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The end of all I am and all I was: Grief, loss and food!

The End of All I Am, & All I WasWhat do adopting a new diet, culture, identity and grief have to do with one another?

Good Grief!

Grief: The Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries define grief as deep sorrow, especially relating to the death of someone.

While this definition is adequate, it is incomplete. Grief is in fact the sense sadness and mourning associated with any kind of loss; loss of a loved one, loss of a cherished object, or loss of context or habit.

Anytime we choose to adopt a new set of practices, we must give up old ones. That can result in grief. There are few habits that evoke this type of grief more poignantly than our dietary habits. When we choose to change how we eat, we give up more than health issues and unwanted fat. We give up foods and practices that have shaped our identity, our histories and our culture.

Grief is a natural by-product of the losses we face when we make changes. For some, the inability to recognize the loss, process it and bridge the gap between old and new practices is the greatest barrier preventing them from sustaining change over time.

[bctt tweet=”Grief is a natural by-product of the losses we face when we make changes. Ignore the grief and risk failing to change.”]

I am what I eat, and so are you!

Back in May of 2009 I made my first foray into the world of Paleo.  My plan was to adopt it for a month, get some post-baby results and go back to my “everything in moderation, Mediterranean-based” way of eating. To my great surprise and chagrin Paleo worked wonders. Not only did I lose the baby weight, I felt better, performed better at the gym, had more sex drive, my rosacea was finally abating, and I had more overall energy and mental clarity. Somewhere deep inside of me this success crushed me!

p_g10aevxxaat0337Scene one: One of my earliest memories is working with my father on my fifth birthday cake; it was a two tiered white and blue frosted chocolate beauty. I remember the pride and joy I felt in making and eventually decorating my big girl cake. The tradition was upheld for two more decades during which my father and I were officially in charge of making all the family’s birthday cakes. The honor and responsibility eventually extended to any other significant celebration such as Christmas where we would prepare candies, cookies and other delectable wonders pulled from the Wall family annals of culinary legacy.

Scene two: We are in Italy with my mother’s side of the family (aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) sitting around the large kitchen table eating. Although most of what we ate was vegetables and seafood there is my nonna’s homemade pasta made daily, biscotti, taralli, and jam cookies served at breakfast, there were also neighbors’ focaccia, and panzerotti (cheese fritters), and gelato purchased on the piazza most evenings. By age eight I began to shadow my grandmother while others napped to learn how to make some of these foods and keep our Italian legacy going. I have mastered her tomato sauce, her eggplant parmigiana and make gnocchi that melts in your mouth.

Scene three: I am 8 or 9 standing outside of my house in France, I have set up a table and am selling hot coffee and crepes on a cold morning. I also run a restaurant business out of my kitchen, the neighborhood kids are my customers. By age 13 I have a thriving cookie business that I run at school. Twice a week a friend and I take orders, bake cookies (sometimes upward of 200) and sell them to students. We pay the hall monitors off with free cookies. My passion for cooking these foods and the satisfaction I feel from my success leads to hours during my teen years spent perfecting recipes for pie, soufflé, cookies crumble, crème brulée and bread.

I could continue like this for another 50 scenes. The fact is, throughout my life cooking and in particular baking has been a prominent part of my identity. Food has defined my culture (American while living in France, French once I moved to the States, and always Italian in the background). It has been part of how I define myself as successful and competent (both because of my ability to make tasty treats, but also because of the entrepreneurial side that developed early), and it is linked in my mind with family bonding, inter-generational connections and love.

So although I should have been elated to have found the closest thing to a magic bullet for all my post-partum woes, I was instead anxious, reluctant and sad..

Don’t forget to who you are:

[bctt tweet=”Whether with food or other behaviors, we must acknowledge that what we do is intimately related to who we are, and how we define ourselves.” via=”no”]

Many people, don’t understand how important these associations to food can be. They are taken unaware by then sense of loss and grief that accompanies change.  Whether with food or other behaviors, we must acknowledge that what we do is intimately related to who we are, and how we define ourselves.

Every culture has practices, rituals and rites that surround food and eating as a community. Changing how you eat can mean giving-up a part of your identity, unless you learn to define and highlight that culture in new ways. The problem is that although these “new ways” might be meaningful and evocative,few things pack the same emotional punch as food.fcade2_cbba39fd5f8947689b3db11c3f436580.jpg_srb_p_660_441_75_22_0.50_1.20_0It comes down to neurochemistry: ingesting foods triggers responses in our brain at the level of our pleasure centers. The smell or thought of a favorite food can powerfully trigger our limbic centers, hippocampus and amygdala working both to evoke positive emotions and memory.

And it’ not just about eating the food, it’s about making it too. As we eschew certain foods, we give up the practice of making them. We give up the passing of tradition, history and memories through culinary rites. Not partaking in these rituals can lead to a sense of isolation, not belonging or even alienation by members of our cultural groups.

It’s more than food:

Understanding and addressing this loss is paramount if you want to make a sustainable shift in how you eat. By acknowledging the various meanings and values food has for, you can then recapture the lost memories; you can redefine your culture through other salient factors such as language, art, music, craft or storytelling. If you fail to make that connection in a new way, you risk returning to food to fill the gap, and mend the loss.

Health Unplugged 2014- Quite a success!Health Unplugged 2014- Quite a success!

There is a clear understanding in the Paleo world of the importance of culture. After all, we have created the Paleo community. We gather together, we feast, we redefine ourselves through shared values and practices. We use Paleo as a label – “I am Paleo or Primal,” not simply “I eat Paleo or Primal.” Creating this community is central to promoting and disseminating this information, but it goes beyond that. We have extended a nutritional style to a LIFE-style. We gather and congregate at large events, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people so we can stand together as a community with a similar culture.

Doing this allows us to fill the loss we might have experienced in the early stages of adopting Paleo practices. We do not, however shed our old identities or cultures, we simply amend them, which is why it is so important to learn how to relate back to them in ways other than food.

PaleofxWhen adopting any new set of practices, but especially dietary ones, joining a community and engaging with others who also follow your new lifestyle is paramount. Allowing yourselves to be surrounded by others who on some level share your values, others in whose practices you can recognize yourself, increases your chance of success. It is not simply about having access to recipes, how-tos and sympathetic souls who get how hard the first 10 days of a Whole30 are. It is about being able to create a collective set of practices and values; it is about amending your cultures and identities to incorporate this new lifestyle.

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.

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