I love a good buffet. It might just be further evidence of my old soul-ness, or maybe it’s the nostalgia of Old Country Buffet dates with my grandparents as a kid (the unlimited soft serve ice cream machine? I mean seriously). For having a complicated history with knowing where my food comes from…I’m surprisingly OK with dining out from under a sneeze guard. Go ahead, judge me.
So whenever Sweet Tomatoes presents itself, I am the first in line for the unlimited soup/salad/dessert/carb-y goodness bar. Talk about complicated relationships. In the heyday of my eating disorder, I would vacillate between feeling safe – because I could easily serve myself a dressing-less, fat-less, flavorless plate of spinach, raw veggies and maybe a smattering of olives if I was feeling daring – to a sneaky free-for-all at the height of my binge eating, snagging bread and muffins between trips to “get more water.”
During one visit, while I was working regularly with a nutritionist and trying to follow a meal plan (never an effective method for me, I’ve learned) I thought the ability to choose my own portions would be a fantastic option. As it turns out, I got myself so worked up about trying to meet my 3-protein-exchange “requirement” (because a girl can only handle so many scoops of chickpeas) – and the fact that they had peach cobbler to taunt me – that it turned into a binge LATER, when I got home. Sensory overload, I guess. Trying to follow the rules, being overwhelmed by the rules, guilt over not following the rules – it would lead to a meltdown. Every time.
I decided to avoid Sweet Tomatoes for a while. Buffets, self-serves…the appetizer table at parties…they were all off-limits while I was trying to figure it out. I couldn’t follow the rules, and I certainly couldn’t trust myself. It was the same food prison I’d kept myself locked in while I was restricting with anorexia. And, as I eventually realized, restricting is restricting is restricting. Regardless of where and when and at what weight you do it. Restricting is, with almost 100% certainty, going to lead to a binge.
As I’ve learned more, about myself and my needs and the psychology behind emotional eating, I’ve slowly become more comfortable with, well, being around food. Even food in unlimited quantities. Food that I used to fear because it might not be “clean” or “healthy” or “good.” Food that I felt such shame for wanting to eat. Food that, if I “allowed” myself to eat it, I would never stop. And I would never let myself cave again, of course. It would be the last time, ever, that I would allow myself to have macaroni and cheese, or cornbread, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a hot fudge sundae.
Slowly, I’ve begun to recognize these things as food. Just food. Not “good” food or “bad” food. Some of them will be more appealing to me, for sure. And that doesn’t make ME good or bad, either. There is no worthiness attached to choosing a bowl of chili and cornbread over a dressing-less salad.
It has taken me a long time to comprehend that. And to believe it.
Today, I was looking for a place to grab lunch while I was out by myself. When I spotted a Sweet Tomatoes, I paused. Could I do it? And could I do it on my own? Should I?
I decided that, yes, I was up for the challenge. It might sound silly to someone who hasn’t been stuck in the restrict-binge cycle. But for me, it was a testament to the work I’ve done. Could I trust myself to choose what I wanted? Could I trust myself to eat what I wanted without guilt? And without the thought that I better eat it all right now because I wouldn’t be allowed to have it after right now?
I served myself some veggies, and then some soup. I eyed the bread. I wanted bread. I have been on an unabashed bread kick recently, and I took a slice of some nutty whole grain to dip in my soup. And then I saw the cornbread. Should I? Was it too much? I decided that, yes, I did want a piece of warm, thick, freshly baked cornbread. So I added that to my tray too.
As I sat down with my meal and began to eat, I focused on the food in front of me. How it tasted. Chewing it, swallowing it. I tried to be mindful in the crowded dining room. It was a different feeling, focusing on what I was eating without my heart racing from anxiety and fear. Trusting that I would eat what I wanted without being afraid to have something I really wanted – and without being afraid that I would eat ALL of the things. I ate most of the cornbread and enjoyed it, but I didn’t need to go get more. I glanced over and noticed they’d just put out a fresh basket. And still, I was satisfied.
I glanced over at the placard on the table. I’d been so absorbed in my meal that I hadn’t noticed it before.
And suddenly my satisfaction turned to frustration. “Healthy meets naughty.”
What does that even mean?
OK, fine. I’m in marketing and I get it. We’re turning that whole angel/devil on the shoulder thing into the food police. But why, when we’re talking about a salad, does adding some nuts and dressing make it “naughty”?
As someone who’s fought an eating disorder, I realize that I have a heightened awareness of this kind of copy. But I also realize that this not-so-subtle statement sends a message to all eaters, and it’s manipulative. A salad is not naughty. And healthy? Well, that depends on your definition. To me, “healthy” now means moderation. It means enjoying nuts on your salad if you want nuts on your salad.
We all have a lot of work to do when it comes to this food thing. Mainly in the role we give it, the power. Food is not “naughty.” It doesn’t need to be punished – and more specifically, we don’t need to be punished for eating it.