How Traveling Abroad Cured Me Of My Food Hangups

I have no idea what I ate for dinner last night. By that I mean: I remember the experience and the taste and smell and texture, but beyond the fact that I consumed a bowl of noodles with some other animal-based elements, I could not tell you what source they came from.

When I sat down at one of the kindergartner-sized tables that are ubiquitous on the sidewalks of Saigon, the teenaged waitress just smiled sympathetically, anticipating the fact that, like most westerners, I had no idea what I was doing. I asked for a beer and food for one. Without a menu or picture or English-speaking waiter, my only indication that it would be delicious was the other, more informed diners who were vigorously slurping what I was about to eat.

I couldn’t have done this a few years ago, just dug in no-holds-barred. In fact, many people I know of a certain ilk who live in L.A. or London or New York couldn’t do this today. They would have needed to know the dietary specs—gluten, msg, dairy, free range, organic, raw, vegan, glycemic index, and/or paleo—before they picked up their chopsticks. There are probably more of these food particulars I’m not aware of (I haven’t been inside a Whole Foods in a while) but I’m guessing the slimy, meaty, congealed, brownish cube of liver (?) that I consumed in said bowl would have been nutritionally or ethically problematic in more ways than one.

I understand where those discerning diners are coming from. Indeed, I used to be that way myself. Attending college in the uber-healthy, eco-friendly, five-farmers-markets-a-week town of Santa Cruz, food exclusion was essentially a competitive sport. I was a NCAA cross-country runner too, and so it was my job to be mindful of what I was putting into my body. But the constant external reinforcement—from friends, teammates, grocery store signs, my environmental studies classes—that I should be terrified of what I was potentially putting in my body got me into a situation where I was running a grueling 40 miles a week and counting every calorie I ate.

The university health center that needed to sign off on my eligibility to compete was convinced I had an eating disorder; I vehemently disagreed—after all, I ate! But these days, when I remember the amount I used to plan my meals, look at ingredients labels, visit multiple different places to buy the ingredients for one vegetarian meal, and keep a little sticky note on my laptop recounting what I had eaten each day, I realize those uppity nurse practitioners were probably right: My relationship with food was what one could call dysfunctional.

The ability to be picky about what you eat or even to have a “relationship with food” is borne out of privilege. (In two years of volunteering at a homeless shelter, I’ve yet to meet a gluten-free service user.) This obsession with healthy eating among the West’s upper class has spawned a new term, “orthorexia,” or a militant avoidance of foods deemed to be “unhealthy” or “impure.” This approach to food has yet to be added to the DSM, but as Aaron Thier writes at Lucky Peach, there is a potential cause: “The disorder is a problem of too much information. It’s a disease you catch from the Internet.”

There is no question that there is a serious need to examine our troubled industrial food system and the way it fails us and our planet. But I’m starting to doubt the efficacy of becoming hyper-choosy about our individual eating habits as a method of doing that. The very diet we seem to revere and aspire to in the west—local, fresh, clean, whole—seems ubiquitous on the fruit- and veg-stacked carts of Saigon and elsewhere in the developing world. At the same time, though, no one is obese and no one, from what I can tell, has a “relationship with food.” You don’t sit down to a dinner table or restaurant and ask your fellow diners “So what do you not eat?” You just eat whatever is on offer.

In my own life, it was a set of external circumstances that gradually cured me of my dietary hangups. A few years ago, I started living without a permanent address, and by extension, without a kitchen. Though I enjoy cooking when I’m renting a short-term apartment or staying at my family’s house, I very often rely on the generous graces of various hosts around the world to feed me. And even when I am making my own food choices, the options available to me vary tremendously depending on where I am. Sometimes I’m staying in places where the grocery store is filled with all kinds of food allowing me to eat as healthily as I please; other times, I can’t even read the ingredients labels on what I’m buying because they’re in a different language.

Letting go of my food neuroses completely, yet still managing to find some semblance of balance, took several years and a lot of shared meals all over the world to complete. These days, though I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables wherever I am and not drink too many Diet Cokes, I have rejoiced in giving up my obsession with reading labels in exchange for being grateful for what I’m eating and who I’m eating it with.

I remember my amazement when I was invited to a family reunion in the French countryside last summer, an event which entailed seven hours of endless eating punctuated only by cigarette breaks and the occasional game of boules. I tried to imagine the length of the email chain that would have been required to figure out who ate what at an event of this size in Los Angeles. Turns out, all sixty attendees at this event ate everything, myself included.

It’s become somewhat easy to make fun of the food-obsessed culture we live in. And indeed as I write this, I realize that being self-righteous about eating everything could be considered just as obnoxious as eating next to nothing. It’s just that the former attitude tastes a lot better.

Lead photo courtesy of the author.

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist and editor. Her work appears in publications including The Guardian, Slate, Marie Claire, GOOD, Outside, Sierra Magazine, The Ecologist, Dwell, Fest300 and others. In possession of two passports and nomadic tendencies, she grew up in L.A. and has reported and lived in cities in Europe and Africa.

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