Is Your Relationship to Food Moral or Medicinal?

food in hands
Photo by Awkwardest. ♔

Trying to lose weight or change your diet for 2014? You may be well on your way to fulfilling your resolutions, or, like a stunning 92%, have already given up. In either case, how you relate to food during the holidays and to the implementation of your New Year’s resolutions, or sankalpa, is a microcosm of your relationship to food throughout the year. This relationship is often heavily influenced by the moralizing and scientific discourse around food and eating in American society. Yet consideration of how different cultures relate to food indicates there are much healthier models to emulate.

Flip through any women’s magazine, and you’ll note the symbolic infusion of food with virtue and vice. Related characteristics are consequently internalized when foods, deemed by turns righteous or sinful, are consumed. Eating can become an exercise fraught with psychological conflict, a near-religious proxy to assuage and simultaneously reinforce guilts and anxieties, rather than a source of soul-nourishing sustenance that exerts medicinal and energetic effects.

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While many are unperturbed by this gustatory handwringing, more still internalize and embody or project these cultural artifacts, engendering individual and collective suffering. It is important to recognize that this conceptualization of food is culturally and historically bound, rather than absolute.

In the indigenous or folk practices of societies such as China or India, foods are not classified in terms of morality, but as possessing various attributes (e.g., hot, cold, damp) that can be utilized medicinally to restore balance. Adaptive and contextual, diet is tailored to the individual or health concern. By contrast, as a heterogeneous society of settlers and immigrants, in earlier centuries America lacked a coherent food culture. Modernization filled this gap, with the USDA food pyramid, scientific research, celebrities, and diet gurus becoming the definitive guides for what and what not to eat. As religion waned and science increased in influence, food emerged as the new cultural battleground between naughty and nice.

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The result? The nebulous and constantly shifting recommendations of nutrition “experts” and our moral attributions to food predominate the American culture of eating. We thus outsource our dietary agency, seeking answers externally for what, when, and how we should eat, although scientific research on nutrition is notoriously changeable. The resulting host of dietary “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” reinforce the desirability or temptation of “bad foods,” whilst conflating “good” or healthy foods with deprivation. Faced with these warring impulses, we become divorced from the yama of Ahimsa (non-violence) and unwittingly engage in self-harm to our bodies.

Self-judgment mediates the moralized relationship to food, and separates us from food’s healing and medicinal potential. Much as any form of self-judgment masks us from attuning to truth and the wisdom of the heart, this dynamic blunts our capacity to intuit what foods are most needed by the body for balance, energy, and nourishment.

Attaining familiarity with indigenous dietary systems such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine can be an important step toward replacing moralistic conceptions of food with a holistic appreciation of food as a sacred form of self-care. Such systems integrate age-old wisdom with that of the heart-mind (citta), body and environmental cues to promote a relationship to food that is intuitive, instinctual and organic.

Have you noticed whether your relationship to food tends to be moral or medicinal?

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