Our human polyculture

Since Kevin and I got together, more than eight years ago, we’ve pulled one another along on our journeys toward health. We’re both unusual people with special needs: sensitive, intelligent, and traumatized, as well as queer and transgender. Our trajectory toward integration and wellness hasn’t been steady or moved only forward. When Kevin moved into my Brooklyn apartment, he was an ex-smoker, but he picked up cigarettes again because I still smoked. He introduced me to a whole foods diet, and I started cooking it, but only occasionally: mostly we still ate fast food or worse, convenience store food. Eventually I got sick for what I decided would be the last time, and we both quit smoking. We got bicycles and rode them to farmers markets and the upscale groceries in Manhattan. We subscribed to a weekly delivery of organic vegetables and fruit, and worked our way up to the challenge of eating a whole farm share. When we moved to Massachusetts, we made local farm shares the staples of our diet.

Now we’ve lived here in the Pioneer Valley for more than six years. While Kevin has pursued mental health therapy, I’ve worked through trauma in my body by engaging in physical activities. Kevin has gotten more active and seen the benefits to his mood and reduction in chronic pain, but nothing he tried, not exercise, prescription drugs, or careful adherence to a whole foods diet, helped with either his sugar cravings or his road rage.

A couple weekends ago, I took him to his first Weston A. Price Foundation potluck, and he learned from some of the attendees about their Paleo or otherwise gluten-free diets, which could be seen as a subset of the traditional foods diet that the WAPF people eat. Cutting grains out of his diet was a revelation. Even with all of the progress he has made in therapy with his panic disorder, the multiple daily panic attacks continued. What finally made them stop, cold, was no longer eating wheat. His sugar craving is gone, too. He no longer comes home and tells me about the cookies he couldn’t resist at work, or the drivers he tailgated on the way home. After years of living with his panic attacks, he doesn’t go off anymore. He tells me he feels like he’s finally himself.

In the same time frame that Kevin has been figuring out the effects of certain foods in his diet, I have been learning the differences among the sensations that I’ve always classed as “hunger,” including certain kinds of boredom and anxiety, low blood sugar, withdrawal from sugar or caffeine, and hungers for protein, fat, or carbohydrates, which I had never before differentiated. I used to eat what I ate, when I ate it, because I kept a routine to tell me when and what to eat. I used dishes and the amounts I commonly served myself for portion control, because I would eat everything on my plate. Now I find that the sensation of being done eating is enough to make me stop eating. I no longer power through that “stop” and go on eating til the food is gone.

The adjustment, as the household cook, is more than just new lists of foods Kevin will and will not eat, and new proportions for the foods that remain. Both of us listening to our bodies and eating what we want is resulting in us choosing different diets. When I started cooking Paleo for Kevin, it meant changing what a meal looked like. Before, lunch or dinner always looked the same: rice or potatoes, meat or beans, and at least one vegetable, in rough thirds by volume. Now Kevin’s meals are more like half vegetables, half meat by volume. Where he used to take oatmeal for an afternoon snack, now he takes a sausage. He fixes his own beef soup for breakfast each morning and seems to enjoy doing a little slicing and simmering for his meal. He’s suddenly become a big fan of my bone stock. This diet has done for Kevin what whole foods and being able to feel my own hungers, which came from reading about the difference between sating and satiating, have done for me. He was like me, also a “Clean Plate Club” member, and now has become an extremely fussy and particular eater. He knows exactly what he wants to eat, and wants to eat that only, nothing else. When I try to eat like he does now, I find the soup off-putting as a first food of the day, and at mid-morning, I still want a grilled egg and cheese sandwich. I miss the part that’s gone, but Kevin doesn’t. I take this to mean that we’re different, and while it was good to experience what Kevin’s new diet is like, I have to trust my body’s cues, which I’ve just begun to understand.

If we trust our own bodies and the wisdom inherent in them, they can tell us what we need, whether it’s to move or eat, drink water, sleep, seek out other people, or get some sun. We knew enough to do these things before science told us they were necessary. Some people’s bodies definitely tell them that wheat is toxic. Other people’s bodies are unable to tolerate other foods that I can eat without trouble, like dairy, soy, shellfish, and nuts. I don’t know if an inability to process these foods is part of natural variation, or a sign of damage to the body, but in either case, the body’s wisdom should be allowed to prevail. It’s obvious to me, with all of the uncertainty and anxiety that exists in my culture around what we ought to eat, that we have insufficient scientific knowledge to answer these questions for everyone. What we do have in sufficient quantities are bodies that can speak to us, if we can only listen. In order to listen, we might need to know what it is we’re listening for. Although its a private conversation between you and your body, it’s informed by culture: what is worth listening to, and what we even have common language to describe, determine to a tremendous degree what we are capable of even considering, much less understanding. I doubt I would have learned on my own that I was transgender before I had conceptualized a trans man or learned that we exist. Finding out about my hunger drives was a similar kind of revelation, and I’m sure there is much more wisdom of this kind, if I can only figure out how people talk about it. While lots of people are concerned about health, diet, and exercise, far fewer are listening to their bodies for the answers, and fewer still know how to talk about those conversations. We need to learn how to do this, and by “we” I mean me and the other members of my culture who have lost this wisdom and are looking for it.

Our understanding of the human race does not end with the genome, but even here, I am beginning to think that we are more of a polyculture than we are used to thinking of ourselves. While I’d heard that there were no more traces of the Neanderthals in the modern human genome, more recently I have learned that they do live on in us: except for Africans, who apparently never encountered them, modern people from everywhere else in the world have between one and six percent Neanderthal genes. It made me happy to learn this, because I was sad at the thought that when a species dies, nothing is left of it to live on, not even its successful progeny. Someday we will divide again, and a new subset of humanity will arise from among us. How we react to them, and whether we will consider them human at all, remains to be seen.

There may be only tiny differences—less than one percent—between our genome and that of our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, so either those tiny differences are potent, or some of the apparent junk in the genome is actually important, just undecipherable to us right now. I think we will not be able to precisely define what makes an individual a human, because it will turn out that a species is defined not by the traits each one of us carries, but by our characteristics as communities of humans. We have much in common, but trying to nail down the essentials always leaves some human out. We can’t all reproduce, or walk, we weren’t all born with ten fingers and ten toes, and we have different reactions to drugs and some foods. In agriculture, polycultures are healthier and more efficient, so it may be for the best that science hasn’t figured this out yet, because I have a feeling we’d start hurtling toward a human monoculture, first thing, instead of valuing our human diversity.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Our human polyculture

  1. James McCormack

    I went gluten free about two years ago, after reading a few blog posts from people who considered themselves Aspergian and who had noticed big differences in their physical and mental outlook after cutting out gluten. Their pre-GF selves sounded a lot like me: easily overwhelmed, lacking the energy to come up with coherent responses, feeling like there was an invisible wall between their own minds and the rest of the world. The smallest decisions would provoke a panic response. I muddled through the world angry and upset and feeling horrible about myself for letting everything I could control spiral out of control.

    I cannot express the magnitude of the difference it has made in my life. There were subtle changes almost immediately as the mental fog cleared, but as the months passed, I found myself willing and able to take on challenges. And I needed to – my finances were a mess because my previous response to a missed payment or a collection call had been to hide in a corner. As I felt healthier, I started to have a more helpful response – “I can’t fix this whole problem now, but what’s the first step? The second?” I went to therapy to learn how to take care of myself as I went about re-ordering my life. A good boost of confidence and willingness to socially engage followed!

    Going gluten free also did something else amazing for me; it turned me from a fussy eater to a much more adventurous one. Part of this was adaptation – I had to cut out a lot of processed foods in order to eat a gluten free diet. But I also began to enjoy foods I never would have touched before, including a lot of vegetables. Food became *food,* and not a particular drug that my body was craving. It made me a much better listener to my body.

    I was watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos last night – in particular, “The Persistence of Memory.” Carl talked a lot about the dual systems of “instructions” our bodies have – the billions of bits in our genomes, and the trillions of bits stored in our brains. During humanity’s long journey over the globe, those instructions changed many times, and it’s reasonable to deduce that there isn’t one set of “nutritional guidelines” that will fit all of those adaptations, And surely all of the chemicals in our atmosphere are further tampering with those instructions, at a pace that far advances our understanding of the human body.

    Bravo to you and Kevin for continuing to make strides in dietary understanding, and sharing that knowledge with others. Now I’m off to ride my bike to the farmer’s market to get fruit and a gluten free savory breakfast crepe. 🙂

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