The Religion of Thinness

A religion scholar reflects on our culture's devotion to thinness and explores the unmet spiritual needs that eating and body image problems mask.

Moving Beyond an Eating Disordered Definition of “Healthy Food”

"Healthy Eating": Changing the Fat-Free Paradigm

In this series of posts (started January 18th), I’ve been encouraging you, the reader, to forego the standard New Year’s promise to improve your figure and focus instead on practicing peace with your body by treating it with kindness and giving it the care it needs. This suggestion has special relevance during Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Yet some readers have worried that my emphasis on being kind to your body and critical of our society’s devotion to thinness somehow endorses an unhealthy lifestyle. Perhaps this concern is a reflection of just how much our culture—from the popular media to conventional medicine—encourages a disordered approach to food and eating by promoting the assumption that being “healthy” automatically means being thin. 

To challenge our culture’s obsession with thinness is not to endorse a lifestyle that promotes obesity. Rather, my suggestion is simply that, in the long run, cultivating a nonviolent relationship with your body is actually a more viable road to overall health (physical, mental, spiritual) than torturing yourself with restrictive diets and weight-loss fantasies. 

In fact, a crucial aspect of pursuing this kinder, more peaceful approach to your body is eating foods that genuinely nourish your body and spirit. This means that instead of deciding what to eat based primarily on caloric, fat, or carbohydrate content, you try to eat foods that maximize your physical health. It also means eating them in a way that is attuned to how much your body really needs and that enhances your sense of gratitude and pleasure. 

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Let’s start by defining “foods that nourish your body,” that is, those that help keep your body well-functioning, strong, well, and energized (notice: I didn’t say “thin”). Perhaps the simplest way to identify what kinds of foods belong in this “healthy” category is to look for foods that are real. According to author and food activist Michael Pollan, “real foods” differ from the “edible foodlike substances” that line the aisles of most supermarkets today (see In Defense of Food, p. 1-2). Real foods are those that haven’t had the life force processed out of them. They are not filled with additives to enhance their taste, color, and/or shelf life. They do not contain ingredients that are nearly impossible to pronounce. They have not been modified to make cooking easier. And they typically don’t come wrapped in shiny labels that make spurious-sounding claims about their amazing health benefits. In short, real foods are whole foods, the kinds people have eaten for most of human history (i.e., prior to the rise of industrial agriculture, nutritional science, and commercial food markets). As Pollan points out, they are foods your great grandmother would have recognized. And they have been rapidly disappearing from the American diet in recent decades.

To be sure, defining “healthy foods” as “whole foods” is hardly news these days. Yet strangely, this is not the definition that comes immediately to mind for a lot of folks. Instead, the term “healthy food” conjures up an assortment of items that are fat-free, and/or sparse in calories, and/or low in carbohydrates.     

In our weight-loss obsessed society, “healthy food” is often defined by an eating disordered mentality, in which “healthy” means first and foremost foods that won’t add to your girth, and/or foods that might even help you shed pounds—regardless of how processed they are, how they were grown, how far they were transported, or how many artificial additives or unpronounceable ingredients they contain. Indeed, a $60 billion a year diet industry would have us believe that aspartame is a “healthier” choice as a sweetener than a calorie-laden whole food like honey or maple syrup. In this eating disordered paradigm, a box of “non-fat” cereal, whose second ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup (that cheaply made sugar substitute, which is heavily processed after being produced by land-destroying industrial agricultural methods), is better for you than a bowl of plain oatmeal and raisins.

Now some of you may say: “Okay, but who wants to eat a bowl of plain oatmeal and raisins for breakfast?”

The point here is not that everyone should be eating oatmeal and raisins for breakfast (though perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad direction to take). Instead, I’m suggesting something bigger, namely, that whether or not a particular food is nourishing depends on much more than the amount of calories, fat grams, or carbohydrates it contains

To be sure, “healthy” may be an accurate descriptor for a variety of non-fat, low calorie whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables (particularly those grown without corporate-made pesticides and fertilizers). However, it is a questionable designation for any number of manufactured “diet” foods, despite the miraculous health benefits their labels promise. Ultimately, if we want to make healthy food choices, we need to break the automatic associations between “healthy,” “lo-calorie,” “no carbs,” and  “fat-free,” particularly when it comes to processed foods. 

At the same time, the reality that, given the choice, many of us would gravitate towards corn-syrup-filled cereal (rather than oatmeal and raisins) intimates the extent to which commercial food markets have tapped into our survival-based, biological predilections for morsels that give us extra layers. It behooves us to understand this conundrum if we wish to move beyond an eating disordered definition of “healthy food” to a more holistic paradigm. 

There’s little question, for example, that the fast-paced growth of weight-loss industries in the second half of the 20th century paralleled the expanded manufacturing and marketing of highly-refined, sugary, salty, fatty, high-calorie foods. According Pollan, these items “push our evolutionary buttons”—our innate preference for certain tastes. But they do little to satisfy our nutritional needs, and this may be one reason we are prone to consume them in large quantities. In In Defense of Food, Pollan quotes renowned biochemist Bruce Ames, who suggests that the insatiable hunger many people experience when eating highly processed foods, “may be a biological strategy for obtaining missing nutrients” (123-124; 150). It makes sense that a body that is largely fed on sugar, salt, and fat is not getting sufficient nutrients and will be inclined to continue eating in the hope of obtaining them.

Because whole foods are more nutritious and generally higher in fiber than their processed counterparts, they tend to be more satiating in the long run, and we are less prone to over-eat them. This points to the spiritual benefits of eating real foods. When you leave a meal feeling satisfied instead of still craving, you are free to move on and engage in other meaningful, creative aspects of your life. Anyone who has ever struggled with compulsive eating understands the advantages of this approach. But even if you have never suffered from wanting to eat more right after finishing dinner, you may recognize the benefits of feeling satisfied and energized by a meal.

Whole and fresh foods also have the capacity to make you more present to the process of eating because they tend to demand more effort to consume. Consider the effort it takes to chew a carrot as opposed to a cookie, or a mouthful of brown rice compared to white). By requiring a little more exertion, whole foods offer you the opportunity to slow down and enjoy what you’re eating, to notice when you have had enough, and to be grateful to those who grew, harvested, cleaned, and prepared your meal

In many ways, our relationship to food is an expression of our relationship to life. Perhaps more than any other daily activity, what we eat reflects our values and connects us to the rest of the world. Whether our approach to eating is characterized primarily by fear, suspicion, calculation, and control, or openness, gratitude, enjoyment, and presence is manifest in the choices we make day in and day out. Choosing foods that nourish our bodies and spirits is not just a way to practice peace with the physical dimension of your existence; it is also a way of expressing our gratitude to life, for life. How wonderful to have that opportunity to feel thankful and connected to this creative power three times a day, 365 days a year.

 

Michelle Lelwica is an Associate Professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and the author of The Religion of Thinness.

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