There are few things as polarizing as the topic of food.
Perhaps part of this struggle comes from the fact that we inherently seek black-and-white answers to things, and food doesn’t fit into narrow boxes very well. Food isn’t just for physical nourishment and it’s not just for emotional joy. Food isn’t just about getting stronger and healthier, and it’s not just about human connection. Food isn’t just about convenience and it’s not just about slowing down and being mindful. There’s a time and place for each of these contexts and importances, but to try and narrow it down to just one or two would be a disservice to everyone involved.
In the process of healing from my restrictive-type eating disorder, I had to completely reevaluate my relationship with food. You see, having an eating disorder requires a certain amount of detachment from eating. Your disorder pushes you to consume less, punish yourself more, and in effect eliminates any possibility of finding joy in food. I mean, if you associated eating with a diminished sense of self-worth and a means of punishing yourself for not being “in control” enough, wouldn’t you start to lose the sense of joy food brings so many of us in childhood?
Ah yes, childhood. There are many things we can be taught by reflecting on what life was like before we were socialized or taught that we need to be a certain way in order to be loved. Children have such pure and mindful relationships with food when they’re young: they eat when they’re hungry, they stop when they’re full, they eat treats without guilt and they rarely apologize. This is, of course, a period of time that lasts longer for some than others. I have only a few rare memories of eating in such a carefree style that was so in tune with my body’s needs before it became tainted by the toxic socialization of modern womanhood.
“Oh, I can’t eat that, I’m on a diet.”
“I’ll be naughty and have a brownie!”
“I’m being good, I’ll get the salad instead of the fries.”
“Ugh, look at my thighs! Time to cut back on the sweets.”
These were all phrases I heard throughout my adolescence and continue to hear today from women- even strong and independent women with powerful voices for a variety of important causes. Particularly for women, food is something that reflects our morality and self-worth, largely because of how much we’ve intertwined our bodies’ ability to adhere to societal beauty standards with it. Despite the growing body-positivity movement, in the Western world thin, white women are the epitome of perfection (who must also meet a laundry list of other criteria to be considered as such, of course).
Certain foods are considered “bad” because they go against the ideas surrounding what it means to be “thin” and therefore “desireable,” and certain foods are considered “good” because they align with those ideals. Food and body image have become hugely contested topics that intersect with pervasive issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even depression.
With all this going on, how, exactly, are we expected to find the mindful and peaceful style of eating we all once possessed in our most childlike stages?
The first step, I’ve found, is embracing the idea that what works for you will not work for others (and vice versa). With access to everyone’s diets nowadays through social media, it can be incredibly easy to fall prey to the comparison game: Should I be eating low-carb like her or high-carb like him? My friend is a vegan, should I go vegan? My friend is paleo, should I be paleo? I don’t eat like they do, am I wrong?
This, like all versions of the comparison game in other aspects of life, only leaves us feeling confused, ashamed, and even less aware of what our body truly craves and desires. I know this, in large part, because of my personal experience with the comparison game. For many years, I was either vegetarian or vegan. There were points in my life where I did not eat even honey or eggs, and heaven forbid you see me even think about touching meat.
But I didn’t take on these restrictions because they made my body feel good, and in fact, they made my mind feel even worse. I was constantly striving to be “more pure.” If that meant cutting out everything but raw fruit, then so be it. I was constantly seeking not just to one-up the others around me, but to one-up myself, striving to be as “perfect” as possible. This was, of course, in large part due to my eating disorder and the way it interacted with my veganism, but it’s a phenomenon not unique to myself to use diets that require such restrictions in order to gain a sense of “purity.”
Once I became a yoga teacher, I felt this pressure grow even more. Everyone seemed to be at least a vegetarian, and here I was post-eating-disorder finally not crying every time I ate scrambled eggs. I’d receive messages calling me “not a true yogi” because I ate meat, or presuming I was a vegetarian just because I practiced yoga. In fact, I still receive these messages to this day, and they still cause me a twinge of guilt when I admit that I am, in fact, an omnivore.
I can only speak for myself, but veganism for me was a way to restrict to an extreme degree while having a label to hide behind. Not eating any animal products made me feel “pure” and “clean,” and I strongly tied my morality to the food I ate. The more I cut out from my diet, the better I felt about myself, and eventually veganism wasn’t enough to maintain that high.
At the height of my veganism, my relationship with food was at an all-time low, and yet people around me were praising me for being “so healthy.” But the fact was, my health was declining rapidly. For some, veganism may work, but for me, it caused me to become extremely unhealthy in both spirit and body. No matter how “pure” I made my diet, I still had a toxic relationship with myself and the food on my plate.
I was once accused of not being a “true yogi” who practices ahimsa (non-violence) because I eat animal products. But to me, being violent against my own body and mental health isn’t in the spirit of yoga any more than eating fish or chicken or eggs is. The balance I’ve found to be appropriate for my own life is eating sustainably raised animal products in amounts suitable for my energy needs, without labeling myself or restricting unnecessarily.
This all goes to say- there isn’t one “right” way to be a yogi, or even a good person. This isn’t me bashing veganism or trying to convince you not to be a vegan. What I’m trying to convey is that in an attempt to meet other people’s ideas about what a “good” yogi is, I lost touch of the mindful, intuitive way of eating I once possessed as a child. I lost touch of the simple joy of eating what I wanted when I wanted it, and not worrying about how pure it made me feel. I lost touch of understanding what foods actually made my body feel energized and taken care of instead of which diets promised me they would.
I let the opinions and voices of others stand in the way of me connecting with what my body truly needed.
Today, I’ve found my own definition of intuitive eating.
To me, mindful eating looks like this:
1. My “default” is eating foods I KNOW make me feel good. To me, this is quality meats, fats, and plants.
2. When a treat or something I don’t normally eat on a day-to-day basis crosses my path, I make a deliberate decision to either eat it, pass, or save it for when I really want to enjoy it.
3. I never eat a food that doesn’t taste as good as I imagined it was gonna be, just because I gave myself “permission” to. So if I buy a treat and take a few bites only to find it totally underwhelming, I don’t feel pressured to finish it.
4. I am aware that food has no morality- it’s not good and it’s not bad. Eating “healthy” foods doesn’t make me a better or more pure person than eating unhealthy ones.
5. I’m allowed to eat whatever I want, whenever I want it. Once you remove rules and regulations from your diet, you’ll find the urge to binge or swing from one end of the spectrum to the other dissipates.
6. I choose foods I like. I love bitter/salty foods more than sweet foods, and that’s just me. I don’t feel the need to justify my choices to anyone else.
The journey to this space was a long time comin’, and it’s always evolving. What does mindful eating look like to you?