Rethinking Rule-Based Eating
How do you decide what to eat? It’s a choice we make constantly, affected by a myriad of immediate factors like what’s available, time, money, what our stomachs and taste buds are begging for. There are background voices, too: a lifetime of seeing food ads, media about the latest diet craze or a friend’s weight loss, conversations where foods are deemed “good” or “bad.” These voices trickle in and tell us what we should eat – what we should want to eat. The question is: how do you know which voices to listen to?
The challenges of time, money, grocery and kitchen access can be especially chaotic for young adults amidst changes in work, school, and housing. With this many variables, and a chorus of outside voices, it’s not your fault if it’s difficult to make comfortable, clear-headed food choices.
March is National Nutrition Month, and we are also a few months past New Years, when many people make resolutions about food, exercise, or body care regimens. But often, as the spring goes on, overly ambitious goals have been missed or diets abandoned. Feelings of shame and failure can well up, even resulting in worse health and self-care than before the goals were set. Now is a good time to check in and ask – how do I feel about food? Confused, stressed, at peace? Is stress about “eating right” taking a toll on my body or mind?
WHAT IS YOUR BODY SAYING?
What many diets, New Years’ resolutions, and meal plans have in common is that we look outside ourselves for answers on “how to eat.” Having outside perspectives isn’t inherently bad, and if a diet makes you feel positive, satisfied, and nourished – great! Just try not to assume what works for you will work for someone else. Maybe, however, you keep searching for the “right” way to eat, to no avail – even feeling trapped in a cycle of failed diets. If so, you’re not alone.
Problems can arise when we rely so heavily on sources outside ourselves for eating guidance that we stop listening to our bodies.
- You might fight down hunger because your diet says so – only to feel irritable, lose sleep or underperform in class
- You might lose touch with your hunger cues long term by suppressing them enough
- Rather than appeasing a craving when it’s faint (if you can do so in moderation), you wait until the craving is uncontrollable, binge eat, and feel ashamed or ill
- You might fret over calories, “good” and “bad” foods until each supposedly pleasurable mealtime becomes a stressful challenge.
If any of these problems sound like you, it may be time to try something new. And I don’t mean looking through the internet for a different diet. I mean going back to square one: your own body’s needs and how you respond to them. Your body is not a machine, and you are not its programmer; you are a complex, fascinating organism that adapts and surprises. Flexibility and self-compassion can help build your capacity to pursue a healthy, happy relationship with food. Rigidity and judgment, on the other hand, often makes even the slightest perceived failure able to wreck your mental state.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
Many of the suggestions that can help you to refocus on your body’s cues, to re-ground your relationship with food, are deceptively simple. This list is not exhaustive, but food for thought (so to speak):
1. Notice when you’re hungry. Waiting to eat until you are hungry, but not famished, will make meals more satisfying. If you get hungry at odd times because of a wacky schedule, it’s probably worth trying to re-accustom yourself to a consistent eating schedule, so your body can reliably know when to expect hunger and satiety.
2. Practice mindful eating. The advice in our “Eat Well During Thanksgiving” article is true in any season: don’t rush. Try to attune yourself to the sensations of eating and practice gratitude for what’s on your plate.
3. Notice when you’re full. Similarly, heed the advice that it takes your brain some time to feel when you’re full. Eating slowly is your friend.
4. Let go of “good” and “bad” foods, if you find yourself fixating on it. Unless you face a specific addiction or health restrictions, a cookie will not make you unhealthy. Try to let go of judgment-laden terms like “cheating” or “being bad.” As you practice eating mindfully, “forbidden” foods will no longer be forbidden, so may be less likely to produce uncontrollable cravings for the taboo. Likewise, salads, proteins, and veggies might begin to seem more appealing for not feeling like a resented obligation.
5. Notice when you’re emotionally eating. Many of us eat past fullness or pleasure-eat a bag of chips not because we’re hungry, but because we’re bored, sad, lonely, you name it. Start by just gently noticing, naming, maybe journaling your emotions, so you might care for them more directly. Take a bath or indulge your senses in some other way. Call a friend. And if you do need an ice cream bar to soothe your nerves before an exam some days, it doesn’t mean you’ve already failed.
A summary: don’t sacrifice your mental health in the pursuit of nutritional health: each affects the other.
BEYOND BODY SHAME
Rethinking rule based eating can be an important step to getting in touch with and valuing what our bodies need. That is especially crucial given our society’s judgement and mistreatment of larger bodies, and the mental health impacts of our fear of being overweight.
These fears often show up in eating disorders that are all too common, but commonly unspoken, among teenagers and young adults; disordered eating affects all genders–boys and men as they try to meet prescribed norms of masculinity and girls and women trying to achieve distorted beauty standards. These include anorexia and bulimia, often with a hyper-focus on thinness at the expense of mental and physical health. They also include orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating “correctly”) where weight loss may not be related.
Worse, we can miss signs of disordered eating and praise them instead, because we falsely equate thinness with good health. As a young adult in our community, Shaniya, shared:
Growing up, disordered eating was often endorsed and praised by my family so figuring out what ‘wellness’ is took a long time. I struggled with disordered eating heavily so sometimes the act of thinking through what I eat to try to micromanage how “balanced” and “healthy” it is makes me spiral; it can get very difficult so I must be very careful.*
The truth is that you can tell very little about someone’s health by looking at them. Supposedly well-intentioned concern for larger-bodied people’s health is often harmful, and may be grounded in overreaching assumptions. Work such as Health at Every Size, pioneered by Dr. Lindo Bacon (formerly Linda), and their book Body Respect with Dr. Lucy Aphramor, are among those reexamining our assumptions that weight = health, and uncovering the harm that has come from our society’s obsession with thinness. It is possible to care about health and nutrition without falling into rule-based food anxiety and without perpetuating weight-based discrimination.
People perceived as overweight may face unwarranted moral judgments from strangers and friends alike, mistreatment in work, healthcare, social situations and more, not unlike other forms of systemic discrimination. We owe it to each other to reserve judgment, to check our own internalized body biases, and to remember that our fixation on “eating right” can take a significant toll on our relationships and mental health.
TAKING YOUR OWN ADVICE
Sometimes, we are our own harshest critics, beyond what even our rational brains recognize as fair. A young adult survey respondent, Kate, offered her candid experiences with food:
Sometimes I feel that eating what I want to is an act of self-sabotage. I go on and off a calorie counting app, especially when I am feeling out of control and particularly bad about my weight. I can’t quit food cold turkey, which makes changing habits even harder. My lack of impulse control around unhealthy foods I love makes me feel weak-minded and weak-willed. Despite the fact that I know my ADHD, depression, and genetic predisposition to addiction have a lot to do with this, I have trouble approaching my problems around food constructively.*
To the question, “Do you have any tips or tricks to share about ways that you’ve overcome barriers around eating well?” Kate gave herself and others some advice:
Don’t be cruel to yourself if you can help it. Your character is not inherently reflected in your food choices, even though they may feel inextricably linked. I need to take my own advice here, but easier said than done.
If you have found yourself relating to the stresses, disordered eating, or shame-based cycles described above, you may find the Body Respect approach worthwhile, or Intuitive Eating, a set of books by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This type of back-to-basics approach, re-grounding in your body’s needs and hunger cues, can be a tool for eating disorder recovery. Or simply, for more intentional and empowering practices with food!
Lastly, you may hear “intuitive eating” and think, “so I get to eat whatever I want? Wouldn’t everyone just eat junk food?” Well, that’s why IE encourages grounding yourself in mindful, compassionate eating, hunger and fullness cues, among other suggestions. If you let go of the “forbidden fruit” aspect of so-called indulgence foods, you might find that your body won’t feel nourished by that all-jellybeans diet after all.
If you give yourself a chance to quiet the external voices, shut the rulebook, and listen – what might your body be telling you?
*CANDID KITCHEN SURVEY
In Fall 2020, Candid conducted a “Food Wellness for Young Adults” survey of 81 young adults in our community for our food wellness-focused project, Candid Kitchen. We will be sharing some takeaways and testimonials from these thought-provoking, brave respondents in this and other articles.
Written by Becca Bedell.