I recently had someone ask me what my advice would be for someone recovering from an eating disorder in terms of action items. More than just “keep your head up” or “it gets better”, they wanted tangible advice, something they could do.
My response was immediate: cook your own food.
This is advice I would give to anyone, regardless of their history with disordered eating. I truly believe that the vast majority of modern-day Americans are in desperate need of healing their relationship with food, regardless of their weight. America may be suffering an obesity crisis, but the true epidemic is far more insidious: we’ve stopped connecting with our food, where it comes from, and the role it plays in our development of culture and community.
In the past, particularly in the pre-WWII era, food was seen as more than just nourishment, it was a form of connection. Families came together to share not just a meal, but to share stories, advice, and time together. Food was prepared from scratch, with time and effort put in as an expression of love and a respect for the ingredients. We used to live in a time where ingredients came from local purveyors, and even our own garden, simply because that was what was available. We didn’t call real, whole ingredients “health food”, we just called them “food.”
When my mother tells me stories of her grandmother in Mexico, they almost always include vivid descriptions of food. Handmade tortillas, with corn ground by hand. Giant cauldrons of soup, slow cooked for hours. Fresh meats and vegetables dolloped with verdant avocados, served around a table with a gathering of family. And these stories are about more than just delicious meals- it’s about the energy that went into them. A meal is more than a combination of ingredients, it’s the love, time, and consciousness that goes into their preparation that affects the way we emotionally respond to our food.
On a scientific level, our connection to what we consume affects the way we respond to it. When we rush through the drive-through and cram a burger in our mouth in rush-hour traffic, we’re eating in a highly stressful environment. Stress is, undoubtedly, one of the largest factors in developing unhealthy behaviors surrounding food and the way you eat. Stress impairs our ability to control our eating habits through a physiological change: it affects the activation of reward pathways in our brain.
When we are stressed, our body innately moves us towards foods that it believes will relieve our stress. It directs us towards super-normally stimulating foods that will give us a rush of “feel good” hormones that activate the dopamine and opioid pathways in the brain. There’s a reason you reach for ice cream or cookies to soothe yourself after a hard day or bad breakup: on a physical level, you will actually feel better. At least, until the rush wears off and you’re left with the effects of a diet laden in sugar and overly-processed ingredients. But still, your brain links the connection between junk food and stress relief, and you’re left with a developing stress-eating habit and reliance on sugar.
But what is a super-normally stimulating food?
The food that we eat today is very different from the food we used to eat. Today, we eat food that is, literally, designed to make us compulsively over-consume it. We eat food that a team of scientists and specialists has been called together to design with maximum stimulation of reward centers in our brain using the intoxicating chemical effects of salt, sugar, and fat. When we eat a food that has been designed in this way, say, a bag of Doritos, we’re overwhelming our senses in a way we would never find out in the wild (and in a way we never could have had a few decades ago). The chip may be made of corn, but it’s now crunchier, saltier, fattier, and coupled with a taste we cannot find in the natural world. It’s absolutely exciting to our taste buds, and it makes it very hard to stop eating them once you stop.
Fruit may be sweet, but you’re not going to find one as sweet as a Hershey’s bar. A filet of salmon may be savory, but you’re not going to find one that overwhelms your senses like a Big Mac. You can eat a food with salt, sugar, and fat like a sweet potato smothered in coconut butter, but it will not be the same as French fries deep fried in oil after being literally rolled in salt and chemically-engineered seasonings. These are new-generation foods, and they will not affect your body- or your brain- in the same way as the ones our ancestors ate.
When did we start engineering our food in this way? Well, like many other cultural phenomena in America, we can trace this back to World War II.
Processed foods were pushed into development during the war as a way to feed the troops overseas. Canned goods, packaged goods, and pre-made meals saw a huge spike in production, and entire companies were born to support the movement. Once the war was over, however, the government and the industry was left with a problem: what do we do with these new foods? And of course, the answer was, let’s find a way to profit off of this.
And thus was born the era of the TV dinner. Frozen meals were marketed to stressed mothers and women just entering the workforce. SPAM and Jell-O were all the rage. Fruit salad made with Cool-Whip was healthy and spending time cooking was no longer a necessity. In an effort to sell their new convenience products, home-cooked meals were called unnecessarily laborious and tiring. An entire generation was convinced that scientists and marketers could make food better than we had been traditionally preparing for generations.
Here’s what happened:
We stopped eating dinner around a table.
We stopped preparing food from whole ingredients.
We stopped understanding where our food was coming from.
We stopped connecting with our food.
And thus, America’s battle with obesity, cardiovascular disease, eating disorders, and chronic illness was born.
Now, from the time we are very young, we are fed food that overwhelm our taste-buds and satiety signals. We are convinced that “sweet” is Oreo-cookie-sweet, ice-cream-sweet, birthday-cake-sweet. We are convinced that “salty” is Doritos-salty, French-fries-salty, onion-rings-salty. We are trained to believe that naturally-sweet fruit and subtly-savory meats are boring and bland in comparison to this realm of dazzling foods we can have access to in an instant. We are, quite literally, sold the idea that wholesome, traditional foods are not good enough.
And we become addicted. We fall into the vicious cycle of stress and stress-eating, of sadness and dopamine, of compulsion and quick-fixes. We can mindlessly eat an entire bag of chips, sneak half a pint of ice cream, steal one more lick of frosting. And we can access these ridiculously dense sources of processed sugar and nutrient-sparse foods whenever we so choose: in the vending machine at school, in the center aisles of the supermarket, in the break room at work. And this is how we, over years of not noticing just how saturated our diets have become with processed foods, develop obesity, diabetes, or an unhealthy relationship with food.
Now you tell me how you can consider yourself to have a mentally healthy and stable relationship with food when you eat “food-like-products” that are specifically designed to blur the lines of what it means to eat for nourishment and well-being.
When I was being treated for my eating disorder, I watched an entire ward of sick girls be fed processed junk. We were fed packets of Jell-o, packages of cookies, frozen pizzas, and endless amounts of juice and sugary drinks. In a hospital, where the intent is to heal, revive, and nourish, we were fed foods that left us feeling sluggish, bloated, and depressed once we fell off the dopamine high. In a place where the goal was to heal our emotional connection and response to food, we were fed products specifically designed to influence our emotions and relationship with our meals.
This, frankly, angers me a ridiculous amount.
Not only is this doing a disservice to the physical healing process of an eating disorder, where the body is in a horribly fragile state, it is sabotaging any efforts put into healing our emotional relationships to food. It is literally putting the patient out of the driver’s seat of their recovery, giving them yet another obstacle to overcome.
Here is why I have a call to action for those struggling to recover from an eating disorder: get back to your roots. Get back to food that doesn’t illicit an emotional response. Get back to the food of past generations. Cook your food and source your ingredients and develop a connection with what you put in your body.
You don’t have to do it all “right”. You don’t need perfectly organic or “clean” ingredients. You don’t need to meticulously measure and quantify and track everything in the meal. But buy whole foods. Buy meat, vegetables, and cooking fats and prepare them before you consume them. Sit around a table and share it with loved ones. Try baking bread from scratch. Learn to roast a chicken. Try growing herbs in a window box. Learn that food is not the enemy, but a connecting element in our social structure and a huge factor in our personal mental health.
And even if you don’t have a clinical eating disorder, understand how your consumption of super-normally stimulating foods is affecting your health. If you compulsively overeat, that’s an unhealthy relationship with food. If you respond to stress by reaching for unhealthy foods, that’s an unhealthy relationship with food. If you have bought into the idea that cooking and preparing meals is nothing but a source of stress and burden, that’s an unhealthy relationship with food. Food is supposed to be a source of joy, a source of self-care, a source of nourishment: why have we lost sight of that?
We are being sold the idea that real food is a burden, that it’s cheaper, faster, and “better” to buy all of our meals. That cooking and sharing a meal across a dinner table is only something for special occasions. What is happening is no better than addicting youth to nicotine for a lifelong profit. Through processed goods, are addicting our nation to a dose-dependent hepatotoxin: sugar. All to make money.
We can use real food to heal this nation. We don’t need to suffer from cardiovascular disease, obesity, and uncontrollable cravings. We don’t need to have nine-year-olds with type two diabetes. We don’t need to sell our health and wellbeing to the soda and processed foods industry the way we’ve sold so much of our lives. We don’t need to lose our connection to the foods that raised our ancestors.
Reconnect with your food. Heal your mind and your body. Nourish your soul.