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Eating Healthy Is a Privilege

5 months ago / by Sweta Vikram
healthy
Image credits: Shutterstock

How can the world be healthier unless the gap between the haves and have-nots is reduced, our The Balanced Life writer dissects

My husband and I just returned from a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. This part of the country has nature caressing it from every angle. It’s raw, bucolic, scenic, untouched, and so friendly. We were happily sandwiched between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. In the third week of August we needed a hoodie. After the incessant heatwave in NYC, we were stunned (and a little unprepared) in the face of the cool weather in Canada. The trails were gorgeous for hiking and the air was perfect for a boat ride. We saw whales, puffins, tunas, and other aquatic animals and birds in their natural habitat. We climbed cliffs, hills, rocky roads, and rough terrains without breaking into a sweat or ever worrying for our safety. There is a sense of ease in our neighboring north. Bonus: the sun set only by 9 pm. So, we were able to work remotely during the day and spend a few good hours being huddled in nature or talking to artists in art galleries.

I love good food (and cooking) and part of the travel experience includes trying out local cuisines and learning about their use of spices/herbs/seasonings. While I am not a picky eater, I am finicky about what I put in my body. Much like my columns, my diet and lifestyle follow the principles of balanced living.

“It’s vacation; let’s chill and overeat,” isn’t my life mantra. On one hand, the weather was astounding in Newfoundland and so were the locals; on the other, we faced extreme food challenges. The menu was mostly limited to seafood, meat, and potatoes. Most of the dishes were fried and extra salty. There were almost no nutritious veggie options (French fries don’t count) or fruits. We traveled up the coast and stayed in a B&B, two Airbnbs, and a hotel. All incredible arrangements. But at the B&B, breakfast included eggs, toast, pre-packaged orange juice, and some form of breakfast meat. The host was amicable and made everything with love. But I could barely eat as everything was so meaty and salty. My New York wellness practitioner mindset was a little shaken up upon not seeing any oatmeal as an option for breakfast or fruits for snacks (There were steaming hot muffins to nibble on). Whether you ordered fish cakes or fish n’ chips, they were accompanied by fries, not salad. In fact, in one restaurant, six fish cakes cost almost the same sum as a tiny bowl of Caesar salad. Bowl of pea and carrot soup contained ham.

Ayurveda reminds us that more than what we eat, it’s what we digest that matters most. I am mostly a plant-based eater. We eat a lot of fruits and veggies at home, so my body couldn’t handle the lack of nutrients or the heat from the fried fish and eggs every day or or the saltiness of dishes — extremely pitta-aggravating.

The local fruit, which is partridgeberry, is tart — sour taste can also throw pitta off balance. Despite the cold weather outside (we had to turn on the heat on some days), heat started to accumulate in my body. My mind started to feel agitated, and the skin started to react. We hiked excessively, and I didn’t eat much because of the lack of options. There were nights I was starving and would have given anything for a bowl of veggie pasta, noodles with veggie, or simple dal rice. I had a lot more control over our diet by the time we reached Airbnbs and found a grocery store to stock up on fruits and veggies. We cooked healthy and hearty meals packed with taste and nutrition. But it hit me that this was the second time in my life I felt food insecurity. At the start of the pandemic when New Yorkers had to wait two weeks to find a grocery delivery slot, and then at the start of this trip. Imagine how many people live with this insecurity every day?

In my travels to Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec in the past, I hadn’t had the same experience. The produce was great, and there were so many options to choose from. People looked active and fit. I was unprepared for the paucity of groceries in Newfoundland. What was happening in this part of the country? The more I talked to business owners, artists, and chefs the more I learned about the food and culture. Because of the climate and geography of the region, there is a scarcity of fruits and veggies in Newfoundland. One of the locals showed us a root cellar. This is a place where the community used to store fruits and veggies in the old days. It seems, every community shared one root cellar and the produce over winter. They are used to rationing greens and fruits. We went during cod season, so no wonder the menu was flooded with multiple cod options. Because of the cold and the need to preserve meat for the winter months, people add salt to ham, pork, bacon, and other meats. Over the years, their taste buds have altered, and they prefer their food saltier than normal.

If my pitta could get so badly aggravated in 12 days (despite the cooling pranayama and mindful movements in nature), I had to find out what was happening with the health conditions of the locals. You see how important diet is in keeping our Ayurvedic doshas and overall health balanced? As an Ayurveda practitioner, I am trained to pay attention to — people’s relationship with food, what’s available in different geographic spaces, the socio-economic reasons impacting human choices, and the essence of the overall diet and lifestyle.

As a writer, my default is to ask questions because I am curious. As a speaker, I am most comfortable building community and connections through storytelling. I started to Google health issues in this part of Canada and simultaneously interviewing locals to inquire about their health. Several people mentioned they had high blood pressure.

When we were in the city of St. John’s, I ran into a man who used to work for the Rangers in NYC. He was raising awareness of pre-diabetes in the Newfoundland area.

“The health statistics are just about as bad as Louisiana,” he said. “A large majority doesn’t know they are pre-diabetic,” he sighed. He added that obesity and blood sugar issues were rampant in this part of Canada. And that certain towns didn’t even have a grocery store. We talked about the socio-economic angle that impacts people’s well-being. If you lack the resources and awareness, how can you possibly know what else is out there or is the best option for you? Even if you know about better alternatives, if that’s not available to you, how do you navigate healthy living?

For those of us in urban spaces and professional, well-paying jobs, if we muck around with our health, shame on us. Because we have the knowledge, access to what’s good for us, and can afford to eat a certain way. Living in New York City, I am spoiled; my apartment building has a grocery store. Within a 5-minute walk, there are a bunch of places to find organic juices, fresh produce, and healthy bakeries. My friends are healthy eaters too. While we love food, we don’t use it as a tool to deal with our emotions.

You are blessed and privileged if you have access and affordability by your side. You have the choice of teaching balanced living to the next generation. But how can the world be healthier unless the gap between the haves and have-nots is reduced? It’s easy to preach healthy living (I do it too!), but what happens when a human being lacks those basic privileges and doesn’t have access to good nutrition? How can we live a balanced life if some people don’t have the access to foods that are good for them? Something to think about because it’s so easy to experience the world from our perspective and limited experiences, no?

The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” ~ Thomas Edison

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