T.J. Beitelman's Reviews > Eating Well for Optimum Health

Eating Well for Optimum Health by Andrew Weil
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Feb 05, 12

Read in January, 2001

I have learned firsthand how the body changes depending on what it’s given for fuel. One December more than a decade ago, after a twelve-hour drive from Virginia to Alabama, and a steady diet of French fries and cheeseburgers and sodas along the way, I pulled off the highway and into one of Tuscaloosa’s sundry strip malls to buy a book at a mega-bookstore. (Books are -- this may go without saying -- a salve for me.)

I ended up buying two: the very first Harry Potter book and this one.

I can’t remember precisely why I chose to buy Eating Well for Optimum Health, but it must have had something to do with the queasy feeling in my stomach, the concomitant throbbing headache I had been nursing since northeast Georgia. I just didn’t feel right and I blamed it (not erroneously) on the food I’d eaten.

After reading the first chapter, I immediately forswore processed food and began shopping the fringes of the supermarket -- the outer rim being where the less processed foods, like fish and vegetables, are kept. I started making weekly forays to the whole foods store for things like whole grain breads, soy waffles, and almond butter. (This was before these things started creeping into the larger supermarket chains, before whole supermarket chains devoted to, well, whole foods sprung up.)

I started exercising. Swimming. Jogging. Lifting weights. I did not expect the appearance of my body to change noticeably -- I didn’t really think about that one way or another, which is strange because I am vain. My goal was more neurological than anything else: I had a theory that my mood would level out, I would be calmer, less anxious, more able to cope with stress. I had already read Walt Stoll’s Saving Yourself From The Disease Care Crisis , but hadn’t had the gumption yet to actually change my life based on his ideas. Plus Stoll didn’t really present a systematized approach. He was just a truth-telling crackpot, a la that locust-eating loony, John the Baptist.

But something about Weil -- maybe (let’s be honest) that I’d seen him on Larry King? -- made him seem less a far-out voice in the wilderness and more a mainstream Nazarene. To be truthful, I don’t remember how much my moods changed for the better. I’d like to think it did. I’d like to think I understood them better, but I know they still fluctuated. I’m not sure they’re supposed to do anything else, actually.

Another thing happened, though: I lost twenty-five pounds in about three months. Twenty-five pounds I didn’t really think I had to lose, but I did feel better. I slept better. I just generally felt like I was managing my life better by managing what I put into my body.

I have tried to use this metaphor to better understand all kinds of consumption: TV, relationships, work. What you put into your body, mind, life can consume you. What you eat can also eat you. It doesn’t have to, but it will if you’re not careful.

Something else was instructive. People around me reacted with great interest to my body’s transformation. Some were impressed, but I have to say a great many of them seemed uncomfortable with it. Even (or especially) the ones who were most impressed. I was bombarded with questions about my eating habits. Do you eat this? Would you eat that? I eat this -- I know you don’t eat that! You eat chocolate?! How does that fit into your diet? How much do you exercise?

People would ask me whether I could eat what they were serving, or if I could go to a certain restaurant. While there was certainly a level of courtesy they were trying to extend, it often felt strange to me -- or maybe it made me feel strange, weird, Other. Instead of leaving me to manage my own eating, my eating became a topic of public discussion, maybe even when I wasn’t there, to the point where I consciously decided to go back to eating more like I had before.

There were other factors in that decision, to be sure: I was kind of worried -- vaguely -- that I had lost so much weight so quickly, without even trying. I also worried that I was starting to feel guilty if I ate a not-so-unhealthy chicken gyro from my favorite “fast food” Mediterranean restaurant. But mainly I just wanted to shut people up about what I ate. It took a long time -- people would watch me eat a cheeseburger one day, and the next, they’d ask if barbecue fit into “my diet.” Over the course of a couple of years, I went back to my original weight, and maybe even added a few pounds to it.

Only a routine physical exam that showed I had high cholesterol scared me back into eating “cleaner” again. As before, there was the precipitous weight loss. As before, there was the hubbub around me, my waist size, what I would or wouldn’t eat, whether or not I was sick. This time I tuned it out, focusing instead on the cautionary tale of my father’s massive heart attack at age 54. In the whole process, I learned that food is not just food.

It is psychological, interpersonal, communal, metaphorical, spiritual, and probably a bunch of other things that either A) I’m forgetting or B) I don’t yet know. What we eat and who we eat it with (and when and where and why, for that matter) is as complicated as it is vitally important to who we are.
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