Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Veg Origins: My Story (Part II)

My interests in the nutritional side of life did not originate with the previously cited documentaries and books. It actually began around 4 years ago in college (interestingly around the same time that my health started to go awry, even though I did not see then the connection between disease and diet the way I do now).

Around that time I took an introductory nutrition course and wrote an article for my college’s newspaper titled “Artificial Flavorings and Christian Responsibility.” I was just getting my first inklings, but I was definitely beginning to notice that our negligence about food and bodily stewardship was probably not a gray area for the Lord who made our bodies and intended to use them to effect His will on earth. 

In fact I was realizing, to my own shame and conviction, that food certainly wasn’t a gray area for us as His people, either… instead, it was more of a sacrosanct yet unaddressed, inconspicuous and yet fiercely guarded possession. I found that we do feel strongly about food, and that we don’t tend to realize how much we let it dominate our will and emotions until someone suggests we disrupt the status quo.

The social reasons for our problems with food are complex. We are in a unique situation as members of an affluent society to have almost limitless access to food and to still be some of the unhealthiest people in the world. Overfed and undernourished, despite our excessive calorie consumption, the average American walks this earth malnourished day after day. We eat what’s available, tasty, and culturally expected. We don't tend to research the supposed health or un-health of our food choices (ignorant bliss) and end up subsisting on empty calories with a touch of humor and a suppressed conscience. (Trust me, once you take the research plunge you will realize that you can’t un-know what you know. Learning why certain foods have certain effects on your body will be the single greatest motivator for dietary change. Knowledge = incentive).

And we all know the story from there: we become overweight, harassed by viruses, depressed, exhausted, dependent on pharmaceuticals, diagnosed with chronic illnesses, and on and on, and somehow God’s sovereignty is to blame for cosmic negligence and oversight. “Why did you let this happen to me?” we ask God in the face of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, yes, even cancer, and we don’t stop to think the answer to that questions might be the same if we asked “Why did you let me get hit by a car?” when we rushed carelessly into traffic.

I don’t know why we compartmentalize issues of stewardship, cause-and-effect, and personal responsibility when it comes to our lives, but we do. We’re very clever at it. Some things we just toss into God’s jurisdiction, like maintaining human health regardless of human lifestyle, and then continue our habits without confronting whether or not we have more agency in issues of weight, mood, and disease than we'd like to admit. Because once we admit fault, we have to do something about it, right? And I'll admit, that is a scary prospect.

And what’s even harder is that, for many of us, the ugly visible effects of dietary negligence aren’t yet apparent. We’re still young, skinny, disease-free, and happy, or so it seems. And so the incentive to steward our bodies is warded off by a false, albeit temporary, sense of invincibility. Yet “the absence of disease is not an indication of health” and just because our bodies aren’t bearing the marks of poor food choices at the moment, that doesn’t mean our heart attitude toward food is still reflective of God’s Lordship over our lives.

The issue of food is hard. I know this because even when I explain to people how drastically I've been modifying my eating habits (which, trust me, is something I never would have imagined myself doing a year ago!), everything from questions, shock, condolences, and proclamations like “I’m not going to stop eating meat!” unite to confirm to me that we are deeply committed to our food comforts and convinced that they are necessary for thrice-daily happiness. It seems extreme to claim that we, even we Christians, are somehow idolizing food or giving it improper control over our lives. We may feel that as long as we aren’t posting pictures of chocolate around our cubicles, drooling over images of Big Mac’s on the screen, or raising our hands in holy hallelujahs for the coming ice cream truck, we’re in the clear.

And I see that people on the other side of the food “war” get it very wrong, too. They easily fall into the trap of active idolatry: their health food, their animal ethics, and/or their bodies are their gods and they wrap their identities up in their dizzying categorizations (vegan, nutritarian, pesco/pollo/ovo/lacto-vegetarian, raw foodist, fruitarian, ad infinitum)… as if all this micro-labeling sets them apart from the rest of us in some other-worldly way. I know that people devoted to eating for health can very easily focus undue energy, money, and attention on a body that’s going to “pop off” someday anyway.  I know this because as I explore these issues for myself and truly stand amazed at the positive results, I feel the need to pray against the pull of misplaced priorities that I experience on a daily basis.

But when we use phrases like “I will never give up sugar!” or “I couldn’t possibly live without dairy!” or “But it tastes good! I don’t care!” or “We all have to die from something! Pass the butter!” flags should begin to wave in our minds. I’ve said those “I could never give up x,y,z” phrases; I’ve felt that irrational, gut-punch feeling as I quickly jump on the defensive lest someone guilt me out of a most cherished food-love. I know that I'm quite inclined to feel that way about chocolate (but thankfully God had mercy on me and ensured that raw cacao should be an antioxidant superfood)!

But on a serious note, I have felt convicted about such bold food claims and have tried to watch my phrasing because of what it indicates might be happening at a heart-level. You see, I'm reminded that the only thing I should refuse to forfeit or swear I couldn’t live without is my relationship with God. I know we use these exaggerative statements all the time (“I’m STARVING”… Oh, are you?), but I believe these phrases are more telling that we’d like to admit. We feel that certain foods are inalienable sources of happiness, and if we feel that way, perhaps we need to evaluate if God’s control is touching this far-reaching area of our lives.
And all these considerations and convictions are not meant to condemn - it doesn't matter where you are in the process. (Remember, I began this journey four years ago, then regressed to some of my typical junk-food-dabbling ways again, and then ended up here: actually considering a lifelong commitment to a radical way of eating!) What matters is that we acknowledge that these issues have physical and spiritual relevance and simply begin taking greater ownership of them. It can start with something small today! Buy a type of fruit you've never tried before. Opt for some carrots and hummus instead of chips. Your body will exclaim, "That's what I've been waiting for!" and will help you take it from there. :)

Part I Here

Part III Here

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