On Food Rules

“I spent my childhood being told to put the sandwich down, and now as an adult everyone keeps fucking telling me to pick it up.”

These words uttered in the eating disorder program by a young woman who was obese through high school, then dropped half her body weight via food restriction, resulting in anorexia. Another woman, a lifelong vegetarian at the hands of her parents, delves into the litany of food rules her mom made in the name of “clean” and healthy eating.

I’ve been thinking a lot about food rules and judgements lately. I have a ton of them, and am trying hard to let them go.

I flash back to my own childhood. I’m sixteen and am sitting across from my grandmother at an Italian restaurant where we are having dinner. I’ve just ordered a second raspberry Italian soda. “You’re going to have ANOTHER one of those?” my grandmother poses tersely. I nod. “Doesn’t it have whipped cream on it?” I nod again. “Well, that’s going to make you FAT,” she says in a huff. I stare straight ahead, experiencing a quiet paralysis. I have no idea how to respond. Although my grandmother frequently made such statements to my mother during her growing up, she’d never done so to me, until now. But it was the ’90s, and everyone was hating on fat. And, as my grandmother and I had grown closer through my high school years, previously absent criticisms were becoming more common.

My mother was deliberate in not talking about her children’s bodies. It seemed she believed that this was my grandmother’s error, and that she would set us up for success so long as she didn’t tell us we were fat. But the subtle messaging around food was still there, and the modeling was ever-present. There was being sent to bed without dinner as punishment for bad behavior or my parents hiding their favorite foods from me so I wouldn’t wipe them out, which only served to make me feel judged and deprived. Then there was my mother’s own eating behavior, of which I was acutely aware — serving herself a tiny slice of cake while serving huge pieces to everyone else, cutting out fat, cutting out carbs, drinking protein shakes while the rest of us ate real food. Getting big, getting small, getting big again.

As a parent I have struggled with how to approach and talk about food to my kids. I have felt tremendous pressure to feed my kids the “right” foods, or face judgement from the masses. Don’t feed them dairy. Feed them dairy but only local, unpasteurized dairy. Whatever you do, never feed them unpasteurized dairy. Feed them soy milk. Don’t feed them soy milk because it causes cancer. Feed them almond milk but only homemade almond milk. I’ve also felt tugs of concern over potential eating issues, based purely on my own longstanding history with disordered eating. What is the right way to eat? What is the right way to talk about eating? How should I be eating in front of the kids?

My Facebook feed is littered with shared blog posts of foods to eat and not eat for this, that, and the other reason. I am completely overwhelmed by all of the information. I find it impossible to sift through, and I feel sucked into a whirlpool of conflicting opinions. While I understand that not subsisting on McDonald’s, Cheetos, and Coke is probably for the best, I want to call bullshit on a lot of the rest of it.

If something works for a given person, more power to them. But the righteousness and sweeping generalizations about food, and the litany of food rules, are bullshit. They don’t do much more than feed diet culture. And for fuck’s sake, the fancy foods are a privilege — not everyone can afford these foods, or access them for other reasons. And, some other people are simply trying to figure out how to nourish their bodies amidst all the noise.

Can’t we just stop with all the rules? Nourishing the body can’t possibly be this complicated.

I feel like I could write pages on this topic, but the not fancy coffee from Costco, with milk and sugar is calling…