Nutrition, Food, and Love in Turkey

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The more I travel, the more I fall in love with the world, and the more I notice that America has a fascinating way of exporting not only it’s way of eating, but also the way it diets, obsesses about food, and stays locked in an endless, emotional battle with weight.

As the world gets smaller and more connected, our nutritional habits become increasingly global – more fast food, less time to eat, decreased food quality, and a sense that despite the glories of a computerized world, we can easily fall into the nutrition dark ages if we don’t stay awake at the plate.

To this end, I just returned from a life-changing visit to Turkey. I was invited, along with Emily Rosen, IPE’s Chief Operating Officer, to deliver a keynote speech at Turkey’s first Wellness Day.  Turkey is a gem. The country has a sense of simplicity and humility that’s refreshing for a high speed American like myself. Approximately 96% or more of the Turkish population is Muslim.

But unlike the fanatic images of Islam portrayed in our media, the Turkish people have a very sweet, secular, and relaxed approach to their religious values. I was struck with how so many people there exude a sense of spiritual connection that felt inclusive, genuine and generous. Stated simply, the Turks are a refreshing people, and I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Sometimes I think I need to move to a completely different country for a few years and call myself a “recovering American.” My hosts in Turkey were the owners of the beautiful Richmond Nua Wellness Spa about 90 minutes outside of Istanbul. This destination resort is worth a special visit – amazing healthy food, outstanding service, beautiful lakeside location, and a unique and memorable collection of Turkish saunas, steam rooms, and treatments.

They really wanted a noteworthy American nutrition personality to jumpstart their event and bring some inspiration from overseas. I felt very honored. Somehow, when I was asked to come to Turkey and give a keynote speech, I imagined I’d be talking to a group of people who needed some basic holistic nutrition advice because surely, they must be so far behind us nutritionally sophisticated Americans.

However, what I discovered was that the Turks are fascinated with health and nutrition, they love Dr. Mehmet Oz – he’s a Turkish American, and they can hold their own when it comes to nutrition smarts. In addition, the Turks have an amazing cuisine – a huge variety of healthy vegetables, creative vegetable dishes, some fish, healthy meat, fresh cheese, olive oil, tea, vibrant fruit, a variety of nuts and more.

And the majority of it is great quality – it tastes so different than the equivalent foods in the USA. If there’s such a thing as the “energetic” value of food – and I know that there is – then the Turks have a great thing going. They should be giving us lots of advice in this realm.

But here’s the Turkish challenge: they’re becoming more like us. Fast food, Burger King, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, sugar, long work hours, late dinners, easy access to junk food for the younger generation, and as so many Turks shared with me, they face the big challenge of “emotional eating.”

And emotional eating means weight gain, which means more dieting, which means low calorie eating and high-powered exercise, topped with a large serving of guilt and body image woes. Mix all these ingredients together and we have the recipe for slowly rising national obesity, and rapidly decreasing happiness about weight and shape.

Maybe countries around the globe are joining together because of the worldwide web, but I sometimes imagine that our main common bond will someday be our shared challenge around weight and our nutritional/emotional distress. I wanted to somehow stop the Turks from going down the same dietary road that Americans have traversed, a road that has a “Nutritional Dead End” sign conveniently hidden from view.

The majority of Turks I spoke with who were dieting for weight loss were having some eating experiences that for them, were unusual  – they were binge eating, overeating, craving carbohydrates – and still not seeing the results they wanted. Welcome to the club called “this is how Americans have been dieting since the 1960s without success, yet we still do it and we still keep failing.” The dues for this club are very high, but the benefits are lousy.

At the Institute, we understand that low calorie, low fat, and high protein diets, though often useful in the short-term, are not a sustainable long-term strategy when it comes to weight loss. Binge eating and carb craving are absolutely predictable with such strategies. Such diets inevitably lead to inability to lose weight, and a decreased calorie burning capacity due to the stress response that’s activated in the central nervous system whenever the brain senses “starvation” conditions.

It’s a very human activity to look for and expect a quick fix. Our world is filled with quick financial fixes – the lottery, quick health fixes – miracle supplements, and quick weight loss fixes of every possible variety. A Turkish magazine editor informed me that one of the most famous nutrition personalities in Turkey was some random man who lost a large amount of weight using just cayenne pepper.

Who wouldn’t want to jump on such an instantaneous weight-loss opportunity?
I laughed when I heard this, and secretly hoped that the quick fix disease would not infect the Turks as it has my fellow Americans.

Suffice it to say, my talk went well, I had my 15 minutes (actually much more) of fame in Turkey, and I answered many questions on how to not emotionally eat. Fortunately, because humans seem to be the same everywhere, I told the Turks what I have told Americans, plus a dozen other nationalities, and anyone else who would care to listen – we’re all emotional beings, and we all eat, so that makes us all emotional eaters. How perfect. Bring your gusto to the table, your desire, your passion, your loneliness, your hunger, your boredom, your sadness, and your zest for life – all of it.

And while we’re at it, let’s remember that our relationship with food is a doorway, and that emotional eating – when it starts to get us too fat or too unhappy – is nothing less then a beautiful opportunity to see what’s really going on. Our relationship with food is literally here to help us grow, evolve, and transform.

So emotional eating may be pointing to unspoken words in our relationship, to unfulfilled needs at work, to hurts that go unnoticed, to power that goes unclaimed, to needs not met in the bedroom, to love not set free from the heart, and so much more.

Oh yes, and drink more water, eat more healthy fat, consume less soda, and stay away from the artificial sweeteners.

The Turks understood it all. They know we have a lot to teach them, and they know they need to avoid a good number of our complicated nutritional messes. Like it or not, we’re all in this together. After a long flight from Istanbul to Chicago, I sat in the airport and had an airport burrito. It had rice, beans, salsa, vegetables, and guacamole. The man who made it put it together hastily. No smile, no artistry, no care. I couldn’t finish it. Bellyache. It was good to be back in America.

We teach what we need to learn, and we learn what we need to teach. I shall look forward to returning to my Turkish friends, enjoying Turkish tea and hospitality, and remembering a few things about how life should be lived.

I’d love to hear about any of your travel adventures that “opened the door” and made a profound and positive impact on your view of food, health and nutrition.

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