(Trigger warning: eating disorders)
If you’ve ever eaten a cookie and felt guilty for it; if you’ve “indulged” in dessert and declared you’ve been “bad”; or if you’ve ever walked away from a meal silently scolding yourself, you’re not alone. With the holidays coming up — a time of the year when we not only tend to eat different foods than normal but also more of those foods — these thoughts may feel all too familiar.
While I’m certainly no doctor, I do know what it’s like to make yourself feel bad because of the things you’ve eaten. We’ve all done it. In fact, we’ve regularly come to refer to certain types of food as “bad” (think sweets, fast foods, even carbs), while we label other foods as “good” (vegetables, lean protein, fruit). In turn, the type of food we eat ends up influencing how we feel about ourselves. We’re a good person when we eat “good” food (and, similarly, when we eat a small amount of that food), but we’re a bad person when we eat “bad” food (or too much of something).
Yet these mindsets do more harm than good. Tying morals to food can actually lead to disordered eating — a little-known phenomenon that differs from its more well-known counterparts, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Disordered eating is simply characterized by irregular eating patterns, perhaps not severe enough to be given a clinical diagnosis, but nevertheless concerning.
- A very strong fear of gaining 5 pounds
- Following strict food rules
- Dieting for more than three-quarters of your life
- Cutting entire food groups from your diet, except for religious reasons
- Eating the same “safe” foods every day
- Thinking about food more than 50 percent of the time
- Obsessive calorie counting
- Lying about how much you’ve eaten
- Consistently overeating when you’re not hungry
- Eating a lot of no- or low-calorie foods
- Having concerns about your eating or weight that interfere with your life (e.g., you won’t see the doctor)
- Considering foods to be good or bad
Weirdly, disordered eating patterns are often widely accepted as “just how women are.” Most won’t blink an eye when you say, “I ate a piece of cheesecake, I’m so fat!” or “I shouldn’t have eaten those pancakes, I’m going to need to work it off at the gym later.” That’s because it seems like we all do it. And we do it with such frequency that these thoughts feel normal. We all think our bodies need improvement and we all think that punishing ourselves when we don’t do the “right” thing by eating “good” foods is totally fine.
However, on its own, food is neither good nor bad. Food is neutral. We assign those arbitrary labels to what we eat based on our personal feelings. We guilt ourselves for the choices we make when it comes to food. Rather than encouraging ourselves to make choices based on what our bodies want, we choose the foods we eat carefully based on how we feel they are morally. When we dare to “indulge,” we guilt ourselves later.
But we are not bad people for eating, or wanting to eat, a slice of cake. We’re not bad people for eating an entire cake, either. Our eating habits, our bodies, and our exercise habits do not dictate the type of people we will be.
How do you shake these feelings, then? It’s a battle, and a long, difficult one that’s interwoven with body image, society’s beauty standards, our own beauty standards, and health scares. With all of these things weighing down on us, it’s no wonder our feelings toward food sometimes get out of control.
Instead, I’d like to propose three things:
- Let’s try to worry less about being perfect and focus, instead, on being healthy and happy.
- Let’s fret less over whether we think of food as “good” or “bad” (we could do well by nixing those arbitrary labels altogether!) and instead aim to eat the types of foods that make us feel good. Typically, that will probably be a mix of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats. Sometimes, though, that will be a doughnut and a half of a pizza! That’s okay. You shouldn’t feel bad, or punish yourself, for your food choices, and no one has the right to tell you otherwise.
- Let’s foster kindness toward ourselves and stop fretting so much over what we eat. We wouldn’t scold our friends for opting to have dessert after dinner, so why do we internally bash ourselves when we make the same choice?
This holiday season — and any other day of the year — let’s try to stress less about what we put in our bodies and focus more on how we feel. Our bodies, and our minds, will thank us.
For more information about eating disorders, or to seek help, please visit NationalEatingDisorders.org or call 1.800.931.2237. For help on Thanksgiving, use the #thx4support hashtag and talk with a team of eating disorder, recovery, and body image activists for support.