My 28 Year Journey With Food

June, 2010: It kind of all started with a pink lady apple. 

My four roommates and I were sitting in the living room of the last apartment we shared in Madison, WI. We were college seniors and this apartment was our best one yet. Two bathrooms, five fairly spacious bedrooms, bay window (which in reality looked onto brick of the adjacent building, but it was covered by handmade curtains!) And we managed to keep this home clean enough that we could spend time inside without catching whiff or sight of some mistake from the weekend. 

I grabbed an apple from the counter. It was a pink lady apple. All of the apples in our fruit basket were pink ladies — but they were not all mine. Similarly, there were meal components and snacks in our kitchen that had my influence all over them and had become staples in all of our diets. Not really because my choices made particular sense, but more because if I am emphatic about anything, it is food I like.

The conversation between the group turned to our careers. I'd put this thought off for months and the closer graduation came the more uncomfortable it got. One of my roommates had a clear dream of working in fashion; another was passionately pursuing work in international disaster relief. I had very few ideas at all.

I looked at my half-eaten apple and distinctly remember saying, "I just want to find all the things that are delicious and healthy and tell people to eat them." 

Article feature in Well+Good September, 2016

Article feature in Well+Good September, 2016

September 12, 2016: Six-ish years later, this month, I was featured in an article titled "9 In-Demand Fitness Trainers Reveal The Snacks In Their Gym Bags". To be in the article all I had to do was take a picture of the food I put in my bag everyday. It was so easy. But when the article triggered memory of that moment in our college living room, I realized that perhaps it represents a step towards doing the work I'm meant to do. 

Six years ago I never imagined that there was any kind of future in advising people on what to eat. And in part, back then, there really wasn't. Since 2010 important parts of life in America have changed pretty drastically — making my statement, which was once kind of a joke, into a distinct reality.

Health & Wellness Has Become a Thing

Since 2010 Health and Wellness has truly become an industry. With it, the opportunity for wellness professionals has skyrocketed. People are tuning into the idea that "health is wealth" — and shaping their lives, corporate workplaces, and free time around valuing health. People want to be told how to move and what to eat — so much so that some people are interested in what other people snack on (myself included!). 

The opportunities for learning about, sharing and making a profession promoting this kind of information have also changed drastically. The internet and social media (Instagram in particular) have made it possible to be a successful student of health and sharer of this knowledge. Thanks to Instagram Stories, I now watch my favorite clean eaters (@shutthekaleup, @robynyoukilis) — whom I've never met — do their grocery shopping and make their smoothies every day. It's sort of ridiculous but it is real.

And perhaps most importantly, downward trends in our country's health and scary shifts in our understanding of nutrition mean we're in an outright crisis. Many people feel that traditional health professionals have failed us. Even for the curious and conscious among us, it is straight up confusing to know what to eat and how to take care of our bodies. 

This I know, because this is my experience. I remember going to the doctor when I was eight and, as we did every year in my check up, talking about my increasing weight and what to do about it. The doctor's orders were to cut Dorito's from my diet and to swap in Bugles. (Those little crunchy cone shaped chips with worse ingredients than Doritos.) So with tears in my eyes my mom and I stopped at CVS to get Bugles, me hating the doctor but also putting my faith in Bugles for a flat stomach. What. the. fuck.?

For the past 20 years I have been cognizant of the food I'm putting in my body every single day. Until recently I was still completely confused about it. Thinking about food is my longest-running hobby, the craft I've practiced longest and most consistently in my life, and yet I still feel so amateur.

What I've realized is that for a long time my health choices actually took a backseat to other endeavors — school, work, drinking, etc. I let the wildly erratic health and nutrition advice that exists guide me, in turn living in a wild and erratic way when it came to my personal health. 

In 2015 I began a concerted quest to really take control of my own wellbeing, and I can say that I finally feel like I've regained some control of my health through my food. I am starting to feel more confident when I sit down to eat that I know the effect the dish will have on me. 

And so recently I embarked on what seemed like the logical next step in finding real answers to my questions about nutrition. I was tired of bouncing from one article or study or theory to another and not knowing where to stand. Last week I started nutrition school with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN).

When I enrolled I did so simply to beef up my own understanding of nutrition and achieve my own standard of good health. I will graduate with the tools to start a career as a health coach, but that was a peripheral benefit. It wasn't at all my purpose for participating. 

As I began working through my initial course material, though, I realized I might actually enjoy health coaching. And then the Well+Good article was published. It hit me that perhaps I planted this seed six years ago. Or, maybe I've even been unconsciously paving this path as long as I can remember. 

My Journey Over The Last 28 Years, And The Last 18 Months

April 1988, Born a Fat Asian Baby: I wasn't that fat (8.2 lbs) and I wasn't Asian (they just pulled me out with those forcep things so family members mistook me for an Asian baby) but I was always "dense" as my dad likes to say. 

I've written before about being a fat kid and how when I was 11 or 12 I'd had enough of that. I think I was tired of feeling different inside than I knew I looked on the outside. I felt beautiful and skinny on the inside. In Elementary School I'd sit in class and imagine I could use my scissor to cut off the part of my thigh that spread away from the bone when I sat down, because it just didn't feel like mine. I asked my mom if I could change my birthday from April 8th to April 9th, because 8 (with its two large circles) felt like a fat number and the 9th just seemed like it suited me better.

When I write these things it sounds almost like the experience I've read trans people have, of feeling like they were born into the wrong body. I understand this in my own way, and I'm realizing how profound it is to feel at home (or not) in your body, and that weight and food plays an enormous role in this very basic element of existence.

So I put myself on an eating and exercise regimen, concocted my young Me, and developed iron-clad will. That was really it. I know there were salads involved and no pancakes and fewer desserts than I was used to eating, but my approach was based entirely on my 11 year old intuition and somehow it worked. I lost 30 pounds in less than a year and finally how I looked on the outside matched how I felt on the inside. 

A few years later I was 14 and living in Teaneck, NJ and it was cool to be "thick" (which meant having thighs and big butt and a tiny waist), so I decided I could afford to put chocolate chips back in my everyday diet, as long as I did sit-ups while I ate them. I have memories of being at home next to the mirror with a Costco-sized bag of chocolate chips doing sit ups for hours after school. No joke. 

It sounds like it now, but my logic wasn't all that crazy. Back then we thought that it was effective to do exercise targeted at different body parts. Science has advanced and I think as a society we don't believe this as much anymore, but anecdotally I can also tell you that this doesn't work well. I bring this up because it reminds me of how much our perspective on exercise has changed over time, and how much I'm sure it will continue to.

By the time I was in high school my weight and eating habits were very skewed towards the prevailing beliefs about nutrition at the time. I ate VERY little fat but tons of sugar and fat alternatives: I adored spray butter, fat free dressings, candy with no fat, etc. My gut was already the deadest thing on Earth, but I think these habits officially buried it. I believe that all of us who lived through this time are probably still suffering from this faulty approach to nutrition of demonizing fat while giving sugar a pass

In high school I still had my iron-clad will but instead of using it all the time, I'd use it selectively. I was cool with being pretty sedentary during the winter, knowing that as soon as spring kicked in I needed three weeks of running everyday and cutting out sweets (early anecdotal proof of the impact of sugar) to be back to a weight I was cool with. It was the same with big events — weddings, prom, etc.: I knew all I needed was three weeks. 

At the same time, many non-food elements that contribute to wellness were nicely in place in my life. I had a positive relationship to Self. I was proud of my beliefs about the world and I felt I was capable of anything I chose to pursue. My romantic relationships were good.

In my life, there is a strong connection between being fulfilled by my relationships and feeling most aligned internally and externally. When I've been in strong relationships, a part of me is satiated in a way that causes me to make good food choices. Simply put, I don't search to fill voids with food. I've been thinnest and feel most aligned inside and out when I'm in a relationship. 

Drawing this connection was my first experiential understanding of a concept IIN calls "primary foods" — the idea that things which contribute most to our wellbeing are actually not edible foods, but instead good relationships, a fulfilling career, spirituality, etc. It would've taken much longer to convince me of this truth but I can't deny this experience in my own life. The actual food you eat comes secondary to these other aspects of life in your wellbeing.

High school was the last time I felt I had control over my weight and my body. Soon enough alcohol became a food group and once that happened, I was always playing catch up. College came along and threw a lot of things on track for me, but also a lot of things off track. 

And that's how I felt until a few weeks ago, when for the first time in over 15 years I experienced what it was like to start to feel the same inside my body as I felt I looked on the outside. I finally felt again what it was to feel "in my body", as I've heard it described so many times. 

So here I'd like to document the major landmarks over the last year and a half of my life, and how I arrived at this place. We all lead lifetimes of continual discovery, but the last 18 months have presented several of those belief-shifting awakenings that truly stand out, and I'm really looking forward to sharing my experience. 

18 Months of Gradual Change

April 2015, The Yoga of Eating: Last April I lived in San Francisco and spent most of my time working on all things Zirtual, the startup I'd been a part of since 2011. In an attempt to find something NOT startup-related to explore at leisure, I was turned onto a book called The Yoga Of Eating by a like-minded client, Jenny Blake, I met through Zirtual. 

I remember being so moved by several ideas in this book, one in particular: "You cannot change one thing without changing everything. To be sustainable and health-giving, our diet must harmonize with our manner of being in the world." 

This really struck a cord for me. I got it. I knew that doing the job I'd been doing, which kept me busy and required and me to be entrepreneurial in thought and constantly creative, and encouraged me to spend social time winding down or celebrating with coworkers I loved, simply wouldn't allow for an impactful change in my health practices. While being in that situation, I simply couldn't change the way I approached my health.

I put any radical change to health on hold, in the back of my mind knowing that if I truly wanted to change my health I had to change my work. 

July 2015, The Beauty Detox: My boss at the time and good friend Maren Donovan handed me a book called The Beauty Detox and said, "I think you'll really like this." We didn't know in that moment but in a few short weeks I'd have a ton of time to focus on this book. In August Zirtual shut down and as soon as it did, not only did I have the time, but also the interest and patience I'd never before experienced for long reading, meditation and home yoga practice. It was truly like the Universe shifted for me. 

This book was the first of a few changes to my view of digestion. Before I read it I thought my digestion was my digestion and there was nothing I could do to change the way my body functioned. I don't trust everything in this book, but its general perspective really resonated with me. The Beauty Detox introduced me to the ideas of food pairing and food order. It taught me that it takes far longer to digest meat than it does vegetables, so eating steak before eating salad is like putting a Wide Load truck in front of your convertible on a one-lane road. 

After reading this book I intuitively started to make the connection between my overall health and my digestive function. I started to be really conscious of eating fruit only in the morning. I stopped putting chicken on my salads in the middle of the day, and generally cut down on meat because it made sense to me to reserve meat for meals late in the day when I wouldn't put other food in my body afterwards.

These changes felt good to me. 

October 2015, India: Oh India. I couldn't bring myself to jump back into the startup world and in September 2015 I left for India for four months. I knew I wouldn't eat meat when I was there, and for the first time I easily envisioned a life once I returned without meat. It was a radical change in general for me, as a lifelong carnivore, but having already cut back (reserving meat for dinnertime) and feeling really good, it didn't seem so crazy. 

The two biggest changes to my relationship to food in India were 1) I confirmed my suspicion that gut health is paramount to general health and 2) I developed a respect for energy. While the particular foods I ate changed completely only for the time I was there, for the longterm I digested the understanding that food is a transfer of energy. If, for example, the person preparing my food is angry, I am going to ingest some of this anger along with my meal. This made me want to know as much about the source of my food as I could at all times, and to prepare as much of my food as I could. 

When I came back from four months in India I spent a lot more of my time cooking and eating at home. This was part desire, part necessity. I didn't want to eat meat, and to my surprise many New York City restaurants don't even have one non-meat entree. I think my friends and family were thrilled I hadn't decided to retreat forever to an ashram, so they were very accommodating. 

March 2016, Guatemala, Wild Fermentation: Especially in winter, NYC is quite drastically NOT a yogic setting. Right when I returned from India (and much sooner than I anticipated) I was faced with the decision to go back into the world of startups and marketing, or to truly make a big change in my life. 

When Zirtual ended the change in my life was made for me. I was OK with it, but it happened to me. This time I really had to decide what I wanted next in my life. I thought back to the reality that The Yoga of Eating presented to me: if I went back to the kind of work I'd been doing (lots of travel, lots of startup excitement), I'd likely go back to the kind of health I'd had as well. 

I decided that if I wanted to eat and live a certain way, I would need to work in a different way. I went to Guatemala to immerse myself in a contemplative, explorative environment again. 

I was eating a very "healthy" yogic diet in India and Guatemala, but neither of these regimens worked well for me. My digestion felt slow, in spite of the fact that all of my food was organic, natural and largely green. 

In my last few days in Guatemala I got to know a company called Love Probiotics. Its founder, Michelle, taught anatomy lessons in the yoga teacher training I'd just completed and she imparted her impassioned knowledge about the body, specifically digestion. I asked what her one piece of health advice would be if she could give only one, and she said that it would be to drink a shot of apple cider vinegar every morning. I started doing this and it has changed my digestion and my life forever.

Michelle also recommended Wild Fermentation, and since then I've been hooked on live sauerkraut and kombucha. You'd have to pay me to go a day without one of these — that is how massive an impact I feel they have on my vitality. 

May 2016, UBiome Test: As I became increasingly obsessed with gut health, I decided to take a UBiome test of my gut flora. Zirtual has afforded me friends in all the right places, and I was able to snag a sample from a dear old coworker. You heard right, I got a complimentary stool sample kit and I was ecstatic about it.

From my UBiome sample I learned that I have effectively zero presence of naturally-occurring bacteria in my gut, which contribute to healthy digestion. This provided some solace because it proved that a trouble I'd had for a long time, gaining control over my digestion, wasn't all in my head — my body actually was really sucking at digestion. 

At this point I'd pretty much overcome my former debilitating fear of the word poop so I told a bunch of people about this and started having fun freaking people out. 

September 26, 2016: Here we are. I am finally starting to feel like I have an understanding of what works for me, right now. However, I know from years of experience with food that it may not last forever. 

When I was 11 I crafted a crazy regimen of foods and activities I thought were healthy, that actually allowed me to escape fate as a fat kid. 

With the introduction to relationships, and alcohol, and so many other adult things that life brought after that, I learned that this approach I pulled out of thin air would not work later in life. 

And at the same time, we as a society are completely shifting our understanding of food. I love my mom and she is a fantastic cook, but what she and the other caring moms fed to us as kids with the best intentions will not be what I feed my kids. 

So last week I started my course at IIN and officially followed a path that has lured me my entire life. Contrary to what I thought even just a few weeks ago when I signed up, I'm not taking this step just for my own knowledge — I think I will want to share what I learn. 

Ask Me Anything!

SO, if you have questions or ideas or interests about health and nutrition, please let me know! I know how confusing it can be simply to decide what to eat three times a day (or more, depending on your approach). You will help me live out a dream I didn't fully realize I had — to help people choose what to eat — and hopefully I can help you on your path too. I'm looking forward to finding answers for us all. 


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Joanna Cohen