In the United States, roughly 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Countless more will suffer from disordered eating habits, or simply from a damaging relationship with food, even if such behavior is not explicitly classified in the DSM-5.
Disordered eating includes chronic restrained eating, compulsive eating, binge eating, and chaotic eating patterns, to name just a few examples. On a daily basis, disordered eating might manifest in the form of worrying about how many potatoes you received as a side, saying “no” to dinner plans to avoid being tempted by high-calorie food, or shaming yourself for eating dessert. While such behaviors might not be “enough” to warrant a diagnosis from your provider, they are enough to impact your quality of life.
Food, at its core, is meant to provide nutrients to our bodies. We break proteins into amino acids and use them as building blocks to create and repair tissues of our own. We use vitamins to assist our enzymes in performing vital reactions. We emulsify fat to form membranes for our cells and to invest energy for later use. However, in a country where food is plentiful (although not universally accessible), food also provides a means for social bonding, for finding comfort, and for passing time. All too easily, we forget how fundamentally we rely on it. In this vein, food also serves as a means for restriction, a means for excess, and worst of all, a means of punishing yourself.
How can we strike a balance between food’s essential role of fueling our bodies and its social role of fueling our souls without driving ourselves into disordered eating habits? This is a question I’ve grappled with for years with solutions that I must mentally review and revise on a daily basis. Of course, there are times when those solutions fail. Through them however, I am not a failure (and neither are you). We’re just people learning how to live better.
At the core of “healthy” eating (healthy in the holistic sense of nutrition and well-being) is your willingness to listen to your body more than you look at your body. Coupled with a form of movement that you truly enjoy, this strategy is incredibly powerful. When you focus on how you feel (hungry, comfortably full, bloated, tired, etc.), you bring some of your intention back to the root function of food. After a particularly challenging workout or before an upcoming race, you start focusing more on how you can best fuel your body — how you can reach that peak performance. Similarly, your friend’s birthday dinner might have you craving a different kind of fuel — the kind that comes from emotional connection and a lightness of heart (in which case, absolutely get the queso). When you’re truly listening to your body, there is never a time that your reflection or your weight on a scale has a say — in fact, they never should.
Above all, a healthy relationship with food and with yourself requires eliminating all connotations of punishment and reward. Whether self-created or imposed by our surroundings (or, likely, both), our tendency to label our food and ourselves as good or bad is nearly automatic. What does this labeling actually look like? Weight Watchers points. “[Insert food here] is bad for you.” “I was good because I ate kale yesterday.” This kind of thinking has tremendous potential for overanalysis, obsession, and negative self-talk, all of which work together to silence the voice that matters most. Listen to your body. It knows best.