Do we ever stop to wonder what it is that we’re feeding when we eat? It’s such a familiar activity that the question seems absurdly obvious, and yet strangely difficult to answer. Of course we’re fuelling our bodies, but it’s perhaps fair to assume that this answer is incomplete unless we still adhere to the outmoded notion of ourselves as machines. Is it that we’re nourishing ourselves? This is surely what food is for. But if this is the easily accepted answer, then does it not immediately raise another? If we eat to nourish ourselves, why are we, in the lands of relative plenty, doing it so badly? And anyway, is nourishment a simple matter of nutrient consumption?
We may indeed be living in a time of abundance, of 24/7 availability in fact, and yet we’re experiencing widespread malnutrition (as opposed to the undernourishment seen in parts of the developing world). There’s a whole history chapter on how we got here, but in short, we’re now fed by an industry which, with a compelling business model, knows how to keep itself buoyant and profitable. In evolutionary terms, we haven’t caught up with this rapid change. At all. The early human brain made survival more likely through an inbuilt imperative to eat whatever food was available as soon as it became available and restraint was built in, not into the brain itself, but into the environment we were part of; overeating was rarely possible. It’s a stroke of luck for the food industry that our brains haven’t adapted to develop a consistently successful ‘halt’ button and that the original tastes and textures which were once such a driving force for our survival as a species (specifically sweetness and fat) are still big favourites with us and are easily exploitable. But it’s not such good news for us, either individually or in respect of the wider knock-on effects of this collective behaviour - the feared collapse of the UK’s NHS is driven in no small part by our faulty relationship with food, as is the case with the impact we’re having on our planet.
So is this it? Is the whole complexity of our eating issues down to just two factors: a keen industry and an un-adapted brain? It might be the whole story if it weren’t for the added twist of being human with emotions, desires and needs that go beyond the purely physical. As a species, we ‘use’ food for better and worse in ways that have little or nothing to do with the nutritional value to our bodies; what better way to come together with others than for a shared meal? But equally, what better way to find instant solace, comfort, reward, distraction, satisfaction, relief or happiness, (albeit fleeting) than with foods that hit the reward and pleasure centres in our brains? We’re feeding so much more than our bodies when we eat, but much-needed nourishment, in all its forms, may be absent. Repeating these patterns over and over make them ever more likely and so the phrase ‘stuck in a rut’ becomes the realisation of an uncomfortable reality which has taken hold almost without us noticing.
But this is good news too: repeating patterns over and over make them ever more likely .. It works both ways, so if we prioritise desirable patterns then they too can be reinforced and a brain scan would likely support any evidence of neural adaptations corresponding to the change already apparent to the person living with it. It’s how to begin the shift from one set of patterns to another that seems challenging, daunting or even impossible, and to then ensure that it’s sustainable for long enough for the new patterns to really take hold. Is there a formula for this? Mercifully, no, there isn’t. Each individual makes their own way through the experience of life, picking up insights and realisations along the way that are personal and poignant for that unique individual, thus making any formulaic living at best uncomfortable and undesirable, and at the other extreme, quite simply unfeasible. So there may not be a formula, but there is a natural flow to life and aligning with it transforms hard work and struggle to something much more joyful. In terms of food, aligning with the ‘flow’ is about looking at what nature has to offer, and patiently overcoming the interference of processing, packaging and bar-coding which for so long has appeared normal and has distorted the perception of what really is most natural to us. This is not a ‘quick fix’; but a process, each step of which can be illuminating, an awakening even to a richness that is often overlooked as inferior or unexciting once we’re in the thrall of ingenious food manufacturers. Intuitively, perhaps we do recognise the value of nature, we may have been struck by the wonder of the natural world in many of its forms from the enchantment of butterflies in the summer, to snow-capped hills and mountains in the winter. Eating is a daily opportunity to interact in a most intimate way with our natural environment; are we not missing out on a most glorious experience by allowing food and mealtimes to be nothing more than perfunctory fuel stops?
The easiest way I know of bringing nature to the table, is to embrace and become creative with raw foods. The reason being that this corresponds with how I and my husband live and work, having discovered the magnificence of this sun-energy-filled food, and its ability to both heal (me, of a chronic condition) and transform (my husband, in respect of the weight he was carrying and the long-term medication he was taking). But this post does not set out to convince the reader to embark on a raw food lifestyle as if it were the only route to nourishment; traditional Mediterranean cuisine continues to be a gift to human health with an emphasis on social interaction, and placing high value on making meals special. Further afield, the inhabitants of Okinawa have achieved remarkable health indicators with their choice of ingredients and meals that have developed over a long cultural history. The ‘easy’ part in respect of raw food is that a number of potentially difficult areas are instantly resolved by the creation of a raw meal: all the ingredients are natural whole foods, and they all have something to offer; there are no fillers or preservatives. Equally, processed, manufactured foods have no role in these creations meaning cane and beet sugar most probably won’t feature. The absence of any cooking puts grains down the list of priorities, and if they are used, they’re likely to be sprouted, making them way more digestible than the unidentifiable wheat in a packaged sliced white loaf. Gluten, therefore, is easily avoidable. The case for meat and dairy products is similar; they do not lend themselves well to raw cuisine and as such are used very minimally, if at all meaning that like gluten, avoiding them is easy. But if instead, reducing them is more desirable, then that is made easier too, with the perhaps unforeseen bonus that over time, an emphasis on natural, uncooked foods is likely (in our experience) to encourage an instinctive desire for quality, for simple, natural foods whether they’re cooked or raw.