FOOD WON’T MAKE YOU FAT.
Not french fries, not chocolate, not celery, not low-cal fat-free zero-carb yogurt. Food is not the culprit for being overweight or obese; overeating or lack of exercise, or both, is. Yet we are a nation obsessed by our food choices less so than our food behaviors. We call certain foods fattening, we subscribe to this diet or that and use our minds to determine what our bodies need.
I’ve made a lot of changes in my own food behaviors in the past several years. In my teens I often overate or binged and tried to make up for it with semi-starvation, and in my early twenties, I crafted a “clean” way of eating and would purge following any deviations. Now, four years later, I eat well and without any restrictions. I eat a lot of Cadbury Mini Eggs when they’re in season, I drink beer, I eat bread, vegetables, meat, salads, fruit, pickles, you name it. I eat well, and sometimes I eat too much, but I’m healthier than I’ve ever been in the past decade, and my body looks and feels better than it ever did when I was binging, purging, or barely eating.
Although the majority of people don’t involve themselves in such food behaviors (in the United States, 11 million suffer from anorexia or bulimia and “millions more” from binge eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association), we live in an environment that supports varying degrees of disordered eating. We have a warped idea of how we should eat due to fad dieting and body ideals. We lack nutritional knowledge and we often don’t exercise enough. Pair all of that with one’s own emotional and spiritual issues and you’ve got a recipe for eating habits that might be regimented, fearful, guilt-inducing, ignorant, or all of the above.
Diets create confusion when it comes to making food choices. They demonize certain foods, which makes these foods all the more tempting and guilt-inducing if they are consumed. Many nutritionists advocate for eating as diversely as one can, and I believe this includes cheeseburgers, ice cream, and pizza just as much as leafy green vegetables, bananas, and whole grains.
All food is good if it’s what your body is asking for. Diets encourage us to discredit what our bodies ask for in the quest to avoid carbohydrates or fat or calories, and people often mistake diet rules for reasonable nutritional guidelines. While it is important to moderate those cheeseburgers, ice creams, and pizzas, I believe it’s just as healthy to have those foods once in a while as it is to have a salad or a vegetable lasagna. But also, if one really listens to their body, one will find it doesn’t ask for cheeseburgers or ice cream all that often.
Lack of nutritional knowledge also encourages people to eat poorly in the other direction: instead of over the top restriction, lack of bodily and nutritional awareness can cause people to eat without regard to what they really need. However, when it comes to being overweight or obese, I’d like to point out that a poor diet is not solely to blame. Making poor food choices is a factor in some weight problems, but aside from medical issues, there is no feasible way for a person to become significantly overweight or obese unless they are overeating or binging consistently. The issue here is not the choice of food; the issue is that the person is still eating when they no longer need food.
For many people, food can be just as effective as drugs or alcohol. It can dull pain. It can distract. It can fill a person up when nothing else can. In this context, the obesity epidemic is not just a symptom of poverty or poor nutrition: it is a symptom of emotional and spiritual crisis. It’s also quite clear that diets encourage overeating and binging. A dietary regiment cannot predict one’s day to day nutritional needs and can easily leave people feeling hungry or unsatisfied, which often leads to overcompensation, and guilt, later on.
We often feel guilt when it comes to food. Indulgent holiday meals can bring on guilt; we easily regret consuming cookies, chips, bread, dessert, or some other stigmatized food. I try to remind myself that food is a part of life, and that food parallels life. Sometimes we celebrate, eat a lot, and feel stuffed. Other times we’re on the run and don’t have time to eat. I often recall this succinct statement by food and eating specialist Ellyn Satter when I start to worry about food and eating:
“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it–not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.”
Another reason we obsess about food is because of our desire to to be thin and trim. Although people are born with all sorts of body dispositions, most of us want to be thin or at least lose a little bit of weight, even if we are healthy and fit. We try to manipulate our food intake and master our cravings to achieve this ideal, and these actions take a mental and emotional toll over the years. The joy of food, cooking, and eating is replaced by stress and unease.
Accepting one’s body can be a battle. The people presented to us on billboards and movie screens are beautiful and poised, and on some level, many of us want to look like them or have the kind of life we think they lead. In her book The Religion of Thinness, Doctor of Theology Michelle Lelwica explains that these images reach beyond the realm of entertainment, that they speak to us in an existential way, in a spiritual way.
“They’re speaking to the part of us that really is looking for something, the part of us that wants to feel like there’s some point to it all, that we have something to strive after or that we have a meaning or a purpose,” Lelwica said in a teleconference about her book in December 2010.
In some ways, these celebrities and models are our cultural idols, and we aspire to be like them. We want our lives and our bodies to be as refined and carefree as theirs appear to be. This causes many of us to spend great amounts of physical, mental, and emotional energy changing and shaming our own bodies.
One last thing I’d like to touch upon in this conflict of mind, body, and food is exercise. Exercise is an integral part of health and wellbeing, and lack of exercise (or too much of it) can easily complicate our relationship to food. If we are concerned about the size of our bodies but don’t exercise, this places further stress on how and what we eat.
Regular exercise puts our bodies in a state of balance, which in turn can help put our food relationships in balance. Exercise reduces stress, which can reduce stress-related eating. Exercise can change the way we feel hunger and the way we relate to food. It can bring respect and wonder to the bodies we have trouble accepting. We are built to move, and if we don’t move we become stagnant, like anything else.
My own lessons in food, health, and healing are ongoing. I don’t know all the answers; nor am I entirely free from all of my food and body neuroses. But I do know what has been integral in my own healing process, and I hope sharing these reflections can help others who suffer from similar problems. Here’s to the many shapes and sizes of health, eating well, enjoying food, and enjoying life.