French fries and chicken nuggets. I loved eating these two foods growing up. They were tasty, texture friendly for children and full of happy-inducing carbohydrates. The crunchy outside and soft inside of potatoes still to this day, provide immense comfort after a long day at work, a workout or when I’m sad and want to feel better (I learned recently that not all emotional eating is bad).
Culinary Choices of my Childhood
Junk food was almost a nightly treat when I was growing up. Feeling clean after a bath and hunkering down to watch cartoons with my siblings, I madly dipped these chunks of goodness into ketchup. It was a highlight of my childhood.
In addition to western food, we also ate Middle-Eastern and Filipino food at home. There are too many dishes to name. But, for the sake of simplicity, fried eggs, khubos (thin pita bread) with zaatar (savoury dried herbs), and pandesal (Filipino sweet bread) with cheese are a few meals that come to mind. There was a variety of flavours in my childhood household. To this day, food experimentation is still a huge part of how my family and I spend time together–the one common ground we all have.
Changing Nutrition & a Medical Diagnosis
When many of us live at home as kids, the majority of our nutritional choices are made by our caregivers. That goes out the window when you’re on your own. When I moved to North America in my teens, I lived in the dorms at the university. All of a sudden my diet changed. At the food court, no food police showed up when I grabbed two chocolate chunk cookies and a half litre of chocolate milk for breakfast. The diet was delicious and quick. The food court literally became a candy store.
I didn’t think about having veggies and protein for dinner, oftentimes opting just for a large serving of fries. Even subs seemed too healthy for me, and I rebelled with the abandon my meal plan afforded me. I could get whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was magical.
I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in my late teens but never took it seriously until my late thirties. Diet is important for managing PCOS and for the longest time, I was eating food that made my symptoms worse, namely lots of sugar and high-refined carbs.
As many of us get older, we of course wise up and start thinking about our health. So I adopted a PCOS-friendly diet consisting of fats, proteins and lots of vegetables.
For over a year, my eating was spot on. I am resistant to change and once I figured out what I needed to eat to ‘stay compliant’ as the PCOS community phrases, it was easy for me to eat the same things. I was on auto-pilot when I went to the supermarket (cauliflower or broccoli, beef or chicken, and some butter or avocado). My symptoms improved.
But after a while, like the fate of many dieters, I fell off the wagon. I regained weight and then some more.
The Prevalence of a Westernized Diet
With my PCOS restrictions, almost everything seemed to be off-limits. It got to a point where all I was eating were avocados, boiled eggs and olives for breakfast for weeks. To top it off, since moderation wasn’t one of my mantras, I was obsessed with exercise. I worked out at least six days a week for at least an hour a day; with many rigorous sessions triggering the release of the cortisol stress hormone which is hard on the body. You can see why it was inevitable I binged.
On closer inspection, I noticed many of the PCOS-friendly recipes from blogs and websites catered more to North American or North Americanized tastes (steak and eggs with Worcester sauce anyone?). While I loved these dishes but my body felt disconnected from the foods I consumed. Something was missing.
Many who grew up in a non-westernized household can tell you that if they ever decide to try most diets, a lot of their ‘ethnic’ (for lack of a better word) food was unhealthy. Diet culture comes in various forms: no fat, no sugar, no dairy, etc, which, depending on what foods you grew up with, could all of a sudden become prohibitive.
I then realized I missed my old way of eating as a kid–but not necessarily the chicken nuggets and the fries. It was the food of my parents’ cultures. There are many healthy dishes in Kuwaiti and Filipino cuisine, and I wanted to start making them again.
I decided something needed to change because my current weight-cycling strategy wasn’t sustainable. Eating the same foods wasn’t working for me anymore and I needed to modify my eating habits to stop myself from falling down a rabbit hole of sugar-laden despair.
Breaking a couple of food rules was a good place to start. And let me tell you, when you try intuitive eating, throwing these rules out the window was incredibly difficult. I’d been on an auto-pilot diet culture since I was eleven; it was learning to think in a whole new, seemingly counter-intuitive way.
Incorporating Back Food From My Culinary Roots
I racked my brain and remembered a dish called foole, which consists of fava beans, onions, garlic, cumin, olive oil and fresh tomatoes simmered in a pot. My family ate this frequently for breakfast but I stopped because pulses are discouraged in my low-carb diet. I was nervous about letting myself eat them (disordered eating at its’ worst). I told myself though, that having just a few carbs in my meal could stop me from eating a whole tub of ice cream. I gave myself permission.
Eating foole for the first time in years not only left me nourished but made me realize that even healthy food could be delicious in itself, not the positive pat-on-the-back feeling I mentally rewarded myself for consuming. My body felt it got what it needed, so there wasn’t a crazy sugar monster desire to polish that ice-cream tub. It also felt good to connect to my Middle-Eastern roots from my tiny studio apartment in Toronto. I felt like I was back in Kuwait.
I went online and looked at recipes I’d forgotten about: Kuwaiti fish dishes, Filipino sour broth entrees, and an oxtail concoction I used to love eating (after looking it up I even realized it was PCOS friendly, but I because I prematurely dismissed all Filipino food as bad for my PCOS, I overlooked it).
I also started to look at the Chinese dishes my mother used to prepare (even though she is Filipino, we have Chinese roots). With just a couple of modifications (not adding too much sugar to the entrees, for example), I added more variety to my diet without eating everything that looks like it’s from a bland ‘wellness’ website. I also looked up a few Iranian recipes my father’s side of the family used to make (he’s Kuwaiti, but has Persian roots).
A Step Towards Food Peace
The one positive thing about watching my nutrition with a hawk’s eye for decades is after years of educating myself, the foundational knowledge I acquired allowed me to break the rules and put my culinary creativity into practice. Straddling this balance is difficult to master.
My diet-obsessed way of thinking still flares up, but I tell myself it’s a process and cooking based on my culinary roots is an effective way to reconnect spiritually through food, one of the biggest love languages in my upbringing. It’s one thing to scarf something down when you’re in a rush to get needed fuel and go about your day, but another to feed it what it actually needs through nourishment–ideally through satisfying your own personal taste buds.