When I was faced with an unmanageable autoimmune disease, I turned to food as a last resort. It is likely no exaggeration to say that changing my nutrition saved my life. But some of you know from reading My Story that I also struggled with anorexia at a young age. Counting calories gave me something to control during a hard time when I felt a complete lack of control. So I know from experience that food is capable of profound healing, but it’s also capable of creating confusion, guilt and negativity.
Opening a magazine, turning on the TV or even walking down the isle of the grocery store, we are bombarded with messages that promote fear-based relationship with food from an early age. But that’s not the worst influence… I believe the biggest threat is the language we use to discuss food. How many of you grew up in a home hearing the women (or men) in your life speak as if calories were something to dread?
I was not sheltered from these influences. I recognized them too late to prevent my eating disorder. But I recognized them in time to make peace with food.
I wrote this post thinking about my future children. I hope they will learn, from my example, that food is something to be joyfully blessed as pleasure, sustenance, and medicine.
1. I focus on the quality, not quantity of food
For example, I no little attention to how much grams of fat I use when preparing my meal. Instead, I focus on the opportunity to incorporate healthful, delicious fats into my meals.
Wellbeing deals less with the quality of calories rather than quantity of calories consumed or burned. Contrary to popular belief, calories are not created equal. For example, research shows that coconut oil consumption promotes fat-burning. However, it is more calorie-dense than a piece of toast, which may contribute to a blood sugar spike, which in turn triggers fat storage. In my past-life relationship with food, I though a calorie was a calorie. Now, I consider nutrients rather than calories.
I recommend emphasizing the quality of ingredients rather than the nutrition label on food products. Is canola oil listed? Skip it (it’s not a food). Is olive oil or coconut oil listed instead? Then that’s a better choice. Even better, avoid food with ingredient lists and make from-scratch meals at home.
2. I don’t buy products labeled diet and light
I have three major problems with foods labeled diet, light, low-fat, cholesterol free, fat free, etc.:
- These labels are often put on food products, rather than whole foods. Always choose real foods over food products. As Michael Pollan says, “Consider that the healthiest foods in the supermarket–the fresh produce–are the ones that don’t make FDA-approved health claims, which typically festoon the packages of the most highly processed foods.”
- Packaged diet foods may be worse options than their non-diet counterparts. For example, diet soda contains cancer-promoting artificial sweeteners which are worse than conventional sugar.
- Research shows that when we label foods with terms such as diet, light and low fat, the body responds with less physiological satisfaction. When we perceive foods as nutrient-dense, however, the body responds with lower levels of hunger hormones, signaling more satiation. This was discovered in an extremely interesting study called Mind Over Milkshake.
3. I avoid language that promotes guilt around food
I grew up hearing the women in my life equate the decision to eat dessert with their value and identity. It went like this:
“I don’t need all those calories in that piece of cake. I need to lose a few pounds.”
But the unspoken message is,
“I believe my weight is visible measurement of my self-control, my beauty, and my value as a woman.”
This equation so permeates our society, particularly for women, and I know I have myself fallen prey to it. But now I bring awareness to the language and mindset I use around food.
Sarah Koppelkam, in her spot-one article “How To Talk To Your Daughter About Her Body” says,
“Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say, “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.”
4. I don’t intertwine food and exercise
Have you found yourself saying something along the following lines? These mashed potatoes are so fattening, I’ll have to do extra time on the treadmill. Or I can’t eat this piece of bread, I didn’t go to the gym today.
I used to trap myself in that mindset. It took the joy out of food, and it took the joy out of movement. That sucks.
Now, I enjoy movement for the sake of movement. I take dance classes to feel the exhilaration of the music and the expression of my body. I take walks to enjoy the scenery and fresh air. I take yoga classes to feel the synergy and focus of the class. I don’t think about how much muscle I’m building or how many calories I’m burning.
There is some interesting research around the food and exercise mindset. Research suggests that exercise has little if any role in the childhood obesity epidemic. While exercise is shown to be a protective factor against many diseases, studies do not support the theory that exercise leads to weight loss (source).
Labeling movement as exercise may be counterproductive. A recent study by Cornell showed that individuals told to “walk for exercise” ended up consuming significantly more calories than those told to “take nature walks.” That is likely due to the pervasive – and false – assumption that we can “out exercise a poor diet.”
5. I make mealtime a ritual
The most important factor in making peace with my food? I elevated my meals to a sacred ritual and, whenever possible, shared them with others.
I take the time to prepare thoughtful meals and then eat thoughtfully. This is effortless when I share a meal with loved ones who treasure the pleasure of eating and conversing. Conversation slows down the pace of eating, suporting satiety on a physical and emotional level.
Meal preparation can be a chore, or it can be a ritual. It is your choice.
Have you been on a journey to make peace with food? Does this resonate with you?