As a holistic health counselor, I regularly give people advice on how to eat and how to develop a positive relationship with food. But my own relationship with food was once very difficult. When I was just a few years old, my parents discovered that I was strongly allergic to wheat and dairy products, and mildly allergic to citrus fruits and nuts. But instead of getting a rash or a runny nose, I would have an emotional breakdown and go into hysterics after eating these foods. Only when the foods were out of my system would I again recover my emotional balance.
Partly to avoid these allergens, my family followed the Macrobiotic diet, which was based on whole, organic foods, particularly traditional Japanese foods. As a result of the diet, we enjoyed good health and energy and rarely got sick. However, I did have occasional sugar cravings, as well as cravings for the foods to which I was allergic. I also grew up an excessively picky eater. From childhood, I was used to brown rice, miso soup, sea vegetables and greens, and was apprehensive about trying foods outside my macrobiotic “comfort zone.” I dreaded having to eat at friends’ houses or at non-Japanese restaurants where I might be served something I didn’t like. My pickiness, combined with my allergies and my decision to be a vegetarian, meant that finding food I could or would eat was always a stressful situation for me and my family.
During my teenage years, my family stopped following the macrobiotic diet as strictly as before. Although I wasn’t exactly a “junk food vegetarian”, I didn’t eat as many balanced meals as I had in the past. I liked to snack on rye bread with margarine, trail mix (as my nut allergy had diminished), and corn chips, and I didn’t eat many vegetables. Every once in a while, we had a big macrobiotic dinner that helped keep my health on track, but I didn’t make the connection, instead taking my good health for granted. In fact, when it came time to go off to college, I thought to myself that I would be able to get by on trail mix, energy bars and soy milk, without suffering any health problems. I didn’t even think eating the foods to which I was allergic would be such a big deal.
Unsurprisingly, the campus cafeteria had almost no appetizing vegetarian, non-dairy options. I was constantly hungry, and gravitated towards sugary foods like cookies and candy, which was embarrassing, as all my friends knew I came from a “health food” background. But I didn’t think very seriously about the consequences of eating so much processed food, and didn’t expect anything bad would come of it. In the meantime, I enjoyed eating my junk food far better than the poorly prepared whole grains, beans, and vegetables in the cafeteria.
Everything changed, however, over the course of one Sunday in my second semester of freshman year. I was enjoying college in general and had been having a particularly good week. But in the midst of a normal conversation with my friends after breakfast, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of despair. I had no idea where it was coming from, but it got worse over the course of the day. I hoped inwardly that a good night’s sleep would banish it. I recognized this strange feeling as one that had come over me during the last few days of my first semester of college, just before I went home for a few weeks. At that time, it had not been as strong, and right after it happened I had benefited from a lot of macrobiotic home cooking. This time, however, my depression did not go away overnight, over the weekend, or even during the next week – it just got worse. There was nothing going on in my life to be depressed about, but I couldn’t shake the feeling regardless. My life – all of reality, in fact – felt empty and meaningless, and I felt terribly sad, but for no good reason. No breakups, no deaths in the family, no financial worries, no legal issues. College was hard work, but I had been relishing the challenge.
Without a macrobiotic background, I might have just chalked my inexplicable depression up to a chemical imbalance in my brain and gone to a doctor or psychiatrist for mood-altering medications. But instead I called my parents and told them what was happening. They immediately recognized the symptoms of my allergies, and I acknowledged that I had been eating lots of sugar, white flour, and dairy products in candy and baked goods, while almost completely avoiding vegetables.
Although it didn’t take away my severe depression by itself, my parents’ theory sounded plausible to me. I didn’t feel like taking care of myself, but nevertheless I forced myself to put the effort into eating differently in the hope that it would take away the horrible emotions I was experiencing. I bought a rice cooker and vegetable steamer to go with my electric hot pot, and started making macriobiotic lunches and dinners in my dorm room. Within the next few weeks I gradually began to feel better, but remained anxious that the improvement was only temporary. In the end it took several months of eating right and avoiding junk food entirely for my depression to fade away. In the next semester I borrowed some macrobiotic books and began teaching myself to cook some basic meals. Having seen the effects on myself of healing foods in action, I became fascinated with whole foods, their benefits for various health problems, their traditional usage, and how to prepare them. Mainly, I realized how much I didn’t know about nutrition and health – and how many foods I had never even tried. Even despite my lifelong allergies, I had devalued and ignored healthy food, the very thing that made it possible for me to function, and I clearly had a lot to learn.
To be continued next week!