The Ways We Talk About Food: Part 3

How Now Do We Talk (And Eat)?


Before we pick up where we left off, I want to preface our conversation with a little formula:

Skinny = healthy       Fat = unhealthy

If you haven’t already encountered this formula as the driving force of, say, a fitness community or diet plan, you can encounter it verbatim in a book like Skinny Bitch (true story).

But at the risk of losing popularity points with the fitness and dieting community… and Skinny Bitch (#lowstakes  #zerotobeginwith), I want to say: this formula makes me cringe.

It makes me cringe because it’s not true. It makes me cringe because there is a huge difference between getting healthy and getting healthy to get skinny.

And when it comes to thinking critically about the ways we talk about food, we won’t get very far until we can make this distinction.

For the last couple posts, I’ve been looking at examples of fear- and shame-inducing language that shape how we think about food and our bodies. In my first post, I talked about my own experiences with “eating healthy” and how a strict approach to “good” and ”bad” food was, ironically, unhealthy for me. In my second post, I explored “the fallacy of perfect eating,” and how,  despite the complexities of foodAND our bodiesour language reveals a need for black-and-white certainty when it comes to “eating healthy” and keeping our bodies “pure.”

So here’s where we left off with a couple questions at the end of Part 2:

What if speaking in these black-and-white ways really motivates a person to lose weight (if that is needed) or habituate healthier choices?

How now should I approach and think about foods, especially if I do care about the goal of holistic health and wellness?

To take on the first question, I want to hone in on the word “motivation.”

When it comes to pursuing healthy eating, it’s important to ask: What am I REALLY trying to motivate myself to do?

Am I vulnerable to mistaking byproducts of health and wellnesslike weight lossas the end goals themselves? Do I automatically equate “healthy” with being thin or losing weight? Do I ever, consciously or not, fall for “the formula”?

Consider a woman who interprets “healthy” to mean some arbitrary, hardly-attainable weight for her physiologysay, 135 poundswhen, really, having a healthy, energized, full-of-vitality body for hereven though she interprets it as “fat”means something more like 175 pounds. Or consider the college student who interprets “wellness” to mean going to the gym for 1 to 2 hours everyday out of sheer compulsion and fear of that “feeling” of “being out of shape.”

These are not examples of health and wellness; they are examples of fear, obsessiveness, and distorted thinking that actually compromises a person’s physical AND mental well-being.

If I want more than anything to be skinny or thin or thinNER or “back to what I used to be,” there’s a good chance that my motivator is fear or shame (shame that I’ve “let myself go,” that my body doesn’t fit into a certain pair of jeans anymore, etc.). And there’s a good chance that talking about food as “crap” or “garbage,” or my body as a “toxic waste dump,” is the kind of language to which I unconsciously gravitate— or the kind of language that influenced my desires in the first place. Thinking of foods in drastic “good”s or “bad”s, with no room for in-betweens, would seem the only effective way to shame my body into shape fast.

But thoughts shape language, and language shapes thoughts. If my motivation is true wellness of everythingbody, mind, thoughts, spiritI can’t imagine that language which exaggerates and manipulates is good for a person. It would lead to imbalance.

This takes me to the second question . . .  how now do we eat?

My answer, in one little word, is balanced.

Okay, it’s not a little word. It’s a big word. It’s a buzzword. We hear it over and over again, not just in health rhetoric, but in most self-help books about managing time or relationships. And rightly so; balance is the key to living a life that, among other things, staves off obsessiveness and isolation, encourages soberness of mind and perspective, and enables one to live a life according to his or her most precious values. 

But balance is also one of those things we always say we’re working toward but never quite attaining. Balance is beautiful but hard. There are no easy black and whites, no once-and-for-all “eat this and not that”; there’s no “perfect” or “imperfect,” “pure” or “impure.” Instead, there’s moderation and modulation. There’s ebb and flow. There’s grace and listening to your body.

A balanced approach to food does not so easily reduce, say, simple carbohydrates to being “nutritionally beneficial as toilet paper.  

Consider that example for a moment. You’ve probably heard simple carbs or refined carbs (pasta, white bread, crackers, sweets, etc.) referred to as “empty calories” because, in proportion to their energy content (calories), they contain little to no nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, etc.). “Empty calories” have gotten such a bad rap because, for a person who must count every calorie, every calorie must count— i.e., be as nutrient-dense as possible. This person can’t imagine his or her body taking on any extra “fluff” in the form of another pound. Or two, or ten.

There’s no denying that nutrient-dense foods are essential; but this doesn’t justify some of the extremes of calorie counting. Yes, we need a world of nutrients for our bodies to function and for us to do all the things we want to dobe focused at work, run around the yard with the kids, play sports or travel, feel peace and sleep well. And it’s amazingartful, eventhat the body is made this way, to need a whole color palate of vitamins and minerals to keep us thriving. For this reason, if I were to eat, say, only refined sugar, or only those evil hydrogenated oils, every day of my life, then, yes, after a LONG while… I suppose it would literally be lethal.

But you know what’s not lethal? Refined sugaror any “empty calories”in moderation, and in combination with other nutrient-dense foods. What’s not lethal is eating the occasional Friday work donut just because, or going out for ice cream with those kids who just ran you all over the yard. What’s not lethal is indulging in a pastry in France or beer in Germany or pasta in Florence when you travel (PLEASE, for the love of God, eat empty calories when you travel).

But the kind of language that demonizes or simply exaggerates the effects of these foods can very easily lead to imbalanced thinking especially in a culture that is already radically imbalanced in how it thinks about the aesthetics of the body.

That being said, one way to combat this unhelpful kind of language is to use words that better reflect the actual chemistry and physiological functions of food. Take sugar, for example. I recently talked to a friend who is in therapy for EDNOS. She is keeping a journal in which she documents how she feels after she eats certain foods, along with interrogating words like “junk food” with her counselor. The exercise has been helpful for her because, the more she tries to use neutral words, she is better able to surface how she really feels after eating them, rather than just thinking that she feels “gross,” “fat,” “like crap,” etc. She wrote, for example, that she felt “lethargic” after eating certain calorie-dense foods quickly and/or at once, or a “sugar rush” after eating sugary foods.

Keeping a food journal in this way can help you cultivate mindful eatingwhich has been helpful for those seeking to recover from anorexia and binge-eating alikeand get you more in touch with when you are hungry, when you are full, and what specifically your body is craving and why. And keeping such a journal can help you think intentionally about the words you use.

The dialogue about healthy and unhealthy food is overwhelmingly lopsided. For every one voice that challenges the rhetoric out there, there are a thousand voices that drown it out with the usual “eat this, don’t eat that” or the loud speculations along the lines of, “Americans are going to hell in handbasket” when it comes to health (I can’t tell you how many student papers I’ve read about the obesity epidemic in America). What’s lacking in the conversation is just general pushback against the often oversimplified and too-easily-justified health rhetoric. And pushback is especially necessary when that kind of language is entangled with expectations about how a person’s body should look.

The way we talk about food is important. And the way we talk about our bodies is important. Perhaps with more careful attention to the language we use and absorb on a daily basislanguage that at once shapes our thoughts and is shaped by themwe can ultimately untether ourselves from the destructive effects of health rhetoric and pursue wellness in both our bodies and our thoughts. They are not so compartmentalized from each other as our language inclines us to think. 🙂



*NOTE: While my hope is that these entries open up a productive dialogue for any and all, some of them may be especially relatable for those who have struggled with—or love someone who struggles with—orthorexia, anorexia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), or simply any patterns of anxious or obsessive thoughts surrounding food and body image. But to also acknowledge those in a different realm of food challenges (or perhaps overlapping): if you are someone who deals with a food allergy or addiction, autoimmune disease, and/or medically mandated dietary restrictions, some of these sentiments may not be as applicable or resonant—at least, not in the same way. Either way, I’d love to know why that is or isn’t the case, so feel free to make use of the comments section below or message me!

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