What’s your [food] story?

Stories are one of my favourite things, ever. Stories are powerful. We have our own stories, we have cultural stories, we have stories of history, stories of the future and stories just for fun. Everything is defined by stories we hear and tell. They can wipe out entire races, peoples and places as though they never existed. They can validate our experiences, or make us live in doubt and shame. We tell stories about our lived experiences to create meaning in our lives; otherwise we are just going through a series of random events that make no sense. Humans like things to make sense, and to have a deeper meaning.

When I see people for nutrition counselling, I’m not often sitting there making sure they have eaten all the nutrients they need, I’m actually listening for their food story.

Our food story is the way we talk about what we eat, and the way we describe our history with food. It is how we give meaning to the food we eat.

Often I find my clients reducing their food story to one of weight; their interaction with food is simply the journey that has lead to fatness or thinness. Sadly this is not just my clients, it really is a societal way we talk about food: “good” “bad” or “fattening” are used in everyday common language to describe food. But reducing food to something that has “made you fat” or is “fattening” does you and the food a disservice.

Can you remember the first meal you truly savoured? What did you like about it? What was so pleasurable about it?

Here is my honest answer: I can remember sitting in my basement as a child enjoying the overly full feeling of a McDonald’s Happy Meal of chicken nuggets, french fries and a chocolate milkshake. Oh how divine. This story for much of my early years carried no shame, just the knowledge that this was a meal I enjoyed, but that I then moved on to whatever else I was into at the time, My Little Ponies or Barbie.

But later, as time pressed on and began to amass the cultural (North American culture) story of shame associated with fullness and “bad” foods, this story carried a different meaning. I became ashamed of my younger self’s food choices, and proud I no longer ate “that stuff”.

Here is the thing: it’s important to tune into what stories you are telling yourself, and what stories you keep hearing. Do they actually ring true to your experience? Or are they something you are simply retelling because it’s the story you’ve heard most often? Sometimes our true stories are quiet inside us, or have been appropriated by the stories told more loudly and frequently. Food does more than change our weight, often it carries with it memories of loved ones, or happy events in our lives, yet we taint it because those happy memories have led to our “weight problem” (pssst actually it was the diet, not the enjoyment).

Food is powerful, but so are the stories we tell about it, so be mindful about the stories you’re telling and listening to about food.

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How Do you Actually Want to Eat

So if you weren’t trying to lose weight, how would you be eating?

I’ve posed this question to many of my clients. many of whom have been trying to lose weight for their whole lives. Their first diet started before they were fat, because they felt fat. And each decade has been defined by what diet group they were a member of; Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the cabbage soup diet, the Master Cleanse… The list goes on.

Most come into my office, still hoping to lose weight. Sure that I have the diet to end all diets, that I have a secret meal plan up my sleeve so they can finally leave the dieting merry go round (sadly you just have to get off, before losing those pesky 10lbs).

As they proceed through their diet recall, each morsel of food that enters their mouth is justified by every food rule they have ever heard:

“Eggs for breakfast because they have protein. But only one because two is too many!”

“I can’t eat carbs; they are my downfall. Carbs are evil. I’ve only ever lost weight not eating carbs.”

“I shouldn’t eat after 7pm. I try not to eat after 7.” (and do you eat after 7? Actually I don’t know. But I try not to)

So when I ask them how they would be eating if they weren’t trying to lose weight they are flummoxed. Such a concept has not entered their mind since before their dieting days. Even the ones who are not actively dieting live with the plethora of food rules in their head, constantly circulating and directing their food choices.

Most diets tell you that you are either dieting or falling off the wagon. There is no concept of normal eating; the diets tell you the way you want to eat is to binge on junk food on whatever food is currently forbidden. Chronic dieters have been fighting a battle (against what they believe is falling off the wagon) for so long they can’t even remember what eating before the diet looked like. But they know (have been told) the eating and food enemy is out there, and it is their natural state, which they must fight.

What the diets don’t tell you is the very act of dieting creates the act of falling off the wagon. If you aren’t on the wagon to begin with  you can’t fall off. There is nothing inherently wrong with eating foods you enjoy. In fact permission to enjoy those foods makes them more satisfying, and you will be less likely to overeat them.

So ask yourself: “If weight loss weren’t the focus, how would I like to be eating?”

Think about it, the answer might be surprising.

The conversation that broke my heart

I hear a lot of stories that break my heart in the conversations I have with clients. The conversations people have around food can be a surprisingly vulnerable place.

But when you think about it, what better place for it all to come tumbling out? Food touches on every aspect of our lives; our personal history with the food we were raised on, what our culture ate, what our parents thought about food. It touches on our income and our “place” in society. It touches on the world economics, of international trades, of political power and policy, of who gets what and who doesn’t. Food is in fact simply something that can be tied in into any emotional, moral, or political conversation you want to have.

But I digress.

The conversation I want to write about today happened during a weight management course I was running. It was the response to the following question:

What situations make you uncomfortable around food?

For those not in the know, these type of courses are built around the idea of chronic dieting, and it’s cousin overeating. Often when people diet (aka starve themselves) this results in a physical (and psychological) backlash where they tend to overeat (not necessarily a binge, but often a feeling of no control around food arises).

So the expected response to the question “What situations make you feel uncomfortable around food” should be something like “I feel uncomfortable when we have Halloween candy in the house.” or “When I attend parties with buffets” or “when I’m with my frenemie who makes me feel two inches tall” etc.

But do you know what made these women (it was all women, and all of them felt this way) uncomfortable around food?

Eating with other people: their friends, their family, their loved ones.

These women, many of whom had been “big” their whole lives had had so many loved ones comment on what they were eating that eating with others was no longer something joyful.

For many people the idea of asking their dieting friend (or their “bigger” friend), “Are you really going to eat that?!” might seem the least bit harmful, but to be entirely honest it is. Can you imagine someone saying that to (accompanied by a LOOK) you (no matter what your size currently is)?

And as many of the women reminded me, as I sat listening to their confessions, they were constantly under eating, constantly dieting and trying to lose weight, and be “good” (when dieting = good is another story completely). “But,” one said sagely, “We’re only human too!”

The truth is comments like, “you don’t really need seconds” and “do you know how many calories are in that” or “you shouldn’t have dessert you know” often say a lot more about the person giving the comment than the person receiving the comment.

As a society we have been told over and over of the health risk factors excess weight provides, this has often led to the belief that any time someone is of a weight outside the BMI range they are unhealthy. This is a false assumption. Some people are unhealthy and overweight, and some people are unhealthy and skinny, yet we mostly just hear about the ill health affects related to excess body weight. So it’s understandable we might think saying these small things to a friend could be considered a helpful reminder, but mostly they’re just shaming. And shame is never the birthplace of true and lasting change. As one woman said, “When someone says that [above comments] to me I just want to go home and eat more!”

The truth is these shaming comments are part of a larger problem of weight stigma. And weight stigma is known to contribute more to ill health than weight itself.

I wish I had a better conclusion, something grand and poignant to say. Many other people have written about weight bias and stigma (great blogs such as Dances with Fat or the Fat Nutritionist have too many posts I could link to) , as well as organizations like Kelty Mental Health and even the BC PHSA has recommended a change in paradigm from weight to health focus. And courses like BalancedView are offered online for professionals wishing to learn more. What can I leave you with? Just be mindful of what you say; the language we use is much more powerful than we realize and the people we might hurt the most are the ones we care about the most.