Value Judgments

On trying to develop a different relationship to food

Over the years, I’ve worked hard, with nutritionists and therapists, to decouple judgment from food, to stop thinking of this or that food as good or bad or healthy or unhealthy, to stop obsessing over calories, to stop guilting myself all the time. It’s incredibly challenging to deprogram myself from the food messaging most of us receive over the course of our lives. I haven’t had a healthy relationship to food in more than thirty years. As a teenager, once I understood that food could be a source of comfort, it was the one thing I could turn to that would not judge me, that would make me feel better. And then it became my secret. I knew I was eating too much and needed to hide some of what I was eating but I certainly didn’t stop eating. That’s when the shame began because I felt like I was doing something wrong. It had to be wrong, or I wouldn’t be sneaking the food, right? In the ensuing years, my eating habits and feelings around eating have been all over the place. I’ve dealt with disordered eating, highly regimented eating, dieting, food tracking, binging, all of it.

It’s summer, so we have family visiting. My wife and I took our niece, ten, and nephew, thirteen, to the grocery store to get some groceries and a few treats for them because we don’t have a lot of food in the house that would interest children. Toward the end of the shopping, my niece grabbed a small pack of chocolate covered donuts, the kind that taste waxy and stale. I find them inedible, overly processed and gross. As a baker, I knew I could make her something beautiful and delicious, so I blurted out, “Don’t get those; they’re terrible,” and then I had to pause. I genuinely wasn’t trying to prevent her from eating a tiny doughnut or two but in that moment, I felt like I had morphed into everyone who has policed my eating over the past thirty years—always watching what I eat and how much and having some kind of editorial comment to offer. After she set the doughnuts down, I caught myself and said, “Oh ignore me, eat what you want,” so she grabbed them again and threw them in the cart, and on we went. The moment was nothing to her, but I spent the rest of the day thinking about how much I police even myself, how much I judge everything I consume. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I can’t imagine a time when I won’t.

I had weight loss surgery a couple years ago. So far, the surgery has done what it was supposed to do but I’ve reached a plateau. It’s frustrating but fine; I won’t be here forever. But after a couple years of dropping significant amounts of weight, the losses are much smaller, and come a lot slower. It’s very easy to feel like a failure. It has made me even more anxious and self-conscious about food. I worry I am being judged for every bite I eat, while knowing I am judging myself too. I will chastise myself about anything I eat whether it’s the quantity or quality of food or nutritional value or lack thereof. I will consider the calories of almost anything I eat even though I am not logging my food or counting calories at all. I’ve been trying to practice intuitive eating since the surgery. It’s a way of eating I really believe in, but I have yet to be able to do it without falling back on all the harmful messaging about food I’ve carried with me since other people decided my weight was a problem.

My therapist is really good about teaching me ways of taking negative thoughts I have about myself into positive ones. If, for example, I am chastising myself for eating a cookie, she says I should, instead, be grateful that I was able to nurture myself in that way. When I try to adopt this way of thinking beyond our sessions, I often stumble. There’s always a little voice that tells me I’m wrong.

Like many people, I did a lot of cooking and baking during the pandemic quarantine. With everything I prepared, I tried to just enjoy the rituals of preparation. I tried not to think about whether the food was “good” or “bad,” which are such silly, arbitrary and joyless ways of thinking about food. I baked things that would challenge me or were fun to make. I cooked elaborate recipes I never had the time for in the before times. All I focused on was the pleasure of the experience and I’ve loved every moment of it. I did not, however, figure out, how to hold onto that pleasure when it was time to eat. I did not figure out how to enjoy the fruits of my labor without overthinking my consumption.

For a few years now, I’ve been returning to Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not a Problem, a beautifully pointed book about embracing our bodies as they are, without apology and how to foster the mindset that we don’t owe anyone a “thin” body; that health is not compulsory. It is a primer on the deprogramming I’ve been trying to do both before and after the surgery. That might seem like a contradiction but it isn’t, or, if it is, it is a contradiction I am navigating as best I can.

How do you think about food and develop or nurture a healthy relationship to eating? How do you negotiate fat acceptance/positivity, fatphobia, and weight loss, if that’s your journey?