Tag Archives: diet

Food issues and my fainting couch

I’ve been ill a lot over the last couple of years. I’m also being knocked about by the whole peri-menopausal malarky, including having very heavy periods, some of them very close together. If I bleed every other week, I can’t get iron into my body fast enough to keep up, and the consequences are dire fatigue, and other, more serious unpleasantness with serious risks if it gets more out of control than it already is.

Iron is a curious substance. I’m not a chemist, which has made poking around in this harder going. The language I am going to use is not scientific, it’s illustrative. Almost all forms of life need iron – there are some bacterial exceptions, apparently. So in theory you can get iron from eating plants, but iron rich plants also often include things that inhibit the uptake of iron, which is unhelpful. There’s also a shape issue. The kind of iron you can get from eating meat is pretty much the right shape to stick in your own red blood cells and keep going. Plant iron is a bit different. Heme and non-heme if you want the technical terms.

I’ve seen a lot of information online about iron-rich plant sources. However, there’s also the issue of how much your body can extract and get into use and at what speed. For me, it’s not been enough and it’s not been fast enough. I’ve been taking supplements, I’ve been eating my iron-rich plants alongside vit C sources. I’m not winning. In fact it would be fairer to say that I have lost repeatedly, and badly, and I can’t go on like this. Many internet sites give the impression that plants have more iron in them than meat does and that iron without meat is easy. Technically this is true about the iron quantity, but if you struggle to get that plant iron out and struggle to turn it into something you can use, it doesn’t do much for you. It’s not a simple issue.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 13 years at this point. Including a small amount of red meat in my diet would probably solve these problems for me. Eating beef is a really awful environmental choice and I have a lot of concerns about animal welfare, too. By the looks of it, the odd tin of beef soup – perhaps one a week – might be enough to turn things around for me. The alternative is massive uncertainty, and needing more medical support – which is in short supply in the UK as it is. I feel that the more responsible choice is to change my diet.

Yes, you can use medical interventions to manage periods, but that’s not a consequence free choice, either for my body or for the environment. 

Unless you’re dealing with something similar, I’d prefer not to have diet or medical advice in the comments and I thank you in advance for not doing that. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this, and there are other issues with my body that impact on my choices, and I don’t want to get bogged down in those details. I’m taking this as an opportunity to flag up the issue that if you’re only giving this a few minutes thought, the odds are I’ve already considered it, and this is always true for other people’s health issues. Hearing from people who are dealing with the same, or similar, can be really valuable. 

My main reason for sharing this experience is because I’m tired of seeing it asserted that everyone has the same options and food choices available to them. I have really limited options at this point and none of them are good or happy choices for me. None of them are what I really want, and there are a lot of considerations in deciding which is most responsible. Being so ill I can’t function isn’t a responsible choice. I hope this is only temporary, because I’d prefer to be vegetarian.

New Year, New You?

We’re at the time of year when the diet and fitness industries will be trying to get your money. They will lie to you about how they can change your life. They will encourage you to feel unattractive and inadequate. They are poison.

New years of course prompt us to reflect on what’s happened and think about how we want to move forward. This is good, but for most of us, some kind of radical re-creation of self really isn’t necessary. You’re fine as you are. You may want to make some lifestyle changes to be happier in yourself, and that’s great, but those are the only terms on which to change.

My weight has varied a fair bit over my lifetime. One of the things I’ve discovered is that the people who were ashamed of me and critical of me when I was at my fattest do not praise me or love me now I am thinner. I have not won them over. Apparently it was never about my body size, it was just an easy thing to hurt me with.

My fitness levels have varied a fair bit too – mostly that’s to do with how other health issues are impacting on me. Sometimes there is too much pain and weariness for physical activity to be any kind of pleasure. I am most at ease with myself when I am stronger and more able – and frustrated by my body limitations. I have found that the best thing to do is focus on wellness and enjoyment, and not on any kind of arbitrary fitness goals. Bodily activity is something to relish and find joy in, not something to punish yourself with to try and meet some imposed standard of appearance.

As my body and its capabilities have varied over time, it’s become obvious to me that these are not the most important things. My relationships are not transformed by my body shape. My confidence and self esteem aren’t that much affected by how thin or fat I am – but they are affected by how other people treat me. The key thing is avoiding people who go in for body shaming. If I spend time with people who like me for who I am and who are not obsessed with how I look, then my life is happier and richer. I prefer the company of people who are kind and affirming, who support and encourage me. All of the good things that the diet and fitness industries claim come from diet and fitness industries, mostly come from people being nice to each other.

And while we’re being nice to each other, and being supportive and affirming we can look for the things that make us well and give us joy. We can eat the food that nourishes us, supports our mental health and gives us the energy to move our bodies in happy ways. We can move happily, for the joy of it. If you’re in need of a ‘new you’ look for opportunities to be happier, not ways to punish yourself for already feeling ground down.

Poverty Diets

I get intensely annoyed when I see middle class people online announcing on the basis of one cheap meal they made once, that not being able to feed your family cheaply is just the poor being crap. That it’s lousy budgeting, lack of cooking skills, laziness. Let me start by saying that it is possible to feed a family adequately for less than a pound per person per meal, but it is hard, and problematic.

I’m an intelligent, well educated person, I know about nutrition, I know how to cook, I know how to shop and how to budget. In this, I am better off than many people who end up in difficulty. I got into difficulty because I was dragged through the family courts for a couple of years and it was terrifyingly expensive. As is often the way, the flexibility in a budget is often around food.  This same budget also has to cover clothes, cleaning products and anything else you might need unexpectedly. As children tend to grow and require school uniforms, there are extra costs.

While it is possible to feed a family cheaply, it’s not possible to feed a family at no cost. If you’ve had your benefits sanctioned, or are in the long waiting period before they start, you may well have no money at all. Universal credit leaves many families with far too little money to begin with – I’ve seen this happen to others. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, you can’t buy food if you have no money.

To eat cheaply, you are going to make compromises. Cheap low nutrition starchy foods are good to fill up on and for avoiding hunger, so probably one of your meals each day will take this shape. It is really hard to do five portions of fruit and veg per day on a very tight budget. I usually managed three, and there wasn’t as much diversity as I wanted.  Carrots are indeed cheap, so you need to like carrots and be happy to eat them as part of many different meals. This is, frankly, hard on children who tend to suffer more with food boredom. Also it’s not actually that healthy – diversity matters in nutrition. Protein is expensive. Even if you do a fair bit of it through pulses, and you give up meat. Getting enough protein into people affordably is hard. Without enough protein, your brain struggles to make some of the happier chemicals, and your body will hurt when you active. I’ve done this and it sucks.

You have to pay attention all the time. You have to shop carefully, budget carefully, be super careful to use things before they go off. You probably won’t be able to afford to have snacks, and your meals may be smaller than is ideal. You will, at times, be hungry. Especially in the winter if you can’t afford to run extra heating and your body is trying to burn calories to keep you warm. Feeding a family on a tight budget is hard work and insufficient food is exhausting and this is a bloody awful combination.

Mistakes are expensive. Reduced to clear food that goes off is a disaster. You pick the mould off the bread and eat it anyway.  Mistakes can lead to debt, and once you’re servicing a debt your disposable income is reduced, pushing you closer to the edges.

Being poor is bloody hard work and there are no days off. It can be done adequately, but you won’t eat well, you won’t have a highly nutritious diet, you will never have treats, and it will make you feel like shit. What you can do as a one-off as a person with resources is not an indicator of what it’s like dealing with this stuff every day.  It is not possible to be clever, frugal or skilled enough to make food out of thin air, and I wish more people understood that.

Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.

Body differences and the weird logic of diets

There are a great many people who are not able to lose weight through diet and exercise. The standard response is to assume they just weren’t trying hard enough. We have no qualms about shaming people who can’t manage their weight by the means they are told will work for them.  As though the human body is a simple system, and always works in the same way, and as if what you eat and how much you move are the only factors involved in size.

To talk about this, I’m going to step sideways into the parallel world of muscle. Muscles are complicated, and we don’t all have it in us to build the same ones. Some of us are better suited to speed than lifting power. Some of us naturally have more stamina than others. Hit the limits on what your muscles can do, and the odds are good the people around you will assume it’s because you’ve hit your limits. It may be about how much glycogen your muscles can store – that may be genetic.  And of course muscles don’t work alone, there’s bone and tendon to consider, blood flow, reflexes, metabolism.

Get into the world of muscle even a little bit and you’ll find it is complex, and there’s no expectation that all bodies are going to work the same way. We don’t shame people for having sinewy strength rather than big muscles. We assume that difference is normal. This is in no small part because we have generations of knowledge that different bodies respond to exercise in different ways and that different people have different strengths.

On the whole, fat is a new problem for us as a species. Perhaps for much of human history, it was fair to assume that more often than not, fat went with how much you ate. That didn’t necessarily make it an unpopular thing, either. Historically, fat has equated to wealth and opulence – historic portraits of people have a lot of bigger people in them. The rich have carried their extra pounds with pride. However, this century has seen fat become a widespread issue for poor people, and that makes it a problem, and no longer desirable.  Perceived greed is something the poor are always punished for.

Sleep deprivation causes weight gain – the evidence is out there but it isn’t much publicised. Sleep deprivation is for the greater part a industrial ailment, made worse in recent years by 24/7 culture, shift working, stress, screens and time pressure. Hard to get enough sleep if you’re working two jobs, and this too is a modern problem.

We feed growth hormones to creatures raised for meat, but I’ve not seen anyone suggesting that there could be a relationship between weight gain, and eating something that was pumped full of chemicals to make it gain weight. We put all manner of chemicals into our food, and the long term experiments to discover the long term impact of eating them? We’re it.

We should be asking about the relationship between malnourishment and weight gain – if your diet is about filling up on not very nutritional carbs, what does that do? What happens when you can’t afford to eat good food? What does stress do to metabolism and body size? Some of us burn frantically in response to stress, but what if some of us stock up reserves? What if dieting just adds to the stress that has your body trying to store calories? Why should there be just one story about how we get fat and how to shed that fat? It doesn’t add up.

We need better research into the issue of weight gain, rather than this endless preaching about the imagined moral failure of being fat. We need answers that take into account body difference and that we’re no doubt not all designed to be exactly the same shape. We need to work out what healthy weight means – the Body Mass Index is worse than useless. We need health measurements that aren’t just about size and we also need to start recognising that if a large person is ill, it may not be simply a case that they need to lose weight and get more exercise. Perhaps if we were collectively slower to pathologise fat, we would be able to have healthier ideas about how to live with the bodies we have.

Poverty, diet and mental health

Brain chemistry informs our moods and thinking processes. That chemistry depends on what comes into our bodies. The person who has an inadequate diet is much more vulnerable to mental health problems. Good food is also essential to a physically well body. A good immune system, and the means to heal and repair, all depends in part on what we eat. The energy to be active, or just to get through the day depends on what we eat. If you aren’t eating properly, the resulting poor health will have a knock on effect on your mental health.

The single biggest cause of poor diet, is poverty.

These are not radical thoughts on my part, there’s lots of information out there about all of these things. What there isn’t, is the political will to deal with any of it. Food is a luxury to be sold at the highest price you can because that’s how the market works. The mental health of the poor is just another sacrifice the rich may have to make in the pursuit of ever more wealth. Our collective priorities are badly skewed.

Food has become such an emotionally loaded thing as well. The diet and beauty industries are massive, and spend their time advertising to us the idea that we just aren’t good enough and must buy their things. Body shaming and fat shaming layer on the misery, and skinny shaming is also a thing. For some there’s the additional nightmare of full on eating disorders. Bodies are something to exploit for other people’s profit.

I know from experience that depression and anxiety are not the only possible consequences of impoverished diets. Quite some years ago, an elderly relative of mine in a state of grief, stopped eating. This was only noticed because they became dangerously delusional. They were taken into care, and once re-hydrated and nourished for a while, turned around very quickly. There are reasons some shamanic traditions use extreme fasting to open the mind – the mind does in fact open, and if you aren’t doing it in a supported way, that opening can break you.

I also know from personal experience that food mistakes leading to brain chemistry issues do not leave a person well placed to sort this stuff out. As a small scale example, if I mess up with the blood sugar, I can end up panicking and feeling unable to deal with food situations at all. I find social eating stressful in some contexts, and when the blood sugar is low, the panic sneaks in and can stop me from doing the most helpful things – namely getting food into me.

Poverty is a difficult thing to deal with, undermining a person’s life and wellbeing in a great many ways. Poor mental health is also a tough thing to deal with and a destroyer of quality of life. But what do we do collectively? What do our politicians do? Blame the poor for not trying hard enough. It’s an obscenity, and it has to stop.

Feeding the spirit

What we eat has a huge impact on how we feel, and the state of our physical health. I think it also effects us at emotional levels. Where nature is honoured as sacred, and relationship is highly valued, eating becomes an activity with spiritual implications. For me, nothing I do is separate from my Druidry, not even lunch. I don’t believe there’s any one right way of doing this, but there are many issues around food that we might want to contemplate from a spiritual perspective.

Where did the food come from? Is it part of our land? How do we relate to the spirit of the place it originated? Do we experience food differently if it’s locally sourced, or we’ve grown it ourselves, or foraged it from a hedgerow? The origin of the food can significantly shape our relationship with it and also raises issues around food miles and sustainability.

How was it prepared? For me there is a huge qualitative difference between pre-packaged mass produced, and homemade. Where someone has invested love and time in creating nourishment, it can be related to as a bardic expression, and it is richer. It’s unique, and there is more soul in it. There’s also less packaging usually, which is an environmental plus. Mass produced food can be bland and will be the same every time. The more inspiration we bring to our food, the more interesting and rewarding it becomes.

How do we eat it? Food that we share with loved ones and take time over is more pleasing than a hastily grabbed solitary snack. It’s about taking the time both for relationship with the food, and with those around you. Food creates space for social bonding, which is powerful, so when we think about food we can also be thinking about community.

I find that what I eat has huge impact on me. I spent time as an omnivore, and found that meat sits very heavily in my gut – some people equate this with satisfaction, but it’s not a sensation I like. I find my body feels more comfortable when I don’t eat meat. I assume this will vary from one person to another, but finding the diet that suits us is a huge contributor to wellness and feeling good. If I keep refined sugars and pre-processed food minimal, I feel cleaner, lighter and better in myself. I find that including a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables makes me feel better about myself – not just as a physical experience, but emotionally better and spiritually more open. Where I’ve experimented with vegan food, I find I feel lighter again, and I enjoy being less dependent on animal products. Although I’m very conscious of the sustainability issues here too, it’s the impact on my body and my sense of self that incline me to continue exploring.

Too many people are all or nothing about food. For some, vegetarian, vegan or meat eater labels are such a big part of sense of self that exploring alternatives seems threatening. I like experimenting with food, learning to cook in new ways, and there are vegan tricks that everyone, regardless of overall diet, would benefit from. Nuts and pulses are great, and broaden a diet and meal repertoires. It was from vegan cooks that I learned to mix raw and cooked things, and to explore texture to a greater degree. Vegan meals don’t focus on a solid lump of animal product, so you have to think about the components in totally different ways, again opening up creative possibility.

How I feel about myself as a spiritual person is informed by what I eat. Would I feel as I do if I consumed a lot of fatty, high sugar, chemical laden food? Or if I frequented fast food emporiums with their disposable, unsustainable packaging? I wouldn’t be the same person at all. When I’ve eaten in ways that felt at odds with my beliefs, I’ve been deeply unhappy.

I’m not any kind of food evangelist, beyond the ideas that we shouldn’t waste it, we should enjoy it and we should be responsible about it. How we eat affects how we feel. It’s a key point of engagement with the rest of nature, which for any pagan ought to make it a point of significant interest. We can make it a conscious part of our spiritual expression. We can eat with awen, and recognise spirit in what we do.