The Covering Made of Food
I would like to begin this conversation by referencing a concept by the Eight Century Vedic scientist and philosopher, Adi Shankara. Shankara described the physical body as a temporary state; something that appears solid, but that in reality, is continuously transforming. He accentuated the interrelationship between the physical body and the food we ingest, positing that the majority of our cells are derived from what we eat. He actually referred to the physical body as annamaya kosha, meaning “the covering made of food”.
You Are What You Ingest
You will find similar discussions of nutrition and physical health throughout Greek philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine (as well as in many other cultural traditions, I am certain). By using the oft underappreciated skill of human observation, ancient cultures were able to accurately describe many aspects of human anatomy and physiology by understanding the symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment; including the food they ate.
It is interesting to compare the thoughts documented in ancient traditions, with our modern concept of epigenetics. One might expand upon the well-known adage of “you are what you eat” to not only include food, but literally everything we ingest.
As modern humans, what are we ingesting beyond just food?
Let’s look at a list that includes not only items our ancient ancestors were ingesting, but also some creations of the modern era that have become a ubiquitous part of our daily intake:
- Processed, nutrient-less edibles posing as food
- Air pollutants
- Water pollutants
- Artificial light
- New microbes (some beneficial/some harmful)
- Plastics & xenoestrogens
- Information (in endless quantity)
If Adi Shankara were alive today, he would have to amend his description of the physical body to “ the covering made of food & artificial, chemically-derived, questionably-safe substances”. Hmmmmmmm, it does not quite have the same ring to it, right?
In order to create and maintain a healthy body in today’s world it is not only necessary to pay attention to the food you consume, but it is equally important to minimize the toxicity you ingest.
Teaching people to maximize the amount of nourishment (physically, emotionally and spiritually) they take in every day, even amidst the endless stressors and hurried pace of a modern lifestyle, is a core value of the health coaching profession.
Food & Our Deeper Belief Systems
Most of us eat multiple times per day, and for many of us it is our favorite part of the day. But how much conscious choice goes into our food selection, and how much is driven by deeper subconscious desires?
How often do we listen to our bodies to tell us when to eat, versus looking to the clock? How often do we put food into our mouths to squelch our boredom or dull our pain, rather than to nourish and energize ourselves?
The psychology of eating is no doubt a complicated issue. Add to this the psychology of choice (or more often, of too many choices) and you have a number of factors influencing your daily food selection. Influential advertising, community influence/cultural heritage, religion/spirituality, education, desired body image, emotional health, financial status and food access are just a handful of elements dictating our food choices, and consequently influencing our overall health.
So what do our choices say about us? How do different ways of eating impact our health? What other issues in our lives are reflected in what we put on our plates?
Have you ever heard the expression “how you do one thing is how you do everything”? I feel this really resonates with the food conversation, as people who take the time to seek out and nourish themselves with the healthiest of foods, are also going to be the ones who prioritize other forms of self-care and well-being in their lives; this is where they will unhesitatingly spend their time and money.
The reverse is also true. People who do not prioritize their nutrition, who cannot afford quality food or who have little access to fresh produce will find that they also struggle with other aspects of their health. Lack of nutrition will seep into other areas of their lives, affecting their mood, their behavior, their energy levels, their motivations, their emotional health and their sense of well-being.
This is particularly true in an urban environment where not only do the majority of people rely on others to grow and prepare their food, but where financial status, targeted advertising and food accessibility determine (at least partially) who lives a healthy, satisfying life and who does not.
The issue of food justice is one about which I am incredibly passionate, and it is far too important to be glazed over in such a casual way. I only bring it up here to highlight how powerfully the quality of our food contributes to the quality of our lives.
Socioeconomic status is not the only issue that determines the manner in which a person eats. There all manner of eating disorders, some clinical and some casual: over-eating, binge-eating, under-eating, anorexia, bulimia and the newly introduced orthorexia (an excessive preoccupation with eating “healthy” food). There is also an epidemic of chronic digestive and malabsorption issues, various allergies and sensitivities, and an unwavering trend of food cravings.
The common thread among all the above eating styles is that they are external manifestations of a deeper emotional and/or psychological issue; or at the very least, they all have an emotional component with which to contend. More to the point, these examples highlight that simply changing someone’s diet may not be enough to change that person’s health or sense of well-being.
Coaches who have studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition are trained in over 100 dietary theories, often having experimented on ourselves throughout our course of study. We differentiate ourselves from nutritionists and registered dietitians, in that we are not focused on macronutrients and calorie intake alone; we know the food you are eating is just a small portion of the puzzle.
We realize there is not one way to feed a human, thus emphasizing each client’s bio-individuality (e.g. one person’s food is another person’s poison; what helps one person lose a ton of weight might cause another to gain). We also realize that there are countless ways in which a human finds nourishment; much of that coming from outside the food category entirely.
A real-life example of this might be a person who eats 2-3 servings of broccoli every day, but who is in an abusive relationship. Would you consider that person to be healthy? This person might be strict about his/her diet as a way to elicit some level of control. However, in this case, no amount of broccoli is going to improve the health of this individual, until the emotional aspects are addressed.
Health coaching uses the conversation around food as an entry point into discussing deeper beliefs at play in your decision-making.
- Why are you eating what you’re eating?
- Are you choosing foods that fill a gaping void in another area of your life?
- How’s your sense of community? Are you loved? Supported?
- Are you happy in your relationship? Happy in your career?
- What is your relationship with god? With the universe? With mortality?
- If you are obsessed with being healthy, what is your goal? Why do you want to be healthy?
The answers to these questions play an enormous role in what shows up on your plate.
Health coaches are an invaluable addition to the modern health care paradigm, as they help people discover the root causes of their issues. They help to identify detrimental patterns and teach skills for changing those patterns. They help to define your goals and hold you accountable for reaching those goals.
When you work with a health coach, you are enrolling in a program. You are committing to the process of changing your life for the better and declaring that you choose to prioritize your health (emotional and physical) above all else. You are investing in a system of improvement with the understanding that your own life, and the lives of those around you, will drastically improve.
People have a tendency to focus on gathering information. They want to know more and more about how to be healthy, yet this obsessive collecting of data often does not get put into practice. Health coaches help make that connection. Many people know exactly what they need to do to be healthy, they just do not know how to implement it. Health coaches are the how.
Coaches help to motivate behavioral shifts by encouraging consistent action along a desired path. They create a safe space for self-discovery, so that clients can gain awareness into their own motivations and behavioral choices. They listen actively and love unconditionally, while still keeping you firmly on track. They will not only support you with your immediate goals, but will help you to stretch your concept of what is possible for you in your life, far beyond anything you could have ever imagined.
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