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.