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.

Posted in eating, Eating Disorders | Comments closed

You don’t have to like food.

Some kids were not just neglected around food, but abused. This is a bit different than just not having enough to eat – it also includes being badgered and harassed about how you eat, what you eat, your weight, your appetite, having food withheld from you, being force-fed, force-weighed, forced to diet, forced to exercise, and a whole host of other terrible things.

It may centre around food or weight, but it is abuse just the same.

One of the devastating things about abuse is not only that it hurts and traumatizes you, but that it can drive a wedge between you and your intrinsic motivation to engage in survival behaviours, severely disrupting the intuitive process of pain-avoidance and pleasure-seeking that would otherwise lead you to take care of yourself.

Once you’re on your own, away from the source of the abuse, you may anticipate freedom and happiness — only to find that you neglect yourself. This can be extremely distressing, inspiring panic and maybe even self-loathing as you condemn yourself for not doing things that you assume everyone else does without difficulty.

I’m gonna tell you the truth here: eating isn’t easy. Getting food, preparing food, and orchestrating regular eating times takes effort, and sometimes it’s hard.

If food has been used in someone else’s hands as a cudgel to bludgeon you for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would associate eating with doom/dread/awfulness and probably not enjoy it very much. If mealtimes used to be a time of criticism, sniping at your weight, having food taken from you, being told nothing you could do was ever right or good enough, or being forced to endure food you couldn’t stand, it is 100% normal for you to not enjoy eating today.

You would have developed negative associations with eating, sometimes very strong ones, that come up instinctively anytime the stimulus, food, is presented to you. Those negative associations will interfere with the instinctive desire — but that desire is still in you, somewhere.

You can build new, positive associations with eating. It will take time, and you might need help from a therapist and/or nutritionist. What you DON’T need, right now, is the additional pressure of being angry with yourself because you don’t enjoy eating.

You don’t have to like eating. You don’t have to like any particular food, either. Trying to force yourself to is, sometimes, very similar to reproducing the abuse.

So if you don’t like eating, what do you do?

1) Acknowledge that it’s totally understandable that you don’t like eating

2) At the same time, acknowledge that you need and deserve to take care of yourself

3) Go through the motions of putting food in front of yourself, even if your heart’s not in it (and even if you don’t end up eating it)

This is where offering yourself food at regular times comes in handy again. Even if you don’t like food, even if it inspires panic, even if it brings up all the horrible doom and terrible feelings that come from being abused — even in the midst of all those feelings, you still have the ability to put food in front of yourself.

Make it as easy and pleasant as possible. If that means you need to eat with a supportive friend 100% of the time, make some calls and figure out a way to set that up. If it means eating alone in your room so you’ll feel safe, set up a place to do that comfortably. If that means you eat only chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches for a while, stock up on chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches.

Play music, watch Christmas movies on your laptop, get a tray so you can eat in bed — anything. Anything to make this as pleasant, easy, and nice as you can.

Then, start putting food in front of yourself three times a day, with full permission to eat or not eat it. Commit to sitting with it in a pleasant, non-threatening environment for 15-30 minutes. Over time, you will start to build new, positive associations with food.

Being nice to yourself in general takes practice, so don’t worry if this feels strange and awkward at first. If you were abused or neglected, you were likely never taught the necessary skills to soothe and comfort yourself, or how to make necessary tasks feel less burdensome and terrible.

That’s what those things are, by the way: skills. We all learn them. Some of us later than others.

After sitting for a while in a pleasant environment with food, you might feel like eating it. You might not. If not, put it away or throw it away (and be nice to yourself.)

In a few hours, put the food there again and sit with it. Practice.

It’s going to be okay.

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Feeling safe around food again.

When you haven’t been fed enough, either as a kid, or as an adult for a significant period of time, the fear of going hungry kind of seeps into you. It starts to change your behaviour around food and eating. All of this is your body’s way of making sure it gets fed. This is about survival, not about character, and not about morality. You do what you have to do.

Sometimes people with a significant history of food insecurity or restriction will hoard food or feel preoccupied with food. While this can be good for survival, it can seriously complicate your food-eating life.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the regular meal. Planning to have, and actually following through on, regular meal and snack times gives you the chance to plan ahead, to put together nourishing combinations of food, and it also, crucially, provides one thing the scared, underfed part of you desperately needs: a guarantee that eating will happen.

When kids who were underfed are placed in a foster home or adopted by new parents, they often hoard, binge, and are totally preoccupied with food for a while. This scares a lot of caregivers, so they may clamp down with controlling practices that, unfortunately, sometimes serve to frighten the kids even more.

What can actually help (though it’s never easy, of course) is to provide structure and permission, rather than control and restriction. Part of that structure means setting regular meal and snacktimes, and crucially, communicating those times to the child. Some people will write the meal schedule on a whiteboard or tape it to the refrigerator, so anytime the underfed child is scared of going hungry again, they can look (or be gently pointed to) the meal schedule and remember, “Oh yeah. Food is coming in a comfortable amount of time.”

This is part of breaking through trauma in order to provide a sense of safety. Trauma does weird things to the brain, like keep it stuck in events that happened long ago, making it difficult to form new memories that build a bridge out of those events. People often need guidance, someone to walk with them, and sign-posts to remind them that where they’re going, and where they are, is not the same as where they’ve been. A meal schedule is one of those sign-posts.

As for what the meal structure should look like, I’m going to borrow from one of my colleagues (I can’t remember who, I’m sorry! Please feel free to add your name in comments if you’re reading) what she called The Rule of Threes, which I thought was a brilliant way to remember: three meals and three snacks, no more than three hours apart.

If you need to feel safe around food, if you need to reassure the part of you that is scared of not getting enough to eat, write it down somewhere. You can write times of the day, or you can just write the rule itself, and put it somewhere you will see it when you’re thinking about food. Whenever you wake up, eat something (within an hour or so), check the clock and make a mental note of the time you’ll need to eat again.

These are not enforced eating times — rather, they are the times you will commit to providing yourself the CHANCE to eat. That means physically putting food in front of yourself (whether you think you want it or not), sitting down, and deciding whether/how much to eat. If you don’t want to eat, put it away. If you only want part, only eat part and put the rest away. If you eat it all, check if you’re still hungry and want seconds. If you’re not sure, wait 15 minutes and check in again. Look at the meal schedule and remind yourself that food will be coming again in three or less hours.

At this point, don’t worry about what you are eating. Just put anything you have available, or anything you think you want, in front of yourself at meal times. Anything is better than nothing, and you can always build on it later. Regular eating times are the foundation, and the walls and roof will be built in time.

You are going to be fed. Someone is taking care of you. The people who raised you might have messed up in some way, or just plain didn’t have access to enough food, but things are different now. You’re taking care of yourself now, and you’re going to follow through.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

On not being fed enough as a child.

This is one of the painful truths of my job: discovering that sometimes children, especially fat kids, or kids whose caregivers suspect they will one day be fat, don’t get fed enough. Sometimes those kids grow up and become my clients.

Sometimes considerable abuse and neglect in other domains comes along with being underfed as child, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes kids grow up in a family system that looks perfectly functional to everyone, even to themselves, that just happens to not meet their most basic needs. Like getting enough to eat.

A lot of kids respond to being underfed by sneaking, stealing, bingeing at a friend’s house. It’s expected. It’s universal. It’s survival.

The unfortunate thing is, they often internalize the idea that these behaviours are proof of moral corruption or badness, or some underlying eating pathology or addiction. It’s not true, but I’ll tell you what is.

If you were one of these kids, you were not bad. You did what you had to do to survive.

I’m glad you did that. I’m glad you’re here.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or bad. You were born into a world where the people responsible for your well-being failed in one of the most fundamental ways. I don’t know if they were abusive or neglectful or forgetful or just wanted you to lose weight. The bottom line is, they didn’t feed you enough, and that was their fault, not yours.

Eating is a human right, and you’re a human. Even when you’re a kid.

Posted in children, eating, Liking Yourself | Comments closed

Partner is a foodie, I’m a picky eater. Fights ensue.

Here’s another question from readers of Mealtime Hostage.

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My significant other is a foodie, and I’m a picky eater. I’m tired of hearing how terrible my diet is and being asked to try new foods. We just had a big fight about my eating, and I feel so disconnected and hurt.

Listen up, foodies.

I know you want to share your love of food with your loved ones — hell, with the whole world. That is a nice impulse, truly. But this is not an issue of food so much as it is one of relationships.

This is about bodily agency and consent.

In many relationships, one partner sees themselves as the Great Offerer of Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes, and sees the other as an empty vessel into which they pour their Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes. It can happen with music, film, travel, sex, and of course, food. This is a teacher-student dynamic, or a parent-child dynamic, or a mentor-mentee dynamic.

This dynamic has its place, but it is not a shared-love-between-equals dynamic.

So, what kind of relationship are you in, and what kind do you want to be in? Do you want your partner to be your student or your equal?

Have you received informed consent from your partner to assess their diet? Doesn’t sound like it. They’re doing their best to fulfill a bodily function that is physiologically controlled. Judging their eating is tantamount to following them into the toilet and holding up a scorecard. It’s creepy and gross.

People have to come around to food in their own time. If they aren’t allowed to, if they are pressured or forced or coerced into trying something that they find intimidating, there is a very good chance they will not suddenly love that food, will not have the Foodie Switch in their brain flipped to the On position.

More likely, they will associate more anxiety with that food, not less, and it will probably taint the memory of the delicious thing you were hoping they’d enjoy.

So what do you do instead? I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: follow a Division of Responsibility.

Not the one for parents and children. The one that exists between adults.

As an adult, you are responsible for your own eating. The other adult is responsible for what, when, where, how much, and whether they eat. You can negotiate certain things — where and when are sometimes necessary to coordinate, and if you’re deciding on a restaurant or a recipe, some negotiation around what will also be useful. But you need to remember that any negotiations around what end at offering. Not ingestion.

What this means is, you can both decide on a place to eat, or a recipe to try, and you can put the food on the table and both sit down.

After that? You must chill.

No one has to put anything in their mouth or their stomach that they don’t want. To insist that they do is a serious boundary violation, and a breach of their bodily agency. There is a spectrum of not-okayness that starts with coaxing, wheedling, and pressuring someone to try something they don’t want, and ends with force-feeding. Don’t be that guy.

People are funny about putting things in their bodies, because it’s inherently risky. It’s moving an outside object across the boundary between not-me and me, and there is a certain vulnerability attached to that. People are afraid of contamination, of squicky textures, of unknown ingredients, of possible downstream side-effects, and for good reason: we evolved to have this hesitancy around food because certain things are not good for us to eat. This is an inborn trait attached to survival, and you’re not going to get around it with pressure and prodding. If anything, you’re going to make it worse.

So shut up. Put the food on the table, throw on some bread and butter or rice as a back-up dish, sit down and eat. Talk with your partner about your day, about that funny movie you want to watch, about dogs you saw on the way home, and leave food entirely out of it. In fact, let’s set a rule right now: don’t talk about food at all unless your partner brings it up. Enjoy yourself and keep your eyes on your own plate.

If you make eating with you a pleasant experience, your partner will want to continue to do it. Over time, with lots of experience sitting at the table with intimidating foods, those foods will become less intimidating — as long as you don’t say anything — and your partner may actually branch out to try some on their own. They might not like it, which is okay, because it can take several exposures or tries before something is liked enough to be incorporated into the eating repertoire.

Just…shut up. Eat your food. Count your lucky stars that you enjoy it, and lay off everyone else.

Since you’ve already managed to hurt your partner, I’m going to tell you the formula for when you mess up: first apologize sincerely, and then do something to make amends. Go say you’re sorry, and bring home a nice little notebook or a plant or a favourite chocolate bar for them, or cook them a meal they really enjoy (and shut up.)

Here’s where I will address the picky eater: you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want. All you need to do is show up at the agreed-upon time and place, and don’t make faces or say anything about how gross the food looks or smells. That’s it. Sit at the table, pick at the bread and butter if you want, and if you don’t end up eating anything during the meal, go get yourself a bowl of cereal afterward and eat it in blessed peace.

P.S. There is nothing wrong with you.

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All of the bodily agency in comments.

Posted in Dear Fat Nutritionist, Picky Eating | Comments closed
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