Hunger Games: Food Issues and the Morality of Food

Around 8 p.m. this Tuesday I left my last tutoring student to grab the dinner I had brought to eat with my end-of-the-day meeting. The dinner was Pad Thai leftovers from a nice lunch out with some of my coworkers, and I was looking forward to it. I was proud that I had applied my developing intuitive eating process to a lunch out, leaving me both satisfied and hooked up with leftovers.

As I stepped into the lobby, I smelled the distinct aroma of McDonald’s fries.

Why McDonald’s? Why not Wendy’s or some other fast food place? I’m not sure why, but I seem to be able to tell the difference. I blame it on my 2011 binge eating stint that always came back to McDonald’s, my understanding friend.

Part of the intuitive eating process is learning that no food is “good” or “bad.” If your story is similar to mine, the following will make a lot of sense to you; if your food story is not similar to mine, I envy you, and I encourage you to take something out of this as well.

I started my first diet right after my 13th birthday. My parents have their own food issues and, like many people, passed on their beliefs to my brother and me. It was a family affair, although I can’t remember if my then-9-year-old brother participated this time. We followed Richard Simmons’ plan, which is similar in concept to Weight Watchers’ point system. I weighed 150 lbs at the time and, unbeknownst to any of us, was struggling with my first serious bout of depression and OCD.

For the next ~10 years, I went on and off diets with the rest of my family. Gaining weight in between each attempt as I hoarded the foods I’d not been allowed while I was “on the wagon.” We did family weigh-ins. My parents offered my brother and me monetary awards for losing weight. This lasted even up to my wedding this past May, when my mom offered to buy me new honeymoon clothes if I lost weight before the wedding.

There was always an event we had to prepare for. I can’t remember them all, probably because we made them bigger in our heads than they actually were. The first day of a new school. The first day of high school. Prom. Prom 2. College. Break-up number 1. Break-up number 2. Some event we were going to as a family. A trip home to Georgia to see the “skinny side of the family,” where I constantly felt like the black sheep, even at a relatively healthy 150 pounds.

My cousins (male and female) are all gorgeous, and my girl cousins were (and are) tall, skinny, athletic, light brown hair with blue eyes, and homecoming queens at their respective schools. Every time we visited, my parents would be complimented on their weight loss, or, alternatively, spend time bashing themselves for gaining the weight back. “We’ve been bad,” they would say.

Bad? Were they murdering people? Stealing money? Incessantly talking down about other people?

Nope.

“Bad” means eating foods that you like but that don’t fit into your current diet’s arbitrary rules. For a time period, both my parents did Atkins (and I joined them for awhile), so “bad” foods were carbs and “good” foods were bacon. Then we were calorie counting, and suddenly bacon now joined the “bad” list, and white bread was back. We were never punished for gaining weight despite the promise of rewards for losing it (including money in a jar with a sticker saying “Cash or Cow?”), unless you count sitting around talking about how fat and gross we were. Unless you count apologizing to people (family! friends!) for our size. Unless you count accepting criticism–I mean “advice”–from others because it was our duty to feel shame for our size.

After all, we had been “bad.” Let the stonings begin.

Dieting took on a religious fervor for all of us, dictating our morality by a bite of cheesecake. Before each new diet–or diet attempt–we would go through a process that I now know to be called “Last Supper Eating.” From now on we were going to be “good,” and follow the new set of arbitrary rules, so tonight we were eating everything that we would never eat again. Ever. Because from now on we would be good.

We would eat more calories during the “Last Supper” than we would have had we just eaten normally all week.

Repeat indefinitely.

My parents are still following this pattern, and I listen politely as they tell me (occasionally with a tinge of “look how good I’m being” in their voice) that they are back on the wagon. Or that they are going back on the wagon so they’re going to eat a bunch of chips and ice cream tonight. That’s fine, because it’s none of my business. But it was my business growing up, where I learned these eating behaviors. Where I learned to binge eat. Where I learned to hide emotions with food.

There is another side to the “Last Supper” eating. It’s a punishment. A self-punishment. You have been “bad” eating all these foods, so now it is time you feel sick from the very foods you want, so that you learn to only eat “good” foods from here on out. Shame on you for wanting a forbidden food.

My OCD mind latched onto this idea very willingly. When I ate a “bad” food, it meant that I, too, was a bad person, so I deserved punishment. In high school I punished myself with excessive exercise. I would go to volleyball practice for a couple of hours then come home and walk on the treadmill for two hours. This, coupled with a calorie counting diet of 1200 calories that my then-undiagnosed OCD also loved (numbers! counting! limits!), I now know to be excessive. My therapists have been concerned upon hearing that I thought that was “good” behavior that I should be striving for again. Apparently not.

When the exercise became difficult to maintain under the pressure of college, I swung to the other direction and punished myself with more food. My college roommates can probably tell you of a few times when I would cry, loudly, embarrassingly, after eating something “bad” or weighing myself and finding I’d gained a pound. And they can also tell you times where they found me sitting down with a Halloween-sized bag of Reese’s and a blank stare on my face, making my way through the bag without tasting just for the sake of keeping down my feelings of inadequacy. My feelings that I would not identify as chronic depression for another 5 years.

I went to a nutritionist at 19 and I brought a food diary with me. OCD me also loved the food diary. I was now living in an apartment on my own and making a concerted effort to cook for myself. The nutritionist laughed at my food diary. Literally. Laughed. She then looked up at me with a serious face: “You think this is healthy?” I looked back down at my list and was puzzled. She laughed again.

To this day I cannot remember the food I was eating at that time, but I do remember a professional laughing at me. She was confused by my bloodwork because, again, I was a “gigantic” and “bad” 150 lbs at 5’4″, but my numbers were all great. Clearly something was wrong. She was very dismissive of the numbers, of my earnestness and desire to learn what I should be doing. She got a phone call and hastily dismissed me.

“But wait…I don’t know what you want me to do.”

She looked annoyed at the interruption. “Just read the South Beach Diet book.”

Oh. Ok.

And so another diet began.

***

Today, thanks to the help of more open-minded nutritionists and therapists trained to deal with eating disorders, I am learning to disassociate morality from my food choices. I am also learning that I don’t have to listen to the “Food Police,” or people who tell me how I should feel when eating a food. My parents and society together used to serve as the food police, and now Matt and well-meaning friends (oh, and still society) do. Matt does a pretty good job staying out of my food business, but occasionally a “you ate that?” or “you’re not still hungry, are you?” will slip from him.

For any of you that act as someone’s food police, just realize this leads to rebellious eating. Matt learned that pretty quickly. We were at a hog roast and I got up to get a third plate of food. He made a comment along the lines of “I think you’ve had plenty already.” The stare I gave him bored through his soul, and I then piled my plate higher than I had intended (I think I just wanted to go get another piece of cornbread) and ate every piece of food defiantly. I was uncomfortably stuffed, but I was making a point.

McDonald’s still has an eerie pull on me that no other food seems to. I realized after the experience on Tuesday evening that meant I should eat it without judgment, so I had it for lunch yesterday. It was a strangely emotional experience, unlike other feelings I’ve had with food recently. Today I reflected on the experience, and a fleeting thought of having it again for lunch today passed through my head.

No, that would be bad.

The judgment came so quickly that it caught me by surprise. I thought that I’d made peace with fast food. Unfortunately, this is a process. I debated myself for an hour before going to McDonald’s again. I used positive self-talk to tell myself that I was not “bad” for eating fast food two days in a row. I can eat McDonald’s twice and still make a healthy decision for dinner (I had soup and salad last night). Because I am allowed any food I want, there is no need to binge or revenge eat.

Frankly, I no longer have the strong desire to eat fast food that I used to, so I don’t foresee this becoming a habit. I’m not “on the wagon” right now because I am eating intuitively, not following an arbitrary set of rules, so there is no way to fall off.

For once in my food life, I’m firmly grounded in reality.