Yesterday I read a great piece over on the Huffington Post: Eating Disorders Were Created Equal — So Why Don’t We Treat Them That Way? by Margaret Wheeler Johnson. This is something I’ve often pondered but have rarely – if ever – seen discussed, let alone at a place with as high a readership as HuffPo. Wheeler Johnson references a piece in The Daily Beast, So, Are You Recovered? by Emma Woolf: “What Woolf hits on in her piece is that we tend to see the three phenomena — eating disorders, a general cultural anxiety about food and weight and skyrocketing obesity rates– as separate problems with separate solutions. Instead, we need to recognize that they all stem from the same root. Obesity isn’t the opposite of anorexia (or bulimia or disordered eating or just distorted thinking about food). It’s its twin.
I’m sure if you haven’t already clicked over to read the article that you will after that quote. Go ahead, read it, I will wait. 😉
I think about weight, food, health, and subjects like that a lot – probably in part because I am a former anorexic in a 200 pound woman’s body. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think “Wow, what would your 20 year old self think about this?” She would probably think that I got lazy, and to some extent she’d be right. You can read more about my struggles with food and getting/staying healthy here. My 32 year old self isn’t a fan of it but for different reasons. I no longer have an all-consuming desire to be thin; I no longer feel like I am in control when I don’t eat; but I have noticed that in some ways, my relationship with food has just flipped to the opposite extreme.
The HuffPo article mentions a CDC statistic that nearly 70% of American adults are overweight. A sizeable (no pun intended) bit over half! You can blame anything and everything for this: laziness, lack of personal responsibility, mcdonalds and other fast food restaurants, our “on the go” society, desk jobs, the internet or video games, processed food and its marketing, lack of understanding/education about eating healthfully, but no one cause is fully to blame. It stands to reason that if the majority of Americans are overweight something is wrong with our relationship with food. Whether we restrict or binge, obesity really can be an eating disorder that is vastly more dangerous than any eating disorder where food is restricted.
When I look around, I see virtually no one who has a healthy relationship with food. I follow many health/wellness accounts on instagram, but while fitness enthusiasts and body builders may eat healthily, many of them don’t seem to have a particularly healthy relationship with food. One in particular pops into my mind, who puts Quest nutrition bars into the oven and bakes them for an “indulgent” snack. A world where one never eats a cookie or just opts for another, more healthy sweet processed food isn’t a relationship with food that I want to hold up as a guideline for how we should eat. The problem, is that whether we are eating healthy or unhealthy, food can become too big a part of our lives.
Food in our culture is many things – an indulgence, a comfort, a social activity, a pastime, an escape, but rarely is it seen as just fuel for our bodies. When I was at my healthiest when I was running regularly, my relationship with food shifted and became the healthiest it has ever been in my life. I started thinking about food as what made me go; I started paying attention to protein and how often I ate it (as a pescatarian – vegetarian except for seafood – it had until that point been very easy for me to have little or no protein in a day), carbs stopped being scary and started being a necessary part of a balanced diet. I ate a lot of egg whites, salmon, protein shakes, and I concentrated on getting the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings each day. It was probably the only time in my life that food was not my comfort, either in its restriction or in its indulgence.
My current problem came when I discovered sugar. Sugar is a staple of a processed American diet, but up until two years ago I had never been that big of a fan of sweets. I’d almost always choose pretzels over cookies, preferring something salty as a snack. When I quit drinking alcohol something in my body changed, I started craving sweets. It was new and extremely different for me, I didn’t even eat a piece of the cake that I bought for my graduation party. Suddenly I wanted ice cream and candy and cake! Then, when I went through a bad breakup, I realized that ice cream and candy and cake tasted really really good. There were days when I didn’t stop feeling hungry, when no matter how much I ate I didn’t feel satisfied. Never one to keep sweets in the house (once there was an open package of oreos in my pantry for 3 years. They just sat there untouched!) I found myself driving through Sonic and Dairy Queen for their blended ice cream treats. I’d pick up a two-slice package of freshly baked cake as I did my grocery shopping. I had four scoops of ice cream for dessert at a local Chinese food buffet when normally I just ate fresh fruit as dessert.
Sweets weren’t just my indulgence or comfort, they started to take on an almost sensual quality. The way the cold ice cream melts against your tongue on a warm, summer day; the rich, fluffy texture of a slice of cake; the way my mouth seemed to come alive as I bit into a piece of Ghirardelli dark chocolate; a kitkat’s perfect combination of sweetened chocolate and light, crunchy wafers; before I knew it I was eating in a way I had never eaten in my life. Not so long ago I did things like microwaving mini cinnamon rolls and putting vanilla ice cream atop them just because it sounded good. I started thinking about sweets the way I had thought about all food back when I was restricting, like a forbidden lover. I thought about when we could be together again, how good it would feel, how I would get a satisfaction that nothing else gave me… It should really be of no surprise to me that disordered eating translated so utterly and perfectly from restriction to indulgence. I stopped finding joy in denying myself but I found it again in comforting myself with food, either way I was controlled by food.
Wheeler Johnson’s piece goes on to ask: “What if we started reading our eating issues as part of the same story, of a culture’s broken relationship with food and a resulting body image crisis? What if we viewed all people who use food and weight to cope with challenges in their lives as worthy of compassion, whether they are fat or thin?” If we were able to do that, I think the story would begin to change. I’m still in the middle of mine. I’m beginning to control my sugar addiction with extreme portion control, just a little indulgence. I’m also starting to fight all the things inside me that seem to make it impossible for me to sustain good health. I know it’s possible because I did it before, it’s just that my fear, loneliness, sadness, all of that disappears for a moment when I take a bite of cake or put a spoonful of oreo blizzard in my mouth. I realize that food cannot make me feel whole, and that until I deal with the things that have driven me to try to fill that void with alcohol, relationships, attention, and now food that nothing will be able to satisfy me. That has got to be the first step, at least.