I’m not a foodie—not by a long shot. I eat to live, only that, which means I can—and often do—eat the same thing morning, noon and night, for days, sometimes years. I don’t travel to other countries to taste their food. It’s not my reason for going. In all the years I have travelled around the world, I have picked here, grabbed a morsel there, but wherever possible I have stuck to my very odd eating habits, and it has served me well. I’m also not a “balanced diet” person. I eat what I feel like, when I feel like it. Within reason, of course. I’m also a rebel and as soon as I hear marketing statements like “eating doesn’t make you fat, eating fat makes you fat” or “do not eat more than two eggs a week to prevent cholesterol build-up,” I balk and set out to prove the opposite. My body is my laboratory and I’m the only person getting hurt in the experiment—or not.
Across the years I’ve straddled the limits of the scale for my height—55 kg being about right, but ballooning to 85 kg and then disappearing to a skeletal 42 kg. And I have always remained strangely healthy, just to confound all nutritionists and medical doctors. I have hopped between vegetarian and meat, without any moral qualms, simply listening to my body and giving it what it craved in the moment. During my two-year stint in Cambodia, I lived on a mixture of apples, nuts, raisins and yoghurt. I would make a container full in the morning and pick on it during the day. Now and then I would crave eggs, so would eat six a day for three weeks. But I stayed away from meat entirely for two years. Was I any healthier than when eating meat? Not that I could see. I was definitely slimmer, but couldn’t say I felt any different. Oh yes, and my cholesterol didn’t twinge either.
Then my body began to crave animal protein and I started living on chicken and fruit. Again, all during the day, as I’m not a sit-down-to-meals person, I’m a grazer and it suits my metabolism. I stay away from carbohydrates of any kind, but oh my goodness I do so love bread! Nope, nope, stay away and only partake very rarely—if ever. I have a friend who is a nurse. One day she asked, “Don’t you think it is time to eat a more balanced diet?” I responded, “If you look at my diet across a span of 10 years, it IS balanced.” She shook her head in despair.
Because I travel a lot and cannot afford to get ill, I have always tried to stick to what I know. I rarely stay in hotels and will buy raw ingredients and cook for myself—sticking to my diet of chicken and fresh fruit through India, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, South Africa, Malawi and the list continues into the Americas. However, there are times this has been impossible and I have had to accept the consequences—though very rarely.
I must reiterate that I have always listened to my body—this is extremely important. I intimately know my body, its cravings, its feelings and attitudes. I feel when it needs something, or is complaining. I watch it move in different directions—weight gain and weight loss—and listen to the little aches and pains. My first recourse in the event of a complaint is my diet. We are what we eat and sometimes the “are” is not in line with the “eat” and the “eat” is not the same in all countries. Chicken is chicken, yes? No. The chickens in India suffer from a strange case of disappearing bones. After cooking, they are revoltingly soft, only slightly more crunchy than the cartilage. And the bones are small compared to the quantity of meat—a very obvious result of hormone and steroid supplements. And the chickens in Thailand look good and taste good and have the correct consistency. As do those in Laos and Vietnam.
But I started to notice something really strange happening to my body. Every time I returned to Bangkok, within three weeks I would begin gaining weight, my breasts became tender and I would struggle with bloating and my clothes suddenly didn’t fit. Three weeks. I went to India for seven months, returning to Bangkok—three weeks and I felt well-rounded. Then I went to Hanoi for a month and all the roundness and discomfort disappeared. Back to Bangkok and again I struggled.
In Thailand, I volunteer teach English conversation and one of my students is a laboratory technician at a fish farm. She researches and experiments with creating male fish as they gain weight quickly and are used in the feed industry. She would sometimes come to class looking really down and I would ask her what’s up. “I had to kill 200,000 fry because they were all female.” I could see it really troubled her and would question her on how it fit in with her Buddhist belief system, telling her that if it bothered her so much, it was probably time to get another job. But she has a goal to retire in five years and that does not allow changing jobs now. Some days she would come to the lesson with her skin broken out and I knew she had been experimenting with hormones on the fish.
I made her the teacher for a lesson, and asked her to tell me and the other students about the hormones in food in Thailand, and what food she ate. I was horrified. She will not touch chicken—even the so-called “organic” chicken—she will not eat pork and definitely not tilapia. But I was still playing with chicken and fruit, although now becoming decidedly wary.
My partner from Canada joined me and the reality of our eating habits took on a completely new character. Michael enjoys a diet of beans and rice with some meat every now and then. He eats a lot of fruit and oats (sounds like a horse, doesn’t he?) and really loves bread. However, across the years he has developed an allergy to wheat flour. It severely affects him and he can only rarely eat bread or cakes. While I like beans as a source of protein, I get windy, so we have been experimenting to find some form of compromise that would make it easy to cook meals for two.
Then we went to Indonesia, and all alimentary hell broke loose. We simply could not find food that “felt right.” Our recourse was to Japanese food which was chicken or fish with rice or noodles and fruit whenever we were within range of a supermarket, which was rarely. We also picked up some form of bacteria that hit Michael a lot harder than me. After a month, we returned to Bangkok, and to our “diet” of chicken, fruit, beans and rice. But our discomfort became so severe, we were eating starvation rations. I would eat half an apple and my stomach would feel as if I had eaten a whole crate of them. We both just constantly felt tired and ill, Michael far worse than me and he had to go on a course of antibiotics which killed the infection, but the discomfort remained.
We sat down and discussed our eating habits and made the decision to omit chicken and all wheat products from our diet, no bread, no cakes, no flour products at all. We would eat fruit, oats, home-made muesli, beans and rice, and lots of vegetables. Snacking would be raw carrots, cucumbers, rice cakes, nuts and raisins. When we felt the need for a protein injection, it would be beef or sea fish. No other meat, no fresh water fish. And we started eating more frequently during the day.
How do we feel after two months of this? Great. Yes, there is the urge to grab some wonderful-smelling bread, or a cake, or the enticing chicken breast, but we have learned the hard way. We go to birthday parties and ignore the cake; we have to, and we make no bones to our hosts about why. If someone wants to take offence, so be it. We don’t live with our hosts.
And after having done copious amounts of wrist-slitting research, and there’s a lot out there that would scare a saint off its pedestal, we have had to accept that there’s little left that is truly fit for human consumption. Organic can only be considered whole if the soil itself to an “nth” depth is clean. And what about the neighbours soil? How clean is that? Rainwater runoff will quickly disperse anything to neighbouring crops. Our very air is so full of compounds there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to spell. Things are modified, corrected, bleached, pesticided, bromined, chlorined, flourided, estrogened and steroided into what is called “food.” There is little we can trust, but what we make or grow ourselves. And even that is questionable, what with the soil and the water. But then there’s the wonder of this perfect human body and its resilience and ability to adapt to, and even thrive under, deplorable conditions (and I consider our current food supply “deplorable conditions”).
When your body speaks, listen to it. Learn its language. It tells you within hours, if not minutes, that something is wrong. But you must be attuned to it. Feeling distended after a meal? Listen. Feeling tired for no reason, no energy, too much energy, jittery or languid? Look to your food. Discombobulating? Your brain is begging for proper food.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.