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How A Kenya Safari Freed Me From Diet Culture

After 10 days observing hippos and lions listen to their animal instincts, I unexpectedly found myself relearning my own.

How A Kenya Safari Freed Me From Diet Culture
Anna Haines

“The fish can’t see the water it’s in unless it jumps outside its fish bowl.” Ever since returning home from a safari in Kenya, I’ve been thinking about this old Chinese proverb. I’ve spent the past four years healing my relationship to my body after nearly a decade of obsessive self-control, and yet it took jumping far outside my fish bowl—embarking on a safari in Kenya—to realize the water I’ve been swimming in is diet culture. For 10 days on safari, I observed animals whose entire lives revolved around listening to their bodies. At home in Toronto, it’s normal, even lauded, to treat your body like a machine; here, animals who successfully honor their hunger reign supreme. Immersed in this new environment I unexpectedly found myself unlearning diet culture and relearning my own animal instincts.

For most of my adult life, my ruling impulse has been the need to control. Unlike a wild animal who, when facing scarce resources, responds to that uncertainty by letting their hunger fuel the search for food, my automatic response is to ignore or deny my body’s signals. Anytime my life took an unexpected turn—the sudden death of a parent or a break-up, for example—the only way I could taper the feelings that felt too big for my body was to move. I became addicted to exercise, and over time, my appetite reduced. I was ruled by the clock, pushing my hunger aside an extra hour if it meant getting more work done or another set of reps in. Eventually, I lost too much weight and my body demanded my attention. I’ve spent the last four years trying to re-awaken all the natural cues I silenced.

Hippos upon arrival at Finch Hattons

Anna Haines

As a travel writer who often writes about wellness, I’ve been on many trips where food, and my relationship to it, are the focus. But this trip was not supposed to be that. With five-star safari outfitter Micato, the focus would be seeing the wildlife and diverse environments of Kenya, all while enjoying luxury accommodations. First, I landed in the country’s capital, Nairobi, where five million of the country’s 54 million people live. Despite the dense urban environment, I didn’t see any billboards featuring diet culture-coded food ads speckling the side of the highway; instead, there were zebras. I asked my driver what the wild animals were doing in the city, and he told me we were passing Nairobi National Park, a protected area within the capital.

My next surprise came the following day at our first camp—Finch Hattons in Tsavo National Park, a one-hour flight from Nairobi. As we walked into the open-air lobby, my eyes were immediately drawn to three hippos grazing by a pond just a few steps away. Recalling that hippos are the deadliest large land mammal on the planet, I asked why they were so close to us—and, more importantly, if we were safe. The camp director explained that the hippos had increasingly been roaming on the property because they were attracted to the watering hole amid the ongoing drought. He assured us we were safe—despite their hefty appearance, these hippos were underweight and, thus, weak. The language was strikingly similar to the definition of atypical anorexia, a condition where the person may appear to be a “normal” weight or even on the heavier side but in reality, they’re starving. Like the hungry hippos, just because someone isn’t emaciated doesn’t mean they’re healthy or at their optimal weight.

Giraffe on Game Drive in Tsavo National Park

Anna Haines

The drought was afflicting other animals in Tsavo, too: on our game drives, the dry conditions meant we could easily see giraffes who would usually be camouflaged by the trees. Already naturally on the thin side, the malnourished giraffes appeared particularly frail. Our safari guide pointed out that an underweight giraffe is easy prey and not likely to survive. As I observed the lethargic creature with its elegant neck and long stick legs—clearly vulnerable in the barren landscape—I thought of how backward it is that we idolize this kind of body back home. We praise thinness, and yet I know from experience that a human who is underweight is not functioning at their best.

Seeing hungry animals in the wild made me hungry for the first time in a long time. In between game drives and floating in the pool, I relished the joy of eating. I appreciated the abundance of food served in our lavish multi-course meals with a newfound awareness of the privilege of not having to catch it in the wild. One hot afternoon, a chilled cucumber soup we ate as an appetizer at lunch unlocked a childhood memory I’d forgotten. In a bite, I was transported to my Ecuadorian babysitter Millie’s kitchen eating her broccoli soup, which tasted remarkably similar to the dish in front of me. As I slurped each refreshing spoonful, I thought back to a time in my childhood before food carried so much baggage—when it had two simple purposes: fuel and enjoyment. “Could I get back to this place?” I wondered as I scraped the bowl dry.

The next day, we took a short flight to Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp in the Maasai Mara. Unlike the desolate, dry landscape of Tsavo, the Maasai Mara National Reserve was filled with forested rolling hills and open savannah sprinkled with Acacia trees. On our first game drive, I noticed how much healthier the animals, particularly the giraffes, looked here. But even when we weren’t observing the wildlife, it was apparent that we were in an environment that was well-fed; I could feel the difference. Whether I was soaking in a bathtub made out of canvas in one of the plush tents, eating the colorful bounty of the land in Cottar’s main lodge, or resting in my room where the vaulted roof gave way to floor-to-ceiling windows, I felt immersed in an ecosystem that was very much alive. The lush forest teemed with energy—from the verdant green trees to the buzzing insects—reminding me that anything that is well-nourished thrives.

Herd of elephants in the Maasai Mara

Anna Haines

At 3 a.m., the wake-up call came for a sunrise hot air balloon ride. While the sweeping Maasai Mara views were worth forgoing some sleep, I was admittedly preoccupied with an unfamiliar sensation in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten much more than a stick of jerky, and I was pleasantly surprised to feel my tummy grumble as we descended back down to earth—an encouraging sign my appetite was finally returning after so many years away. Before I could satisfy my hunger at our buffet bush breakfast, we first stopped to watch another hungry animal—a leopard with a fresh kill—satisfy theirs. While others were off-put by the sight of the feline’s bloody fangs gnawing on a string of intestines, I was inspired. Here was an animal who saw her kill as nothing more than fuel, a much-needed reminder that food is just food; it doesn’t matter what it looks like.

After I devoured some unphotogenic scrambled eggs and sausages, we broke up the long drive back to camp with more up-close wildlife encounters. First, we lucked out with three big cat spottings in a row: a cheetah rolling in the tall grass, followed by two lions napping in the shade of a bush. As we sat in our safari vehicle just 10 feet away from the larger of the two slumbering lions, our guide whispered that lions can sleep up to 20 hours a day—they need to preserve their energy for hunting at night. How ironic, I thought. Back home, many of the people considered the most high-functioning—from biohacking tech billionaires to entrepreneurial celebrities—are those who boast about denying their body rest when it needs it. Yet here was this apex predator, an animal at the top of the food chain, unapologetically napping in the sun. After so many years of pushing through my tiredness, I suddenly felt motivated to start honoring my body when it calls for rest.

Later, we saw a herd of elephants grazing in an open field. As we sat for 30 minutes in awe of the gentle giants—delighting at the sight of the playful babies enthusiastically trailing behind their mom, occasionally tripping over their own feet—our guide told us elephants eat upwards of 550 pounds of vegetation a day. The sheer magnitude of food these animals have to consume to fuel their bodies reminded me of the seemingly obvious truth I had so easily ignored back home: eating is one of our most important basic survival functions.

Sundowner in Ol Jogi Conservancy

Anna Haines

This idea was cemented in stone for me a couple of days later when we spotted a fresh kill on the way to our last bush dinner in the Ol Jogi Conservancy. Compared to the Maasai Mara, this 58,000-acre protected area in the Laikipia District was distinctly barren, meaning we easily spotted 11 lions feasting on a buffalo from many miles away. Once we got close, our guide explained the lions would take turns eating and sleeping over the course of 12 hours until nothing but the carcass remained. After more than a week of wildlife-watching, you would think the sight of animals simply eating and sleeping wouldn’t excite us, and yet here we were, sitting in our safari vehicle in dumbfounded silence. Treating the innate acts of eating and sleeping like a spectacle—with our glowing screens separating our faces from the natural scene before us—illuminated to me just how detached from these two basic needs I’d become. Eat, sleep, poop, repeat—this is essentially the daily life of a lion, yet we find this animal incredibly impressive. Why, then, do we treat these essential functions like optional chores back home?

That night, after yet another opulent buffet feast, we were surprised with a performance by a Maasai tribe. When one of the dancers ushered me to join them, I didn’t resist as I would back home. In recent years, I’ve become overly cautious about movement out of fear I’ll fall back into my exercise addiction. But after more than a week away from my step-count reminders, I felt free to move intuitively. As I awkwardly mirrored the motions of the sweaty bodies around me, I was reminded of something I was told a few days prior—that freely dancing and singing in groups is a practice the Maasai people have maintained since childhood. Whenever I see children running around back home, I envy their freedom—they move not to “exercise” but because they feel like it. As I stomped my feet to the syncopated beat, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t worry about conserving energy or burning too many calories. I just moved.

I returned home to reverse culture shock. After 10 days of watching animals eat when they were hungry and sleep when they were tired, suddenly living by the clock felt absurd. I found myself prioritizing my body over my mind more often—honoring my needs for food and rest. Diet culture was obvious to me before the safari but now it felt completely ludicrous: every time I heard someone proudly say they skipped a meal or they were being “good” by ordering something “healthy” at a restaurant, I thought of the animals in the wild who ate without hesitation or thought.

The benefits of the safari diminished over time, but the lessons stuck with me. Whenever I witness intuitive eating and rest—whether it be the way my cat ravenously eats her food and sleeps all day or the way a toddler cries when hungry and stops eating when they’re full—I’m reminded that I’m a human who needs nourishment and downtime to survive. I no longer see those who treat their bodies like machines as our society’s most productive and venerable. The ideal, to me, is the body that, like a lion, honors its animal instincts.

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