Tipping the Scales
Everybody has to eat. Why is it so hard to do it right?
Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. It sounds simple enough, right? But in life, the simple things are seldom easy.
We are knee-deep in January. The vim and vigor of resolution talk is starting to fade. Already, many New Year's intentions are beginning to drop off. Most people abandon their goals on or around January 19th. Many New Year's resolutions center around physical health. I have mixed feelings about this. On the surface, I am ALL FOR people leveraging a fresh start and bringing intention to how they care for themselves. Yes. Fuel your body wisely and, for the love of all things good, get out and MOVE.
But... I also see a darker underside to the New Year-New Body messaging. As a psychologist, I’ve seen people destroyed by destructive messages that masquerade under the guise of "health and wellness." When companies prey on insecurities to promote their products around the first of the year, I feel pissed. "Sign up for our *insert quick fix of choice*" It sounds great, but too many people don't appreciate that most diets aren't sustainable. They set you up to keep repeating the process.
People's relationships with food are complex. In many ways, eating can't not be emotional. From our first day on the planet, food was inextricably tied to safety and security. Milk is how we were nurtured first. Food was love. As we grow up, we collect all kinds of messages about eating and our bodies. Families set the table with norms, habits, and models that we translate into attitudes and beliefs.
The next brute force that shapes our relationship with food is our cultural milieu. It’s dizzying. Most people don't reach adulthood unscathed in some way by the conflicting messages and pressures that society dishes up for us about what we are supposed to eat and what we should weigh.
Nutrition is a relatively new science. Ideas about what is "healthy" and what's not are constantly evolving. Remember the low-fat craze of the 90s? We got scared of fat, so pumped things full of sugar to make them taste less bad. It seems ludicrous now, but in two decades, there are some things we believe today that will be defunct, too. Most medical doctors receive very little training in nutrition. The guidelines the government provides are driven by a political game powered by lobbyists and money. Yet, like most complex things, we are desperate for someone to spell out The Answers. We try to treat nutrition as a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It's not.
People sometimes treat their philosophies about food and exercise like religion. Beliefs about nutrition and fitness become dogma. For some, signing up for a gym is like joining a cult. Unfortunately, many people lack the humility to admit that they don't (can't) know it all. They won't acknowledge that what works for them may not be appropriate for everyone everywhere.
Making matters worse, we use language that makes food into something moral. It's not. The foods people consume vary significantly in nutritional value and benefit. This isn't a debate. Still, eating something or not doesn't make us morally superior any more than it makes us a failure. When people use terms like "good" and "bad" to categorize foods it creates a slippery slope to self-loathing and shame. Too often, people mistakenly believe their choices about what they consume make them "good" or "bad" people. Kale doesn't have the power to redeem someone's character any more than a Snickers can corrupt someone's soul. I bristle when I hear the phrase "clean eating.” It may seem innocent on the surface, but these subtleties in language can devolve into someone thinking that if they are not eating "clean" they've done something dirty, shameful, or disgusting. No one needs to carry around that kind of emotional weight when they're doing the hard work of taking steps to be stronger. Behavior change is hard enough as it is without your inner critic screaming at you that you're a weak, stupid cow. Guilt is for a courtroom, not your kitchen.
Our country is sick, and it's only getting sicker. Many people who are dying exist on the extreme ends of a continuum of food: too much and not enough. Disordered eating is a problem. It carries a tremendous cost to individuals and society at large. You don't have to be underweight or overweight to have a very unhealthy relationship with food or your body. Weight is a side effect of disordered behaviors and beliefs; it's not the illness itself. Eating disorders aren't an ailment that only plague white 14-year-old girls with all kinds of privilege—they are everywhere. Often, staring at you in plain sight. You are surrounded by people who can't feed themselves properly. (Maybe you are one of them.)
Struggles with food and weight are common, but that doesn't make them normal. We need to be careful not to accept disordered eating because it's a widespread phenomenon. It's serious. As a psychologist, Anorexia Nervosa is one of the deadliest mental health conditions I diagnose. It is an insidious torture that strangles people caught in its grip.
People who battle with their weight are starving for something that has nothing to do with food. For all of the talking we do about dieting, people rarely talk about what's at the core of the issue. The discussion usually stops on the surface. It's safer to talk about calories than it is to describe pain. Your colleague talking in the breakroom about her latest macro plan while she heats up her chicken and broccoli isn't detailing the depth of her obsession. You’re not hearing about how she binges every night. She'll never admit that she spends hours scrolling food accounts on Instagram before falling asleep. Instead, she smiles and swallows her shame while the world cheers her on.
Recently, I was in a session with the CEO of a large, profitable company. He has raised two responsible kids and has a great relationship with his wife. On the surface, he's a picture of success. He doesn’t see it that way. Sitting across from me, he recounted his weekend and mentioned some dietary missteps. He asked, "Joy, why can't I just figure out how to feed myself?" There was confusion, frustration, and despair in his voice. He loathes his body and has spent years battling his weight. His intelligence has never been enough to save him.
When it comes to nutrition and exercise, the knowing-doing divide isn't a gap… it's a chasm. If we can't figure out how to bridge this space, people will keep dying. Throwing more education at people about physical health can't be a stand-alone solution. Information is necessary but insufficient for behavior change. People know they would benefit from exercise, but that understanding doesn't always translate to action. Nutrition labels haven't changed behavior. For true transformation, we need to dig deeper.
Food is fraught. It's a powerful force that’s biologically tied to our survival. Things (we) can get crazy fast when we start jacking around with our eating. It doesn't take too much restriction for things to go off the rails. We began to better understand this back in the 1950s. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recruited conscientious objectors to participate in research on the effects of starvation. Scientists wanted to have a better understanding of how to refeed people properly following starvation during World War II. The results of the study were startling. The group of men participating in the study had no preexisting mental health conditions and were, by all accounts, strong, healthy individuals. Following a few months of having their intake restricted to approximately 1600 calories, participants began to exhibit bizarre eating behaviors and developed food-related obsessions that haunted many of them long after the study was over. Moderate restriction alone was enough to spark behaviors characteristic of an eating disorder. Bottom line: if you aren't giving your brain sufficient fuel, it will revolt.
When someone is ready to reexamine their relationship with food, a good starting point is to ask why they are eating (or not). Before your next bite, check in with yourself. Are you eating because you're hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? People use food not only to meet their body's needs but as a tool to self-soothe, avoid, numb, escape, entertain and medicate. For many individuals, eating is one of the only things they think they can control.
Think carefully about your relationship with movement, too. Ask: Do you exercise because you enjoy it and it helps you manage your stress? Or, do you go to the gym because you're hellbent on manipulating your body to fit into someone else's ideal? You don't need to exercise to have permission to eat. When missing a workout creates intense anxiety or panic, it's a sign you're in too deep.
If you want your relationship with food and eating to change, it's going to take something different than tracking calories or counting macros. It will require self-examination and the courage to give yourself honest answers to hard questions.
Every day for the rest of your life, you will have to figure out how to have a relationship with food. Abstinence isn't an option. Being healthy requires intention, but don't let it spiral into preoccupation or obsession. There is such a thing as becoming too focused on "being healthy." It's called orthorexia. Even good things, taken to extremes, can become our undoing.
As you take steps to be the best version of yourself, don't lose sight of the fact that an important component of health is freedom. Wellbeing includes flexibility, too. If your pursuit of physical improvement includes punishment, shame, and self-loathing, rethink your definition of health. If necessary, consider taking a different path. Getting healthier should be an expansive endeavor, not one that shrinks your life.
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