Humans need food; it fuels our bodies and provides us the energy we need to live. Food also provides pleasure, ensuring that we'll want to eat and do the work necessary to keep ourselves fed.
In today’s world, we don’t have work very hard to keep ourselves fed, especially compared to our ancestors. In most of today's developed world, food is easily available, relatively inexpensive, and manufactured to taste good. In places where food has become so plentiful, we have co-opt food’s ability to provide pleasure for a slew of non-nutritive food-uses. Some of these uses serve us better than others.
In the discussion below, we’ll talk in detail about some common food-uses today that don’t serve us well. These are the uses people have layered onto the food itself, beyond fueling our bodies and enjoying our meals.
All of these food-use layers, illustrated on my Food-use Burger graphic to the right, make food and eating too important -- too big of a deal -- in our lives. Food is just food.
The food-uses that don't serve us well increase obsession and anxiety around food. They cause strange eating behaviors that are common today: binging, purging, emotional eating, and over-exercising.
All of the food-uses discussed in this blog post are correlated with eating disorders, negative body image, low self-esteem, and depression which are the ways they don't serve us well.
All of the food-uses increase the mindshare food and eating take up in our minds, decreasing the space available for parts of our lives that bring us real happiness, like loving relationships, meaningful work, and engagement with the world.
Once we are aware where our focus on food isn't serving us well, we can intentionally adjust how we use food and decide for ourselves how we WANT to use food. Hopefully then, we can make food less important, giving us more room and time to actually live our lives.
We can go back to using food more as food was intended: to fuel our bodies and as a way to enjoy our meals.
Six food-uses that don't serve us well
1. Using food to shape our bodies
In today’s world, we all want to look like the pictures we see of beautiful people in ads, movies or on TV. They look happy, attractive, and successful, and we want all of this for ourselves. Our 50 year-old diet culture has assured us that we can look like these pictures, if only we eat differently. When we diet, restrict food, cut out entire food groups, or try to "eat clean," our intention and hope is that we can style our bodies to fit into today’s appearance ideal.
But, the use of food restricting doesn’t make people fit into an appearance ideal. If diets worked as we hope every Monday, we'd all be happily walking around looking like a Victoria Secret model. They don't, and we're not. Diets fail 95% of the time, I talk about why this happens here.
The focus on dieting to shape our bodies in the last 50 years of diet culture has, ironically, only made us unhappy with our bodies. Research that shows 70-90% of women in today's culture walk around with a negative body image, disliking their body. We know this from our own experience.
So why would 50 years of trying to change our bodies through food restriction cause so much unhappiness?
Dieting makes people obsessed and anxious around food and their bodies
Dieting increases food obsession because of its intense focus on food minutia: calories, carbs, and micro/macro nutrients. Dieting creates body obsession because of the intense scrutiny on our bodies when focusing on the scale, BMI and parts of our body we hate. Dieting creates diet anxiety. We begin to fear food we’ve been told is bad, like sugar today, because we believe it could make us fat. We begin to fear the judgment of people who noticed that we lost weight in the past. We fear becoming fat in our fat-phobic culture because we think we would lose belonging to our friend groups, families, and love interests.
Restricting food also creates deprivation, which always rebounds in craving, binging, or other out of control eating behavior. This is well known from The Minnesota Semi-starvation Experiment done by Ancel Keys in the 1940s on how starvation affects human minds and bodies.
Net net: Increased pressure to look like the appearance ideal via manipulating food intake (dieting) has dramatically increased the number of eating disorders in the last 50 years, National Eating Disorder Association statistics, and made the large majority of us unhappy with how we look.
Dieting is dead: severing the link between food and appearance
From studying how to prevent the pervasive negative body image brought on by diet culture, the research is unanimous: we need to ditch the mainstream diet advice that uses food to fix our perceived body flaws. It hasn't worked well in 50 years of diet culture, and it is time to literally "stick a fork" in it.
Intuitive eating -- how people ate forever before our diet culture interferred with our intuition around food -- is an answer. It teaches us to equate eating with meeting our bodies needs for energy and enjoyment. It teaches us to become re-aquainted with our bodies signals. It is a part of taking care of our whole-selves.
Intuitive eating theory is clear: manipulating your food should NOT be a means of sculpting your body to fit into a current style for body type. This notion is an entire reversal of everything we’ve been taught about eating in diet culture, because intuitive eating severs the link equating food and appearance concerns.
You don't need to "manage your weight"
When I tell people dieting is dead, they become flustered. This is all we’ve known about how to manage our weight -- reducing the number of calories or carbs or gluten we ingest. But, here's the freedom: the idea of our weight being something we need to manage is also going the way of the dodo. We actually can stop managing our weight. When you jump on board with this way of thinking, you will gain back a huge chunk of your mindshare right there!
People spent forever NOT managing their weight before diet culture convinced us our worth was tied to that number on the bathroom scale. People only began to live with bathroom scales in their homes about 50 years ago. Chances are that your grandparents and all ancestors before them had no idea what they weighed, ever.
Grounding food choices in what makes your body run well and feel best
If you ground your eating into taking care of your whole-self, honoring your body's needs for nutrition and pleasure, your weight will manage itself to where it is supposed to be. Intuitive eating teaches you to eat when your body is hungry, stop when your body has had enough, and understand what your body wants to eat. When you don't forbid yourself food, you don't have to live in fear of binging on it.
You won't WANT to eat cookies for breakfast lunch and dinner when they are not forbidden. And, you won't want them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you are checking in with what your body needs. Your body would feel horrible if that's how you ate. Can you picture trying to have energy for playing soccer, taking a test in school, or taking care of kids all day if all you ate for a week were cookies? You could not play, concentrate, or interact well when you fuel your body with cookies. You can live in touch with what fuels your body well from paying attention to your own experience.
Treating your body with care and respect is the mantra for whole-self care, and that is why you chose to eat well. You make these everyday food and exercise choices out of love and respect for yourself. This is how you would make decisions for young child placed in your care; you want to similarly place yourself in your own care.
2. Using food to soothe our emotions
Food is used all the time to help soothe painful feelings. The pleasure from tasting something delicious works really well as a temporary balm for emotional discomfort. Neuroscientists have shown that the pleasure centers of your brain light up from a chocolate chip cookie in a similar pattern to how your brain would light up on drugs. When emotional eating becomes your habitual go-to for dealing with painful emotions, you can head toward the cookie jar automatically without even realizing you're feeling bad.
There’s been lots written and many judgments placed on emotional eating over the last 40 years. There are still debates on what it is and how prevalent it is. Is it the reason more people today walk around in larger bodies today? There are so many other factors that play into body size such as the #1 factor: your genetics, and #2: the sheer availability of inexpensive, low quality food in the developed world. There's also our culture's weight stigma itself that makes people feel bad about themselves driving them towards using food as a friend.
One thing we do know, is that it’s normal in our culture to dive head-first into a pint of Haagen Daz when we are emotionally raw. We see this behavior in movies and on TV, and we all recognize it.
Mental health professionals would agree that you'd be better served to realize what you are feeling and use coping methods that address a recurring negative emotion rather than to soothe emotions with food. Using food as a substitute for an understanding of your emotions or a mature expression of feelings is a problem. See my blogs Teaching your kids to feel and deal with emotion and my Emotional Coping Skills Guide to learn other ways to feel and deal with emotions -- without using cookies.
What emotional eating could look like in real life:
- hazy trips to the fridge or pantry without knowing what or how much you ate -- like you are in a kind of dream state
- stuffing food in your mouth quickly while doing something else, like driving, not tasting or experiencing the food
- going elsewhere in your mind while eating and not concentrating on the food -- often called mindless eating -- with a hazy, general sense that something is wrong inside
- feeling like you deserve a cookie to make up for some wrong that has happened you -- someone cut you off driving, your boss yelled at you,you are stuck in job you dislike, your sister is mean to you, your husband is tight with money, you have to take care of an aging parent. These are times you feel stuck, mistreated or small, like a victim.
Using cookies from time to time when you are feeling low isn't a problem. Everyone eats emotionally sometimes. You just don't want this to be the first or only method for dealing with problems in living. And certainly nobody wants to be dealing with your day's range of emotions or bad experiences in your past via a box of Girl Scout Cookies.
3. Using food to fill a pleasure gap
One of the most common reasons people eat is to balance an imbalance of pleasure in their lives. This is a pretty direct food-use. Some people literally forget to have enough fun and fill that pleasure-void in their lives with the pleasure from food.
We do a great job pleasure seeking when we’re young. But as life goes on, tastes change, responsibilities grow, and life starts to get pretty predictable. Often we replace enjoyable experiences we could be having with adult responsibilities, forgetting to build fun into our day-to-day lives. When you can become aware of this happening, you could think of other ways to build fun into your life as a part of whole-self care -- taking care of yourself mentally and physically.
What filling a pleasure void could look like in real life:
- when a person works in a caring profession -- like a nurse, teacher or mother where they are giving of themselves to others all day -- then coming home and overeating to re-gain some sort of balance for themselves;
- when people have certain interests they love -- like music or theater -- but not the money, time or organization skills to make sure they are playing music or going to concerts to feed this interest -- they can overeating to balance the loss of authentic interests,
- when a person can't think of anything else pleasurable in their lives, maybe due to responsibilities for kids and aging parents or depression, food can become their only outlet for pleasure
People who don't spend a large chunk of their mindshare on food think of food as pleasure, but not a primary source of joy.
4. Ability to distract from your emotions
Many, many people use food and their bodies as a distraction from participating in their emotional life. Their worry about their bodies and eating -- often healthy eating -- can take up an incredible amount of mindshare. Most eating disorders start right here, as a way to avoid going inside and understanding what's going on in our emotional world. We all do this distracting, not just people who are diagnosed with an eating disorder. The control and worry over food and body can substitute for an understanding of our emotions and mature expression of feelings.
This is where watching what you're eating whether for weight concerns or healthy eating, crosses a line to obsession. The focus shifts from how to take care of yourself on the back-burner, in the background of your day, to the front-burner as a main event in your day. Crossing this line has no warning bells as it happens. What's going on inside has shifted from real issues with your emotional world to symbolic issues -- a proxy of sorts -- of body size and food.
What this distraction could look like in real life:
- your friend who talks about sugar and gluten 24/7, but doesn't even think of her crumbling marriage;
- your friend who becomes obsessed with bike racing or running the iron man at mid-life but doesn't realize feelings regret at midlife with his career or family choices or his fear of mortality,
- people who spend hours in the gym or tracking minutia on their fit-bit but feel discontented and can't think of ways to engage themselves in work or relationships that would bring real meaning to their lives.
Eating disorder recovery is long and hard, because the person using food, eating and her body to distract from her emotional life has probably only the slightest inclining of how she is feeling inside. She could be completely cut off from this large part of herself or actually never in connected with this part of herself in the first place.
5. Boosting self esteem
American diet culture deems certain foods good or bad according to the lastes trends. These trends change as the decades roll by. It used to be low-fat foods were good, and high fats were bad. Then certain high fats were good, like olive oil, but animal fats were bad. Then substitutions for butter were bad, and now the natural, unprocessed oils are better. It is hard to keep track of what is in and out! If you accumulate information from all the diets and fads as the years have gone by, you'll be left with nothing left to eat!
Having good and bad foods set us up to use food morality to judge ourselves. We go from the food is bad, to we are bad for eating it. We feel guilty or bad about ourselves based on whether we choose to eat a certain food. We see this all the time in American diet culture, where we label certain foods as sinful or guilty pleasures.
Our American culture takes this a layer deeper, and not only actually define ourselves by what we eat. We hear this all the time when people say, "I was good today, I didn't eat dessert." We see people equate eating healthy food to being a good person. And, people feel morally superior to other people because of their ability to deny themselves sweets.
You don't want to have your self-worth layered on top of your food choices. It makes food too important, giving food too much power to get caught up in your idea of yourself. People who suffer from anorexia often define themselves entirely by their ability to refuse food. They would be better served to find other aspects of themselves to value. You can't have your self worth tied to the day's food intake, better to ground it in aspects of yourself that are real qualities, like being a good parent or friend, disussed in my blog about finding your authentic self.
What this could look like in real life:
- your sister-in-law whose main objective in their day to exercise for 45 minutes at a heartrate of over 145 beats per minute, even when she is sick or on holidays because that is mainly how she values herself as being in shape, as a fit person,
- your friend who only allows herself 20 carbs a day every day and counts as the day goes on and reviews this when she gets in bed, but is sure she is not on a diet
- your neighbor who feels better than other people because she can restrain from eating bread at dinner or works out for 46 minutes, not 45 like most people
It's always better to get your idea of yourself from other pieces of yourself, so food and self-worth don't get conflated. This can never turn out well. We all eat cookies on some days, that can's have the ability make us bad people. Food is just food.
6. Ability to feel in control of life
Many people use their control of food as a proxy for control other areas of their lives. We all have areas in our lives we experience as chaotic, such as problems at work or with a spouse or child at home. Often there is nothing we can do to affect the chaos of other people's choices that play into our lives. Many people who suffer from eating disorders find that if they mis-place attention to the areas they can control, such as the food they eat, they feel less chaotic about things they cannot control. These restrictors feel more in control because the control they are exerting, often obsessively, takes up more of the space in their mind -- mindshare -- making them feel more powerful in their lives.
What this control could look like in real life:
- a teenager living in a tense house with parents that argue all the time focusing on counting each calorie she eats making sure she stays under 1000 per day
- a middle-aged woman with a child who is having problems in school and with his peers focusing obsessively on what type of maca powder and protein additives she is using in her clean eating smoothies
- a man in an unhappy marriage or job situation where he feels ridiculed and disrespected by his wife or boss, becoming obsessed with exercise and micro-nutrients
It would serve these people better to understand where their motivation to block out the messy stuff in their life and obsess about their food comes from, and address those concerns directly.
Figuring out how you WANT to eat . . .
Most people are afraid they will blimp out if they stop trying to manage their weight. How do you decide what to eat if you’ve been eating for the bathroom scale for 40 years? But, if you ground your eating in whole-self care -- taking care of yourself to live your best life -- you will WANT to eat right for you. Judith Matz, therapist and co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, advises taking weight out of the equation, and focus on "comfort, health, and satisfaction.” She teaches intuitive eating and choose meals guided by "what you are hungry for coupled with an understanding of which foods make you feel healthy and energetic and, conversely, which ones slow you down."
"You are a grown woman, you can eat whatever the F*%k you want."
--Isabel Foxen Duke, blogger and weight-stigma social activist
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.