“Finish the sentence ‘food is…’,” Dr Libby Weaver suggests.
Some people, often athletes, will reply “fuel”. Weaver’s reply is “nourishment”. The rest of us? It could be anything from “pleasure” to “punishment” to “numbing” to “relief from boredom”.
For many people, food is fraught. What ought to be fairly simple – eat more vegetables, eat less junk, eat only when hungry and stop when full – is complicated by a lifetime of unlearning our bodies cues, adhering instead to mathematical equations (calories) or external instruction about when or what or how much to eat as well as the learning that eating can momentarily alleviate an array of feelings from boredom and loneliness to desperation and negative beliefs about ourselves.
In a heart-breaking op-ed in the New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner details the torturous relationship she and many others have with food and with their bodies.
It’s the anti-dieting age, she says.
Dieting and weight-loss are “tacky” and “arcane” and no longer politically correct. “People wanted nothing to do with it,” she writes. “Except that many of them did: They wanted to be thinner. They wanted to be not quite so fat. Not that there was anything wrong with being fat! They just wanted to call dieting something else entirely.”
And so we called it the pursuit of our “optimal” body; it was about “getting healthy”, “getting strong” and “eating clean”.
Which is great but whatever we call it, it doesn’t stop the despair and conflicting messages about what to eat (high-fat, low-carb, high-protein, vegan, Paleo etcetera, etcetera) and our bodies (just be healthy but being overweight is unhealthy but you should accept your body however it is but loving your body means losing weight).
Brodesser-Akner tried everything from intuitive eating to Weight-Watchers before declaring herself “completely perplexed by food – food! Stupid food!”
So many people are completely perplexed by food that the most common question Weaver, a nutritional biochemist with 20 years of clinical experience, is asked is “what on earth am I supposed to eat?”
In her clinic or at speaking events, people ask how much avocado they are allowed. “There’s no ‘allowance’,” she replies. “There will be days when you want a quarter, there will be days when you want half, there will be days when only a whole avocado will satisfy and there will be days when you’ll think ‘yuck I don’t want that today’.”
They will also ask her which plan – keto, Paleo, vegan, vegetarian etcetera – is best, to which she will reply: “You’ve got to find what works for you.”
“You can find ‘evidence’ for good things about all of those ways of eating and you can find potential challenges,” Weaver explains, adding that our gut microbiome means different approaches work for different people. “People want a plan. It’s almost as if they’ve lost trust in their body. What begins as ‘I’m going to take better care of the way I eat’ ends up with them more confused than they were in the beginning.”
Confusion about eating is compounded if food has never been about nourishment or fuel.
“The first thing is to identify what food is for you,” Weaver says. “The second thing is that if you eat in a way hurts you – eating too much, eating too much poor quality food even though you know better, not eating enough or binging and purging – it is never ever about the food.”
She invites her clients to become curious about their choices.
“A little strategy I give people is to have a little notebook in the kitchen and divide it into four columns – the first is about ‘what do I want?’,” Weaver explains.
You’ve had dinner, you’re full, but you might say ‘I want chocolate biscuits’.
“The next column says ‘what do I really want?’ and your brain probably still says ‘chocolate biscuits’ then you push yourself and you go ‘no, I want a hug, I want someone to thank me for washing up every night for the last 18 years’, whatever.
“Then the third column is ‘how would having that make me feel?’… and then the fourth column is ‘how else can I experience this in a way that doesn’t hurt my health?’ That can be a strategy to, number one, help people get in touch with what the food is really about and what they’re asking food to give them and also a way to break some patterns.”
Learning to listen to our bodies is a process that takes time and patience and awareness.
“There’s not a be-all and end-all strategy,” Weaver, whose new book, What Am I Supposed to Eat? explores the confusion around food and answers to the question without delivering a dogmatic plan.
Once we address the factors that influence our choices we make, it becomes less complicated.
“If we peel it all back to how do we need to eat, we need to be eating food, which is whole, real food,” Weaver says, noting that foods aren’t ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, people are and the “more nutritious food we eat, the healthier we will be”.
“Essentially, the first step is get rid of the processed foods because then you’re going to be less reliant on the tastebuds driving everything,” she says, adding that the odd bit of ‘tastebud’ food is fine.
Once we’ve done that, we can start to explore which foods and how much of them feel good.
“For some people that’s all they need to do to become healthier and when we are healthier typically our weight and body fat levels shift back into place,” Weaver says. “If someone is still suffering – they’ve still got fluid retention or bloating or headaches or reflux then it might require some more specific advice.”
But the biggest thing we can do to determine what we are supposed to eat in the anti-dieting age and find clarity amidst the confusion? “Learn to trust themselves again,” says Weaver.
It’s as simple and as complicated as that.