I’ve been smitten with food—for better or worse—for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the South, where food was elevated to a quasi-religion. Every day was a food-drenched event, starting with hot biscuits and homemade butter, and ending with the inevitable peach cobbler.
Sunday afternoons, our post-church ritual centered on “dinner,” as the mid-day meal was called; friends gathered around tables groaning beneath baskets of cornbread, platters of fried chicken, pies and cakes by the dozen.
Most of the food came from our backyard: the beans and corn from the fields, tomatoes from my grandmother’s garden behind the kitchen, eggs from the chicken pen and baskets of blackberries and pecans gathered by my small cousins and me.
All the reverence for food, along with some darker issues, took their toll, and by the time I was 9 years old, I was fat. Not plump, not childhood chubby, but fat. My should-have-been-carefree elementary school days were lessons in despair. I hid in the back of the room, the corners of the gymnasium. Recess was a nightmare; games of dodgeball culminated in my being the target. The monkey bars were as unattainable as Mount Everest. Summers were worse: while my friends splashed in the pool or zipped down the slides, I wrapped myself in a towel and pretended to hate the water.
When I turned 13, hormones and a sudden growth spurt spread my weight more gracefully along a suddenly longer frame; simultaneously, I discovered starvation as a dieting tool. I learned to go for weeks with little more than a slice of toast or a cup of yogurt a day. I reveled in my ability to deny my body’s desires. An apple was an extravagant indulgence; a tuna sandwich was a Bacchanalian feast.
So, by the time I graduated from high school, I was a mess. Outside, my body was thin; inside, I was the same fat little girl who hid from bullies on the third-grade playground. And the effects of erratic eating took their toll in a nearly devastating illness in my late teens. That experience, coupled with the chance meeting of several deeply influential people who taught me about life, love and the power of food, changed my life forever.
I spent the next 20 years devouring information about food and eating with the same enthusiasm I’d once reserved only for my grandmother’s blackberry cobbler and homemade peach ice cream. And through the fabric of my learning was woven a thread of spirituality.
I studied nutrition and culinary arts while living in ashrams and practicing pranayama; I traveled with famous musicians while writing my first books on food and nutrition; I started and sold companies while researching the psychology of eating; I appeared on nationally televised cooking shows and taught nutrition classes around the country while getting professionally certified in five different body-mind therapies. I walked on fire, did dozens of sweat lodges and sat for hundreds of hours in silent retreats, while trying to heal my own troubled relationship with food.
And you know what?
I found a path, one that led me to a vast field of peace and acceptance. I learned that numbers don’t work, whether it’s the number of calories in a donut, the number on the bathroom scale, the number of crunches you did or miles you ran. I learned that I don’t have to be a certain size or shape to be happy, right now. And I learned that, when I stopped using food as entertainment, or pain relief, or spiritual fulfillment, I got better. And so can you.