When you’re a kid you eat what’s there. If your Mom doesn’t buy soda, you don’t drink soda. If your Mom doesn’t buy sugared cereals, you don’t eat sugared cereals.
If your Mom calls you from work, and talks you through how to roast a chicken, you learn how to roast a chicken, sort of. If you’re all alone and there’s nothing around for lunch, you scrounge every dresser top, sofa cushion, and penny jar to put enough together for a liquor store salami sandwich. Or if your Mother buys roughly three dozen boxes of Chex cereal because it’s on sale, and stacks them up to the ceiling in the pantry, and the stack frightens you, looming over your childhood and extending into your future, so you imagine you are eighteen and going off to college but still eating stale bargain Corn Chex, then that’s what you eat.
And finally, if you complain about the somewhat haphazard arrangement for your sustenance, and your Mother takes out her handy fifteen-inch-long yellow legal pad, and makes a list, and posts it on the refrigerator for you and your siblings to read, and entitles it: “Food in the House When You Said There Was No Food in the House,” then you will darn well eat what is in the house, and like it. Even if the list includes things like canned pears. And corn starch.
You may have guessed by now that I am not talking about your Mother, I’m talking about my Mother. A wonderful, industrious woman who would sometimes make us apple crisp, beef stew, or “schnecken,” which are little Jewish cream cheese pastries rolled up with cinnamon and sugar. But other times, overworked and overtired, and probably suffering from the thyroid condition that now troubles me, Mom would come home from work and request either a Dubonet on the rocks or some fresh squeezed orange juice, and us kids would get it for her, and then fend for ourselves. And all kidding aside, we did pretty well. I learned to love food. I learned to love cooking. I even learned to love cleaning up, which often included a water fight and a very wet kitchen floor.
What I didn’t learn was which foods I liked. Or rather, which foods I was allowed to say I preferred. Being the youngest, you learn how to take leftovers, which is how I learned to love burned popcorn, because at least I could count on being able to move my hand into the bowl to get it without competition. So it was a lightening bolt when my sister gave up meat for a couple of weeks, and I discovered that vegetarianism was a thing. I realized that I hadn’t liked meat for years, and I stopped eating it. It was 1978.
I am pretty sure my family thought I was just copying big sis, like usual, and were surprised when I stuck with it. And I was copying big sis, for sure. But I was also discovering the power of saying, “no.”
Doggy Dan is an online dog trainer, with a website full of excellent free material, or reasonably priced courses that will probably change your life, and your dog’s life, for the better. And Doggy Dan says, “The pack leader controls the food.”
One of my dogs is a lab, so of course he will eat anything, at anytime, anywhere. But little Gadget is my pretty, picky Papillon. And Doggy Dan says he’s playing games with me. Walking away from the bowl when I put it down. Rubbing his cute little nose raw to bury his food instead of eating it. Giving a discreet little growl when I try to take away a bone he has discarded. These are all signs, so says Doggy Dan, of him controlling the food. And that doesn’t work. It sets off a host of other behavioral problems. Why? Because food is the most important thing in a dog’s life, and whoever controls it is in charge. Period.
So these days, I don’t leave any food around for the dogs, nor bones. I eat first. I even do a little fake gobbling over each of their bowls before I put them down. And if Gadget walks away from his bowl with his nose in the air like a fluffy little prince, I take the bowl away, right away, and he’s got to wait till the next meal. Who’s in charge of the food? I am.
This new lectin-free diet I am trying is not easy. It is highly restrictive. No this, no that. But I think that is why I am so moved by the experience of trying it. How many women reading this struggle to say a simple, two-letter word? “No.”
What I mean to say, by comparing the dogs and my childhood kitchen, is that we get into habits. Food habits. And they may be good for us, or they may be really, really bad for us.
Unfortunately, food habits are among the most sensitive topics for people, and when you change your diet, it can be upsetting to others. To this day, I still don’t think my family is thrilled that I am a vegetarian, and they still make that known in subtle ways, which in turn bother me, so we are all a little bothered about it. But give us time. It’s only been forty years. But seriously, people often take a substantial dietary change as an implicit criticism. I have been verbally attacked by meat eaters before I could get half a word out, and the only reason I can imagine is that they felt attacked by me. What I was doing was different than what they were doing, and because of that, they thought I was saying they were wrong.
But there is a more kindly negative reaction that people have as well, which is concern for my health, and perhaps also just a generalized worry that if everybody goes about evolving their own, quirky little diets, the fabric of society will become unraveled. Food brings us together. When I eat differently, I set myself apart.
There is also the ideal reaction, which is one of curiosity and empathy. Curiosity for what I’m doing (rather than jumping to assumptions or stereotypes), and empathy for the fact that obviously if I felt terrific, I wouldn’t be changing a thing.
I myself sometimes fall in that second group, wondering how the fabric of society can stay strongly woven with all these individualized threads. But at this point in history, we are all our own special melting pots, genetically diverse within ourselves, living in diverse communities, and there is no reason to assume that every stomach should be able to happily eat “whatever’s in the kitchen”, metaphorically speaking. Chinese food one night, staff dinner the next, pizza another, the latest fad breakfast, your favorite habitual lunch.
When communities were more homogenous, people ate together daily and evolved dietary choices that made sense to them, and their stomachs. These evolutions took millennia, and included elaborate methods of food preparation, many of them designed thoughtfully to remove the parts of foods which are often less digestible. What are those parts called? I’m so glad you asked. They’re proteins, and they’re called Lectins. Recent news coverage has mistakenly reported that all lectins are removed during cooking, any cooking, but this is not so.
Human beings spent thousands of years learning how to get the bran off of rice, only to have some genius declare that because of the vitamins we might miss, we’d better start eating the whole grain again. Too bad my stomach didn’t get the memo. And many of the traditions could still work, if we did them. When I was taught to cook beans, I was taught to soak them overnight, rinse them, then cook them at high heat while skimming away the foam that appears on the surface of the pot, and then change the water, and then boil them for hours and hours. But I’m guilty of shortening that process considerably. And I often simply throw rice in a pot with water and cook it, without any soaking at all. My Persian neighbor once made me rice, and I lost count of the numbers of times she rinsed, soaked, and changed the water. All I know is that she had begun the process days before our dinner, and that the rice was fluffy and absolutely delicious.
I don’t care about getting into an argument with food purists, or friends who read alarming articles and tell me “lectins are fine, and the diet is bad.” Because for a decade now I have noticed that the “better” I eat, the worse I feel. All the whole grains and varied fruits and vegetables seem to make me sicker and sicker and sicker. So I have my own experience to guide me. Anything can look good or bad on paper. But every bodyis different. The same way I could have gone undiagnosed my whole life if I had believed my first blood test, which came back “normal”, my health is too important a task to farm out to popular consensus, or even traditional medical knowledge. My body is not lying to me. A raw vegan diet brought me enormous pain, and close to the brink of despair. And yes, I supplemented B12. So that’s me.
So I’ve decided on taking a fairly radical step forward with my diet, and because of my “better” makes me worse paradox, the work of Dr. Gundry— who is among other things a specialist in infant organ transplants so he’s hardly a snake oil salesman— the idea of a diet which focuses specifically on how things are prepared, and which kinds of things tend to bother people, made such innate sense to me that the moment I read about it, I experienced a feeling of coming to ground. Even before I had any problems of my own, I was well-versed in my Dad’s “bad” stomach, and knew well that he couldn’t tolerate tomatoes, chilis, sunflower seeds. All high lectin foods.
But I am four days in. I don’t know if this will work, or not. But if it doesn’t, I’ll try something else. There’s a phase in life when you realize you are the one who gets to make the decisions, and then there’s a period after that when you realize you’re also allowed to change your mind, and that’s when freedom comes rushing in the door. If I need to change directions, I will. If I need to adapt or revise these choices, I will. If I need to eat some old comfort food in a moment of painful nostalgia (with a digestive enzyme to help me process it), then I will. Because it’s my stomach. And my life. And because Doggy Dan is right.
The pack leader controls the food.