March is National Nutrition Month! Take a look into my world of becoming an RD…
One of my favorite classes I am taking this semester is Nutritional Counseling. It is challenging and uncomfortable, yet generously rewarding. I never thought I would be an awkward counselor, but I was wrong. The first role play we had to do in class was petrifying…all of a sudden I just didn’t know what to ask or how to act. I have spent years talking to patients in a hospital through my various volunteer and training experiences, but this was different.
Fast forward just four weeks and I’m already much more comfortable doing these mock sessions and I have even starting counseling several of my own clients for school and work.
In most psychology, social work, or counseling masters programs, self-reflection is required. This particular class has had me dig deep into who I am, how food as affected my life and relationships, and how food impacts my emotions. All because knowing how food personally affects me will help the ‘nutrition counselor’ in me know the lens through which I will view my patients.
It’s not that a negative feeling or experience with food will negatively impact my ability as a counselor, but getting in touch with any obstacles that may exist increase my awareness of the filter through which I am evaluating my clients.
Food is deeply emotional. Food is associated with joy and sadness, anger and excitement, stress-inducing and calming situations. We all have our own memories with food, which is why my professor had my class write on the meaning of food.
Here was my assignment:
What emotional meaning does food have for you? How does it present a challenge? How has it been used in your life? Do you have any one particularly emotionally charged memory of food from childhood? How does your relationship with food reflect your personality, character structure or relationships?
Since it’s National Nutrition Month, I wanted to share what I wrote with you. I encourage you to “Bite Into a Healthy Lifestyle,” but understanding your interaction with food is just as important. I often find writing cathartic, so it was no surprise [to me] that when I sat down to write my assignment, insight and experiences poured out.
Here’s what I had to say:
Food has played such a significant part in my life, I’m surprised it took me so long to realize that nutrition is the perfect career for me. When I think about the meaning of food in my upbringing and shaping of who I am as a person, a few words come to mind: guarded, tradition, and comfort.
Being guarded about food is the easiest to explain because it is based in science. At first, I thought the word might be restrictive, but I don’t think that properly encompasses my emotional connection to food. I don’t feel restricted from eating certain things, I feel like I guard my body from certain foods that will make me sick.
When I was just shy of two years old, I ate a cookie that put my body on alert. I don’t remember the incident, but I’ve been told I was at a Chanukah party with my cousins, I ate a cookie, and broke out in severe hives. Luckily, my uncle is a pediatrician, gave me benedryl, and I was OK. My parents took me to an allergist soon after and we learned I am deathly allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. Then, when I was about seven years old, I ate a pretzel at the beach one day. This, I remember. I started getting extremely itchy and my mom took me back to the allergist. I found out that I am also allergic to sesame seeds.
For as long as I can remember, I have had to be guarded about my food allergies. Part of me thinks this is why I don’t like dining out as much as my peers. I go on alert, like I’m a watch dog for my body’s immune system. I was extremely lucky that my mom made having allergies a seamless part of my life. She drilled into my head, “If you can’t read it, you can’t eat it.”
For whatever reason, a few months ago I asked my mom how she explained my food allergies to me when I was so young. I don’t remember her teaching me about my food allergies and it was always a normal part of my life. She told me that as soon as I started talking or she thought I could understand, she told me that some foods can “hurt me.” As I got older, she explained it in more detail and I was able to take charge of my own allergies.
Now that I am an adult, I don’t think about the role my allergies have played in my entire life too much, but upon reflection, I have realized that when it comes to food, I have a hard time trusting others. In every aspect of my life I find myself a very trusting person — until proven wrong — but when it comes to food I lack trust. Maybe its because there have been times that those closest to me, the ones who are supposed to look out for me, have offered me foods I cannot eat. I’ve been smart enough to shrug it off, but it’s no wonder I have my guard up around one of the simplest necessities we need to live.
As I have gotten older and been in relationships, my lack of trust associated with food has caused conflict at times. One ex-boyfriend bought me gourmet chocolates, telling me he triple checked with the store about my allergies (and I trust that he did). The box even had an ingredient label I could read myself, but I still did not feel comfortable eating the chocolates, which he, naturally, took as offensive.
While my parents never instilled significant fear in me about my allergies, they have always made sure I am prepared. Before I went off to college, my mom and grandma separately told me about people who kissed other people who unknowingly had eaten peanuts and how they were rushed to the hospital. Talk about embarrassing. While this is a part of growing up, it was most certainly awkward!
I think one of the scariest experiences of my life could have to do with food. Do you know those restaurants that are pitch black so you cannot see your food that boast a heightened dining experience because you can really taste the nuances of your food? I examine my food every time I dine out. I don’t eat dessert out for this reason (hence the chocolate story), and I incessantly ask waiters and waitresses to double check about my allergies. I don’t think I would be able to eat at a restaurant without looking at my food. And I completely recognize this sounds crazy to someone without food allergies. Although my food allergies have given me a handful of insecurities about food, it is largely heightened in relation to the foods that I am allergic to, not all food.
I recognize I am lucky that I know no different in my life. I hear stories of people who develop allergies later in life and their eating habits are turned upside down. As Lady Gaga would say, I was “born this way,” there’s nothing I can do to change it. I am comfortable being vocal about my allergies, but I notice that sometimes others are uncomfortable about my allergies. It still surprises me that people don’t know others with allergies.
Completely separate, tradition is also a huge part of my food world. I am not a particularly religious person, but I have grown accustomed to celebrating each Jewish holiday a certain way, that often relates to food. At Rosh HaShanah there will always be homemade applesauce on the table, every Chanukah we [my family] make spiced ginger cookies, each Purim I receive a care package from my mom with homemade hamantashen. These homemade comforts are some of my most treasured memories with food. Although it seems silly to put on paper, I often identify holidays not with the Jewish readings or story, but with family time and togetherness and the food that will be present at each holiday. It is somewhat comforting to know that I will one day carry on these food traditions with my own family.
I have also received love through food. Mommoy (my grandmother) would always, without hesitation, have five of my favorite foods in her house if I was coming over. She always made me meatballs and spaghetti or chicken cutlets, had pears, sprinkle cookies, mandarin oranges, and homemade jam ready for me. I don’t eat meat anymore, but I still find comfort in these foods when I walk into her house and smell the familiar scents. I don’t eat jam often, but whenever I do I think of the days spent each year making jam, from scratch, in the kitchen with Mommoy, Pop and my cousins. Time spent at my grandparents are still some of the best times of my life and I have to think that Mommoy and Pop having the specific foods that each of their grandchildren loved had the tiniest something to do with it.
Studying nutrition has given me a unique perspective on food. I see the power it has in peoples lives and the power that it holds in my own life. I think my relationship with food has definitely gotten healthier as I’ve learned more about the power of nutrients and not just calories. Given the culture that we live in, and my career of choice, I think I will always think of food in terms of dieting and health, but I also recognize the emotional connection to food that has its own powerful role in everyones lives.
Even if you don’t have a career surrounded by food and nutrition, I encourage you to be honest with yourself about your relationship with food and even jot down a few notes about it. Do you head directly to the potato chips when you’re upset? Does the smell of turkey make you cringe from not-so-peaceful family Thanksgiving dinners growing up? Did you have the same cake every birthday and the look of it in the bakery gives you similar joy?
Being mindful of what we eat, why we eat, and how we eat are all significant aspects of a healthy relationship with food.