Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Food for Thought: Notes on My Relationship With Food
Losing weight is hard. Not everyone understands this. I've heard some people explain it to me like this: "you just burn up what you put in," referring to calorie intake and expenditure through exercise. "It's pure mathematics." The problem with this logic is that it completely ignores the complicated physical, chemical, and psychological factors that make us overweight to begin with. If ever someone tells you this, you can be sure they haven't had to lose a lot of weight before. People are too complex for such irreducible formulas.
When I was losing weight, I had to evaluate my relationship with food. I had to look at what I ate and why I ate it. I struggled so much to understand my habits and where they came from. I still struggle with food today. For example, I sometimes feel overwhelmingly guilty for eating, even when I know that there is nothing wrong with what I am eating. Where does that guilt come from?
I had been heavy most of my life. Growing up, I was always the chubby kid. Food was such an important part of my life. Mexican-Americans place a great emphasis on culinary traditions. If you ever go to a pachanga, you will find plenty of food available. In my family, eating was very much a social event, a part of the cultural fabric that allowed us to relate to each other on deeper, more personal levels. I came to love food.
There is nothing wrong with loving food. I think food is meant to be enjoyed. I've met people that take a purely utilitarian approach to food. "Food is fuel," they say. "Nothing more." I do not share this view. Food has the potential to awaken us to the most cherished sensory experiences of our lives. It is both tradition and culture, memory and expression. To eat food is to partake in one of the most fundamental experiences of the human condition. Truly.
So where is the problem? The problem for me was when I ate for the wrong reasons. Emotional eating, for example, often leads to problems. I remember eating to soothe my emotional pains. This started at a young age. When I would cry as a child, my parents would give me candy to cheer me up. Is it any wonder that I came to see food as an emotional crutch, something I could lean on for comfort during the rough times?
When I was losing weight, I had to stop my emotional eating. Not completely, though. I still allowed myself to eat for emotional reasons. Food and emotion are so closely intertwined in our modern times that I think it's unreasonable to expect to shut off the habit completely. But, rather than associate food with negative emotions, I tried to associate it with positive ones. So, if I was having a good day or I accomplished something good, like getting a good grade on a school paper, I would allow myself a culinary treat - maybe a big bowl of homemade vegetable soup that evening.
I believe associating food with positive emotions is essential to weight loss. So often, the diet books emphasize the negative. "No" to this. "No" to that. Food becomes something we fear and we try to avoid it. Of course, this ends up in diet-disaster. We abstain from eating because we are afraid to eat, but we can only abstain for so long before we give in and chow down. Then, we overeat. We binge. This leads to guilt, which leads to more eating. We shouldn't fear food.
That's a hard concept to put into practice, especially for someone trying to lose weight. As I mentioned, I still sometimes feel guilty when I eat. I can't help it. All through high school I was called names and teased because of my weight. College, too. I saw myself as fat, and I blamed food for it. When I tried a new diet, it was always with that do-or-die attitude. With each new attempt to shed the pounds, I would set out on a mission to conquer food, the archenemy of my desired waistline.
Eventually, I realized that I couldn't conquer food. I had to embrace it. Most importantly, I had to acquaint myself with new culinary experiences: eating healthy, making smart food choices, opening up my palette to new tastes - fruits instead of candy, vegetables instead of junk food. I eliminated fast food from my life. I cooked 95% of my meals. With this new approach to eating, and with the benefits of exercise and running, I lost 180 pounds.
However, losing weight is just the beginning. A lot of people, after successfully losing weight, put it back on within a year. There are many culprits behind the problem of yo-yo dieting. One culprit, and I think it is the most important, is that some people, while dieting and losing weight, never fully analyzed their eating habits. They never understood their relationship with food, and they never fully embraced food as a part of life, not to be feared but rather to be enjoyed. By that same token, our relationship with food changes as time goes by. It evolves. But, the basic tenant of the relationship should always stay the same: love.
I enjoy food, just as you should enjoy food, just as we all should enjoy food. I also enjoy exercise and running. Whether you are trying to lose weight, or just struggling like me to come to terms with your ever-shifting relationship with food, remember that love conquers all. It is the opposite of fear. And when you learn to love good food, you also learn to love yourself.