Do you eat to live or live to eat?
Neither could be called a healthy relationship with food. Eating to live—using food simply as fuel—takes the joy out of one of life’s great pleasures. On the other hand, giving food too much importance, either by living only for our next meal or obsessing lest we eat too much or eat the wrong things, isn’t a joyful or healthy relationship either.
In a healthy relationship, we would look forward to our encounters with food. We would respond appropriately to our hunger cues by supplying ourselves with nourishing and tasty food (in the words of nutrition expert Mark Hyman, MD, “foods we love that love us back”), and we would eat until satisfied and no more. We would trust our body cues to maintain a weight that is perfect for us (although it might not conform to the latest fashion).
But according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), almost 10% of our population is struggling with one or more of the three major eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informs us that at any given time about half of all Americans are actively trying to lose weight, usually with a weight loss diet.
It’s anyone’s guess how many of the remaining 50% are also dissatisfied with their body size and/or their relationship with food, but it seems to be an almost universal problem.
And dieting itself is a major risk factor for developing an even more distorted relationship with food. According to GenPsych, a mental health and substance abuse treatment provider with centers throughout New Jersey, not only do 95% of all dieters regain their lost weight within 5 years, but “35% of ‘normal dieters’ progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.”
One problem with dieting is that it forces us to override our body’s natural hunger and hunger-satisfaction signals. Becoming tone-deaf to these internal cues leads to a host of problems. It makes us more likely to eat a tempting food even though we’re not really hungry, or continue to eat past normal satiation just because it tastes good, or eat to suppress emotions like boredom, fear, loneliness and anxiety.
Another problem with low-calorie diets—they’re stressful! And stress elevates the hunger-inducing and fat-storing hormone cortisol. A 2010 experiment with mice, for example, cut 25% of the calories from their normal diet for three weeks, resulting in a 10-15% loss of body weight. However the stress of dieting increased the mice’s levels of cortisol, which remained elevated when they were returned to their normal diet. This made them more sensitive to stress, and, like many a hapless dieter before them, the mice readily turned to binge eating in response.
In place of dieting, a variety of solutions have emerged from different quarters: mindful eating, instinctive eating, slow food, and even feminism. All of them ask us to listen to and respond to our own body hunger/satiation cues to restore and cultivate a healthy relationship with food.
- Mundell EJ. Almost half of Americans are trying to lose weight. HealthDay Reporter, Webmd.com. October 19, 2018.
- GenPsych. Eating disorder statistics. October 17, 2020. genpsych.com.
- Pankevich DE. Caloric restriction experience reprograms stress and orexigenic pathways and promotes binge eating. The Journal of Neuroscience. December 2010;30(48):16399-16407.