When I was young, I had a nanny named Ah Yong. She was a Cantonese black and white amah from China. She spoke only Cantonese and Malay – not English. I didn’t speak Cantonese or Malay but I understood her when she told me it was time to eat or bathe. The essentials.
She had a strict eating schedule for me and became upset with my parents when they took me out at mealtimes. She was very particular about making sure I ate on time and about the types of food that I ate. I loved the herbal soups with chicken or pork that she’d make for me. My favourite was the lotus root soup with pork bones. I liked to bite into the lotus root and see the fibrous strings on the inside. To this day, it’s my comfort food when I’m down with the flu.
Sometimes I would go into her room and see glass bottles of Chinese herbs as I watched her eat her standard, simple diet of steamed white rice, fried fish and green leafy vegetables. Maybe this is where my interest in natural plant medicines and diets started. Or maybe it’s because I’m Singapore Eurasian and food is such a big part of our culture and social life. The women in my family were always cooking or on special diets. At one point, my grandmother would swallow a raw egg every day alongside a spoonful of cod liver oil and a small saucerful of multivitamins. This was in the 80s when it was uncommon for people to take supplements.
I started cooking when I was nine years old. By my early teens, I was reading about nutrition, diets and calorie counting. I went on the Fit for Life diet, the Beverly Hills diet, the blood type diet and the macrobiotic diet. I was vegetarian for seven years, vegan for two and raw vegan for six months. At various times in my life, I was gluten-free, low-carb, sugar-free, salt-free, yeast-free and organic.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about healthy (and not-so-healthy) diets. What I learned most of all was that being too strict about my diet created a lot of stress and anxiety. Also, I noticed that friends who followed very restrictive diets became sick. One of them, who was on an organic vegetarian diet, became extremely sensitive to chemicals and additives in her food. Another one, on a strict macrobiotic diet, was hospitalised because she became malnourished due to a lack of nutrients. I noticed vegan friends suffering hair and muscle loss, weakness, fatigue and other symptoms of protein and vitamin B12 deficiency. I knew someone who was eating mostly bananas at one point. He was very scattered and didn’t seem to be grounded in reality.
For me, personally, being rigid about my diet makes it difficult to be in relationship with others who have different food preferences. I thank God for kind friends who’ve indulged my diets, albeit unwillingly at times, foregoing fried fish and burgers for organic vegetarian and raw vegan cuisine. I enjoy socialising and am lucky that my loved ones agree, for the most part, to either cook what I want to eat or to eat what I cook for them, as well as to let me pick the restaurant much of the time. However, it has caused me stress in the past, so I try to accommodate others. I want to be fair. We either alternate choosing a venue or compromise on a place that all parties are happy with.
The Right Diet in the Moment
Right now, my diet is mostly unprocessed vegetarian food, organic when possible. I don’t eat red meat unless no other choices are available or someone has specially cooked it for me. I like chicken, but I try to choose healthier options like free-range chicken that hasn’t been injected with hormones and antibiotics. I eat seafood, but I try to buy organic, wild or sustainably sourced seafood. I’m blessed to have these options and when I don’t, I make the best possible choice, reminding myself to be grateful that I have enough food to eat and good company with whom to enjoy it. I will eat at a fast food joint if there are no other options. I won’t starve myself just to hold out for the type of food I think I should eat. I’ve done this in the past, and all it got me was stabbing gastric pain. I don’t recommend it.
Food is a quintessential support for a healthy and vital life. While I try to make each meal as nutritious as possible and to eat at regular times, I’m no longer rigid about following any particular diet, especially when it doesn’t suit my needs at that point in time. This means that I eat eggs, organic muesli and fresh organic fruit for breakfast most days but Nasi Lemak on others. I love Korean fried chicken as much as boiled herbal free-range chicken soup. My mum’s crab curry is a favourite, as is a meal I’ve prepared of steamed vegetables and baked wild barramundi. Being flexible means I’m less anxious and more relaxed when I eat. I’m sure this helps my digestion and affects how well the nutrients from the food I eat are absorbed and assimilated into my body.
Earlier in my life, I focused on following special diets so that I could lose weight, look young, be healthy and avoid illness. Now I focus on making my life as balanced, peaceful and meaningful as possible. Here’s the thing. I did lose weight but I put most of it back on. I have grey hair but I feel like I earned each one. They are a testament to the life experience I’ve gained. I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition mainly due to some not so wise lifestyle choices. This condition doesn’t affect me in a very debilitating way and I’ve actually enjoyed mobility and health most of my life. I don’t get colds or the flu often, maybe once a year. If and when I do, it usually isn’t for long or that bad. I recover quickly because I take herbs and natural medicines or adjust my diet as needed. I used to think that my diet and lifestyle would make me immune to illness and I felt elevated because of my special diet. I judged anyone who didn’t eat organic or whole foods. I wanted more energy and the best nutrients and foods – the purest meals that would afford me penultimate health and fast-track my spiritual growth. However, underneath all these dietary aspirations was a lot of anxiety about life and health, as well as unrealistic, misguided and elitist views on what it means to be a living human being on a spiritual path to discover and realise myself.
So, for now, and as long as I can, I’ll enjoy dining at restaurants that are chosen at the spur of the moment or by others and cuisines that are new to me. I’m aware of the privileges that have given me the opportunity to taste and savour a wide variety of foods and cuisines, as well as to buy organic foods or gluten-free groceries. I never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from and I know that I will likely always have more than enough food to eat and people inviting me over to their homes to share in the delicious meals they’ve lovingly prepared. So, I try to be grateful for these things. When I’m grateful for – and appreciative of – the delectable food in front of me, whether cooked by myself or others, it does seem like just the right food, at just the right moment.