It’s okay to love food.

Last time, I wrote about sometimes when people have been abused or neglected around food, it makes sense that they might grow up to dislike feeding themselves. But what is equally true is that, sometimes, when people are deprived of food, their inborn love of food does not desert them, or they go on to develop an intense love of food they didn’t have before.

They might become interested in cooking and baking, or they might hoard food. At one point in history, researchers assumed these thoughts and behaviours — termed “food preoccupation” — were part of the pathology of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. But as Kelsey Miller’s excellent recent article on the Minnesota Starvation Study illustrates, these behaviours are now well-known as hallmarks of simple starvation.

I remember once discussing this with a client who had recovered from an eating disorder, who had gone on to cook professionally. She said she found it very troubling, because it made her wonder whether her passion for cooking were just one more manifestation of her eating disorder, rather than an expression of her personality and love of food. It was a few years ago, but I still think about our conversation to this day.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, North American culture is currently experiencing a renaissance of home cooking and gourmand-like devotion to food. Even our dieting trends have shifted to become more focused on the quality of food, ever more sophisticated nutritional theories, and scratch cooking. This comes on the heels of a mid-century epoch that was very focused on pre-packaged convenience foods, where the dieting trends centred almost entirely on calories, nutrition came a distant second, and quality of the food was not even on the radar.

The mid- to late 20th century was the era of dieting that called for half a grapefruit, dry white toast, and a cup of black coffee for breakfast. Or two powdered shakes for breakfast and lunch, followed by an impossibly “sensible” dinner. Or fully-branded, entirely pre-packaged, calorie-controlled diet meals and snacks, often leaning heavily on artificial sweeteners for flavour.

In contrast, the 21st century diet breakfast (though we rarely call it that; “diet” as a word has lost some of its power to invoke purity, status, and leanness) is more likely to be a green smoothie, chia seed pudding, or steel-cut oats — something made at home from raw, whole ingredients that reek of freshness, wholesomeness, and a new sort of crunchy purity.

There is, to me, a definite tang of food preoccupation in this resurgence of home cooking, and our growing concern for food quality, even while dieting. But rather than thinking this is a bad thing, it actually gives me a lot of hope.

I only find foodie-ism annoying when it is predicated on snobbery and enforcing social hierarchies, or promotes food restriction in disguise, not when it is genuinely celebrating food. And I see this resurgence in interest in food, just like the food preoccupation that often follows a period of deprivation, as a manifestation of the versatile and ingenious human survival drive. It is life making a way in an environment that often pressures us to deny our fundamental need to eat.

Food preoccupation can be distressing, and sometimes it comes in not-helpful forms, like obsessing over calories or counting the minutes until you get to eat again (although that last one is pretty understandable when deprivation is a possibility.) But food preoccupation can also look like an intense interest in food, taking joy and pleasure in preparing it, feeding yourself, savouring your meals, and maybe even making food your life’s work.

In other words, it can look an awful lot like coming back to life.

If your love of food was not punished and starved out of you, you are the recipient of some marvelous good luck. I am always thrilled to know people like this exist. Similarly, if an experience of deprivation triggered a new love of food and a desire to devote time and attention to it, this is a reminder of your body’s intense desire to live, and its ability to craft attitudes and behaviours that lead to food-seeking and, ultimately, survival. It is your body protecting and providing for you.

Either way, love of food is a gift. If you’ve managed to hold onto or discover it under the threat of abuse or starvation or self-hatred, you are very lucky.

Celebrate your good fortune — eat and enjoy it.

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11 Comments

  1. Mama S
    Posted March 28, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you! My 11yo daughter is adopted and has always been “preoccupied” with food–perhaps because of a deep hunger that might have been physical or psychological or both. After worrying quietly about this for a few years (and trying not to let her see my worry), I just did a 180 and jumped all in supporting her love of and interest in food. Now we cook together on a regular basis (it’s our special night together every week) and we talk often about what kinds of careers there are for people who love food. Christmas and her birthday were all about cooking tools and even some baking mixes so she can actually make something all by herself by following simple instructions on the box. Last week, we went out to a cafe and discussed how she would change the menu if it was her own restaurant. We even discussed how one goes about getting a small business loan if she ever wants to open her own cafe. She just turned 11 and I am so happy to be able to support her in a positive way. She takes real delight in food, and who doesn’t want to see their child delighted?

    • I_Sell_Books
      Posted March 28, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      What a wonderful thing to do!

  2. Courtney
    Posted March 28, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    This would be me. My mother started putting me on a diet when I was 8. I started reading cookbooks like they were pop fiction and collecting recipes when I was 9-10. My grandmother had started teaching me to cook simple things when I was 6, but right around age 9-10, I started getting interested in fancy cooking. I was still in elementary school when I tried out a recipe for Chicken Cordon Bleu. In middle school, I started baking. In college, I started making homemade truffles and giving elaborate gift baskets full of homemade goodies for holiday gifts.

  3. Ames in Scotland
    Posted March 28, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful, observational, inspirational, kind and understanding (I really could go on forever with positive adjectives here!) posts. Thank you.
    In appreciation,

    Amy

  4. grannyweatherwas
    Posted March 28, 2016 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Years ago, when that Terri Schiavo horror had just ended with her passing away, I read an immense comment thread on livejournal about food and weight issues. Two comments out of hundreds mentioned not having much concern about weight, not dieting, and not having any eating problems, and — and this is the point — they both mentioned growing up in all-female families run by independent contented women who had adequate incomes.

    It hit me like a ton of bricks because I’m almost the only female I know who enjoys food enormously and has no weight problems (genetics helps!). Plenty of my friends were way more confident than I was and I could never see why they had such a lack of body confidence. But I grew up in an all-female family. Somehow that’s got to be making a huge difference, even though we got all the same beauty mass media messaging as everyone else. I’m pretty sure I didn’t share my strange ethnic mix and genetics with two random people on the internet.

    Anyway, just wanted to jump in to mention this since it may be of interest to you in your work.

  5. Posted March 31, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I cared for an elderly couple for a month a couple of years back. The wife (I’ll call her “M”) was Japanese, and she had survived wartime Japan. She’s had extraordinary health care, courtesy of the study of Hiroshima survivors (she was one of the lucky ones – she lived into her 90’s.) M had a bit of dementia, and her son warned me NOT to take her with me to the grocery store, no matter how much she begged to go. He said she went berserk in the grocery, piling everything into a cart, then getting another cart and filling it, and so forth – he had to call for help to get her out of the store the last time they went. She had starved in the 1940’s, and now, with the dementia, all that hunger had re-manifested itself.

    She was well-nourished from 1948 onward, living in the U.S. with her veteran husband. She had been a “normal” eater all that time, no signs of any problems with food, other than getting mad at waste. But the damage of the war years was apparently lurking in her brain.

    I did not take M to the grocery, but I did see the ferocity of her anger that I wouldn’t take her there. At one point we were in her front yard with her screaming at me that I was “a very stubborn girl.” And she was angry at me for being fat, which somehow seemed connected at the time. After reading this article and the article it references, I understand better what was going on.

    • Posted April 1, 2016 at 5:36 am | Permalink

      That’s amazing. I’ve worked with and known several people with dementia and it’s always interesting how much of their distant past they remember and can call up at a moment’s notice. The memories of going without enough food are very profound ones.

  6. Hrm
    Posted April 5, 2016 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    I never did get how I was always encouraged to eat (have a cookie! Try this bread! Do you want some grapes? Finish your food!) and criticized for eating too much. Usually simultaneously.
    I have developed some messed-up binge patterns in my adulthood, where I will eat entire packages of packaged food like boxes of Oreos or other stuff I don’t even LIKE, well past the point where I want to be eating it (I rarely enjoy it) and I hide it all, often even from my parter of 12 years. I will compulsively buy a family sized bag of chips and a box of cookies, and eat them in my car or behind the shed or hidden in the office and without fail, feel like it is some kind of duty to eat all of it, and then burn the packages and feel sick for the rest of the day. It’s so weird, I love food and honestly have no problem eating (usually)nutritious food that I enjoy in the quantities that I want, even if it is less or way more than others are eating. I am fat and feel no shame about quantities or preferences of almost all food, but I still buy these packages of crappy ‘treats’ binge and hide and hate it the whole time.

  7. mara
    Posted April 6, 2016 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this series, Michelle. I never realized this was a common thing – not getting fed enough because of a parent’s concern that the child will be fat, or perhaps because the parent’s own views of how much food is enough are skewed?

    I was totally preoccupied with food as a kid. I remember going into the cupboard in the home ec room at school and stuffing a piece of bread into my mouth, just plain bread. Raiding the cupboards of houses where I babysat. Eating baked goods frozen from the freezer at home. Shoplifting candy.

    I remember seeing kids eating mac and cheese from the school cafeteria at lunch, wanting it, feeling like I could never have it. I don’t know if the issue was money – I didn’t have a lot of spending money, certainly, but a bowl of mac and cheese was like a dollar, surely I had that from time to time? Or was it the feeling that I couldn’t have ‘that much’ food. I just remember wanting it but never getting it.

    Oh, and eating all sorts of non-food things too, when I was younger, in elementary school. Erasers, chalk, crayons, paper – once, a dried starfish! I wonder if that was calcium craving?

    The issue for me was partly money (not true family poverty, but no allowance of spending money or lunch money) but mostly my mother not wanting to be fat, and, through a lifelong effort to make herself not fat, used to eating a fraction of what she probably needed (she still does). I don’t think she thought she was depriving me of food. She probably thought she was doing me a favour.

    I look at pictures now and get angry when I realize I was not a fat child. At some ages I was actually a skinny child. When I was 15 and probably 110 pounds my mother and I went on the cabbage soup diet to lose 17 pounds in a week. (so, yes, my mother wanted me to be 93 pounds?)

    I grew up thinking I was preoccupied with food, that I was greedy and/or a compulsive eater. My mother taught me that term, compulsive eater.

    When I grew up and became responsible for feeding myself, the compulsion disappeared. Go figure. Other people’s cupboards are pretty safe around me now.

    I just have moments of dissonance now. I tend to overestimate what I actually eat. The first time I ate two eggs and two pieces of toast for breakfast (only about a decade ago), I felt like, surely, it was an abnormally large amount of food. Once, a couple of years ago, I decided to add up my calories for the day to make sure I was eating above my basal metabolic rate (I read a thing). I felt like I had eaten a lot that day, and estimated 2500 calories. Added up, it came to only about 1800.

    But basically, I do eat. I am very lucky; I have the means and skill and time to feed myself enough, and no real psychological or emotional barriers to doing so. I even, now in my forties, have the organization to cook and pack lunches and snacks. I realize how fortunate all of this is. That cabbage soup thing was the last diet I ever went on. I know I can’t go on a cleanse or any sort of thing involving food deprivation. I would get immediately and ridiculously triggered.

    My mother was right about one thing. I did get fat when I started eating like a regular person. Luckily I don’t mind that anymore.

  8. Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle – While recovering from a bout of chronic bronchitis recently, I discovered your blog, and instead of binge-watching the latest crap from Netflix, I’ve been binge-reading your blog – from its beginnings to today!

    It’s been an amazing “journey” (hee hee! way overused word, I know!) and I just wanted to say you’ve reminded me of the joys of accepting yourself “as is” and enjoying your body, your food and your life.

    In fact, you even inspired me to revive my own semi-moribund blog and ruminate on that topic myself!

    So thank you, gracias and merci beaucoup!

  9. Posted April 13, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I love this recent bunch of posts. That’s all :)

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