Size matters! But who’s counting? – People watching in Cora café

Well, here I am sitting in the café at Cora, Alès (one of the only shops in our local city that stays open over lunch time) having just finished my lunch (salad and half a pizza) which has left me feeling just slightly over satiated!

It’s a special day for me, once a week or so, I prise myself from the womb-like bliss of our family home / retreat centre in the Cevennes Mountains, go to the local city (a windy 1 hour drive) and buy a load of organic food for our family and guests.

What gets me every time I eat here is the sheer quantity of food people are eating – and this is France – one of the better countries when it comes to eating habits.

In the space of ten minutes, an overweight couple sitting at the table in front of me are tucking into a massive feast. This isn’t Sunday, nor thanksgiving nor “le quatorze juillet” (France’s equivalent) – this is just a plain old, ordinary Thursday.

Having eaten a massive plate of white spaghetti, a bowl of ice cream, my unsuspecting subject is now tucking into what must be a 150 gram chunk of blue cheese! Her accomplice (surely her husband) is half a course behind her, having attacked a similar trays worth of mainly white coloured, highly processed, uninteresting dishes.

They are both obese – and I look around the café to see if they are an exception – apparently they are, but there are many overweight runners up.

As they finish their last morceaux, I am reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s, The Meaning of Life, where the hugely overweight man is persuaded to eat “just one last wafer”. Yet neither of these two people seems to offer the slightest bit of resistance as they quietly pollish off their plates.

Now, you are probably detecting a tone of disapproval in my words. You are right, but not against them – on the contrary – I feel sorry for them and most other folk who end up eating themselves to an early grave. No, I am disgusted at the whole Big-Agri-Big-Pharma bortherhood that seems to be the norm of this modern age.
Each time I come here – I cannot help to feel surprised at my feelings towards this modern way of life and how it treats food. Something is wrong, very wrong.

You know, these two folk, neither of them uttered a word as they carried out their business of eating lunch, well, not until they had just about finished, when she uttered the word “trop” (meaning “too much”) to her companion who mumbled something in response.

These guys were in their 60’s. They looked heavy, drawn and dull. Yet they also had a vibe of gentleness to them, of softness.

They were most probably kapha types (the ayurvedic body type that tends towards physical corpulence, has a slow steady metabolism, and live to care about the comfort and stability of their friends and family). As such, they are super-efficient at assimilating nutrients, and turning calories into body mass, mainly fat. No wonder they are obese if this is how they eat.

Before I arrived at the cafeteria, I had been listening to this week’s Medical Matters podcast from BBC radio 4. The subject was all about ‘normal eating’ and some of the problems tackling today’s society and our relationship with food.

One of the questions raised was “are people to blame for their over-eating habits, or is it the environment and culture that are the problem”.

Clearly, the two big food fuck ups of our current culture are quantity and quality. People are eating (a) too much food and (b) food that is overly refined, denatured and frankly, devoid of all but the bare minimum of nutrition. This causes, among other things, obesity. Add to the equation a lack of general exercise and the recipe for health disaster is perfect.

What the hell is going on? Why did that couple eat that meal? Why did they eat so much? Why didn’t she stop before she was overfull? Was it her fault? Was it the pressure form her environment? When did she forget what she learned as a kid, when, certainly in France, food and eating was much healthier? Why are people spending 15€ on their lunch, which they either force down only to regret it later, or leave half of for the cleaner to mop up?

The answer to these questions is not straight forward; it is a complex web of interrelated factors involving the mind of the individual as well as the collective mind of our culture.

As an engineer by training, I like see the maths. So here’s one equation: the modern combination of food availability plus human instinct is causing us to eat poorly and produce much illness and suffering.

Ayurveda teaches that all disease stems from a ‘mistake of wisdom’. It calls it prajñāparādha:
• Prajñā means wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, discrimination or judgment.
• Parādha means offence, transgression, fault or mistake.

I suppose that in the past, way back when people lived in small communities or tribes, there was little choice when it came to food. People ate what was there – and often went without. And what they ate was simple, whole, and natural (minimally processed). They didn’t need to excerpt much expertise in the domain of food choice as they had none.

But as soon as mankind began to win over the natural world, as soon as agricultural practices led to an ever increasing availability to food – the scales began to tip.

Now, more than ever, so many folk are the victims of technological ingenuity. I recall, Al Gore, saying in his influential talk about global warming, that the root of our problem lies in the formula: old habits + new technology = dire circumstances (or something to that effect!)

This applies equally well to food. Our human instinct, which is an animal instinct, practically compels us to behave in a certain way when it comes to food: when it tastes good, and it is available, eat it!

These days, food is too cheap, to rich, and its everywhere – it’s practically oozing out of the floor boards. So, there are only three solutions that I can see for the foreseeable future:

1. Reduce the availability of food (and get rid of the crap, refined food – highly unlikely)
2. Change our biological-social instincts (that’s a hard one to crack – ask a geneticist)
3. Reformat, reboot and install an upgraded operating system to people’s inappropriate mind-sets (i.e. help
people to use their own intellect, their own judgment to make better choices – through education).

Well, just before I get of this soap box, here’s one of my favourite ayurvedic sayings that I heard from my first teach, Dr Don Brenan of Ireland:

The first half of your meal feeds you – the second half feeds your doctor!

Start with yourself, then teach your kids and loved ones, then the rest is history. As Jamie Oliver, so eloquently put it in his recent TED talk:

“if one person teaches three people how to cook, and they then pass this on to three of their mates, this only needs to happen 25 times to have dealt with the whole population of America”.

Do yourself and mankind a favour – learn how to make a simple healthy vegetarian meal using whole foods (such as this one pot meal). Once you’ve done this – invite three friends round and teach them. (My only sorrow is that I am almost certainly preaching to the converted and would have perhaps been better to play my guitar for the hour that it took me to write this blog.

Alex Duncan
Gardoussel Retreat, France

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8 thoughts on “Size matters! But who’s counting? – People watching in Cora café

  1. It is surely a time for considering eating habits. Only this morning, before reading your blog, I was thinking how lucky I am to have the luxury of being able to make healthy choices in my eating through availability of good ingredients and education. Yet there are times when I suffer a mind block and choose pre-prepared fillers and cake.

    Our society I think places too much emphasis on the intelligence of the mind, which can trick us into justifying just about anything. If we were tuning into the body’s intelligence instead we’d be feeding it intelligently.

    In Berlin, my son runs a tea shop where every evening they have a voku – that is where one or two people cook a big pot of wholesome food and anyone can have a plateful for a couple of euros donation. Everyone takes a turn, so they eat well, learn new ways of cooking from each other and keep their bodies healthy.

    • Margaret, I love your comment! That’s really what we mean in ayurveda when we say “wisdom” or “intellect”. We mean the inner intelligence that comes less from the rational mind and more from turning awareness inside and learning to observe ourselves, both body and mind. Ayurveda calls it buddhi which means “that which knows”. Atreya (my teacher) once said that when buddhi functions correctly, we make choices that lead us to peace and to health. That ‘voku’ thing sounds great. Heartening news. Cheers, Alex 🙂

  2. Thanks for inspiring Blog and love the You tube 5 minute rice cooker wonder. I have run Ayurvedic cooking workshops for nearly 5 years, and when I ask people what is stopping them from eating better (eg: cooking for themselves at least once a day) the consistent answer is lack of time. I think this is partly true. But its also lack of info on how easy and cheap cooking right for your body type can be. The other main problem appears to be ‘psychological hunger’- eating because you are tired, stressed or maybe even bored! The answer- any activity that increases mindfullness- be it yoga, meditation, tai chi, walking in nature, watching the breath for 5 minutes every morning… Thanks Alex and look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    • Joanna, I totally agree with your points. I also teach that cooking itself can be turned into an opportunity to practice mindfulness, as can most, if not all of our daily pursuits. Cheers, Alex.

  3. Pingback: Is this blog holier-than-thou? « Alex's Ayurveda & Life Blog

  4. Hi – new to your blog and really enjoying it. I’m a recent ‘convert’ to Ayurveda and loving it – but it takes time, persistence and practice to introduce any changes that go against our ingrained habits. Psychology plays such a large part in eating; boredom, depression (mild or more serious), cultural habits and celebrations, not to mention it tastes good! And society as a whole is soooooo dis-connected from each other and as individuals from our inner wisdom that it can leave an emptiness that needs filling…
    But fear not! We all have choice at our finger tips – and that, with a sense of humour, means change is possible.
    P.S

    • I totally agree. People get brainwashed into thinking they cannot change. And when everyone else thinks that way, well, say no more. Luckily there is a positive collective movement of consciousness – I read ‘good news’ everyday. Choice becomes possible when we study the mind by turning our attention inwards and realising that the mind (and its contents), like the body, is an object that can be observed. If it can be observed, it is not us. This witnessing then becomes a way to detach from the ‘psychology’ of the mind at the same time as studying it and seeing how it works…. glad you enjoy the blog. Take care. Alex.

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