To eat or not to eat…

First published Feb 2015

Like many of us, my relationship with food has fluctuated over my lifetime. After a struggle with breastfeeding I was, so I am reliably informed, fed with carnation milk. My toddler self was extremely fussy but this thankfully morphed in to a constant hunger and willingness to eat anything once. Growing up in the eighties food was simple but homecooked, good quality, ‘real’ food – as opposed to many of the ‘food like’ products consumed today. Mum’s cooking certainly laid great foundations for my appetite as an adult.

As a young woman a pre-existing heart condition began to have an impact on my well being at around the same time as my interest in cookery appeared. As the illness developed so I learnt to hold on to health through good food choices. This became crucial as I entered the final phases of heart failure and battled to not only stay well but maintain a healthy weight with very little physical activity.

In 2009 I received a heart transplant and a healthy lifestyle acted as the lynch pin to my initial recovery. Sadly, as a result of my experiences with life limiting illness I now live with the ongoing effects of clinical anxiety. Nowadays my eating patterns tend to fluctuate in line with how I feel as I swing between eating way too much – and eating obsessively healthy foods.

I have found mindfulness a useful approach. As a food writer I am fascinated with books on mindful eating and was recently lucky enough to stumble across author Julian Baggini and his book, The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think. Here he discusses the choice of abstinence as a form of mindful eating.

True freedom therefore requires the ability to exercise self-control rather than simply being carried by whatever desires and impulses arise in you. Only eating certain things at certain times…is a way of countering our tendency to slavishly follow our desires, breaking the link between desire and action, impulse and acting on it…It’s a way of exercising choice very knowingly.

I am not unfamiliar with fasting and abstinence. As a teenager I took part in a sponsored 24 hour famine to raise money for the charities working in Africa. I then made an active choice to adopt a vegetarian diet for two years. Twenty years later my fascination with medieval food introduced me once again to the concepts. But it wasn’t until reading chapter 16 in Julian’s book that I considered it as a part of my modern lifestyle. Last summer my husband and I attempted abstinence together and gave up meat for the month of July. It was a fascinating and empowering experience.

My mental health has wavered over the last 12 months. Despite knowing that processed sugar does me no good I continue to reach for the chocolate and biscuits. The run up to Shrove Tuesday and Lent prompted my thoughts back to that piece on fasting, and this blog post. For the first time in my life I have decided to observe Lent, though I haven’t decided how yet. I hope to introduce greater mindfulness to my food choices and in some sense, press the reset button on some bad habits.

You may not wish to join me on this abstinence path but if you are interested in combining philosophy with food then I fully recommend getting hold of a copy of Julian Baggini’s new book. There is certainly plenty of food for thought.

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