An Honest Meal


By Jessica Berger Gross  |  

Back in the second grade, a boy in my class dubbed me "Bubble Berger." It was a terrible nickname, but it fit an overweight little girl like me. Life was hectic for my parents, and it took a toll on our diets. Mealtimes were about filling up quickly on whatever was most convenient—usually junk food and greasy takeout. Beneath the surface, home wasn’t a happy place, and for me, eating was an anesthetic. I never made the connection between what was going on in our family, my eating habits, and my expanding waistline. I just ate.

My first glimpse of salvation came when I was in high school, attending a summer theater program. One day Tara, the program’s dance teacher, demonstrated a Sun Salutation. Usually I felt awkward in her class, but moving through the poses that day, I felt weightless, as though I were flying, yet connected to something beyond the constraints of my overweight body and tempestuous life at home.

In my mid-20s, I began practicing yoga regularly. Yoga classes were safe spaces where my fellow yogis and I could open up to each other about our struggles with food and body image. But more important, unsure of myself as I was in the rest of the world—at work, at parties, on dates—the yoga room was the one place where I felt beautiful, where I put aside my self-doubt and the extra weight I carried. Still, I continued my unhealthful eating habits. At the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York, my teacher, Ruth, would open each class with discussions of yoga philosophy. Often, she’d speak about the yogic idea of satya, the practice of honesty. How could we become more real—more genuine, honest, and sincere—with ourselves and those around us?

Moment of Truth

The more I heard Ruth talk about satya, the more I realized my eating habits were all about a lack of truthfulness. I’d pretend that a dinner without vegetables was a sensible meal. Or that the roll I ate with my soup at lunch every day didn’t "count" because it came free of charge. I told myself that going to yoga class meant I could eat whatever I wanted and that being overweight was my genetic destiny.

As I learned more about satya and how to apply it to my life, something began to click: I realized that to eat more truthfully, I’d have to get real with myself about my food choices, portion sizes, and the subconscious meaning that food held for me. I started to ask myself some hard questions: Was I eating to fuel my body or to placate my emotional demons? Why did I seem to eat more (and less healthfully) when I was tired, sad, or stressed out? Why did I eat until I was stuffed?

Less Is More

Studying satya and trying to be honest about what I was eating and why led me to a related yogic ideal—brahmacharya (moderation). According to Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra II.38, a balanced life is characterized by moderation in all things. The first time I came across this concept as it applied to eating habits was in Ram Dass’s 1970s handbook for a spiritual life, Remember, Be Here Now. He discussed mitahara (moderate diet), advising readers to eat light, healthy, unadulterated foods. He said that after a meal your stomach should be 50 percent full with food, 25 percent full with water, and 25 percent empty with room for air. What a revelation! As a child, I’d been taught to clean my plate whether I was hungry or not. With Ram Dass’s advice, I began to consistently eat less of everything—not by starving myself but by becoming aware of that moment in a meal when I’ve had just enough, but not too much. Practicing mitahara and satya kept me honest about how much food I needed in order to feel satisfied, and also about what I was putting on my plate. I listened to nutritionists’ recommendations and gave up packaged foods. Instead, I ate lots of vegetables and fruits, made sweet and tangy pineapple my new favorite snack, and began cooking with beans and lentils. Who knew that nutty, aromatic brown rice could be so comforting and satisfying? Or that a rainbow of roasted or skewered and grilled vegetables could be as fun to make as it was to eat? Out went simple carbs and in came new-to-me whole grain dishes like quinoa salads and spelt tortillas stuffed with beans and whatever vegetables I had on hand. I also added daily one-hour walks and twice-weekly visits to the gym.

One of my biggest revelations came when I found a simple recipe for vegetarian chili in an old cookbook. The chili, made with salsa, tomatoes, and black beans and spiced with cumin and coriander, taught me a lesson about how changing eating habits and losing weight start in the mind. For months, my boyfriend (now husband), Neil, and I ate the chili all the time, as often as three or four times a week. When we first started eating it, Neil would dish up the bowls and serve them with toasted whole wheat bread and a generous sprinkling of cheese. We’d scoop the toast into the chili, making miniature black bean sandwiches. It was so delicious we often had seconds. Then one day, we were out of bread. We were beside ourselves: chili without toast? Horrors! To our surprise, the chili was just as satisfying on its own. A few weeks later, Neil forgot to buy cheese. Again, we realized that the chili tasted just as good without it. I found that if I was honest with myself, I was perfectly content without the bread, cheese, and second helpings. Slowly but surely, my appetite adjusted, and in nine months, I lost 40 pounds. That was almost eight years ago, and with the exception of my pregnancy, my weight has stayed about the same ever since.

Light on Life

Today, I have a greater appreciation for the foods that nourish me. Most nights, Neil and I make a stir-fry with chewy brown rice, tofu, and whatever seasonal vegetables we have in the fridge. Other nights, we make a simple meal of freshly cooked beans with spinach, a soothing split pea soup, or spicy guacamole served with a few crispy tortilla chips. These foods give me energy and a sense of lightness rather than weighing me down.

Eating in moderation has become second nature, too. I no longer like, much less desire, that too-full feeling. When I want to enjoy foods beyond my daily staples of veggies, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, I do enjoy them, and with pleasure: a fresh egg omelet, pasta from a homey restaurant in Paris, fish tacos eaten off the dock near our home in Vancouver. I don’t stress out about weight and my diet as I used to; it’s stopped being such a struggle. When the occasional junk-food craving strikes, I take it as a sign that what I really need is rest and a little more self-care. When I have a bad day or week, I don’t turn to unhealthful food for comfort as I used to. I eat to live and feel alive—nourished nutritionally and spiritually.