Food Doesn’t Have to Be a Four-Letter Word
Fat. It’s what many people tend to see in the mirror. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, people with eating disorders inhabit an alternate reality, perceiving themselves as “fun house” reflections sporting thunder thighs and prominent girth—even if this image holds nary a grain of truth.
The pressure to look good is no secret; it’s bred into us from birth. Advertising especially targets prepubescent girls, hawking make-up and designer clothes. An Exeter University survey found that by the time they’re teens, more than half of all girls say their appearance is the prime concern of their lives.
Not every teen who diets to fit society’s definition of beautiful will develop an eating disorder. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetics, psychological issues, and social factors, such as a culture that promotes thinness above all else. Eating disorders are, however, an epidemic:
Seven million women and one million men suffer from an eating disorder.
86 percent are afflicted before they turn 20.
Only half say they’ve been cured.
How Has Food Become the Enemy?
Kim Chernin, author of The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity, calls it a cultural crisis: in our perpetual struggle to meet the Madison Avenue definition of beauty, we lose ourselves. It’s also a survival issue: food, like shelter and love, is one of our most basic human needs. If we feel we have little control over anything else in our lives, at least we can control our bodies by starving them.
For many of us, with or without eating disorders, food is a stand-in for love. People who have grown up in dysfunctional families may eat to hide their loneliness and to ensure that love keeps a safe distance. One man began gaining weight as he began losing family members. By the time both his parents and his older brother had died, he was more than 100 pounds overweight, with kitchen cabinets stockpiled against further pain.
When real love—the kind that can heal our wounds—shows its face, it can become easier, and safer, to reach for the Rocky Road.
Becoming our true selves is work, although it doesn’t have to be painful. Nor does food need to serve as a substitute for the nourishment we crave. Instead, food can be our medicine, as indigenous peoples use this word: that which heals us into wholeness.
Anita Johnston, Ph.D., author of Eating in the Light of the Moon, sees a spiritual and emotional hunger that women try to fill with food, when what’s needed is a strong connection to the feminine spirit. Johnston uses myth and storytelling to reconnect women to the natural rhythms of the Earth “that celebrate the power of women’s intuitive wisdom—a formidable gift that contemporary women often conceal or suppress (like the natural roundness of their bodies) in order to fit into society’s emphasis on the linear, rational, logical mind.”
These issues are also being addressed by male leaders such as poet Robert Bly, whose gatherings help men get in touch with their essential nature, making them less likely to act out their sense of disconnection with food.
The following “conscious eating” cues can help tip the scales in your favor:
Plan ahead. Decide what and when to eat, make a shopping list, and stick to it. Enjoy preparing your food as much as you’ll enjoy serving and eating it.
Eat slowly. It takes about twenty minutes for your brain to get the message that you’re full. Chew your food thoroughly and put your fork down between bites.
Eat mindfully. Don’t watch the news or read while eating. Pay attention to your plate.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Studies have shown that a feeling of hunger can actually be thirst, misinterpreted.
Eat three daily meals. It’s easy to overeat if you’re famished. If you know you’ll be on a tight schedule, pack healthy snacks such as raw veggies, fruit, and nuts.
Join or launch a healthy eating circle. Gather with like-minded people to support one another in becoming your authentic selves. Consider 12-Step groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous (OA) or Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA).
If you suspect that you or someone you know has an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to call. The problem is unlikely to go away by itself, and early intervention is key to recovery.