What Shaped My Nutrition Philosophy: a story of my struggle with emotional eating and self-acceptanc
Here's a story of my relationship with food and why I am here now. I didn't mean to write an autobiography but
I think this is the first time sharing my childhood journey, I remember when I was younger I was a happy, energetic, and dynamic one. Yet like many people, I suffered through a lot of internal war against myself during my young adulthood up to when I graduated from college. I thought I would never win against myself and this war would never end; until I met mindful eating. Reflecting back, now I know that all these experiences made me who I am today and I am proud of myself for overcoming these barriers. I am so grateful for my parents giving me the tough love, my younger sister for her kindness even after our countless fights, my little brother for teaching me generosity to the point he'd gladly give up the last piece of his Halloween candies. :D
My Childhood in the Land of Rising Sun I was born in the world's most densely populated city, Tokyo. I enjoyed growing up in the suburban area of Tokyo. I remember my neighborhood was very clean, organized, and safe. Every morning, I'd walk to school with my classmates. I'd say I was a good student. Unlike the other kids, I liked to stay in the classroom during recess to help my teacher clean and prepare for the next class. Public schools in Japan don't have janitors or lunch ladies. So the students take turns to get the food cart from the kitchen, set up an assembly line, and serve the food for the rest of the class. Lunchtime was everybody's favorite, especially there's something special on the menu like a donut or salmon teriyaki. When I was in third grade, I learned that the school lunch menu was planned and written by the school dietitian. I always loved to peek in the kitchen to see what she's cooking. I saw several ladies in all white uniform shuffling around busily, preparing foods before the kids come to pick up the cart. Once a week, I would join the student radio club who were responsible for playing music during the lunchtime. My role was to make an announcement on behalf of the school nurse. I remember talking about healthy eating habits, like eating slowly and chewing the food well. I was preaching kids to eat healthy since when I was young! :) I don't know if all the kids actually listen to the radio; still, I enjoyed being on the radio. Afterschool, I usually stayed outside to play in the park with my friends until after dark. I was never athletic and didn't play any sport so that's the most physical activity I'd get as a child. Every night, my mom would cook at home. My sister and I were dragged to the kitchen to help her most of the times. She wasn't a crazy health nut or obsessed with cooking, but she'd incorporate a variety of foods in the meal, thinking about her children's health and wellbeing. Before dinner, my sister and I were allowed to have a small snack. My mom used to incentivize her children when we complete a given house chore like sweeping the floor. Then I would earn a small sum of money which I was allowed to use for getting snacks at a local candy store. Eating out was reserved for the rare occasions. Mostly when I visit my grandparent's place. I could count the number of times I had pizza, my grandparents would host birthday parties for each one of her grandchildren, and they treated us with a pizza delivery. It was around October of 2010 when my mom told her children that we are moving to the United States. I was 11 years old, and my sister was 8 at that time. Strangely, I was pretty excited since I always wanted to move out of the same old neighborhood and explore a new city. I guess I didn't realize that the United States was halfway across the globe. It was a cold rainy day in April when we moved to New Jersey. Soon after we adjusted from jetlag (approx. 2 weeks), my mom put my sister and me into the local public school. My sister and I didn't know a word of English. I was placed in the back corner of the 5th-grade classroom. Not knowing what's going on and frustrated that I can't communicate with anybody, I would sit in the corner, silent until the end of the school. I didn't mind too much since I didn't have to do any work in the classroom. What shocked me more than not being able to talk, is the school lunch. In the first day of school, I was horrified to see what they fed the children, that we ate in the gymnasium, and it was so loud. Kids running around, yelling and throwing food at each other during lunchtime. It was terribly disorganized and unpleasant to eat! I really missed the school lunch in Japan. So my mom would pack my lunch every day. It was the only comfort I could get from the chaos and the isolation from being the ESL kid. Also, being the oldest child comes with a lot of expectation and responsibility. I remember one day I was called by a school nurse, telling me that my sister is having stomach pain. (I came to know that once I was taken to the nurse's room since I didn't understand a word she said) I saw my sister helplessly sitting on the examination bed and her sad, anxious face in tears. She was confused and scared to be thrown into this unknown place without being able to communicate. The nurse called my mom to pick my sister up, only I was left to stay at school. I didn't tell anybody, but I was crying inside too.
My Young Adulthood in the Land of the Free Fast forwarding to high school, It took me 3 years to graduate from ESL and be fully able to understand what people are saying. Although I still had trouble speaking and writing, I made a few friends I'd hang out with and eat together during lunchtime. I am really grateful for their generosity in welcoming me and share happy moments together. I was lucky that my high school was very diverse, the teachers and majority of the students were pretty understanding of our (ESL kids) challenges. Still, it doesn't mean that I had a smooth sail during middle and high school. My trauma from the first three years of not having friends and the frustration of not being able to express freely had made me lack self-esteem and self-confidence. I always thought that I was inferior to other kids because of my language barrier. I remember one day at a softball practice (I was a part of the junior softball team), one of my teammates insulted me for my lack of ability to communicate plus I sucked at softball. I didn't understand exactly what she said, yet I could feel the adversity. Despite being insulted I was not angry with her at all, more so I was frustrated with my lack of ability to speak. Since then, I was determined to perfect my verbal skill. I am very stubborn once I am set to achieve a goal, I will hustle to accomplish no matter what. Though I didn't realize at that time, that my stubborn determination to reach the goal was putting excess pressure on myself. Striving to achieve my external goals, I became more strict with myself. Because I yearned to gain acceptance from others, I worked hard. Thinking that people will take me more seriously if I spoke without an accent, went to college and get a scholarship. Then I started to develop unhealthy eating habits. All the past struggles accumulating inside me and unable to let them go, I began to eat more. Especially at night, close to midnight I would sneak into the kitchen and would grab everything sweet in the pantry. Chocolates, gummy bears, ice cream, cookies, brownies, and everything. Since my mom got a membership to Costco, the kitchen pantry was always stocked with a barrel of pretzels, a tray full of fresh pastries, and cookies. It was food heaven for a midnight muncher. As you would've guessed, I started to gain weight. I became hungry all the time and always searching for the food whenever I'm bored. And of course, I began to feel bad about myself more and more. I started to dislike how I looked, avoid wearing fitting clothes, or being in a picture. I always felt awful, groggy, and tired. Then I'd be more frustrated with myself being lazy as a pig. I started to feel depressed little by little, and the only way to comfort myself was to eat. When I entered college, I wouldn't say things got worse, yet my depression still haunted me. I expected that I would feel better once I attend college, get a scholarship, and enroll in honors. However, even after winning these glorious achievements, I still thought I wasn't adequate, and it did not fulfill my emotional hunger. So I kept on eating. To lose weight, I started to swim every day for 1 hour. I thought it was great since I was dropping pounds. But I was always feeling tired, and my friends started to be concerned that I was losing too much weight. Things started to change when I got introduced to meditation through a diversity program I was enrolled by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in college. Since I had a great experience with my first meditation session, I started to attend the daily meditation sessions run by the student Buddhist association. I also took an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Meditation really helped me calm my busy mind and affirmed that I will be ok. That I am enough. It made me a room to enjoy the moment and be present rather than always striving for the stars. As I started meditating, I became curious about the Buddhist teaching and philosophy. It taught me that there will still be trouble and I cannot avoid them from coming back, so I better learn how to face the problem to solve them. I realized that I've been avoiding to face the trouble by distracting myself with food. I gained self-realization that I've been eating to fulfill my emotional hunger. Hunger to be accepted by others and most importantly, by me. It was very uncomfortable and scary to face the problem and work to solve it. But I understood that if I keep avoiding, things will get worse, and I would suffer more. To find a way to make peace with my unhealthy eating habit, I began reading books on mindfulness, mindful eating, and intuitive eating. The very first mindfulness related book I read was the "Nourishing Wisdom" by Marc David, and the "Mindless Eating" by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Although I graduated with a degree in nutrition and dietetics, these alternative/holistic nutrition strategies were hardly addressed in my courses. Yet I know that so many people are suffering due to the adverse psychological effect on their eating behaviors. Deepak Chopra, MD, author of What are you hungry for? said"(when you're a baby) You cried because you were hungry. (now) When you feel like crying, you get hungry." I thought this was so true for my case because I had too much pride to not shed tears in front of others or not able to accept my failure, I'd turn to food.
Present in the Planet Earth Slowly, I began to incorporate what I learned from my reading. Such as allocating a time to eat, listening to my body, and using all five senses while eating. These mindful eating practices had reminded me of what I was taught when I was younger. I remember my teacher in Japan always told the kids to eat slowly and not to make a loud noise as it can be distracting to others. As my body started to adjust to my new way of eating, naturally I began to lose weight. Surprisingly, I also started to gain more confidence and started to like myself more too. While I continue to educate myself on mindfulness and mind-body connection, I was introduced to the power of gratitude. One day I was listening to a podcast Secular Buddhism, and the host Noah Rasheta was talking about how to teach meditation to kids. In the podcast, he started to explain how he told a story about gratitude to his children. In his story, he talked about how their children's pillowcase was made, how it was transported, and all the people who were involved in making the pillowcase. After listening to the podcast, I felt that my paradigm had shifted. That day, I started to view differently about a tomato I bought at Whole Foods. It came all the way from Mexico as written on its sticker. I paid gratitude to the people picking the tomatoes under the hot Mexican sun. Then the people who transported it, thanking the truck drivers and airplane pilots. All the sudden I felt more kind to the cashiers at Whole Foods. Now, I am surprised to see what I can achieve every day. I can go on a backpacking trip to Thailand and India all by myself. Moving out of my house to all the way across the country. These experiences opened new doors for me. These experiences have shown me that I am capable of making my dream come true. I feel more alive than ever and I totally believe I will live until 100 years old! My great-grandmother died at the age of 102, and she taught me that it's essential to have the emotional strength to live a long and satisfactory life. Yes, we are Japanese, and we're the world's longest living population, but I think it's not just because of our genes. A majority of our longevity is supported by our diet and lifestyle. So recently, I became more interested in my roots and has been reading books and scientific research papers on the benefit of the traditional Japanese cuisine. Once I finish my research, I'd love to share it to the world, especially among other dietitians and healthcare providers.
In conclusion When I was feeling depressed, it seemed everything was always gloomy, even happy events and songs had a cloudy filter, and nothing was vibrant. Just by making small changes in how I eat, I witnessed my world become clearer, brighter, and full of life. I cannot wait to help more people who are suffering from emotional eating and stress eating. These days, people are so busy that they are sacrificing the most important asset in life, their health. Even when they take the time to educate themselves about health, most of the time those are for external reasons like get six packs or look slim. Or the diet people are obsessed about, whether it's keto diet or low carb diet; Is it nurturing you to be a healthier, better human being? It took me almost a decade to figure out what I was doing wrong and sadly nobody told me what I was doing wrong. For the longest time, I yearned for reaching my goal weight and look thinner and have a slimmer face. But I came to realize that all these diets and nutrition books lacked in teaching the fundamental of human eating behavior, the mind-body connection. We are so consumed by our head, that our body is disconnected from our mind. We hardly take the time to listen to our body and we don't trust our body anymore. Many of us don't believe that our body can heal itself or don't give a chance for our body to heal. It may take some time, but there's a more healthy, sustainable solution for your wellbeing. Mind-body nutrition and mindful eating are so powerful that it will not only transform your body but make you become more confident and strong. I am really thankful for all the struggles I had overcome which lead me to this noble realization. If you are facing the similar challenge that I faced, I'd love to connect with you. Please send me a message!