food: it’s what’s for dinner

food? or poison?

Food? Or Poison?

So it’s happened again: yet another lunch guest who tells me she hardly eats any meat or fat, mostly all-vegetables – and a few minutes later is ladling up two plates’-worth of my shepherd’s pie – with its buttery mashed-potato corona of Awesome – and devouring with much gusto. Then she tells me she doesn’t drink alcohol – and ends up asking for one of the gin and tonics my husband is mixing for other guests.

In my peer group at least, food fuckabouts are common enough. Whether men and women self-identify as “dieting” or not, they often are. And many of them do not demonstrate eating competence.

Food and diet are controversial, varied, and hugely complex subjects. So just to be clear from the outset, here is what I am not addressing in this article. I am not going to be talking about individuals and families who do not have access to a variety of food they can afford. I am not going to be talking about concepts appropriate for individuals with severe eating disorders.

I’m weighing in on the behaviors and strategies of people like my friends, family and I: people who have the means and resources to afford a variety of fare and who would not be classified as having an ED.1

Considering “eating competence” is almost as an important aspect of feeding and eating as supply and access it’s interesting few people know the basic tenets of the concept. From an article published at Kansas State University’s Department of Human Nutrition:

People who are competent eaters have positive attitudes about eating. They enjoy food. They are confident that they will have enough food to eat and they trust their bodies”‘ internal regulators to signal when they are hungry and when they are full. Children move toward eating competence as they learn to acknowledge their own internal cues. Development of eating competence ““ or the lack of ““ begins in infancy and continues through life.2

So I’m a pretty good cook; mostly though, a joyful and prolific one. I cook often for my family and for other people when I can.3 The socially-performed rituals of food-as-a-moral-failing-or-virtue are behaviors I’ve observed too often to be considered flukes.

See, many Americans can be really silly about food. Fer realz. Did you know we still have an operational Food Pyramid being purveyed by our government?4. Advocates of the Ethical Food Movement – with whom my family shares some aims and is locally-influential in promoting these goals – often do not address the institutional, cultural, and hugely oppressive stresses on American food habits, instead releasing considerable internet-vitriol slandering individual people and families for their ginormously disgusting Fatty McFatsalot food habits and sloth. (I’m not going to provide any soul-sucking links for this, throw a rock on Google and you’ll hit loads of it.)

That obesity business. Because let’s get real: one of the major factors in these food-games my friends and family play relates to their weight and size. Many Americans absolutely worship the Idol of Weight Loss with a fervor blind to any nuanced discussion of mitigating factors, scientific study, or personal health and happiness. Weight Loss is massive, a constant undercurrent, and an aspiration we’re all supposed to hold (so even if you’re not dieting, you should support dieting), even though countless studies prove diets don’t work and Americans know this anecdotally and empirically. In fact the efficacy of dieting is worse than many people realize: study after study shows around 95% of diet-participants gaining weight back in two years while two-thirds gain even more weight than what was lost.5 The significant health effects of de facto yo-yo dieting are wreaking havoc on American bodies and minds and quality of life (more about this in a minute). But this does not deter Americans from: dieting.

I notice a fair amount of my friends and family will claim their diet-and-exercise regimens and their food restrictions are about “health” – not weight. If you query them further (they might not like this) you often find this is a smokescreen.

Example: a dear friend of mine recently told me she needed to drop forty pounds. I asked Why? and she responded, “To be healthy”. She want on to say, “I want to be able to walk a brisk two mile walk and feel good doing it.” I said, “If you got up tomorrow and tried that walk slowly, then rested the next day then did it again, and so on, within a couple weeks you’d be able to do it and you’d probably feel great. And you probably wouldn’t drop more than a couple pounds, if that.” (This friend is able-bodied and fairly active already). From the look in her eyes I could see I wasn’t “getting” the fantasy-image she had of her new, slimmer, “healthy” self, a whole new Her (the fleshed out version of these visions is further-reaching than just Pounds Lost; it is also sometimes called The Fantasy of Being Thin6). Later, passing through her bathroom I saw the scale on the floor and the careful notes of pounds written on a piece of paper and taped to her mirror.

This woman, and so many people I know, might say the word “health”  but does not know her blood pressure nor has had recent bloodwork done or seen a trusted naturopath or physician or embarked on a study of quantifiable health markers (and yes, she could afford to do so if she wished). If her focus was truly on health she’d likely get rid of the scale and follow a proven method of lifestyle and fitness improvement, such as the HAES model developed by Linda Bacon (that’s right, BACON!).7 But of course, that’s not really what she, or lots of other “health”-touters, are really thinking about.

The typical versions of dieting are distressing behaviors because weight loss culture is a real agent of harm, self-loathing, and poor health. As long as people still cling to the ideologies of the Weight Loss Industrial Compex (fistfuls of money are being made hawking this religion) their bodies will suffer as will their quality of life: also and especially their children. Spending time with other people’s kids – especially the girl-children – I observe how many girls, even young ones, talk sneeringly about fatness or express their longing to thin – yes, even girls who already are thin. I’ve heard girls as young as four express these sentiments.  I am afraid in many cases their parents/carers aren’t doing all they can to protect these children, probably because they’ve either bought into “thin is in” or they don’t realize how invasive the forces are working against their children’s health.8 Make no mistake, the influence of peers and the media has even well-strategizing parents at a disadvantage.

The cost to our children is being borne out overwhelmingly by our female children, especially girls and young women of color.9 No one, however, is immune.  My own daughter asked me the other day if she was “too fat”.10 She’s not only not “too fat”, she’s just not fat at all, and the fact she has been asking and hinting about this lately troubles me. We are a homeschooling family who does not own a television and her father and I are active supporters of FA and healthy eating; we do not impose Draconian food measures. If she’s still getting these “better worry about one’s weight” messages loud and clear I’d like the reader to consider how oppressively ubiquitous they are and how they are likely playing out even more harmfully depending on the race, gender, sexual orientation, degree of disability, institutional status, and socioeconomic class of other children – most categories of which my daughter is an a culturally-privileged place.

It’s a grim picture. Yet we still talk about food incautiously and as if there were these tangible or elusive moral Rights and Wrongs. We still look at fat people (and occasionally thin people) and imagine we know what they eat (and/or how much they exercise and how “good” their exercise regimens might be). Sometimes my friends tell me they’re carrying “an extra X pounds.” I ask them how would they know it was ‘extra’? – literally, where would they go to find out? (The BMI index?11 The tabloids? Equally laughable!) They then, invariably, tell me about a time in their life they were smaller – maybe thirty years and three children ago (personally I came into this world at about eight pounds but I’ve put on a lot since then!).

We still suffer from poor-self-worth and insecurity which, tragically, often contributes to the pro-Diet mantras and myopic concepts of food morality. Unfortunately, this is not a “victimless crime” or even a one-victim crime; our attitudes and lip service in aggregate have very real effects on other people.  There’s also just the personal garden-variety misery our worldview effects; therapist, author and lecturer Ellyn Satter writes:

Our dilemma with weight is that at the same time as we are being told by health policy makers – repeatedly and with a great deal of judgment and urgency – that any degree of overweight is medically dangerous, there is no successful method for reducing and maintaining a lowered body weight. In fact, weight loss attempts have a boomerang effect: Most people regain lost weight and many gain to a higher level with each loss-regain cycle. While high body weight is a serious health risk only at the extremes, the far-more-common pattern of weight instability as a result of dieting is associated with negative health outcomes [emphasis mine].

For people who are relatively fat, the weight dilemma is even worse. Although body composition is, for the most part, genetically determined, people of size generally feel guilty about their weight and therefore ashamed of their eating. They have accepted society’s judgment that they overeat and that they are digging their graves with their knives and forks. In reality, most relatively fat people eat no more or no differently from thin people. They just pay the price. People of size at times eat chaotically, but that chaotic eating, rather than being a cause of high body weight, is far more likely to be a consequence of the weight-reduction dieting that they have pursued in the name of becoming thin.12

People make judgments about food and individuals’ “food virtue” that make little to no objective sense. Around these parts I’m known as a good cook and a “healthy” one. Because my family is slim and people know I enjoy cooking and I do cook with a wide variety of ingredients, some organic depending what I can afford, I am told I’m a “healthy” cook. What does that even mean? I’ve had people gush about my refried beans from scratch and tell me They’re Gonna Start Cooking Healthier At Home, and I think to myself, Do they want to know how much butter and salt are in those beans? From what I can tell some want to eat my food, proclaim it as healthy and delicious, perhaps claim they never eat such-and-such (while I’m watching them devour it), and/or tell themselves and the rest of the guests how they’re Losing Weight (or going to start soon). This is all part of that Fantasy I alluded to before. It’s hard to know what to say; often, I don’t say much at all.  (Disclosure: by vast overwhelming majority my friends and family who eat restricted diets because of medical issues or spiritual/ethical convictions are the ones I observe eat the way they claim to eat.)

Day after day I see the play-around “rules”, the “bad” food vs. “good” food, the “I can eat this slice of cheesecake because I did thirty minutes on the treadmill”, the endless discussions on size 6 jeans or size 8 jeans (and the hurt silence of the woman in the room who’s a size 20). I’ve seen it so many times, and as a hostess who loves to cook and have friends over it would almost be funny if I didn’t know What Lies Beneath; if I didn’t want better for future babies, boys, girls, men and women. My job as a hostess is to cook exactly the foods my friends tell me they want, put the grated cheese on the side or provide vegetarian alternatives or gluten-free main courses or whatever best serves everyone attendant; to lovingly craft with my own hands exactly what will nourish us all. What they put on their plate and how they frame it is, in the end analysis, under their control. The smiles and compliments, at least, tell me I’m doing something right.13

Here, writing about my observations, I know there are lots of people who simply can’t break the perpetuated mainstream mindsets on food and diet (and occasionally, ZOMG the obese are Ruining America!!11!) and who will want to tell me about all these Great Big Fat Persons14 out there who really, really, REALLY need to lose weight, Kelly, you should see what “these people” eat, blah blah.

But there are those I know who read here – those who are passionate about doing things a better way for themselves and their family, friends and children – who are open to expanding their worldviews and finding better ideas. As a personal aside, my own mother is gradually, ever-so-gradually, breaking a lifetime of training on self-worth-hinging-on-attractiveness, body image, and self-food-policing; she tells me I am her main influence in this regard.  This means a lot to me personally.

I’d hope I could positively influence other people, as well – not just cook for them.

Mentioned/Further Reading:
“If only poor people understood nutrition!” by Michelle Allison at The Fat Nutritionist

“Dear Health Care Provider” at RaisingBoychick.com, on partnering with your doctor/PA/naturopath/practitioner, etc. to manage topics of self-care, diet, exercise, and medication.

“But Don’t You Realize Fat is Unhealthy?” at Shapely Prose.

“Let us eat cake” at mymilkspilt: pressures on mothers regarding feeding their children.

“Occupied Bodies: Women of Color Speak out on Self-Image”, a call for submissions from Tasha Fierce at Red Vinyl Shoes.

“Diets Don’t Work, But…” on dieting-but-not-calling-it-that, by Kate Harding

“A Fat Rant” as performed by Joy Nash

“No Weigh! A Declaration of Independence from a Weight-Obsessed World” – a commitment to health from NationalEatingDisorders.org : “I, the undersigned, do hereby declare that from this day forward I will choose to live my life by the following tenets. In so doing, I declare myself free and independent from the pressures and constraints of a weight-obsessed world.” [click] for a pdf download.

  1. More information on Eating disorders can be found at the NIMH website. Also: obesity is not an eating disorder (warning-ableist language in the latter article).
  2. Full article here: “What is Eating Competence?”, published April 2008.
  3. Here are some snapshots.
  4. Here’s the updated version: http://www.mypyramid.gov/; and here are some criticisms for the pyramid and its underwriters, the USDA: 1, 2, 3, and 4 (warning: some rather broad-stroke anti-obesity language therein a few links): as one study author mildly puts it, “the USDA is too closely linked to the agriculture industry to be in the business of giving diet advice”.
  5. “Dieting Doesn’t Work”, UCLA research demonstrating “the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of diet studies, analyzing 31 long-term studies.”
  6. Well-elucidated by this essay:  “The Fantasy of Being Thin” at Shapely Prose
  7. HAES, an introductory primer.
  8. A suggestion: print out the NEDA’s list “50 Ways to Lose the 3Ds: Dieting, Drive for Thinness, and Body Dissatisfaction” (pdf download) and use the scorecard to see how you’re doing.
  9. “A Different Kind of Fat Rant: People of Color and the Fat Acceptance Movement” by Lesley at Fatshionista.
  10. Here’s a picture of her.
  11. “Overweight Kills: If You Use Shaky BMI Science” at consumerfreedom.com
  12. From “Resolve the Weight Dilemma” at Ellyn Satter’s website.
  13. “cooking, a manifesto”, at my blog.
  14. “Was she a great big fat person?”