It's been 13 years almost exactly since I last traveled internationally. In that time my relationship with food has run the gamut - vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, oil-free...pleasure free! A small handful of foods were always off limits, forbidden, or "scary" depending on the current dietary list of rules that I was following. While many will agree that this sounds like a miserable edible existence, most will also recognize this scenario to be similar to the relationship with food in their own life. Aside from working with counselors and dietitian nutritionist to help normalize a relationship to food, perhaps an even more dramatic approach can support the healing process - travel, international travel.
When traveling internationally, we are at the mercy of the local gastronomy. Even going to a grocery store to hopefully find familiar, safe foods can prove limiting - especially if there is a language barrier, inhibiting the reading of food labels. While many international cultures might promote "healthy foods" in their labeling, the extent to which labeling foods under specific diets is not pervasive as in the US.
International travel begs us to be vulnerable with our food choices, open with our minds and palates, while at the same time tuning in to what foods serve our bodies and provide the most pleasure. For example, if you eat a raw piece of fruit thinking it a healthy choice by most dietary "rules," you may find yourself doubled over with stomach gramps and diarrhea moments later due to foreign bacteria on the fruit, unacceptable to your body's own gastrointestinal culture. On the other hand, you may find only white, refined bread available for toast in the morning, a sandwich in the afternoon, and pasta in the evening. Suddenly your only nourishment option is an ingredient deemed evil by most US lists of dietary rules. This was my recent experience on a trip to the Patagonia Region in South America.
While staying at a first class hotel complete with guided hiking excursions, organic local foods, English menus and wait staff, a seemingly perfect "clean eating" scenario, I was given a list of sandwiches to choose from for a guided day-long trek. Having been mostly gluten-free for the past 10+ years, the food police in my head kicked into high gear..."if you eat that you'll be miserable, so tired and bloated you won't be able to finish the trek!" Turning down the volume on their rants, I chose a hummus sandwich with veggies since I was craving more fresh produce. The next morning, when I was given my lunch sack, I found a six-inch doughy white sandwich with very little hummus or veggies. The food police started shouting again, "yikes, what are you going to eat...you can't eat that!" Next came the voice of the restrictor in my head, left over from my anorexic days. "Oh, no problem, there's an apple and some trail mix. You'll be fine for the 10 mile hike with nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain. You've run marathons on less food!"
Fast forward nearly five hours and five miles of climbing later and I was starving! The trail mix and apple were not going to cut it. So, in the presence of a gorgeous mountain view over a pristine glacier lake, surrounded by new hiking friends, I unwrapped the doughy, white, smashed, and slightly soggy sandwich. Making a choice out of self care rather than self control and honoring my hunger I took a bite and then another all the while thinking, "this is the most white-ness I've eaten in probably more than a decade." "Will my body even know what to do with it?" I pushed the self-doubt aside the best I could, trying to pay attention to the where I was and who I was with. After finishing the sandwich, I thought for a moment on what I had just experienced. I realized that I really don't like squished, white bread not because of its refined gluten-filled stature deemed "unclean for consumption" by diet-centered rules, but because, genuinely it's not my thing. I remembered back to school lunches in high school which included an artisan bagel sandwich and remembered why I liked those so much more - they didn't get soggy and held up in a backpack!
With the clouds finally lifting enough off the tops of the peaks we snapped a few more photos and started to pack up for the hike down. Grateful for the sight I was seeing of some of the most famous mountains in the world, Torres del Paine, and grateful for the company I was in, all the dietary rules just didn't seem to apply. Choosing nourishment from the whole experience, even the less desirable food allowed me to relish in the moment rather than being physically, mentally, and emotionally drained by hunger. Becoming an intuitive eater, similar to becoming comfortable with international travel requires patience, vulnerability, trust, gratitude, and compassion - for yourself and the cultures you encounter.
Happy Safe and Delicious Travels!