My family were never into big shows of affection. They weren’t into hugs, or lavish presents or exclamations of love. We showed our love through food. The moments we spent together in the kitchen, preparing dishes of food. The apricot meringue tart my mom made without fail every year for my birthday. A punnet of raspberries shared in the shade of the market stalls. I recall small moments of my everyday life on the tip of my tongue. When I think about food, I think about family, love and connection.
I have been lucky to have suffered no allergies and was therefore free to embrace this inherited reverence for food. Even the self-inflicted weight complexes brought about by the Spring edition of Cosmo were short-lived and would usually come to an end by the time I had reached the nearest pain au chocolat. Well, until recently.
O body, where art thou?
A few weeks after moving to Cape Town, curiosity led me to visit a doctor of Chinese medicine. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with me, but a miscarriage had left my body feeling slightly off and the only way I knew how to cope with the trauma had been to ignore physical sensations that could inadvertently wake unexpected pangs of grief. I kept my hands and mind busy, pushing through discomfort, fatigue and other clever ways my body was using to get my attention. The more I tried to hush it, the louder it grew. It kept nagging me, insisting I needed to approach my health from a different angle. It took a good few months, but I eventually listened.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Chinese medicine and its ancient wisdom about our bodies. For the first time, a member of the medical profession wasn’t brushing off supposedly insignificant symptoms. No headache was too mild, no change in body temperature would go unnoticed. No mood swing would be considered “normal for this time of the month”. No stone was left unturned, until we got to the bottom of it.
It turns out, I had done such a good job at living disconnected from my body that my immune system started turning against it. I was told I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I remember a sense of disbelief, shock and anger. This diagnosis brought to light my biggest fears of having something inherently wrong with me. The fear of not belonging. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any scarier, my doctor added:
“Now we need to talk about your diet.”
On the surface I seemed composed. I remember nodding. I wanted to protest but my throat was so tight I couldn’t utter a word. Surely, she did not understand what food meant to me. Surely I’d be able to trade in this disease for one that didn’t require me to change the way I eat?
As I spent the next few days bargaining my way out of this with the universe, I turned to what I do best: collecting evidence. Information would bring me back to safety. I threw myself into any book on the topic of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis until I reached the verdict I was dreading. The scholars annoyingly agreed with my doctor, highlighting the underlying link between diet, genes, and one’s autoimmune response. I could take thyroid medication and start to feel better by balancing my hormonal levels. But this would not prevent my body from attacking and slowly destroying my thyroid gland. And that thought was inconceivable to me. That’s when I realised I had to forget everything I thought I knew about food, and start from scratch.
Learning to speak my body’s language
How long exactly had I been at war with my own body? Hard to tell. The slight discomforts that turned into debilitating fatigue, skin rashes, intense mood swings and constant brain fog had become so familiar that I thought this was my default mode of functioning.
It seems us humans have become great at numbing any physical sensations that are in the way of our cerebral way of living. But our bodies will always find a way to remind us of the monsters in the attic. Our bodies just know when something isn’t right or has been swept under the carpet. They store emotions and remember everything. When they start talking a little louder, that’s a sign we need to pause and listen.
While this next point is not backed up by science, it became abundantly clear to me that this disease was the necessary crisis I had to undergo to experience a much wider awakening. It led me to explore deeper and face my shadows. I found myself tiptoeing around corners of my mind I had long forgotten about and opening doors I thought had been locked. This disease forced me to slow down and take the time to heal before I can fully embark on my new life journey. It showed me how to hold space for myself, so I can hold space for others. And it timidly pointed at my throat, the home of my voice, hinting that perhaps, unexpressed feelings, thoughts and creativity are not benign after all. Showing me exactly what I needed to work on.
So, slowly, we started talking, my body and I. Our conversation was a bit clumsy at first, there were awkward silences. It was unclear if we should bring up the rising tension between us or who was going to make the first move. Until I figured out it was much simpler than I thought.
“What do you need?”, I whispered lovingly.
“I thought you’d never ask!” my body sighed back.
New nourishing rituals
When you think of how intrinsically different our DNA is from one another, how come I was under the impression that we can all nourish our bodies in the same way? I’ve come to discover that nobody else but you (and by you, I really mean your body) knows what you need at a certain point in time.
So if you truly want to nourish and honour your body, you’ll have to figure out what features on your highly personalised eating plan. Some foods are pure gold for you, some are toxic. They are different for everyone, and they may change over time.
This does come with trial and error, grieving a previous way of life and be willing to challenge lifelong habits and beliefs. Is it easy? In my experience, no long-lasting change ever is. But the healing, energy and self-love that has surfaced has been enough to keep me on track. For the most skeptical out there, here is an indisputable fact: my antibodies have dropped by one third in one month.
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone has an undiagnosed condition that needs to be addressed. But if you’re curious about a new way of nourishing your body, here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way.
A Gentle Guide to nourishing your body
This guide is a fusion of my own experience and the beautiful wisdom I received from Clare Thomas from The Love Kitchen. Clare is a wonderful human to be around, and watching her make magic with food is mesmerising. She nourished us at a retreat I recently attended in Greyton in South Africa and made sure each of our needs was met. This guide should not be taken as gospel. When it comes to food, it is my belief that there isn’t one magic formula or diet. But I hope it could kick-start a new relationship with yourself, which in turn, could heal far more than your cells.
Be a keen observer
Watching out for reactions to certain foods is the first step to building your “safe to eat” list. Going through an elimination diet is the fastest way for culprits to come forth, but you could also choose to only remove one food from your diet for three weeks, reintroduce it and watch for any reactions. It takes time and effort, but your gut will love you for it.
Trust your intuition
Simply ask before you eat. What does your body feel drawn to in that moment? Let it take the lead. The signs may be subtle. Sometimes it only takes a shuffle, sometimes it requires a full pirouette. Clare calls it a dance. It takes a little bit of practice but your body always answers when asked intentionally.
Have a ritual around preparing food, gathering around the table and eating it. This will help you absorb the nutrients better, not to mention the benefit you get from slowing down and intentionally nourishing yourself. This is pure self-love.
Have a beginner’s mind
Learn from your mistakes. When you wander off path (believe me you will), give yourself the gift of compassion and the courage of owning the imperfect nature of this transition. Forget about getting it right, forget about what others may think is best for you. Rather tap into this world of knowledge within and listen.
Treats are essential. Clare mentions how the body absorbs food differently depending on your intention. If you embrace that piece of beautiful organic chocolate, your body will absorb the nutrient with love instead of storing calories with guilt. Treats can also be a sensory reward instead of a sugary treat: lying down for 15 minutes, listening to a great piece of music or reading a favourite author. Food comes in many forms.
Learning to converse with your body is a beautiful journey, one that will last a lifelong. So be creative in the kitchen, be curious, experiment and have fun in process. Food is a wonderful way to celebrate ourselves and connect to our senses. Get your hands dirty and make a mess. If parenthood has taught me one thing, is that pretty much everything is washable.
Be gentle with the environment
And while you’re finding a new, gentler way to nourish yourself, beware of not depleting others. Think about where you source your ingredients, and who benefits from it? Are they locally grown, in season? For meat, is it ethically raised? Most local sources will have little to no packaging, and will often have much less harmful chemicals.
Your body is both a precious vessel and a quiet (yet insistent) messenger from your inner world. My hope is that this will give you a little food for thought when it comes to honouring this miraculous body of yours. May this be an invitation to gently tune in a little more everyday, honour the ways in which it allows you to pursue your purpose, brings you pleasure and houses truth, insights and wisdom.