You don’t have to earn your food
INTRO NOTE: I’ve written and published this article for free, fully open access, because I think it’s vital in the wake of the BBC Horizon show from last night. But the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, needs your help! Their services are extra stretched right now and money is low. If you gain anything from this article and you can afford to give even a couple of pounds, I ask that you please donate to them! The whole point of this essay is to raise a) awareness and b) funds. If you can donate, do so here. Thank you.
CONTENT NOTE: I address disordered eating, fatphobia, ableism and lots of stuff about food here! I’ve avoided all talk of numbers (calories in, weights, etc) and have followed the Beat guidelines, but you may want to read with care if these topics are triggers for you.
You don’t have to earn your food. I didn’t think that in the middle of a global crisis I would have to write this, but I do — and you need to hear it. You don’t have to earn your food.
Last night, the BBC aired a Horizon show called ‘The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories’. (I won’t link to it. Not just because it doesn’t deserve the clicks or the views, but because I think it’s actively harmful, especially for those who have experienced or are currently living with an eating disorder.) The premise was, simply put, that out the back of the restaurant was a gym where a group of people would show how long a person might have to exercise in order to ‘burn off’ the calories contained in the restaurant’s dishes. There was some chat about genetics and the calories that a body burns simply by existing, but at its core was a focus on calories in, calories out. Throughout, the show’s hosts discussed the calories contained in various foods and the ‘best’ ways to burn off those calories, drawing a direct link between foods and their exercise ‘equivalents’. The premise was simple: earn the food you eat, and you’ll be OK.
This way of thinking is more harmful now than ever. For many of us, food is a particularly fraught topic at the moment. Helen West is a registered dietician and author who works extensively with people with eating disorders, but she’s quick to point out that the casualties of this high-stress time extend far beyond just those who have diagnosed mental health problems. “I think it’s fair to say that most of us are struggling in one way or another with the stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and lockdown. There are many people who haven’t been formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, but struggle daily with food and exercise obsession,” she notes.
Access to food is uncertain, with trips to the shops anxiety-inducing for even the most mentally ‘well’ among us. Normal foods might be off-limits, and your usual comfort eats no longer something you can rely on (I’m missing the soothing sweetness of McFlurries). Your cupboards might be disconcertingly bare or unusually full. You might be restlessly pacing or barely moving from your bed. Perhaps your days are stretching unnervingly long and bare ahead of you, and food has become a source of precious comfort. Maybe your stomach is tied in knots with the stress of it all. Some will enter a fugue state, mainlining Pringles to soothe some disquiet within. Others among you will find yourselves busier than ever — sometimes too hungry, other times too full, seldom able to fall into step with the rhythms of your own hunger.
But for those with eating disorders, the situation is even more difficult. “If you have an eating disorder, where eating behaviours are used as a coping strategy, the current uncertainty, coupled with a lack of access to the strategies you usually use for managing your condition may mean that you’re struggling more than usual,” reminds Helen. The services you rely on might have been stripped back or stopped altogether. In the face of endless talk of health and personal responsibility, your food guilt might have gone into overdrive. Maybe, like me, you become stressed if you feel like your future food supply is uncertain, and you fall back into old disordered behaviours to quell the rising panic. When the Horizon show aired last night, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, kept its support services open after hours to provide a lifeline for those affected. “Our services have sadly been in high demand tonight,” they tweeted, along with an appeal for donations.
The problems with the Horizon programme were so blatant that it feels patronising to even list them, but clearly we’re beyond assuming anything. It’s a problem that Helen has seen play out multiple times. “Eating disorders are often overlooked when it comes to public health messaging. In fact, lots of the messages we receive about health and weight feed the disordered thoughts and feelings people have about food and their bodies, promoting the unhealthy practices which drive eating disorders.”
Despite the very clear guidelines issued by charities such as Beat, these dangerous messages proliferate. I should not have to explain that directly equating food eaten with an exercise ‘equivalent’ can serve as a bulimia ‘how-to’. I should not have to go against the moral of a show commissioned and aired by our national broadcaster when I say that positioning health as an individual ‘choice’ could be harmful, even lethal, for those with eating disorders. I shouldn’t have to point out that positing food as something to be ‘earned’ will only compound the guilt and self-blame of those who struggle with binge eating. It shouldn’t be on me — a person who struggled with disordered eating for many years, and continues to live with its echo — to insist that programming doesn’t entrench precisely the kind of obsessive, unhappy, self-castigating mindsets that eating disorder therapists, clinics and patients work for years to overcome. Some do not manage to move beyond their eating disorder: they live in flux, swinging between struggle and submission, never quite making peace with their appetite. As a result of these patterns of thinking and behaviour, some people even die.
There is the question of fatness, too: the fear of which is woven deep into the fabric of the Horizon show. Throughout, references were made to the ‘obesity epidemic’, holding up bigger bodies as cautionary tales, as lessons from which the ‘good’ eater, the ‘good’ exerciser, can learn. There is vibrant and plentiful literature on why fatness and fat people are wrongfully demonised, on the institutional medical bias against fat people and on the massive traumas that fat people face as a result of society’s attitudes. I advise you to seek out those voices and to learn from them, but for now I will say only this: fatness and thinness are not moral triumphs or failures. There is no inherent virtue in thinness, nor in health (however it is conceived), and those who try to convince you otherwise do so at enormous cost to fat people, to those living with disabilities, to those with eating disorders and to the great many people who inhabit more than one of those identities. Ideas of health are also biased across lines of race and class, with ideals often crystallising around an imagined perfect citizen — one whose whiteness and wealth are implicit. When we champion the idea of the perfect, responsible ‘good’ body — especially in the midst of a pandemic — what are we saying about the worth, the specialness, of people whose bodies (or minds) don’t conform?
In government guidelines, in headlines and through programming such as the Horizon special, we’re being pushed to zoom in — again and again and again — on our individual, disjointed lives. In place of structural change, we’re encouraged to point fingers at our neighbours; instead of strengthening the roots of our NHS, we shower it with applause; in the absence of properly funded services, our support systems are ad hoc and fragmented — food banks, neighbourhood groups, small charities, pensioners doing laps of their gardens — all fighting to keep people alive. When it comes to food and exercise, this individualisation shines brighter than ever: eat well, don’t be greedy, don’t stockpile, don’t be lazy, don’t exercise too much, don’t exercise too little, don’t put a strain on our services by daring to be ill, care for others, care for yourself but not too much, clap for carers, pay your way. Everything, we are told, boils down to the atomic: individual people, single calories, the split-second choice of the salad over the cheeseburger.
But we can do better than this. “It’s really important that people with eating disorders know that they are not alone,” Helen writes. “Their eating disorders may be very loud right now, and they may feel overwhelmed, but there is help. Charities like Beat and their helpline, online support groups, trusted family, or (if you are lucky enough to have them) your treatment team, can support you to find a new routine, implement regular eating, put new coping strategies in place and practise self-care.”
We also need to reach beyond ourselves — if we are well enough to do so — and have a shot at reconfiguring some of the bigger problems that give rise to such widespread food anxiety, ableism and fatphobia. We need to untangle ourselves from the idea that there is a right or wrong way to eat, a right or wrong body to have, and instead turn our focus towards a more nebulous kind of health: one which digs not into the particulars of your diet, but which foregrounds justice, connectedness, solidarity and care. No matter who you are, you deserve to eat, and you deserve to derive happiness from the act of eating. You’re worthy of care because you exist, not because of what you eat, what you weigh, how ‘disciplined’ you are or how many calories you do or do not burn. Health is not a moral imperative.
It won’t always be easy to listen to your appetite. The Ellyn Satter Institute has this beautiful resource on the beauty and breadth of ‘normal’ eating. Sometimes you will eat too much or too little. Sometimes a heaviness will settle in your stomach after a big meal and you’ll feel a frisson of anxiety about how to shift it. Sometimes you’ll eat mindlessly, slipping in another After Eight just because. Sometimes your belly will growl. Sometimes — just sometimes — you’ll happen upon the perfect food at the perfect time and in the perfect mood, and you’ll feel like the whole universe contrived to bring you that one bite of goodness. All these things are part of a real, strange, magical human life. They’re not good or bad, right or wrong, they’re just the mouthfuls that make you who you are.
A calorie is no measure of the world. It doesn’t capture the crunch of a breadcrumb coating around milky pale rings of calamari or the garlic kick of aioli. The calories in a bowl of tomato soup with bread and butter speak to something abstract and cold — the amount energy it might release under laboratory conditions — and say nothing of the comfort you feel or the pleasure you take. A calorie doesn’t know about your contented bloat or the salty sharp miracle of an olive in a mouthful of pasta — it is just the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1°C. Nothing more, nothing less.
PLEASE DONATE TO BEAT HERE TO SUPPORT THEIR VITAL WORK
Ellyn Satter: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/
Michelle Allison aka The Fat Nutritionist: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/
Health at Every Size: https://haescommunity.com/
Helen West: https://twitter.com/HelenlouWest