Dieticians Are All Wrong
Live to eat, not eat to live
Yesterday I caught up with an old friend on the phone. Intimidatingly intelligent with the sort of warm personality that can make January in Chicago feel downright toasty, Jess and I were close friends when I lived in the States. She’s a professional nutritionist, and I’m a self-proclaimed gastronome, so we would often find ourselves immersed in long conversations revolving around food.
These conversations filled me with this heart-fluttering sensation of finding a soulmate. I would start a sentence and she would finish it with exactly what was in my head. Talking with her was like hearing my own thoughts out loud, rendered even more eloquent and coherent than I could ever dream.
Naturally, we fell right into our old patterns during our phone chat the other night, the minutes flying past as we lost ourselves in meaningful discussion about the food system and how to eat as conscientiously and mindfully for our bodies, our minds, and the planet.
Then the conversation took a hairpin turn as Jess started to describe her latest project, a new school program that hopes to forge nutrition education into the first weapon against our current obesity epidemic.
“I’m teaching them that we should eat to live, not live to eat,” she explained. “Food is a tool, just like a pencil or a computer. We should use it to feel good and live healthfully.”
The old me, the one that would talk with her for hours as we strolled along the lakeside, would have applauded this. The old me would have said the exact same thing.
I could feel the old response on my tongue. It would have been so easy to slide back in sync, to exclaim, “I know, right?! We must learn to think of food as fuel. Food provides us the nutrients and energy we need.”
After all, if I could replay the tape of my past life, I’m sure I raged on about how the antidote to our “Western” diet was to stop obsessing over food. I probably talked about how we’re too “addicted” to food, as if eating was the new heroin.
This all sounds ridiculous now.
I now live in a country that revolves around food. Where we dedicate hours to preparing, cooking, tasting, buying, and arguing over food. The “culinary” section in my local bookstore takes up half the shelving real estate. The hardware store sells as many tools for pasta shapes as for building cabinets. The television programs range from restaurant competitions to cooking shows. The cramped kitchens are stocked to the ceilings: seasonal produce, bags of flour, blocks of cheeses, and bottles of wine meticulously layered into geometrical miracles of space efficiency. (I’m fairly positive the original game of Tetris is based on Italians filling their kitchen cupboards).
Not to mention the pastries and gelato and chocolate sparkling in every storefront window, all the things that my nutritionist friend might label as an “occasional extra” or “indulgent treat.”
Here in Italy we call it “food.”
For the past fifty years, Americans have been ignoring food. We’ve tried to downplay it, reduce it, put it aside, de-food it, neutralize it, overcome it. This is the mentality that filled grocery stores with powders and supplements, that created protein bars, ten-minute recipes, and to-go containers.
It’s a very American mentality.
Whatever your personal cultural heritage, the United States was founded by Puritans who valued hard work, responsibility, and self-control more than anything else. This Puritan value system infiltrated our food system as well, in which pleasure is suspicious at best and sinful at worst.
“Eat to live, don’t live to eat” fits perfectly in the Puritan narrative. Food should be functional, not pleasurable. It should be a tool to better performance. It should make us more productive, better worker bees.
Instead this mantra made us mindlessly eat alone in cars. Buy pre-prepared meals to zap in the microwave. Intermittent fast. Balance macros. Fear scary-sounding proteins like gluten.
The problem with “eating to live” is that it demonizes prioritizing pleasure. It reduces the complex and life-affirming magic of food to a simple biological necessity.
“Eat to live, don’t live to eat” tells us that there are more important things in life than eating.
But are there?
When your family comes together, where do they gather? When you host a guest in your home, what do you offer them? When a baby cries, what’s your first impulse?
Trying to marginalize food is an upstream battle. It’s going against the current of our entire history as a species. We can’t combat obesity by denying our culture and our biology.
“Eat to live, don’t live to eat,” is the same the same wrong-headed thinking that has only exacerbated the frequency of over-eating, eating disorders, and obesity in the USA.
Since moving to Italy, I’ve started to live to eat.
I’ve made food more important, not less. And when I say food, I mean food, not nutrients. I’ve stopped counting calories or reading nutrition labels or learning about macros or microbes or the evils of added sugars. Instead, I’ve reinvested that time into making things delicious.
Instead of trying to downplay food, or somehow reinvent our traditions and gatherings so they don’t revolve around food, what if we leaned in? What if we just made the best food ever and enjoyed it together?
I used to think that healthy people didn’t prioritize taste. Like a good American inoculated in the Puritan educational system, I perceived anything pleasurable as dangerous. A slippery slope.
I believed that a fresh croissant could be a gateway drug spiraling me into horrific sins of gluttony. All it takes it one croissant, I thought, and the next thing you know you’ll wake up chained to your sofa shoveling whipped cream into your mouth until you die from a heart attack and the fire department needs to rent a crane from the zoo to airlift you out because you no longer fit through the door frame…
Well, guess what? I eat croissants for breakfast, and I’m still alive. Sometimes I eat apples and nuts instead. Sometimes a yogurt. Not that it matters, but I actually weigh less and my skin is clearer.
Despite my Puritan fears, I’ve found that the more pleasure I take in my food, the more I eat in moderation, without controlling my portions or counting calories or any of that BS. The more I prioritize deliciousness, the more variety of vegetables and fruit I consume, because they are so truly delicious when prepared well.
Most importantly, my food now brings me joy. And the more I find joy in my food, the more I find it in all the other aspects of my life, from deep conversations with friends to long hikes in the woods.
So how can you learn to love food again, especially if you grew up afraid or suspicious of it? How do you embrace the centrality of food if you’ve been taught that you must “eat to live”?
Yes, it’s that simple.
Eat with joy. Eat with indulgence. Eat everything in its best possible form.
Eat with appreciation. Not just appreciation for the taste (by now you know that’s a given), but for the food itself. When you truly think about how much time and effort went to growing and preparing your food, from seed to plate, it will bring you to tears.
Appreciate everything it took for the food to arrive on your plate: the seed, the earth, the sun, the water, the time, the farmers, the truckers, the grocery store clerks… It’s a miracle that we can enter stores and expect them to always have shelves full of food.
(And if you can’t wrap your head how much energy and patience it took for your food to arrive on your plate, buy yourself a vegetable plant and try to grow yourself just one ingredient for your salad. Feeling appreciative yet?)
Once you start to really love and appreciate your food the way it deserves, it suddenly won’t feel like such a waste of time or money to buy local produce at the farmers’ market, or dedicate an hour to putting together a truly delicious dinner. You won’t be able to imagine life any other way.
Of course, I know this kind of time and dedication is not accessible to everyone. I know someone will write me explaining how eating well is a privilege and not everyone has the luxury of paying top dollar for local heirloom carrots.
Of course. While I sincerely wish everyone had equal access to real, affordable ingredients, and I know that’s not the case. However, I also know that the person who will write me from this pedestal will be typing it in her minivan while waiting for the kids to finish school in the upper-middle class suburbs where there’s a weekly farmers’ market down the street. And she’ll be writing it to justify the fact that she hasn’t bothered to change her own habits.
The average American today spends a mere 10% of their income on food. A measly 10% of income for the sustenance itself. Compare this to Italy or France, where they spend about 14%, or the US in 1960, when families spent 17.5% of their income on food. The truth is that most Americans can afford to invest more in what they eat. They just don’t want to bother.
If you’re wondering whether you count as a member of this majority, here’s a foolproof test: do you watch Netflix, or play games on your smartphone, or buy coffee at Starbucks? Then you have your answer.
The craziest part? Those extra few dollars and minutes to buy and prepare real food will become the highlight of your day. Turns out that slicing veggies with a giant knife releases stress so much better than another hour in front of a screen. Once you get into the habit of chopping and stirring, it becomes a meditation in itself, an ideal time to clear your mind and simply use your hands.
So let go of all that Puritan crap about self-discipline and original sin.
Take pleasure in your food. Live to eat.