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“I Am What I Eat” – A Loss of Tradition – Guest Post

Louise Hendon | December 15
I am What I Eat

Alessandra Wall is a practicing psychotherapist and holds a Level One CrossFit certificate working from CrossFit Elysium. She has been a featured speaker at PrimalCon gatherings and blogs regularly at Life In Focus.

What do adopting a new diet, culture, identity and grief have to do with one another?

The Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries define grief as deep sorrow, especially relating to the death of someone. While this definition is adequate, I feel it is incomplete. Grief is in fact the sense sadness and mourning associated with any kind of loss: loss of a loved one, loss of a cherished object, or loss of context or habit.

When we choose to adopt new and healthier dietary habits, we give up foods and practices that have shaped our identity.

When we choose to adopt new and healthier dietary habits, we give up more than health issues and unwanted fat. We give up foods and practices that have shaped our identity, our histories and our culture. Grief is a natural by-product of the losses we face when we make changes. For some, the inability to recognize the loss, process it and bridge the gap between old and new practices is the barrier that prevents them from sustaining change over time.

Back in May of 2009 I made my first foray into the world of Paleo. Stuck with some extra baby weight and unable to make it vanish with exercise alone, I decided to try it. My plan was to adopt Paleo for a month or so and then go back to my “everything in moderation, Mediterranean-based” way of eating, which had so far worked well for me.

To my great surprise and later chagrin, Paleo worked wonders; not only did I lose the baby weight, I felt better, performed better at the gym, had more sex drive, my rosacea was finally abating, and I had more overall energy and mental clarity. With such positive outcomes, why was it that I found myself fighting this choice, circumventing what I knew worked, and feeling sad at the prospect of a lifetime of Paleo?

Let me give you some background information to understand how I and most people relate to the foods they eat.

One of my earliest memories is working with my father on my fifth birthday cake; it was a two tiered white and blue frosted chocolate beauty. I remember the pride and joy I felt in making and eventually decorating my big girl cake. The tradition was upheld for two more decades during which my father and I were officially in charge of making all the family’s birthday cakes.

That honor and responsibility eventually extended to any other significant celebration, such as Christmas, where we would prepare candies, cookies and other delectable wonders pulled from the Wall family annals of culinary legacy.

We are in Italy with my mother’s side of the family (aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) sitting around the large kitchen table eating. Although most of what we ate was vegetables and seafood, there is my Nonna’s homemade pasta made daily. Biscotti, taralli, and jam cookies were served at breakfast; there were also neighbors’ focaccia, and panzerotti (cheese fritters) on occasion, and gelato purchased on the piazza most evenings.

By age eight, while others napped, I began to shadow my grandmother to learn how to make some of these foods and keep our Italian legacy going. I have mastered her tomato sauce, her eggplant parmigiana and gnocchi that melts in your mouth.

I am 8 or 9 standing outside of my house in France; I have set up a table and am selling hot coffee and crêpes on a cold morning. I also run a restaurant business out of my kitchen, and the neighborhood kids are my customers.

By age 13 I have a thriving cookie business that I run at school. Twice a week a friend and I take orders, bake cookies (sometimes upward of 200) and sell them to students—we pay the hall monitors off with free cookies. My passion for cooking these foods and the satisfaction I feel from my success leads to hours during my teen years spent perfecting recipes for pie, soufflé, cookie crumble, crème brulée and bread.

I could continue like this for another 50 scenes. The fact is, throughout my life cooking and in particular baking has been a prominent part of my identity. Food has defined my culture (American while living in France, French once I moved to the States, and always Italian in the background). It has been part of how I define myself as successful and competent (both because of my ability to make tasty treats, but also because of the entrepreneurial side that developed early), and it is linked in my mind with family bonding, inter-generational connections and love.

So, having Paleo be such a success was not just met with a sense of relief and satisfaction. There was a lot grief in shifting to Paleo. One of the greatest challenges for me was thinking of how to pass on the memory of my deceased father to my two sons. Prior to Paleo, I had envisioned sharing time in the kitchen with them, recreating traditions and teaching them about the grandfather they would never know through a shared practice of making the foods that were so central to our family’s culture.

I was lucky enough to recognize and process these feelings, but for many people, not understanding the cultural/identity connection we have to food and the grief that may at times ensue from the loss of those connections can stand in the way of successfully adopting healthier habits. When I work with people who are trying to change dietary habits, we always acknowledge the meaning food has for them. When we talk about food and emotions, we don’t address it only from the perspective of emotional eating, but also from the perspective of personal culture and identity.

Eating together and partaking in specific foods features prominently as a defining characteristic of every culture. When we ask ourselves, or others, to give up a food for health reasons, we need to understand that we are asking them to give up a part of their identity and their culture. We are asking them to redefine that culture in other terms, to highlight it in other ways. These other ways might have features that are also meaningful and evocative, but few things pack the same emotional punch that food does.

Fundamentally, this is biological in nature; ingesting foods can trigger responses in our brain at the level of our pleasure centers, while the smell of a favorite food can powerfully trigger our limbic centers, hippocampus and amygdala working both to evoke positive emotions and memory. The association between food and culture is also present in practices that surround preparing and sharing a meal. As we give up certain foods, so do we give up the practice of making them, or of passing on tradition, history and memories through culinary rites. Not partaking in these rituals may lead to some alienation by members of our cultural group because we no longer share the same dietary values and therefore do not share part of their traditions.

Understanding and addressing this loss is central to sustained success with dietary change. By acknowledging the various meanings and values food has for us, we can then recapture the lost memories; we can redefine our culture through other salient factors such as language, art, music, craft or storytelling. If we fail to make that connection in a new way, we risk returning to food to fill the gap and mend the loss.

There is a clear understanding in the Paleo world of the importance of culture. After all, we have created the Paleo community. We gather together, we feast, we redefine ourselves through shared values and practices. We use Paleo as a label—“I am Paleo or Primal,” not simply “I eat Paleo or Primal.”

Creating this community is central to promoting and disseminating this information, but it goes beyond that. We have extended a nutritional style to a life-style. We gather and congregate at large events, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people so we can stand together as a community with a similar culture. Doing this allows us to fill the loss we might have experienced in the early stages of adopting Paleo practices.

We do not, however, shed our old identities or cultures, we simply amend them, which is why it is so important to learn how to relate back to them in ways other than food.

When adopting Paleo, joining the community and engaging with others who also follow this lifestyle are paramount. Allowing ourselves to be surrounded by others who on some level share our values, others in whose practices we can recognize ourselves, increases our chance of success with this monumental change. It is not simply about having access to recipes, how-tos and sympathetic souls who get how hard the first 10 days of a Whole30 are. It is about being able to create a collective set of practices and values; it is about amending our cultures and identities to incorporate this new lifestyle.

Alessandra Wall at Life In Focus
Read more from Alessandra at Life In Focus.