Oak City Psychology

Serving the City of Raleigh and Surrounding Areas

Category: eating disorders

Love Your Body

When I practiced in Atlanta a local charity group focused on raising eating disorder awareness sponsored Love Your Body Month every February.  I got used to thinking of February as a time to not just honor relationships that we value but to also work on valuing our relationship with our own bodies.  As a female in our society, and more often as a male as well, it can be hard to love the body you’ve been given.  We receive messages from the media about how our bodies are toned enough, aren’t wrinkle free enough, aren’t young enough, aren’t beautiful enough, aren’t sexy enough, and on, and on, and on.  As busy professional women, wives, mothers, daughters, and friends (and in some cases all of or a combination of those) our own self-care can get lost in the shuffle.  Time alone, time to exercise, time to prepare delicious food, and time to relax all take a back seat to work projects, house projects, kids projects, and friend projects.  All of those identities scramble for attention and we forget to take care of the vessel that carries us from place to place and interacts in a physical way with the world.

In Baroque art the female body was beautiful.  And the more curves you could see the more beautiful the body.  As women moved from being only a prop for art and into a more active role in society, the image of a beautiful woman’s body also began to change.  We have hit extremes in these areas – Twiggy in the 60s and Kate Moss in the 90s – but it seems that at least some areas of society are finally starting to recognize the damage we have done to women and girls by placing unrealistic expectations on their bodies.  We are starting to see that deadly eating disorders are wreaking havoc on the lives of girls as young as 8 and 9 years old.  We are starting to see that women’s hatred of their bodies leads them to over exercise, restrict their foods, and stop enjoying life.  We are starting to notice the woman who has been punishing herself on the elliptical for over an hour.  And it’s about time.  I work with so many women and girls who’s desire to be thin has outweighed their desire to be alive.  Women who see themselves only as a number on the scale or on the tag in the back of some clothes.  Women who measure their worth by the width of their waist.

It’s time we moved past those incomplete measurements.  It’s time we started measuring a woman by her intelligence, her kindness, and her wisdom, and not by her waistline, her weight, and her BMI.  My wish for every girl is that she is able to say with confidence that she loves her body.  My wish for every woman is that she is able to say with confidence that she is learning to love a body that has been abused by our society for too long.  It’s time we all loved our bodies, our round, curvy, thin, lean, overweight, pregnant, infertile, scarred, and unscarred bodies.  They are beautiful as they are.  They are perfectly imperfect, just as they are.  This February, I hope you focus on building a healthy relationship with your own body and learn to truly love the body you have.

I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Because of my specialty in eating disorders, I often get comments from family and friends about their eating habits. Anything goes, from “Well maybe you can help me stop eating then.” to “What is an eating disorder anyway?” There is a lot of confusion out there about what is healthy eating vs. disordered eating vs. an eating disorder. And no wonder! With all the fad diets, liquid diets, starve yourself and then binge diets, and simple misrepresentation of the facts who wouldn’t be confused. Combine the shame that can go along with some of the symptoms of an eating disorder and people simply don’t want to talk about their problems.

Michael Polan, author of Omnivore’s Dilema and In Defense of Food, may have the best description of a healthy diet. His mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Sounds simple enough but there are a lot of assumptions in those few small sentences. First his statements assume that we know what constitutes food, and if you’ve read his books it’s pretty clear that a lot of folks are confused about real food. General trends have shown that the more we “understand” about nutrition the less healthy the American population has become. Why is this? It would seem that having more knowledge would increase our abilities to eat well.  What has really happened though is that we have learned to create “food like substances” with all the nutrients of food made completely of chemicals.  We have forgotten what a tomato looks like, much less tastes like.  Our lives have become so busy  that it is easier to grab a meal replacement bar or shake than to make a sandwich or, heaven forbid, an actual meal.  When Polan says food, he means actual food that our grandmothers would recognize, not yogurt in a tube or protein in a candy bar.  Secondly, his statment assumes that we know what “not too much” means.  Part of the reason we are seeing such an epidemic of obesity and eating disorders in America is because we have lost track of what a portion really is.  Most dieticians recommend 3-4 ounces of protein 2-3 times a day.  Three to four ounces of protein is about the size of a deck of cards.  When was the last time you ate a piece of meat that small?  On the other hand, a portion of veggies or fruit is about half a cup, or the size of a tennis ball.  Recommendations state 4-5 portions of fruit and 4-5 portions of veggies a day.  If we ate this way, we would completely refocus our plate on fruits and vegetables rather than a giant slab of meat (which meets Polan’s third statement).  A serving of pasta is a cup, which would barely cover a small salad plate, much less the dinner plates most of us eat from.  Considering, most of us probably eat a few pieces of bread with that pasta we are more than meeting the requirement for grains we need in a day. 

So as you can tell, most Americans suffer from disordered eating.  That simply means that we don’t eat in a way that creates a healthy relationship with food or with our bodies.  Most of us live in a state of unhappiness about the way we look and what we’re eating.  Most of us don’t feel like we have to time or the energy to do anything about it.  This is a far cry from someone who has an eating disorder.  People with eating disorders are completely and totally consumed by thoughts of food and concerns about the way their bodies look.  They believe that they way they look determines their value as a human being, that the food they eat tells others about the kind of person they are.  They often participate in incredibly unhealthy and dangerous behaviors such as starving themselves or forcing themselves to vomit.  Others eat such massive amounts of food that they become physically ill afterwards.  For the most part, eating disorders are not about food or even weight.  They are about asserting control over something in a world that feels uncontrollable, feeling worthless, and a variety of other emotional concerns that feel too difficult to deal with.  People turn to food as a way to take control because it is something tangible, it’s something “real” that they can manipulate.  Emotions are hard to deal with and often times very scary.  It’s much easier to decide dairy products are the bad guys than to try to understand why you feel sad all the time.

I have a theory about why we have seen such an increase in eating disorders and unhealthy eating over the past couple of decades.  I believe that we have completely lost touch with the process of eating.  A salad is no longer a multi layered dish of ingredients that were carefully chosen from a grocery store or farmer’s market.  It comes in a plastic box at Wendy’s with ingredients chosen based on cost effectiveness not nutritional value.  Spaghetti sauce comes out of a jar and gets heated in five minutes.  It is not a dish prepared from tomatoes, herbs, and spices that simmers all day while filling the house with amazing smells.  Dinner time is most often had in the car on the way to an activity.  It is an inconvenience that happens as we go to something more important.  It is rarely an occasion in and of itself that involves family and friends connecting over food that they either grew or cooked themselves.  One thing I encourage my clients with eating disorders to do is to visit the farmer’s market and talk with the farmers about how the food was grown and the work it took to create their produce.  This often gives someone new respect for food and it becomes less of an inconvenience and more of something to be appreciated and savored.  Some even take it a step further and begin their own garden.  How amazing would it be if we all gained a new respect for food?  If we began seeing it as something that takes effort and has more importance in our lives than we currently admit?  I think our concerns about health would change, and I know we would have a better relationship with food as a whole.

Our National Eating Disorder

I recently finished reading Michael Polan’s The Omnivore’s Dilema (which was an amazing book), in which he talks about our “national eating disorder.” No he’s not saying that all Americans have Anorexia or Bulimia. What he is arguing is that we have lost touch with the food that we eat, to the point that we have begun eating “food like substances” rather than food. He seems to be saying that the more we have learned about food and food science the more unhealthy we have become. If you look at the statistics on this, it’s hard to disagree. Our “knowledge” about food has grown exponentially over the past decade. I put that in quotes because, like Polan, I think we may have lost the real knowledge of food along the way. As a nation, we seem to have become so confused about which foods are healthy – milk? eggs? salmon? wild or farm raised? – that we’ve simply given up. Why bother trying to decide which meat we should have for dinner when it’s much easier to grab a protein bar and some fruit flavored water. There’s even a commercial for a fruit drink that makes eating an actual piece of fruit seem like the biggest hassel we have to endure during our day. At the same time, the rates of both obesity and harmful eating practices (restricting, bingeing, and purging) have exploded. Polan says that a big reason for this problem is that as Americans, we don’t have the same kind of food geneaology as say native Italians or Greeks. Because this country was settled by so many different types of people, we didn’t develop our own food culture with rules about how and what we ate. The goal became convenience.

Now, whether you agree with that or not, Polan may be onto something with the idea of a national eating disorder. It seems to me that our relationship with food in this country has become extremely damaged. Don’t believe me? Well then think about this – when was the last time you made a dinner in which a can opener was not an essential tool in the preparation? For that matter, when was the last time you made a dinner that didn’t involve the microwave? We live in a world where convenience is the most important aspect of any product. Our children attend schools where chicken nuggets and french fries are standard fare and body fat measurements are a typical part of health class. Young girls are encouraged to both love their bodies (Dove) and get rid of that acne once and for all (Proactiv, Clearasil, etc). Magazines geared toward women, and increasingly toward men, show airbrushed models with abs of steel and flawless makeup on the cover and advertisements for chocolate, Lean Cuisine, and Hydroxycut on the inside. No wonder we’re confused! The government tries to help by releasing guidelines for healthy living (mypyramid.org) that are more confusing than the magazines. What is the average person, without an advanced degree in nutrition and food science, supposed to do to navigate all of this information? Well, there are plenty of advertisers, fast food restaurants,and frozen food companies out there that would like to tell you.

Food is no longer a personal experience, shared with family and friends. Food has become the enemy, and I see a slew of women in my office everyday who can attest to that. Is that what we want for the next generations? Think about some of your best memories, and I will bet a high percentage of them revolve around food of some sort – a Thanksgiving turkey, watermelon seed spitting contests, ice cream on a hot summer night, diving into that bag of Halloween candy. Is our obsession with what is scientifically healthy, robbing us of some of the joys of life? Is our fixation on what will be quickest and easiest keeping us from connecting to our families and friends? Now, I’m not advocating we go back to the days when girls spent their days learning to be “good” wives, getting lessons on cooking, sewing, and cleaning by working alongside their mothers, grandmothers, or nannies. I know that’s not practical anymore, or even that desirable to most of us. But, what would be the harm of using a Saturday to make a meal from scratch, using real food, with all the fat? Having your son or daughter come into the kitchen with you to mix the batter for pancakes that you made with flour and sugar instead of a mix? Gathering around the dinner table to eat and talk about the day? Packing a lunch or dinner and heading to the park? Do these things take time? Sure, things that are worth it usually do. Will having an outdoor dinner with your family solve all the problems with food in our society? Of course not, but it may just give them the ammunition they need the next time they read an article, see a commercial, or hear an advertisement that tells them they aren’t worth it. And that’s worth more than all the hours in the world.

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