Rethinking Food

Rethinking Food

To tell you the truth, during the course of writing and thinking about writing this, I have many times wished that I had chosen a less loaded topic! My other idea was to write about how not to throw your back out when caring for your child. However, I believe that when we hit on a point that makes us a bit uncomfortable, there is something there that needs to be allowed to see the light of day.

The reason this topic is loaded for me is that I am the daughter of an anorexic. First, let me say that my mother was also brilliant and a mentor to me in many ways. She even used her own weakness to help others and assisted many women in overcoming eating disorders by connecting to their body in a different way through her unique approach to touch and movement. Her graduation thesis was devoted to how to work with eating disorders through bodywork. When I “out” my mother for her eating disorder, people look at me with dismay. However, I believe that most women have a disordered or distorted relationship with food and the first step is to acknowledge this without judging or allowing it to detract from all the amazing accomplishments of said women.

My mother’s anorexia was so well hidden behind ideas about health, particularly “raw foods” (she threw out our stove!) that I’m not sure if she was even aware that she had a disorder. I grew up not questioning my mother’s inability to eat certain things, fasting for “health reasons”, colonics and so forth. She always claimed that these were things she needed to do for her health because of digestive problems she had and allergies. A part of her truly believed this, I think. It was not until several years after her death that I found a notebook where she had written some things, including weight loss goals, which were absurd considering she was not remotely overweight, that showed me in black and white what was really going on.

Although the notes disturbed me profoundly, it was a blessing my mother left them behind. They forced me to look hard at the way that I relate to food and the way that, by extension, women relate to food. Our first experience of receiving nourishment, to allow us to grow and thrive, is through the placenta when we are inside our mother’s body. What she eats is transmitted to us and, if we are breastfed, that continues after we are born. As we grow more independent, we take in our nourishment from the “big mother,” the Earth. Many of us take on our mother’s attitudes to food, or react to them, as the case may be. When you are feeding yourself, you are mothering yourself. You have the power to decide how you want to do that and what signals you want to send to yourself.

We also take on our societies attitudes, which, in the case of modern American capitalist society, is pretty confusing. There are so many different and constantly changing ideas about what you “should” and “should not” eat. We do not live in a culture where we can simply eat the foods available and be done with it, as we have during most of our human history, because we have such abundance of food and we are being constantly manipulated as consumers to buy. Whether that is by making foods addictive or by touting more expensive foods as healthier or endowing them with the magical power to “cleanse” you, it is a form of coercion and the more insecure you feel about your own ability to feed yourself, the easier you are to manipulate into forking over your cash.

I have found it helpful to define what food means to me and what purpose it serves. I like to view it as nourishment. There is no miracle food; there is no one perfect diet. Foods are not clean or dirty and they are not sinful or righteous either. These are all terms that we use to endow food with far too much power over our sense of self. Whether you eat a slice of cake or do not eat a slice of cake does not define your worthiness in any way as a human being. It makes you neither good nor bad. What can be healthy in one moment for a person can be completely different in another moment for another person. A food is not healthy or unhealthy, it all depends on context. If I were very hungry, a Twinkie might provide me with some much-needed calories, on the other hand, if I’ve already eaten twenty Twinkies today, it could tip me over the edge, so to speak.

I am not saying that what you eat does not matter, rather that it helps to step back for a moment, to separate out our feelings about ourselves from how we eat, so that we can define the relationship rather than being defined by it. We can get completely caught up in the “what” and lose sight of the “how”. If how we are eating is unhealthy for us, the “what” loses any positive impact it could have on our overall health and wellbeing. It is interesting to me the assumptions that people make. I am a health-conscious person, mostly because I feel so much better physically when I move and when I feed myself well. People assume that because of this I restrict my diet or won’t have a glass of wine. This is simply not true. I eat what I would define as a diet of moderation. This is not something you will find heavily touted because it will not make anyone any money. It means eating regular meals, chewing your food well, eating food that tastes and smells good to you and eating mostly what is in season and readily available. Mostly, it means feeling good about what you eat. That is what works for me both physically and emotionally.

Let’s start with the first part: eating regular meals. Often people do not consider the effect of fluctuating blood sugar levels on their mental and physical health. Not having fuel in your body affects your mood, your brain needs energy to function well and I believe that a lot of anxiety is caused by not having steady blood sugar levels. Chewing your food well allows you to actually enjoy the food that you are eating and it also takes stress out of the rest of your digestive system. Chewing well gives your stomach time to register when you are actually satiated. Make sure that what you eat tastes good to you. Smell it first, this will activate your salivary glands and secrete enzymes that will help you get the most from your food. I believe if you are eating something that you have been told is healthy but you don’t actually enjoy it, there is no way your body can extract the maximum nutrition from it. On some level, you reject it even if your analytical mind believes it is “good” for you.

If you are someone who binge eats certain food, you could try taking the stigma out of it. For example, instead of eating a pint of ice cream next to the open freezer, you could treat yourself to an ice cream outside, in the open, and really allow all of your senses to enjoy it. If you can release the guilt and secretive quality, the food loses its emotional power over you and you can enjoy it and be satisfied.

We use outside things to determine how we feel about ourselves, whether it is food, money, exercise, clothing, etc. Nothing outside of yourself should determine your humanity or sense of self. Food is sustenance, a way to connect with others, a way to provide your body with the fuel to do things. It is not a way to define one’s identity. As mothers we provide food in a very literal sense to our offspring. How we feel about food is transmitted to them. I always longed for a mother who would bake cookies with me, that did not happen but now I bake cookies with my own daughter and all I want is for her to enjoy her food and define herself by more important values than what she eats.