As people across the UAE have begun fasting from sunrise to sunset, in observance of the holy month of Ramadan, I have been reassessing my own relationship with food.
As in many places across the country, a dedicated, papered-over space has been created in our office where non-fasters can go to eat. This means that every time I decide to put any food into my mouth, I have to actively and consciously stop what I am doing, get up and make my way to the other end of the office. This is encouraging a much more mindful approach to munching.
Now that the opportunity has been removed, I realise that over recent months (maybe even years?), I have unwittingly morphed into a day-long desk grazer. A handful of nuts here; some chocolate there; a granola bar here; a Starbucks mocha frappuccino there: I slowly eat my way through the day, one snack at a time. Much like our cavemen ancestors, or my notoriously greedy chocolate Labrador, I have become an opportunistic eater – gobbling down everything and anything that’s in front of me, as if I am worried about when and where my next meal might come from.
Ramadan is a great opportunity to try to shatter those patterns. I am conscious of being respectful of all the colleagues and friends around me who are fasting – and, on some psychological level, I think this is making me less inclined to be gluttonous. As so many people around us show such remarkable restraint, abstaining completely from eating and drinking throughout the day, it is a good time to ask oneself: when do you eat? What do you eat? How much do you eat? And, most importantly, why do you eat?
The fact that I have inadvertently managed to cut out all between-meal snacking over the last few days is testament to the fact that a fair amount of my eating is done completely subconsciously. It is certainly not a response to actual hunger. Boredom, stress, habit, as a distraction or to address out-of-control sugar cravings, maybe. But not actual hunger. The snacks are there, so I eat them unthinkingly.
Thoughts about how often I eat have also made me more conscious of what I am eating. This Ramadan, I am giving iftar buffets a wide berth, as they present countless opportunities for excessive, unthinking consumption. Instead, for the first time in a long time, I have been studiously preparing all my own meals, rather than relying on the cafe downstairs or the ever-trusty Talabat to do the work for me.
It’s all too easy, when things get busy and you get lazy, to forget how much better it makes you feel to consume good, clean, nutritious grub. And it’s a downward spiral – the more unhealthily you eat, the less healthily you want to eat, particularly if you have a dysfunctional relationship with sugar. I have spent a good part of my life being addicted to nicotine – and sugar is the far more insidious drug. At least cigarettes taste and smell bad, and you know one when you see one; whereas sugar hides in everything, and when it does show itself, it lulls you into a false state of security with its sweet, enticing flavours. It weaves itself into your brain, cancelling out your capacity for sound decision-making – and somehow manages to convince you that more sugar is the answer to all your problems.
My kitchen counter is stacked high with healthy recipe books – Madeleine Shaw's Get the Glow, Joe Wicks's Lean in 15, James Duigan's Clean & Lean Diet, Deliciously Ella with Friends by Ella Woodward and even Cameron Diaz's The Body Book. They are all dog-eared from overuse, but a thin layer of dust points to their recent neglect.
This week, they have been recommissioned, and I have been reminded of the satisfaction that comes from preparing your own food from scratch – of taking back control over what you are putting into your body. I am reminded of Shaw’s three-ingredient banana chia pudding, which takes minutes to make but keeps you full for most of the day; and her mushroom, lentil and coconut stew. I scoff down Duigan’s Clean & Lean super mince; and I reacquaint myself with Deliciously Ella’s raw brownies, which contain only dates, cacao powder and pecan nuts. I have also become mildly obsessed with the vegetarian, grain-free snacks from homegrown brand Protein Bakeshop, as well as gluten-free oats.
Hopefully, I will stay the course for the next 30 days – and then eating mindfully will become a habit again.