“We’re all going to die. And we all eat food. Therefore, food must be the culprit. That seems to be the absurd syllogism that lies beneath the surface of many articles in the health, food and science press. ”
A recent piece in the New York Times, Why Everything is Bad for You, caught my attention – and gave me a lot to think about. Partly because I always appreciate a tongue-in-cheek take on the human psyche, but mainly because I realized how much my own perception of “health” has shifted in the past year.
Not long ago, I would have been annoyed and defensive about someone challenging “good” food versus “bad” food. Because obviously certain foods are toxic, sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and GMOs are the next anthrax. But also because I was caught in a world that was completely black and white.
While logically I knew most of it was hype, I couldn’t help absorbing it. I used it to keep myself locked in a totally inflexible lifestyle; a bar that was set past the point of perfection.
As my mentor (and body image badass) Isabel Foxen Duke says, “We buy stories that support our existing beliefs.”
We’re taught by the media that we’re totally in control of our bodies – and, therefore, our weight and our worth – through the food we put in our mouths. It’s no surprise that the same media is constantly selling us these thinly-veiled threats. Bad food = fat = death. And they’re equally terrifying.
No doubt I fell prey to some convoluted version of this thinking. And it was disturbingly quick and ridiculously stealth.
It started as simple curiosity: how could I eat in a way that would be good for me and for the planet? In my mind it wasn’t so much about cheating death as it was about building health.
But, as with anything else, there has to be balance. With my tendency toward anxiety mixed with a tinge of OCD, that in itself requires balance. Instead I dove in, and I dove in with both feet. If I was going to do this, dammit, I was going to do it 110%.
Have I mentioned I have a tendency toward perfectionism, too?
I flirted briefly with vegetarianism, but that obviously wasn’t enough when eggs and cheese were going to clog my arteries and drive up my cholesterol – definitely things a healthy, active 26-year-old needed to worry about. All the hormones and chemicals would either give me cancer or babies with tails. It would also give me raging acne and, of course, make me fat.
And the animals. Oh my god, the animals. How could I consider myself a caring person with any kind of conscious if I was eating something from an animal who was virtually raped by a heartless and corrupt factory farm? Eggs and dairy had to go too.
So vegetables, beans and some grains were pretty much it. This was in 2010, at the dawn of the “Paleo” phenomenon, so I didn’t yet know that wheat, corn and legumes were also destroying me.
I was actually well-versed in the gluten-free movement from a previous job writing for an allergy-friendly publication, but it hadn’t reached fever-pitch trendiness yet. At that point, I understood that removing gluten was essential for people with Celiac Disease – whose bodies simply couldn’t process the protein in wheat – but it didn’t occur to me that I should be avoiding it too. Because as I soon found out, it causes brain fog, digestive issues and makes you fat too. Never mind that I had absolutely no physical or mental reaction to gluten (except intense, self-induced anxiety) and that my weight remained far too low due to my extreme food restriction.
In a desperate attempt to “be my best self” by “eating clean” and avoiding anything “bad,” I had become, in some twisted, roundabout way, what I feared: unhealthy.
Not just unhealthy. Totally unhinged.
That’s not to say there isn’t some validity to concerns in our current food system. Animals, land and chemicals are abused. It needs to remain a work in progress, and we need to be informed, responsible consumers. But we also need to take everything we read with a grain of salt and a bit of clarity.
I consider myself to be a fairly reasonable, logical person. And so the spiral that I found myself in was confusing and so shameful. I believed that if I just tried harder, if I just restricted a little more, if I could just make myself perfect, I would be safe. I would stay thin and in control and worthy. I wanted those things, but I also didn’t believe I was worthy of them unless I – what? Ate perfectly? Exercised in every single moment of my free time? Avoided the things and people I loved?
While I take responsibility for my actions and decisions, I’ve also learned that I need to give myself a break. Yes, I let myself become vulnerable to the theories and ideas of – well, whoever was selling what I thought I wanted to hear. Whatever would reinforce my disordered thoughts and convince me that it would, somehow, be worth it. Because it just had to be, right?
It was easier to fear food and, in turn, give it power, than it was to face the real stuff of life. Uncertainty, frustration, heartache: I could zero in and focus all my anxiety on one thing. I was simultaneously numbed out and completely hyped up, and it all went back to food.
It can take a lot of work to break out of that mindset. For me, a lot more than it took to slip into it.
“Such stories stick in the mind because of their inherent irony: The very things that provide us with sustenance, they seem to argue, may be out to get us.”
I’ve come to realize that nothing is out to get me – except my own fear. The fact is that we are imperfect. We are human. We are all going to die. But how we choose to live is up to us.