Part 1: How Culture can Influence Eating, Eating Disorders, and Recovery

Indian Food and Gathering

Bhakti Doroodian is an independently licensed marriage and family therapist who currently works for The Emily Program as a Clinical Manager and DBT Therapist.  Her background includes treating individuals, couples, and families with a wide variety of mental health and family dynamic concerns.  Her passion for eating disorders surfaced as she noticed the detrimental effects of it on not just the individual, but on the family system as a whole.  She hopes to continue educating clients on the importance of health, wellness, and body acceptance in all forms.   

Food equals love.  This was a concept I learned early on when my grandmother would secretly give me all of my favorite treats before dinner.  When I would fall sick, my mother would make me eat bitter melon for dinner followed by a tall glass of ginger-turmeric milk to nurse me back to health.  After my grandparents passed away, friends and distant relatives brought my family many of our favorite dishes to comfort and support us through a painful time in our lives.  Although I was born and raised in California, my relationship with food was largely influenced by my South Asian roots.  Every summer, my sister and I would pack up our most precious belongings, and head to India to spend our break with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins.  While our cousins would fantasize about a life in the United States with the education opportunities, fast cars, and fashion models, my sister and I relished in the simplicity of living in India, even if it was only for a few short months.  

Every day, hand-in-hand, my grandmother and I would walk to the market to see what produce was available for that day’s dinner.  There was no refrigerator, pantry, or grocery store where we could store the essentials.  Instead, our variety was 100% dependent upon what was in season or available that day and whether or not we could afford the farmers’ ever-changing price for produce.  Options were limited so rarely did we choose our meals based on our mood or cravings. Rather, the focus was on counting our blessings and eating nutrient-dense meals to have energy for the day’s work.

On our way home, my grandmother and I would stop at the temple to pay our respects and leave an offering for the deities.  Others would do the same, resulting in an abundance of sweets and produce to be distributed to those who visited during evening prayer or to the less fortunate.  From a young age, food was never treated as just food.  It was considered a cosmic blessing; a blessing we could not deny and should pay forward whenever possible.

This theme repeated itself during each of our meals.  As a child and young adult, rarely did I ever help myself to meals.  My elders would serve what they believed was necessary for my physical and mental health, and it was my responsibility to finish everything on my plate.  If seconds were offered, those, too, would be eaten graciously as it was impolite to turn away a blessing.  This ideology was tied into our body image and status in society as well.  Being well-nourished and appearing so was a sign of wealth and access to resources.  Not only was this a reflection of me, but growing up in a collectivist culture, my physical appearance was also a representation of my family’s opulence.  As such, there was an expectation to be an accurate representation to those in our community. 

In addition to my family, Bollywood played a large role in my perception of food and body image.  Not until recently have Indian actors and actresses began emulating the western culture as it relates to fashion, values, and body image.  In the 80s and 90s, actors and actresses were appreciated for what they were hired to do: act.  A stronger emphasis was placed on their ability to play a particular role and dance to the upbeat musical pieces, with less weight put on physical appearance.  Diversity was ever-present when it came to body type, skin color, and even gender, giving way to homosexual and transsexual representation during a time and within a culture that was fairly conservative.  As such, body diversity was a norm during my youth.  I never felt pressured to look a certain way as the actresses I loved all looked so different.  Furthermore, I did not like them because they had the ‘perfect body’ or because they fit some predetermined set of beauty standards.  What I admired about them was their confidence, grace, wit, and ability to play versatile roles.  Body acceptance was not even a concept to be explored since worth was determined by ability, not appearance. 

Although my relationship with my body and food is a positive one, my South Asian culture is not void of debatable eating practices.  Fasting, or vrats, is a common religious custom many partake in as a form of spiritual cleaning.  Because Hindus believe in the human body’s connection to the 5 fundamental elements, people fast during specific times of the year and during specific holidays to rebalance their mind and body to coincide with the ever-changing environment.  Fasts are also done on specific days of the week depending on which deity one worships.  When I observed my family fasting year after year, it was always with the intent of appeasing a greater power, never for weight loss.  However, I eventually realized how detrimental fasting could be regardless of the intent.  

It occurred to me that while I love and respect the morals and values my family and culture have instilled in me, I do not need to follow all practices without question.  As I grew older and gained clarity, I was able to weigh the pros and cons of various traditions and decide for myself whether or not I wanted to integrate it into my everyday life.  As such, I continue to believe that we heal from the inside out, or as the adage goes, “Food is medicine.”  Before turning to pharmaceutical medications or topical ointments, I ensure balanced eating is a part of my daily routine.  I also believe that food is an enormous blessing that is sadly not afforded to everyone. 

Even though my social media feed includes countless articles about diets and weight loss, I remind myself each day that I have a refrigerator and pantry full of vitamins and nutrients that keep me physically and emotionally healthy, something that should not be taken for granted.  And while I practice self-love and self-care by nourishing my own mind and body, I share this love and blessing with others also.  Whether I’m baking a cake for someone just because, simmering chicken noodle soup to nurse a friend back to health, or helping my clients work through their fears and reservations around food, my hope is for others to see the physical and emotional healing powers of food as well. 

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