Lent took on a whole new meaning for me this year. Having a newly-awakened spirituality, I learned what the season actually means. Like most of my non-religious friends, I used to crack jokes about Lent, viewing it as a form of self-imposed martyrdom: “So what are you giving up for Lent this year?” It always seemed to me faintly ridiculous to give up a favorite food or beverage just because Easter was coming.
Now I understand Lent as an opportunity for self-examination and exploring my life. What are my goals? How do I approach each day such that I am fulfilling my Nia? One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Nia means purpose, as in the purpose of my life. In undertaking this level of self-examination deeply, I surprised myself by being most drawn toward examining my eating habits. Am I really hungry, is that why I’m eating right now? Why did I choose to eat what I am eating? How do I feel now that I’ve eaten it? How do I know when I’ve had enough? My eating habits became more conscious than not.
At various times in my life, I have tried to modify my eating habits. This change in behavior has usually been the result of a conversation with some kind of healthcare professional. In other words – a diet. My Lent exploration marked the first time I have looked at my food intake and food choices from an approach that was not based in physical health, or on someone else’s input. My approach this time was one of curiosity, without judgment of the answer.
In the five months since the beginning of Lent, I have lost 45 pounds. I know this because my wife was curious, as my clothes were fitting differently. I was wearing shirts I have not worn in 15 years. I can’t wear any of my pants without cinching a belt. My wife asked me to weigh myself; she now tells me I’m half the man I used to be. Because I had not been approaching this as a diet, it had not occurred to me to weigh myself during the process.
I call my new approach to food, intentional eating.
- Am I hungry? This may seem like an easy question, but it is also a loaded one. There are many kinds of hunger. So – is my stomach empty and my system craving the nutrition of food? Or am I seeking to fill a different kind of emptiness and using comfort food to do it?
- What do I most want to eat? This also may seem like an easy question. However, what is nutritionally sustaining to my body may not match the foods I have thought of as comforting in the past. Because I am now eating to sustain my body, I am more aware of what my body craves as sustenance. I inhabit my body in a new way.
- How do I feel now that I’ve eaten it? There are various foods that are no longer a regular part of my diet. I’ve realized I don’t have a sense of well-being after eating bread, for instance. So, I no longer buy it. I’ll have some garlic bread with eggplant parmesan. They go together. And, my body will tell me one piece is enough.
- How do I know when I have had enough? If I am eating for reasons other than sustaining myself physically and mentally, the part of me that is aware that I’ve eaten enough may be silenced. If I am eating to fill an emotional need, the physical cue of feeling full will not quiet that appetite. Most often, my hedonism used to get in my way; I would continue to eat because it tasted good, my taste buds overruling my body’s attempts to say, “We’ve had enough now!”
- I am hedonistic about food. Faced with a table full of my favorites, I let my body dictate my choices. It will tell me when I’ve had enough. This probably means eating a little more than enough; the resulting feelings in my stomach will be sufficient cue to stop. What I find is that ‘enough’ is a much smaller quantity than I would ever have predicted pre-Lent.
Because my intentions don’t stem from an external source, I have been able to take these questions seriously. I don’t use them to beat myself up. If I eat a bit more at one meal then another, I am doing so because the answers to the above questions informed how much I ate. What I have learned is, once I take these questions seriously, I don’t find comfort food comforting emotionally. It just makes me feel sick; the quantities I used to have to eat to comfort me were far more than my body could enjoy. However, in taking these questions seriously, I am also taking myself more seriously. And in so doing, I am able to look at my emotional needs seriously as well and address them more appropriately than by eating.
A byproduct of intentional eating is that I am able to understand what my body wants as sustenance. I would rather have an orange for dessert than ice cream. If I have cake, I’m satisfied with a bite. Cake does not appeal as a form of sustenance. My taste buds enjoy the bite; the rest of my body would not enjoy an entire piece. I thoroughly enjoy my morning coffee, but after a cup and a half, it stops being enjoyable. So I stop drinking it for the day. A backhanded advantage to being a food hedonist – I enjoy my food far too much to be willing to feel sick from eating it.
I am eating what human beings were always meant to eat, the fruits of the land. Without a lot of processing. I’m not eating raw, I do cook things, but the things I’m cooking are all things that my ancestors would have recognized as coming right off the farm. I feel more in touch with myself as a creature of the earth. This feeling of harmonious connection has led me in the direction of becoming vegetarian.
I am writing this blog entry in large part because various friends have approached me in the past few weeks. A 45-pound weight loss is noticeable, and they have noticed. I’ve been asked variations on, “How did you do it?” I have told them about my approach, my conceptualization of intentional eating. That’s the easy part. Harder to convey is that the more important question for me is, why did I do it? The food-consciousness approach I’ve taken is the basis for many diet plans. For me, however, this weight loss has been a by-product of a wholly different goal. Losing weight wasn’t my goal; being mindful of my Self and how I move through the world was my goal. During this Lent season, this seems to have translated to mindfulness about food.