the school's lentil stew and set her foot down, until she saw him come home with his face bloated as a balloon. At around the same age, my son started to manifest -clearly genetic- allergies; I remember the day we were sitting at lunch at a restaurant in Barcelona, and the lentils went in and came right back out (he had been eating plenty of them until then). Bruno now suffers from allergies to lentils, chickpeas, and more recently a very serious one to peanuts (which are, in fact, a legume, not a nut). As for me, I currently cannot eat gluten, dairy, meat, or almonds. So now go ahead and feed us! Olivia is the only one who can eat everything (knock on wood). 

"You are what you eat" is the popular contemporary version of Jean Antelme Brillat-Savarin's famous dictum from The Physiology of Taste (1825). In fact, almost two centuries ago, the author's words were more like "tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are". Brillat-Savarin's book has never gone out of print, but the ramifications of his dictum have evolved and transformed to acquire new meanings, which clearly delineate characteristics of our contemporary (food-obsessed) culture. What was once written as a reflection on the intricate links between food, culture, and identity, has been appropriated and turned into an elitist allusion to what some consider a healthy way of eating, or even indirectly to fad diets, something this country is very keen on.

I live in a food-crazy, cutting edge, privileged corner of the world, where many trends are first conceived and then propagated to other parts of the globe. After several years observing the local culture, it seems to me that nowadays people are defined -and define themselves- not as much by what they eat, but rather by what they don’t eat. In group gatherings where food is involved, it's almost impossible not to witness a conversation in which someone is boasting about their restrictive food choices. In this vein, the smaller the range of foods you eat, the higher your social status. Far from the days in which eating more was reserved to the upper classes, a new form of food shortage has been created for/by the wealthy. People find somehow valuable to boast of intolerances and allergies, as if a sensitive GI tract could reflect a sensitive soul.

During my recent travels I learned that the Japanese “arerugui” is borrowed from the English (yes, it's hard to recognize: allergy); they lack an indigenous word for it. Surprisingly, in a culture with such a sophisticated traditional cuisine, 21st century Japan still does not cater to individual food allergies and intolerances. One must eat what’s available, seasonally and locally. America is after all the land of choices (I finally got over having a nervous breakdown every time I was forced to choose a single package of coffee or cookies, given such a broad range of choice in every food aisle in every market.), and one might infer that the possibility to cater to so many different diets is an advantage, not a flaw. Nevertheless, I still don't adhere to the more is better slogan, and find a more limited selection of foods at a given time easier, and reassuring in terms of the quality, freshness and proximity to its natural form. 

Although Japanese breakfast is rapidly shifting from the traditional balanced meal of soup, rice and pickles to the Westernized version with sweet, fluffy baked goods, it's still not possibly to ask your host not to cook with shoyu because they just can't do it. (I confess, I'm guilty of that one! Though I also did fine with the soy sauce in Japan, as compared to the one in the US; fermentation times and quality are probably very different). In Japan I started out cautiously avoiding my regular intolerances, and then opened up to try (almost) everything, and felt digestively better than I have in years. Being relaxed on vacation certainly helped, but there must be more. A colleague recently told me the story of a -very Western- patient of hers with chronic digestive unease, who found he felt so well in Japan, he decided to up and move there. 

Well, we can't all up and move to Japan, so what should we do? Eat real food is the simple answer. 

Think of the marketing buzzwords for packaged products today: sugar free, gluten free, dairy free, nut free, lactose free, fat free and a long etc. What precisely are we seeking freedom from? The labeling of products has reached such extremes that I have even seen whole, single-ingredient foods labeled and marketed in this way, such as a "gluten free" butter or a "dairy free" tahini.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to imply that food allergies are a mental construct -far from it (see my first paragraph for clear evidence of the contrary). I am convinced that the decline in the quality of our soil, environment, and food has much to do with that. In my work as a nutrition consultant I have seen many cases of people who are able to tolerate certain foods in certain places but not in others (the most rampant of these instances is the gluten in Europe vs. the one in the US). Nevertheless, in spite of the -objective- rise of allergies and sensitivities, possibly caused by the decrease in the quality of our soil and food, our current obsession with limiting our diets cannot in any way constitute a healthy relationship with what we eat. I'm concerned here with how we, as a society, can recover from the collective disorder which now bears a name -orthorexia (coined by Dr. Bratman in the mid 1990s), the unhealthy fixation with righteous eating.

Please allow me to share my story.  

In early 2015 I was diagnosed with SIBO, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. Western medicine still didn’t (doesn’t) believe in it as a condition, as one too many conventional GI doctors told me, and I had to pay through the nose for testing and appointments with alternative practitioners who were the only ones then diagnosing the condition. The only traditional MD I encountered who “believed in SIBO” prescribed antibiotics and offhandedly told me I’d have to take a course of them every few months, pretty much for the rest of my life. “What about the diet?” I timidly inquired,  humbling myself before the omnipotence of a licensed MD. “That diet is impossible! No one can stay on it.” I did. For years. In fact, three years later, I am still riding the path and experimenting to find the foods that work best for me (or the post-SIBO me). 

As a licensed nutrition consultant, and an advocate of healthy food for over a decade (my Desayuno con guisantes was one of the first food blogs in Spanish), falling ill with a digestive condition was a big cosmic joke. Most ironic was that I had just been promoted to the position of director of a holistic culinary program. The symptoms I presented unleashed like a mad dog exactly one week after agreeing to take on the new position. Every meal of what I assumed to be the best foods I could eat would leave my doubled over in pain. I unnecessarily lost weight  and was miserable all the time. 

In the long run, I made the most of it and specialized in helping clients with similar experiences/conditions through my nutrition consulting and cooking classes. Gradually, instead of hiding as a secret from my students the fact that I was not in good health and that there were many foods I could not eat, I used it as a teaching point. A colleague had suggested tasting and spitting out the foods that were unfriendly to my condition, much like a wine sommelier doesn’t swallow. I was never able to do that; dignity must prevail. Instead, I told my whole story to my students, who were always extremely compassionate, and fascinated by the twists and turns of my gut health. Sharing my story has helped others with similar issues find me. I now work with several clients who also had a hard time getting diagnosed. We always cook together as part of my work with them; I find it so important for it all to be about food on the plate and finding what works for everyone in challenged health situations.

That said, I still believe that the ideal way to eat includes as wide a variety of real foods as possible. By eating different foods we can ensure a variety of nutrients, and be more adaptable to any given place/situation. I wish we were all healthy enough to eat everything no matter where we are in the world. When there's no real reason to restrict ourselves, however, a limited diet can be more harmful than helpful, as many recent scientific studies are showing. 

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at the Basque Culinary Center, a cutting-edge research center, as well as one of only two university-level culinary degrees in Europe. I remember chatting with the school's program director during my visit, about my move to the US and what the culinary and nutrition scene was like here as compared to Europe. When I mentioned how the country seems obsessed with fad diets, I dropped the term "Paleo" and much to my surprise, she didn’t even know what that meant. She dismissed it offhandedly: "Oh, here we mostly focus on Mediterranean" (not to be confused with the more specific "Mediterranean diet" as coined by Ancel Keys in the mid-twentieth century; i.e. another American conceptualization). I have never forgotten that conversation, because at the time I felt blessed to be living in a place so full of knowledge; now, looking back, I envy the possibility to be immersed in a culture where a traditional diet still prevails, rather than an obsession with trends in which foods are periodically demonized or beatified. 

The only solution I can think of (in addition to the need to address our decaying food quality from an environmental standpoint) to the problem of cultural orthorexia is that we lose our fear of eating real food. Not only will we eat with more epicurean pleasure, but an increased variety will also lead to higher nutrient content, health and happiness. Let's stop defining ourselves by what we don't eat, and return, as much as our bodies allow us, to be more plural and accepting. If, as Brillat-Savarin implied, those who eat similar foods are deemed trustworthy and safe, while those whose foods differ are viewed with suspicion, the more we eat, the more we accept -of ourselves and others.