Our Relationship With Food: Why it’s messed up, and how I changed mine

I was eating my favorite fried chicken sandwich with fries recently and I started to think about our relationship with food. As Americans, I think we have a really weird and somewhat dysfunctional relationship with one of the most important things our body needs to survive. We put a lot of emphasis on what we should and shouldn’t eat. We count calories. We measure macronutrients, watching carbs and fats while believing almost always that one or both of them are evil. We eat on all sorts of plans like Whole30, Paleo, Keto and probably some that I haven’t even heard of.

And then sometimes we eat food that we think we shouldn’t be eating, and instead of just owning the decision we feel like we need to punish ourselves or do something to make up for what we just ate. We say things like “I’ll work out extra hard tomorrow.” “I’ll eat a salad for dinner.” Or even worse, “I just won’t eat dinner.”

A complimentary and still unhealthy way of approaching things is the reward system, when we feel like we have to give ourselves permission to eat a certain thing because of something we did. “I went to the gym this morning so it’s ok for me to eat pizza.” “I ate a salad for dinner so it’s ok for me to eat ice cream.”

And then there’s the justification statement: “I know this is so bad for me but I’m still going to eat it”. This seems to happen more often when the person you’re eating with knows that you eat healthy, so they feel like they have to justify their decision. I will never judge you for what you’re eating, unless you’re in a hot dog eating contest because seriously, no one in their right mind should eat that much processed meat in one sitting.

The worst though, is people who go through their day barely eating and then when they tell you about it you’re supposed to somehow feel sorry for them or congratulate them for being such a martyr. “Oh my gosh, I was so busy today that all I had was a protein shake for breakfast and a can of green beans for lunch and now I’m STARVING.” I don’t even know how I’m supposed to respond to this? Mostly I’m just sorry that you don’t know how to take care of yourself. I almost always know where my next meal is coming from, and in many cases, exactly what I will be eating. It’s especially like this when I’m eating at home or when I’m traveling. My entire travel schedule revolves around when I’m eating next and no, I’m not ashamed of this at all. In fact, on a recent trip with a girlfriend, it was what solidified the fact that she was a good travel buddy – because she loves food just as much as I do.

When I was in France and Italy last summer, I observed something completely different, almost radical, about people’s relationship with food. They just eat it. They eat whatever they want. They eat bread and pastries and meat and salads and pasta and don’t think twice about it. And because I wanted to eat like they did, I ate all the bread. And cheese. And meats. And pasta. And steak frites. And I enjoyed every second of it.

I returned feeling sort of jealous for the way that the French and Italians were eating, and gave a lot of consideration to why we, in the states, could not eat like they do. Why can’t I eat half a baguette with butter and jam, and some fruit and cheese for breakfast? Why can’t I eat a three course dinner? When I started questioning this, especially among my friends, their answers were usually similar. Our food here is over processed. We aren’t as active as they are. I call bullshit on all of it. I think there has to be a way for us to eat what we want, within reason and without guilt.

I think one of the reasons that our relationship with food is so messed up is that the teachings are changing all the time. Back in the 90’s, fat was so bad for you and the fat-free craze came about. Then carbs were bad for you, spawning the Atkins protein-rich diet movement. Now, processed foods are bad for you so you’re better off eating the fat than eating the overly processed versions of foods with little or no fat. Like butter instead of margarine. (BTW, have you ever had European butter? OMG… it’s THE BEST.) Carbs are good for you as long as you’re eating whole grains. When I was working out with a trainer several years ago and eating like a body builder, I was told never to eat carbs after 3pm (except vegetables). So because my trainer told me to eat this way, and because it worked (I was in the best shape of my life) I continued to believe that carbs after 3pm was always a bad idea, and that the way to stay in shape was to not do it (even though I didn’t always adhere to this in the following years).

Another reason for our dysfunctional relationship with food has to do with the punishment and reward system I mentioned earlier. We know that we should be eating “healthy” foods (which takes on a different definition depending on who you ask) and then when we don’t eat foods that fall into our perceived category of healthy, we think we have to work them off. Or we incentivize and treat ourselves with foods that we think are not healthy. Or worse yet, we use them to self-medicate during times of sadness or stress.

Even if our parents did not teach us about nutrition and how to make good food choices, there’s a chance you’ve at least read an article , watched a video or learned about it in a health class at some point. I’m not a nutritional expert by any means, but I think we can agree generally on the difference between good food and bad food. There are general principles about shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. Eating food with the fewest ingredients and foods that aren’t overly processed and contain things we can’t even pronounce.

I recently read a book called Food Freedom Forever by Melissa Hartwig, and here’s the key takeaway (well, my interpretation of it anyway): food freedom means eating what you want but understanding the benefits and consequences that come from the food you’re eating. It’s the freedom of understanding what your body needs in order to make it feel and function its best, but also knowing how it will feel when you eat ice cream or Doritos or a fried chicken sandwich (3 of my favorite things), and being prepared for the potential consequences. But it’s also understanding that our bodies will not be healthy or feel great on a diet of ice cream, Doritos and fried chicken sandwiches.

In order to understand how your body responds to different foods, you have to first give it a reset. THIS IS HARD. But I’m telling you right now, it’s totally worth it if you want to live a life of food freedom. For 30 days I eliminated sugar, alcohol, dairy and gluten from my diet. And also bacon and processed meats. And yes, I slipped up a couple times. But, I kept right on going and almost 90 days later I am still not really ingesting these food groups. Why? Because I learned that my body does like some dairy (especially cheese) but I can do without too much gluten (bye bye baguettes). Too much sugar gives me a headache almost instantly. Just this past week I ate a donut and ice cream in the same day, and the next morning I felt like I might die. Will this stop me from eating donuts or ice cream ever again? Probably not. But I know the effect they will have on my body and I can choose whether I want to wreck myself or not.

In my last post I talked about how I recently went to an Ayurvedic practitioner because I really wanted to get in tune with my body and have a better blueprint for what I should or shouldn’t be eating for optimal health. I learned that my body needs more white fish and meat and less salmon and beef. I need to eat more greens and avoid spicy food (which I mostly do anyway). But the big eye opener for me is that I wasn’t eating enough! And as a result, my body was not producing enough energy, causing me to be tired almost all day, even after sleeping 8 ½ hours. She also told me not to worry about calories or macronutrients, and that it’s ok to eat some carbs with my dinner (again, mostly whole grains – not a giant plate of spaghetti).

You don’t have to take it to that level, that’s not my point. But the beauty of this Ayurvedic “diet”, and food freedom generally, is that there are NO RULES. Just because I eat more white fish doesn’t mean I can’t ever eat salmon. It’s about limiting certain foods and making wise decisions. It’s about never having to justify what you are eating or make excuses about it. It’s about not having to punish yourself because you ate pizza. It’s about understanding what your body needs and making the best choices. At least 80% of the time. Or whatever percentage you feel is right.

One Comment

  1. Kim McKinney

    Great post. I have been struggling with this lately after gaining some weight. I don’t want to cut out food groups, but need to find my right balance. I’m still not 100% sure where I stand, but I suspect it’s going to land on me wanting to eat a colorful and varied diet and enjoy all the food!

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