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I used to work the graveyard shift at a Denny's on Miami Beach. This was well before it was the fashionable place to be, as seen in those photos of fit and tanned bodies on clean and pretty sands. During the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. it was a far seedier place in those days, with drug dealers, prostitutes, and homeless people occupying Collins Avenue. I'd taken the job so that my then-pregnant fiancee and I could support ourselves in our one-room efficiency one block away from the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
Sometimes, an older woman would make her way into the restaurant in the wee early morning hours and tell me of the grand adventures she'd been on. Between our visits she would go on walkabouts from Miami Beach to as far as her feet would carry her, sometimes as far off as Orlando, and in a few weeks or a couple months return with new tales. She'd tell me of the places she'd seen and things she'd done, and I would listen with fascination. A true storyteller, she would capture my imagination like a screenwriter pitching a summer blockbuster. But then, just as she was getting to the good part, once I was hooked, she would coyly say to me, "My body is wantin' a chocolate shake."
I'd sneak her one. No charge. She didn't have money anyway. What she had was a story to tell me in exchange for that glass of cold chocolate goodness.
One time she bestowed upon me a piece of wisdom I've never forgotten, "You have to give your body what it craves," she said. "Sometimes it's wantin' carrots an' other times chocolate shakes. It knows exactly what it needs and I always feel better when I give it what it's askin' for."
I denied her wisdom for years, failing time and again to listen to what my body was telling me. I attacked myself with processed food-like substances, fast food crap, and cold cans of sugar (e.g. corn syrup, corn syrup, and corn syrup). After I'd eat these things I'd have a period of energy followed by a crash. I'd eat so much my stomach felt like it was filled with cement. I wasn't listening to my body, and I definitely wasn't giving it what it wanted. It retaliated by adding on an unwanted 90 extra pounds.
It's hard to hear the body over the tempting odor wafting out of a nearby Panda Express. We've been conditioned in such a way that the brain doesn't recognize when the body is saying, "I need kale and quinoa, NOT a large Five Guys fries!" But in the mouth goes that last fry!
By limiting our palate's exposure to foods, we limit our body's ability to develop the language to communicate with our mind properly. I learned this as I began a food journey of trying recipes and ingredients I'd never encountered before, like homemade Sunday Gravy (with no sugar), or the aforementioned kale. Before, my exposure to foods was limited in the extreme — something I see as an epidemic in the West — with the majority of what I consumed coming from processed foods and fast foods. I was forcing my body to use inadequate words in a complicated conversation about its needs. But now I'm teaching myself a language through flavors and sensations.
Fortunately, the hours and hours I spent watching cooking shows weren't a total waste. I'd developed an interest in cooking, which would turn out to serve as a method for learning the language my body spoke. In the beginning it wasn't always easy to understand the communication that was going on. For example, it took a while for me to understand that satisfied was far different and far better than full.
To learn the language I had to:
1. Face new foods with an open mouth and an open mind (trying anything at least once).
2. Slow down rather than eat like I was in a timed race (extending meals to longer than twenty minutes).
3. Develop an interest in flavors and textures (this goes for noting the differences between "food" and REAL food).
4. Become fascinated with food's journey (from farm to plate).
5. Pay proper attention to how the body feels after a meal (including noticing how things come out on the other end).
In truth, sometimes I still crave french fries. I don't always say no, either. Having given my body a larger vocabulary to work with, I figure that if it's asking for a nutritionally deficient treat, it's not exactly the worst thing in the world. Maybe, just maybe, there's something in those fries it needs. Or it could be my body using slang.
Now we, my body and mind, are starting to speak a common language. Sometimes it's wantin' carrots and other times a chocolate shake. When it asks for the shake, I think of that wise woman and thank her for giving me one of the tools I'm actively working with to create a better me. Maybe it'll help you too.