Many struggle with feelings of discontent towards their bodies, which often leads to lowered self-esteem. But there are things to do to stop ourselves from giving in to this harmful cycle of shame. Instead of diets that promote weight loss, in this issue we try to emphasize the importance of understanding, accepting and loving one’s body through a story of experimenting with food and its effect on us as a game of sorts.
“You are what you eat.” I’m a prime example of this phrase, I think.
On the brink of my thirties, in the midst of the existential questions I found myself grappling with at the time, I started wondering how I could set myself on a healthy path to make sure my body came through, decade after decade. My body survived: I was never shot with bullets nor beaten with clubs in the days of intense clashes; in such times one’s body is part of a wave, dissolving into the masses.
However, after the revolution, my body returned to being mine and mine alone. It was no longer part of a larger narrative to create change. In fact, it became a captive of a complex and restrictive sociopolitical system, like all other bodies. Bodies lost their symbolism and became singular: to each their body and that was that.
What changed my views on the body was also the realisation of my individual role. I preferred to be an active father, sharing with my child his quest to discover the world — something I couldn’t do with a heavy body that lacked ease and agility. That’s how I conquered my laziness and started to pay close attention to my body.
In this state of individuality, one inevitably fantasies about “the perfect body”: a body that stands out, that everyone wishes they had. After a long journey through which I moved from a typical diet to an improvised one — all the while maintaining a routine of walking or exercising in the gym and lifting weights heavier than I could have ever imagined — I realize now that there is no perfect body, nor a diet that works for everyone.
The idea is to know your body, to understand it, to figure out what it needs but also what you need from it. It is a process where one keeps trying to find what’s right for them: what makes them feel lighter, more balanced.
A personal guide
At the start I laid down some rules, a guide if you will:
- Work on your cooking skills, so that you won’t be dependent on pre-cooked meals or ordering in.
- Eating shouldn’t be boring. Change your menu often and make your meals look nice.
- Meat, poultry and seafood should be grilled with a little bit of olive oil and eaten with vegetables and salad with no rice or bread or sauce.
- Finish your meal before you feel very full.
- Move; exercise.
- The cure to insomnia is never a heavy meal.
- Understand the components of your meal and make sure they are healthy and complete each other.
- Beverages should be consumed without sugar. This will help you discover (or rediscover) the real flavor of the drink.
- Replace soft drinks with water.
- “Cheat meals” or “free days” are a myth.
For a phase that lasted about four years I followed this guide religiously. What I refrained from eating defined me: rice, pasta, bread, anything that’s fried. This is because it’s advisable for the body not to consume any trans fats, which are often found in baked goods, fried foods and pre-packaged snacks. I also placed a restriction on sweets to be only 5 to 10 percent of my total food intake, so not more than 50 grams of sugar per day. And I made sure to eat a lot of fruits instead, about 400 grams daily.
But like sugar, salt is harmful too. Sodium in foods should not exceed 5 grams, which means you have to add only a little salt when cooking and not put a salt shaker on the table when you eat. Salt can be replaced with other spices such as dried mint or basil, which give a unique flavor to food and keep it from tasting too bland. It’s also preferable to avoid sauces. This is especially difficult for me because I’m a lover of savory food in general, so I’m still dealing with this challenge, although I’m also more wary of high blood pressure now.
I became what I ate, an ideal body following a personal guide. Then I got bored of confining the body to this individuality.
Blessed be the vegetarians
The body only needs a 30 percent daily intake of fats, and it’s preferable for that to be reduced to 10 percent. To do that we should seek out foods that have good fats, which you can find in fish, nuts, avocados, olive oil and soybeans. This is how I decided to be a vegetarian who consumes fish: a pescatarian, as they say. This made me part of a larger group, and my body was no longer solitary; in fact, it belonged to a trend now. I’d always preferred fish to chicken and meat so it was easy for me to incorporate it into my diet, eating seafood once or twice a week.
I stayed on this regimen for months, along with a daily supplement of vitamin B12. Then I also refrained from consuming lactose, since dairy products are high in fat.
Yet my strict system was threatened when I found myself longing for Egyptian falafel (taamiya), the desired consistency of which — crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside — can only be achieved by frying. I became obsessed with taamiya, and started making it from scratch at home. I’d mix together crushed fava beans with onions, leeks and greens — sometimes I added dill or arugula or fresh mint leaves as well — then I’d fry the fragrant green patties in oil. Needless to say, consuming a lot of fried taamiya, even if it’s homemade, can lead to an accumulation of fats, and this is exactly what happened to me.
However, the bigger change came with the advent of the pandemic and the shutting down of gyms. I watched my body lose the shape it had acquired through weight lifting. There was something strangely comforting about following this transformation, from the body of a “gym monster” to that of a more docile creature. From time to time, I would improvise a new diet. However, I failed to continue with my pescetarian diet and returned to consuming meats, which cast me aside from the group my body had finally belonged to. I stopped planning my meals every day to confuse my body, waiting just as any random experimenter to see how what I eat would be reflected in my form and in how I feel.
It’s always better not to take things too seriously anyway.
This guide was based on personal experiences and information from the World Health Organization on healthy eating.