Is food good or bad? Does what we eat provide us with a moral compass on how to view ourselves?
Is a french fry and a baked potato not the same thing at the end of the day – a potato?
Then why have I have had extreme feelings of guilt and worthlessness after eating the french fry versus feeling healthy, and successful after eating the baked potato. For me- I blame the diet industry. In Canada the diet industry made over $270 million a year from 2015-2020, and in the US $71 billion dollars in 2020 alone.
My first memory of seeing a commercial on TV and wanting to change my body was when I was 12 years old. It was an ad for a product that when wrapped around your abdomen would stimulate your muscles to shed belly fat. They used extremely unrealistic before and after photos to demonstrate this little machine’s power. That year I asked Santa to bring me one – so I could loose my belly weight fast and fit in with low rise jeans and crop tops. That was the first year I didn’t get what I asked for, and the year I stopped truly believing in Santa. I did however get a letter from Santa’s workshop explaining that I am beautiful just the way I am, and that I didn’t need this magical (in my mind) weight loss machine. In retrospect, if my child asked for something like that at that age I’d write the exact same letter.
In my teen years, when I started making my own money baby sitting and working cash at a local grocery store, I would buy weight loss supplements (pills) from the supplements store and hide them in my sock drawer. I made sure to take them before every meal but I never noticed any difference in my weight – so I stopped. I was never, and still am not very good at lying to my parents.
Then, my first real structured diet, with rules, was a program called Simply for Life. Now, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and diet plans are no exception. It’s safe to say I did SFL the wrong way. I would restrict all week to weigh in on Friday and then binge all weekend. I was given a diet, but not any tools – and I definitely was not engaged with mental health support.
Unfortunately this restrict binge cycle was successful and I lost 40 lbs. When I would restrict and eat 800 calories a day of tasteless, non fat, sugar free food I felt like a success. I felt strong and skinny, like I was worthy of compliments and adoration. Then, all day Friday leading up to the weigh in I would fantasize about what I was going to eat that night (amounting to thousands of calories). After eating the “bad” foods I would feel terrible, both physically and mentally. I was worthless, I didn’t deserve to be loved because I was gross. Strong words I know, but it’s the reality of that post binge.
When I started university I had a lot of set backs in terms of friendships, hazing and bullying. Even though I was physically the smallest I had ever been, I had zero self confidence. I feel into poor eating habits (huge portions, eating late, binge drinking) and gained a freshman 50 lb. But every summer I would go home, and it would be back to that same restrict/binge cycle.
Although I was not formally a part of the SFL program anymore a lot the the rules and attitudes about food followed me through my 20’s and countless diets after that (more on my diet history later).
At 27, I was living in Toronto completing my MN-NP and I had made new friends. These friends were very supportive of me in seeking mental health care for the first time in my life. Although the diets continued until 30 years of age, my mindsets began to shift with therapy.
When I was first referred to the weight loss clinic that would eventually lead me to surgery I was told I may have an addiction to food. Addiction is a touchy subject for me and like all addicts I was in complete denial. That summer I had ended a serious relationship that was negatively affecting my body image and began to rebuild. Part of that rebuild was the acceptance of a food addiction and the realization that yes, I have a long torrid history of disordered eating. The amount of food is part of the disordered eating, but so the way I viewed food.
Good and bad, worthy and unworthy, should eat and shouldn’t eat – these were all descriptors of food I needed to remove from my vocabulary.
After this realization I explored the path of intuitive eating. Listening to my body in terms of hunger and fullness cues (and as we know from my last post my body betrayed me there a bit). Also listening to HOW I felt after eating certain foods. For example, how did I feel after eating a poutine versus a salad. I know that after the poutine I felt groggy, had stomach cramps and no energy. So maybe not a food I eat everyday BUT it’s ok in moderation.
While I will probably always have some lingering feelings of “I did good” or “I did bad” after a meal I know my focus has changed to – how do I change the script on how food is described, avoid giving food and good or bad label and recognize the food for what nutritional value it gives me (from a scientific point of view).
A potato deep fried (aka a french fry) is giving my body added saturated fat, which in small amounts is totally fine, in fact your body needs it – but in large amounts consistently, over time that added saturated fat can be dangerous. All this to say – a french fry is food that is cooked a certain way -it’s not evil and eating it does not make me a bad person.
At the end of the day how you feel about food is completely up to you. Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re eating changes your worth or makes you a good/bad person.
Let’s change the way we talk about food, especially around the kiddos and teens. They are learning from scratch and we have a golden opportunity to enforce that food is food right from the start. Please explain, no you can’t have chocolate cake every day because your body doesn’t need that much sugar to do it’s job – but that having cake for a birthday isn’t bad. Saying “Oh I really shouldn’t be eating this, its bad” in front of an impressionable youth reinforces your rhetoric of negativity towards food.
So remember – at the end of the day a cake is just sugar, flour and eggs – a french fry is just a potato.