Meatballs, and the Truth about My Relationship with Food
Truth time. I woke up this morning CRAVING spaghetti and meatballs. My eyes opened and I thought "Spaghetti. And. Meatballs." Some of you may be thinking "That's not a very dietitian-y food, with the red meat and the mountain of carbs topped with cheese", but to me, honouring my hunger ameans that sometimes I eat foods that may not have Instagram-perfect nutrition. This acknowledgement of our food desires isn't "giving in", it is the basis of intuitive eating.
This craving came at a rather fortuitous time, because this is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness), which makes it the perfect time to discuss relationships with food. NEDAwareness aims to end stigma and stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, and provides support for those affected. Check out their website, or follow the hashtag on social media for more information.
Eating disorders exist on a spectrum, and the media tends to only portray those at the extreme end of that spectrum. But in our diet-obsessed, skinny-obsessed, and fast food-obsessed culture (hello confusing!), many of us can have a complicated relationship with food and our bodies, even if it doesn't fall within the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.
I've had a complicated relationship with food in the past, and I still have the "this dress would look so much better if I had toned arms and a smaller waist" inner dialogue. Although I've largely made peace with my inner food demons, it hasn't been a quick or easy journey.
In high school, I was convinced that my love handles were the reason I didn't have a boyfriend, so I would skip breakfast and lunch to control my weight. I often felt lightheaded and had difficulty focusing in class. Luckily for me, my mom noticed my rapid weight loss and intervened with a simple "I've noticed that you haven't been eating very much lately, is everything okay?" Although I can't say I was particularly open to a conversation with my mother at that point (I was 16 and my responses largely consisted of "Mom! I know! Whatever!"), her gentle inquiry made me stop and think about what I was doing to my body. I quickly started eating lunch again.
My eating pattern varied wildly throughout my twenties. In my second year of university, I lived with a girl who ate a highly restrictive diet and exercised compulsively, and I followed suit. My weight dropped slowly all year long, and even though I was at the thinnest I had ever been in my adult life at that time, I was also the most self-conscious. I was obsessed with obtaining my goal weight, and even attempted a few starvation-style cleanses. It took a summer away from that roommate to realize that our relationship centred around weight loss and perfectionism, and that our friendship wasn't a good one. It was painful when our friendship ended, but parting ways did help alleviate some of the pressure I had been putting on myself to be perfect.
Fast forward a few years, and I'm doing my Master's degree, under immense amounts of stress, and drowning my worries in ice cream and buttery recipes from Julia Child's cookbook every night. Although I did really start to hone my cooking skills at this time (thanks Julia!), I was also treating food like my therapist, best friend, and sole comfort.
It wasn't until I started in the nutrition program that I realized that I my relationship with food needed some changing. First, I learned what healthy eating looked like. Despite my years of scientific training, I was shocked to learn that carbs weren't bad, a small salad with only lettuce and tomato won't make you feel full, and that eating snacks can be a good thing. Second, by working on my cooking skills to make nutritious and inexpensive meals, I gradually learned that food can be fun and fulfilling without causing stress or anxiety, or being used to fill an emotional void. I was introduced to the concepts of mindfulness and intuitive eating (through a classmate, most nutrition programs don't teach this kind of stuff), and I devoured every book I could find on the topic. I even did an intern project to develop tools for dietitians to teach mindful eating.
Today my eating style can be summed up as follows:
I eat food.
If that means that I'm eating meatballs, or ice cream, or salad, or oatmeal, I'm just eating it. Nothing more, and nothing less. Of course I still try to get my vegetable servings in and make balanced meals, but whether I do or don't accomplish those things, it doesn't change who I am as a person.
You too can practice intuitive eating, dear readers. This basically means you eat what you want, and you don't eat what you don't want. You stop eating when you're full. You pay attention to your body - digestion, energy levels, mental health, and cravings - and eat what makes you feel your best. No matter where you are at now with your food relationships, you can be kinder to yourself, honour your hunger, and relearn how to eat food.
(And for those who are wondering, the meatball recipe is Jamie Oliver's, and can be found here.)