Something I don’t feel ready to address in this format, but keeps coming up, is the intersection between my decades-long struggle with food addiction and completely overhauling the way I eat. Oh, I’ve overhauled my eating before, but I haven’t liked it. And I’ve never been willing to give up so-called “healthful” foods like low-fat dairy and the nightshades which I love to eat, but which seem to be eating my gut.
Like everyone else on the planet, I want what I want when I want it. But when you add in the layer of someone with an eating problem, going on any kind of elimination diet is especially challenging.
I have a 15 month old daughter, Roya, who is an enthusiastic consumer of both breast milk and table food. Since Roya’s birth, I have been in awe at her natural ability to regulate her food intake. Newborns nurse when they are hungry (hint: all the time). As a toddler, she eats on a pretty regular schedule, but she has total control of her intake. My husband and I are big believers of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding: we are responsible for what and when we feed Roya, but she is responsible for the amount she eats. Some days, she eats very little. Other days, it seems like I can’t give her enough. One day she’s in the mood for eggplant and grapes. The next day, not so much. Some days she seems to be carbo-loading like a marathoner before the big race; the next day she is all about protein and veggies.
It has been very eye-opening for me to witness this process, but it also leaves me a little bit sad. In Roya and other babies, I can see so clearly how we are all imbued with a gift (from God, I believe) to know: what we are supposed to eat day to day to nurture our bodies and please our palates; how much of it; and how to stop when our stomachs have had enough. This way of nurturing ourselves is our birthright. Yet, look around at all of the disordered eating and the body dysmorphia epidemic in our Western culture: many of us lose touch with these instincts. If I could conclusively figure out why, I’d be writing to you from my private island near Fiji, but here are four ideas off the top of my head:
1. Early in life, many of us get hooked on a processed and sugary diet that changes our palates and perhaps our metabolisms.
2. Life is stressful, even for children, and at some point many of us turn to food as an affordable, legal coping mechanism.
3. Many well-meaning parents, caregivers, and educators foist their ideas about what they think we should eat on us. These ideas may be very outdated (how many of you still think that the cholesterol in eggs is a problem?) or very inappropriate for us, but as young people, we adopt them anyway. Furthermore, if you are raised by a parent with an eating disorder, it is very hard to undo that negative patterning.
4. Food is ubiquitous. If you never go without something in your mouth, the harder it is to go for reasonable periods without something in your mouth.
Babies don’t have any of these issues. Furthermore, it is incredible to see the sheer delight that Roya takes in eating. As my husband, David, says, “I wish I enjoyed eating anything as much as she enjoys eating everything.” Roya has no self-consciousness or shame about what she eats. No, “Is it ok that there is whole milk in my cereal? It has 30 more calories per cup than skim,” or, “I ate red meat for a third time this week!” It’s a beautiful thing. I hope to recapture some of that joy and wisdom in my own eating.