The Importance of Food + Culture

Food is a fascinating topic to me. But it wasn’t always a fond relationship. I once felt deep shame around my love for food.  This was because I was incredibly steeped into the toxic wellness culture that Hannah Craig and I spoke about. I spent most of my teenage years hyper-focused on food and exercise. In many ways, I matched the title of orthorexia . While I am not fond of self-prescribed medical aliments, I certainly had an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, extreme exercising, eating restrictions, and nutrition sciences. My thoughts constantly centered around food.

Out of fear of ‘gaining weight’, I exercised control over my food, which led to feelings of isolation and backlashes of binging. I couldn’t understand how some people easily controlled their eating habits and weight. Until I realized that they didn’t. Other people simply approached food differently than I did. These approaches ranged from food being an insignificant part of their days to being the most important aspect.  Their relationships with food were taught, most often from their family, culture, and environment.

Sydney Callaway is a girl in a blue shirt sitting in her garden with a house in the background and talking about food and culture

My Background

In my family, food was insignificant. No one struggled with weight problems, and no one was particularly concerned about healthy eating. But I was different, I was a chubby child who placed a larger emphasis on food. My family didn’t really know how to react to this. And because we lacked a governing culture around food, no one could step in and properly ‘teach me how to eat.’ As I got older, I began to take cues from my surroundings on eating and exercising.

San Diego Wellness + Food Culture

Unfortunately, in my home town of San Diego, this was an obsessive exercise and health food culture. I fell into this trap at around age twelve and began spending every spare second either exercising or preparing food. This quickly led to disordered eating, bulimia, and compulsive exercising. My parents noticed the bulimia and tried to step in to help me. The reality was that they didn’t know how to help. Luckily, I was self-aware enough to know that I needed to change. I knew the core issues were my mental state and the shame I felt, but I had no idea how to fix this. Slowly, I stopped the binging and purging cycles, but in reality, it took me five years to make a full recovery. All the while, I was micromanaging my food and exhausting myself with intense exercise.

From the outside, I fit right in with the San Diego lifestyle. On the inside, it was toxic, exhausting, and isolating. 

sydney is a girl that is doing yoga while in a red striped shirt and black pants
Yoga + Meditation

Yoga and meditation were tools that helped me recognize and work on my own toxic thought patterns. I began yoga as most Westerners do, attending a class because I heard it was good for me and thought it was all about exercise. Incrementally, I recognized that there was something in yoga that was beyond the physical routine. I was too naïve to really grasp what this was, but I grew more and more particular about the classes I attended. Despite still seeking intense activity and control in my daily life, I saw yoga as a refugee from my own intensity. It brought me peace and connection.

French Food Culture

Yoga planted the seed of a different mindset, but the French taught me how to grow and practice it. As a compulsively healthy eater, I became curious about how other people and cultures could eat ‘bad foods’, like bread and sweets, without being fat. At this time, all I ever cared about was my weight. To know that there is an entire culture that had circumvented my obsession while easily maintaining thin bodies seemed like magic to me. I found myself studying the language as a way to learn more about the French.

this is a ham sandwich that is held up in front of the tour eiffel

Then at age 17, I spent a month in Paris at a language school. This was when my world truly changed. I saw first-hand the central focus that food took in French culture. And, just like my research had claimed, these French people were beautiful, thin, and free. No night-time runners, no diet ads, and no gyms. Never once did I hear someone talk about their ‘new diet’– though they talked about food relentlessly. They approached food with love, sensuality, and respect. Ready for a change, I delved into this mentality and lifestyle. For one month, I ate bread, drank wine, and walked like a Parisian in the hopes that their magic would rub off onto me.

Lost In Translation

It did. I had never been calmer, happier, and thinner in my life. And with this successful experiment behind me, I returned to San Diego perplexed. Why in the world were so many people around me obsessed with this ‘clean eating’? Did they enjoy spending hours a day in the gym? Or did they not know that there was another way? That’s when I realized there was no culture teaching us a different way in San Diego. This obsessive wellness ideology was our culture, and it taught us about food through ‘science’ and ‘modern thought’. It was a new, shiny ideology that was built on scientific research. So, of course, it was better than what a French family or Italien grandma could teach us about food. Right?  

food culture is seen here by proper cooking of beets and gnocchi in the classic french style

Nutritionism

Wrong. We believe that modern thought can teach us more about food because it is backed by science. Yet most of this research contradicts itself. Nutrition (and exercise science) is one of the most imprecise sciences there are, with its object of study being difficult to define, measure, and standardize, among other complications.

Each year we learn something earth-shattering about the human body. One year it is a psychological understanding, like how the placebo effect may be causing your ‘gluten intolerance’. The next year it is the gut microbiome, an invisible dictator of metabolism and caloric absorption which is altering the ways we previously understood health . We have turned our noses up to culture and embraced a science ideology to teach us how to eat. And how is this working for us? Well, we have never been better educated on nutrition; and we have never been sicker, fatter, and more health-obsessed. 

“In Defense Of Food”

I think Michael Pollan does a wonderful job of dissecting the current misinformation around food. He lays out myths around eating, as well as the basic eating habits we all should adopt. In his book “In Defense Of Food“, he breaks down some common food myths.

an up close shot of a french pastry which is typical of their food culture

Top 4 Food Myths:

1.”Food is a delivery vehicle for nutrients.”

This is the idea that food represents a single nutrient like protein or fiber–and there are desirable nutrients and undesirable ones. It turns eating into a science experiment. It wholly assumes that we understand metabolism and bodily functions to the degree that we can isolate for the desired nutrients. Then it assumes that the remaining nutrients are either unnecessary or unwanted. These undesirable nutrients shift with the trend. It was fat, now it’s carbs, what’s next? Another issue is that it assumes we only eat for nutrients– more on this later.

2. “We need experts to tell us how to eat.”

Really, what did we do before apples had nutrition labels and food-scientists invented quest bars? Well, we had real food. And we had culture. Culture has long been the dictator in eating habits, and from the looks of it, it has done a very good job of carrying the human race this far.

3. “The whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.”

There are many reasons we eat. Food preparation and consumption have traditionally been the central focuses of the day. Families and communities gathered around food to celebrate and share. The social fabric of human life has primarily been built upon food, without one nutritionist at the table. And this focus on food is beautiful, worthy of embracing and utilizing. Health is a small sliver of why we eat. 

4. “There are evil foods and good foods.”

Again, food is food. I think a big factor in this concept is that hyper-processed foods are more food-like products than actually food. Modern science has blurred the lines between what is food and what is edible (still a loose application of the word). Rather than vilifying these processed foods and putting shame onto people that eat them (which invariably has been all of us), we should acknowledge their addictive, and sometimes yummy, elements. Then, we should teach love and respect for food. We should cultivate a strong appreciation for food and encourage a resurgence towards an accessible and comprehensible food culture.

food culture can also be found in gardening like this arugula plant shows

Shifting our focus away from a narrative of ‘invisible, good and evil nutrients’ is what our goal should be. Eating should be enjoyable, unifying, and simple.  No one needs a science degree to understand food. And no one needs fancy equipment or training. Nutrition is interesting information, but it will not teach you how to eat or how to enjoy eating. Culture will. 

The Final Note On Food + Culture

Wellness culture isolates food, and exercise, from its natural state. It teaches us that we cannot trust the wisdom of our bodies, culture, and environment to make food choices. And it is understandable how this started– we took food out of its natural state and produced food-like products that led to a decline in human health. But the solution is not a further reduction of food. It’s a re-unification to a system that was never broken. Food is the central focus of most cultures. It is celebrated, discussed, and utilized as a way to bring people together and express love, history, and beyond. Food comes with an extensive heritage of eating habits, preparation, and philosophy. All of this is practiced and preached, handed down from generation to generation. Food is one of the oldest, most reformed practices we have, infused with both art and science.

a wooden table set with a plate of peppers and tomatoes with a pablo neruda book on the side

American families do have food traditions– but these traditions come from various cultures, and there is no unifying food culture in our social fabric.

And our food culture varies drastically from household to household. It is not a given that it even exists within families. My family lacked a food culture. And it was something that I needed and craved. Thankfully, my journey has led me to love food and appreciate it on a global level. I use it to bond with new friends, explore cultures, and connect to history. And I have learned to let go– let go of controlling my meals and instead adopting guiding principles that enable me to celebrate real food. Through studying the unspoken rules of culture, I have found freedom in its various iterations and structures. I still think about food a lot– but almost always in a positive light and with deep fascination. If I find my thought patterns stumbling, I quickly redirect my course because I never want to waste my headspace absorbed in such unnecessary, negative emotion. I wasted years in this state– and it is time I can never get back. It is a dream of mine that no one else wastes another minute of their time in such a toxic state, either.

a woman and her face

If you struggle with food, I encourage you to try pairing food with family and culture. Find family members or friends that have a strong upbringing around food and ‘live in their shoes’. Share, ‘try on’, or exchange cultural traditions around food. Even if you do not struggle with food, but see it as insignificant, it is worth discovering the multitude of ways food can bring connection into your life. And truly, what is healthier for us than connection?

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