Growing up, at least one person in my family was on a fad diet at any given time. From ‘les combinaisons alimentaires’ to ‘Weight Watchers’ to ‘the Caveman Diet’, our menus and dietary habits were constantly in a state of flux. Of course none of them seemed to quite work out for anyone/everyone or stick around for more than a year. There was always a new diet, promising to be the key to health and weight loss.
I remember being in fourth grade, counting calories, taking note of everything I ingested and how much exercise I was doing, marching in place while on the phone to burn even more calories. I weighed myself every day, tracking my progress, trying to live up to body expectations reflected by Disney princesses, Barbies and the gorgeous 90s models I saw on Fashion Television every Sunday night in my YiaYia’s basement. And don’t get me started on Sunday dinner in a mediterranean household. The portions were huge and plentiful, with a minimum of three main courses on top of the plethora of appetizers and side dishes, all made with love (ie loads of butter). Every Monday I had to start from scratch, hating myself for overeating all the delicious homemade Greek food I so longingly dream of now that my grandmother has passed. In high school, this ritual of eating very little during the week and overeating on Sunday’s contributed to an even more negative relationship to food.
Never feeling thin enough, feeling horribly guilty when I did eat something unhealthy, and then spiraling into binge eating out of stress and self-loathing. Ah what a life. And I know I am not alone. A number of women around me have battled with binge eating, purging, the use of laxatives, eliminating whole food groups, low calorie diets and over-exercising. The World Health Organization estimates that 1% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa, 1.5% from bulimia and 35% of the whole population is overweight. This does not take into account disordered eating behaviours, which amounts to about 65% of the American female population according to a survey conducted by SELF magazine with the University of North Carolina, in 2008.
But now I’m an adult and my relationship to food has gotten better. I, like so many others, have stopped dieting and eat “clean” instead. It’s a lifestyle, not a diet, we say. Sound familiar? Staying away from processed foods, focusing on fresh produce, limiting my intake of meat, little to no sugar, this all sounds great. But have we really gotten over our obsession with food or is clean eating just a cover up for a new dieting epidemic?
The obsession with health has a name, orthorexia, although it isn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder. Yet. Orthorexia is defined as an obsession, similar to OCD, with eating the right foods at a social and emotional expense. If your pursuit of health and dietary inflexibility is causing you anxiety, emotional distress, feelings of guilt and self-loathing, how healthy can it really be? The fixation and neuroses surrounding food is still rampant, but now it’s socially acceptable and can be hidden under the guise of wellness. Many women today have a form of acceptable, glamorized eating disorder. We say it’s about wellness and health. But it might be more about wanting to fit into those size 2 jeans and our cultural obsession with the perfect body.
There is also an element of elitism, a sense of moral superiority associated with eating ‘clean’. Nigella Lawson, journalist and chef puts it best: "I despair of the term 'clean eating though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. ['Clean eating'] necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it's not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating." If organic, unprocessed, fresh food is “clean” what does that make the rest of food, that let’s face it, is inadvertently linked to a person’s income? Organic, gluten-free alternatives, chia seeds, hemp seeds, coconut oil, all these trendy health foods are sold at premium prices and only the well-off can afford them. Food manufacturers are hiking up prices on products by labeling them gluten-free although there is no proof that gluten free diets actually have all the benefits touted by “expert” Instagram nutritionists and self-proclaimed health coaches. Unless you are in fact celiac or gluten intolerant. But people are eating up this pseudo-science and spending billions doing it. GMO and non-organic food is not necessarily bad for you. Eating gluten definitely isn’t. Butter, cheese, bread are all sources of nutrients and if balanced with a wide variety of food groups, can be nutritious and contribute to a healthy body, mind and soul.
With this clean eating health craze, we may have sacrificed flavour and pleasure in exchange for “cleanliness” and rigid rules. Food is not only meant to nurture us but it is also a social activity, meant to be enjoyed, shared, savoured. Don’t believe me? A recent Vice article outlining why the gluten-free trend is a myth mentions a study conducted in the 60s that suggests taking pleasure in eating your food may actually help you absorb more nutrients. “In this study, a group of women – some Thai, the rest Swedish – ate a spicy rice dish, made with flavours and ingredients familiar within Thai cuisine. Scientists found that the Thai women – who hadn't been as thrown by the spiciness of the food as the Swedish women – absorbed nearly 50 percent more iron than the others. When participants were fed puréed meals (comprised of the kinds of foods they knew and enjoyed), they absorbed on average 70 percent less iron than they did when fed those same meals in their more appetising, unpuréed, format. The pleasure that these women anticipated, and then relished, in their food actually helped them to be more nourished than when they received the same nutrients in a less palatable package. It was a startling result, and highlights what wellness so often overlooks: that when we separate pleasure from nutrition in our diets, we end up less nourished – physically and emotionally – than ever. Enjoying your food, it turns out, is good for you.” The takeaway? Eat the food you love, touch on a variety of food groups, listen to your body, practice moderation and balance but most of all, enjoy.
Not to say that eating healthy food is a bad thing, on the contrary. It’s the neuroses that accompanies a rigid and extreme ‘lifestyle’ that makes it worrisome, especially for young girls who are obsessing and feeling bad about about their bodies and looks. “By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls ages 6-12 are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life (Smolak, 2011).” We need to find ways to prevent this unhealthy, critical, negative way of thinking about the food we put in our bodies, so that we don’t have children falling into this lifelong dieting trap.
Obsessive, fearful, black and white thinking, comes at the expense of pleasure and enjoyment. Anxiety and guilt surrounding ‘bad foods’ hints at a deeper fear that if we are not healthy and thin we will not be loved. Therein lies the issue. Forbidden food creates anxiety around that food, so when we do “slip up” and give in to cravings, we tend to overindulge. If that food is always available to us, not off limits, we can enjoy it whenever we want, when our body craves it, and then move on, with little repercussion to our health, emotions and body weight. There are benefits to a more relaxed, pleasure driven nutrition in order to nourish our bodies and soul. Perhaps eating that forbidden fruit will help us realize, it’s not actually forbidden. It’s just fruit/dessert/bread, we don’t need to moralize what we eat and label it good or bad. It just is. Rigid rules are not the answer, as they simply give us the illusion of being in control and we end up setting ourselves up for disappointment and spiraling. Once we truly accept and love our bodies, we'll intuitively feel and know what it needs to be healthy and beautiful. For the longest time I believed bread was the devil and low carb diets were the way to go. I learnt first hand that eliminating whole food groups is really not the way to go. It just lead to anxiety, which doesn’t help with maintaining a healthy weight (stress hormones contribute to storing fat). When I started running more consistently, I stopped thinking about food in my traditional “will it make me fat” kind of way. I needed bread to sustain me throughout the day and I found I actually lost weight, had more energy, and got to enjoy the food I liked (yay grilled cheese!) I also started loving and appreciating what my body was capable of doing rather than solely focusing on how it looked.
- Find a role model that does not subscribe to the perfect body ideal. Someone you admire for their talent and confidence, that show you a different type of beauty. Talk to them, check out their Insta or their work whenever you are in doubt about your self-worth because of your weight or body or the food you are eating. It’s a good reminder that people are so much more than their appearance. I like to read up about all the cool things Princess Nokia is up to and blast her song Tomboy (ultimate modern day girl power anthem), and scream along to the part that goes “MY LITTLE TITTIES AND MY FAT BELLY”. Does the trick every time.
- Put your phone away while eating, and take the time to really enjoy every bite of your meal, no distractions. Notice the smell, the texture, the flavours. Repeat until you feel satiated. Smile knowing you’ve absorbed way more nutrients than you normally do.
- Pick a culture or theme, find some recipes online and cook everything from scratch for you and one special person. Play some music that fits the food, have some wine while cooking, and dance. There’s really no pleasure in life like discovering new flavours and ingredients and cooking for someone you love.
- Write a love letter to your body. Thank it for doing all that it does for you. Literally write down everything you are grateful for from how it allows you to do everything from run, watch movies, orgasm, taste food, kiss, hug your sister, whatever. Your body allows you to experience the world, experience life, don't take it for granted, it's special and it's yours.
- Eat that slice of pizza. Food is not the enemy, it’s an ally to life! Find ways that work for you. Personally, sugar gives me headaches and makes me feel like shit so I don't eat it. But I do love some dark chocolate or cheesecake once in a while so I indulge, guilt free, knowing that I generally take care of my body and provide it with healthy fresh fuel on the daily. Life is short, don’t stress, ENJOY. Remember, weight fluctuates. No beating yourself up, k?
About The Self-Love Project
An ongoing series of articles written by Alice Kass founder for the latest issue of WRG magazine
explores the relationship we have with ourselves through a variety of different lenses. A mix of self-reflection and collaborative projects, this series brings to light the importance of a mind-body-soul connection in nurturing the most important relationship in our lives, the one with ourself.