I organize my life around mealtimes and snacks. Food is central to how I organize every single day of my life. I use food as a form of entertainment as well as an excuse to socialize. But I’d never really thought about the elevated role that food plays in my life until this trip to India and Nepal.
Before coming to India and Nepal, I’d never seen so many starving people in one place. Skinny and wretched, these people have a yearning far-off look in their eyes. Some of them don’t eat enough while others eat, but their bodies have been overtaken by parasites and they’re just wasting away. I think, “I should give something to that poor, starving man,” but within eyeshot, there are perhaps 200 other starving individuals living destitute lives and 10 to 20 food stalls and vegetable stands that would guarantee their infection with E. Coli, Cyclospora, or perhaps worms. Starvation and ill health is part of the culture here; a facet of people’s lives that would only change if the government made strong efforts to change it.
Having food and eating is something that I usually take for granted. At home, I’ll wander out to the kitchen and stand there thinking wistfully about snack options, in the midst of a full refrigerator, a stove, microwave, and oven. I’ll ask myself, hmmm, what do I want? Out of cupboards and a pantry full of possibilities, I’ll choose a simple snack, packaged neatly in a box or some other sanitary wrapping or an assortment of ingredients to make whatever my little heart desires.
There are people in the United States who struggle to keep their pantries full, but in the United States, there are also organizations that connect struggling families with canned food drives, soup kitchens, and the like. In the United States, the breed of starvation I’m seeing here in India is not a problem. We have a different, but related issue in our country that can perhaps only be addressed by the government as well. Instead of being overwhelmed with emaciated citizens infected by parasites, in the United States, our citizens are perishing from diseases brought on by a form of malnutrition, ironically caused by overeating the wrong foods.
In the United States, we have one of the most highly developed non-profit systems in the world,
which is why we seldom lay our eyes on the rib cages and gaunt faces of simple starvation. In the United States, it is honestly possible to pull yourself out of the grip of poverty and make a better life for yourself financially. Impoverishment does not wear the mask of starvation in the United States. We talk of homelessness as total destitution, but not starvation. But in a place like India, the idea of catapulting oneself from rags to riches is just one step away from being ludicrous.
It’s strange to think that poverty in one country can look so different from poverty in other countries. Until we started traveling abroad, I thought that poverty was poverty everywhere in the world. I’ve always been fascinated with the resourcefulness of certain groups of impoverished people and their relative happiness in comparison with wealthier folks. But when people become so destitute that they can no longer think clearly or struggle physically with their oppressors, their only hope for a better life is a cogent leader who cares.
My heart goes out to starving Indians, but seeing their sunken eyes and desperation brings to mind, through an association of opposites, the obesity problem in the United States. Though I believe that it is possible under the right circumstances, as an individual in any place in the world, to surmount desperate problems related to food, in order for a population to solve food-related problems, government leaders have to make it a priority.
The Mexican government has made the problem of unhealthy foods a priority by taxing people on unhealthy foods and thereby making fresh fruits and vegetables the more affordable option. The European government has banned toxic ingredients like trans fats but the United States government is sadly under the spell of the food industry because our government is driven in part by profit and in part by public opinion. People demand fast food, candy bars, and Coke. And the food industry desires cheaper, lower quality ingredients in order to make bigger profits on those items. People in the United States are malnourished and held captive by obesity in a manner that is arguably analogous to the way Indian citizens are held captive by the lethargy brought on by simple starvation. Except in the United States, we choose to be held captive. The Indians, in contrast, have no other options.
Since I’ve had the opportunity on this trip to eat very little food and consume primarily foods that aren’t particularly satiating, I’ve been able to really reflect on the psychology of hunger and how debilitating it is. Eating changes the way that I feel in both subtle and profound ways depending on what it is that I consume. A plate full of sliced raw carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers is only exciting the first time I have it during the day, especially if its the bulk of my meal. It doesn’t take long to develop a special kind of dread for raw, sliced vegetables with olive oil and vinegar as a meal when I eat enough of them over the course of a short period of time. Right now, we’re alternating the raw sliced vegetable platter with the steamed vegetable platter, both with rice. My mind says, I’m hungry while my belly says, stop feeding me carbs and roughage…where’s the meat?
Between meals, after the initial surge of blood sugar wears off, I enter into a state of quiet desperation. Some might mistake my demeanor and facial expression for pure bitchiness, but in fact, I’m just really concentrating on the inner, non-verbal sense that there’s something terribly wrong (a lack of fat and protein in my diet). I try to sit very still and stay very quiet. I become anti-social and argumentative if provoked. John bears the brunt of my hunger. When things get particularly tense, he opens our tiny dorm-sized fridge and rolls the last half-jar of peanut butter toward me from across the room. Then he finds a safe place to hide until my mood wears off.
At home, I eat and then I don’t feel hungry anymore. After eating, I can sit or stand or run or walk for hours without thinking about food. It’s taken many years for me to find the right combination of foods to make that possible. Sugar and wheat, in particular tend to make me feel hungrier after I eat. Wheat, as it turns out, has been destroying my small intestine very quietly and insidiously for many years. I was toying with diabetes by using sugar as an “upper”. I was on a downward health spiral for many years until I cut these two ingredients out of my diet at the urging of our acupuncturist (bless her heart) and a medical intuitive. Getting rid of those two ingredients in my diet have made my stint with starvation here in India more rather than less tolerable simply because my blood sugar stays relatively balanced, as long as I eat something.
I used to eat trans fats and MSG. I used to eat sugar, milk, and wheat. I enjoyed the taste of all of these things and the convenience of being able to eat any of the array of snacks available at convenience stores across the U.S., but once I realized how they affected my health, I cut them out of my diet. This was an individual choice. I was able to cut all these ingredients out of my diet and still enjoy things like ice cream (made with coconut milk), cookies (made with almond flour and agave nectar), and meringue pies (made with agave and a rice flour crust). In the United States, choice and diversity characterizes our culture. Even if the government sanctions the use of trans fats in everyday items like Advil, if I suffer from migraine headaches, I can use the Internet to educate myself on ingredients that cause migraines, read the Advil label and then stop experiencing trans-fat induced migraines caused by my headache medicine. It’s a choice to be sick in the U.S. because of the stuff we choose to put in our mouths and having choices is a distinctly American thing.
As I see it, the defining difference between the starvation happening in India and the obesity problem in America is the fact that Americans have a choice about whether they become ill with cardiovascular disease, certain types of diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. Many Indians are so poor they don’t have access to the information they need to educate themselves about things like tapeworms, well-balanced meals, and the virtues of handwashing. They’re so poor, they don’t have choices about the food they get to eat each day. But in the United States, our system is built to change in response to that one individual who begins making different food choices (buying non-GMO’s for example). Having these choices is a big responsibility for each individual. What you buy at the grocery store, as an individual can make it easier or more difficult for everyone else to gain access to healthy food. Our government leaders would be more inclined to take action to make our food choices healthier if the demand for healthy food was higher.
I could walk down the street in Varanasi and give 1,000 rupees to every starving person I see every day and it still wouldn’t change the fact that those people bathe in and drink the polluted, awful water in the Ganges River. It wouldn’t change the fact that the vegetable and the street food vendors only wash their hands once a year…in the river. India’s problems are complicated and convoluted. But our problem in the U.S. is more an issue of individual indulgence, denial, and the desire to remain ignorant about the importance of healthy food in our lives. We just want to enjoy the Snickers bar and feel the feelings that Snickers bars make us feel. We just want to drink our Mountain Dew and allow that wave of whatever-the-feeling-is supercede the other feelings we might be having at the time. The government knows that this is what the American public wants. And so nothing changes.
Except slowly, the United States becomes weaker and unhealthier. As individuals, we make different choices in our lives while on a Snickers-bar-high. We choose to watch TV instead of taking a class or doing yard work. We choose to sit at home and watch hours and hours of advertising urging us to buy more Snickers bars instead of socializing with friends. Over time, what are the cumulative effects of these individual choices?
A nation full of people held captive by the weight of their own bodies.
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