Twenty-six days ago, my husband and I embarked on our Whole30 journey. Our decision to undertake this challenge was simple: after a holiday season filled with carbs and alcohol, we wanted to get back to the basics of food, fuel ourselves with wholesome ingredients and reset our bodies.
According to their website, the Whole30 claims that “it will change the way you think about food, it will change your tastes, it will change your habits and your cravings. It could, quite possibly, change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body. It has the potential to change the way you eat for the rest of your life.”
But is breaking the emotional connection humans have with food necessarily a good thing? For my husband and myself, this is the part that proved to be the most challenging. Along with my Armenian heritage comes an unequivocally social, emotional approach to eating. For every occasion, big and small and even for no reason at all, we gather around the table and share a meal that is heavy in wheat, cheese and legumes. We eat hummus and bread like it’s our religion. When you visit someone’s house, the first order of business is to fill the table with food, then proceed to eat together for hours while sharing stories, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And no meal is complete without tea and dessert.
For Armenians, food is so much more than sustenance. It is a way of fostering social connection and tradition. Our recipes are our links to our past, our heritage, our ancestors. As Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” That is how it was with me and the food of my culture. I did not realize how important it was until it was gone.
My husband, who is of Asian descent, had a similar rude awakening. For him, the desire was for rice and soy products, two staples in the Chinese diet. And cauliflower rice, I quickly learned, is not a suitable substitute for 4,000 years of tradition.
Furthermore, Armenians and Asians are not the only cultures who value food–in all its carby, dairy-laden glory–as more than just nourishment. In Italy, their breakfast consists solely of a pastry and cappuccino and the rest of their meals incorporate wheat and cheese in various forms. Italian dinners, complete with at least four courses, are an art-form that occupy one’s entire evening. In South America, they devote hour upon hour to making and eating tamales. In Hawaii, the luau was created to end the religion taboos of men and women dining together. In Ancient Jeruselum, history’s most important meal, The Last Supper, was consumed before you-know-what happened. Humans have long-standing emotional and spiritual ties to food and eating and the rituals surround breaking bread with one another, all of which are even more strongly affirmed when you try to sever these ties.
Despite our cravings, this month did change our relationship with food. The foods we thought we needed in our daily lives, like yogurt, quinoa, chocolate, and black beans, did not cross our minds once. But removing everything not approved for the Whole30 shined a spotlight on the foods that we could not live without. Those were the foods that we have been conditioned to love since the dawn of time. My favorite food has always been freshly baked bread with cheese and once I got rid of the clutter in my diet, I realized I could happily lead the Whole30 lifestyle with an occasional serving of baguette and Brie.
While this experiment was eye-opening to the effect of unhealthy food on our bodies, it also forced us to appreciate what we had taken for granted. Our emotional connection to food is not merely to make us feel better on a stressful day, but it is a way for us to honor the history of our ancestors. And no amount of Whole30-ing can break that association.