Silencing my Mental Food Police

CW: this post discusses my relationship with food. This isn’t about whether someone should eat to lose weight or not. It discusses disordered eating.

I find myself wondering these days if certain things about me are “basic”. My over-posting of pictures of freshly baked sourdough bread or Saturday brunch. My over-sharing on social media, in general. My decades-old pondering about what sort of career would be meaningful and purposeful for me and my chagrin over earlier life choices that relate to the choices I have in that area now. Another area, I think is so tired and should be old news is my decades-old brain battle over food and whether it’s a friend or a foe. I believe that none of us are served by diet culture. I like the idea of mindful eating, but it’s not something I feel I do easily. I am also very aware that there are real issues in the world relating to true hunger and lack of food security and my food issues are only one of my existing privileges.

My brain has two sides doing battle when it comes to food. One side loves food. That’s the side that loves to cook and bake; take chef classes; recreate dishes enjoyed elsewhere; plan trips around good coffee shops and interesting restaurants; and share pictures of my food. The other side monitors food. That’s the side that keeps a mental log of what I’ve eaten. It’s not intentional. It’s ingrained. Whether I “should” be eating a treat or not. The side that’s prone to feelings of annoyance and guilt towards myself. At different stages of my life, annoyance was more often disgust or shame. That side has evolved and quieted over the years, but it’s still there.

When the two sides collide, there can be some bingeing involved. Quick injections of savoury chips or sour and sweet candy. The collision happened more frequently when I lived on my own. When I had more time to sit in my thoughts. To succumb to my tiredness. To try to fill a seemingly empty pit in my stomach that could only feel something if it were filled to the brim. There was a very brief period in my late teens, early 20s when I experimented with purging, but thankfully I was more angry with myself for the purging than the bingeing, and it didn’t stick.

Collisions happen less often these days. I try to ignore the food critic in my head. I think of it as active meditation. If I have an unhelpful thought. I try to let it pass. Unjudged. And then relax and let myself enjoy what I choose to eat. Which is often salads and hummus and tofu and rice. It can be a slice of freshly baked bread or a sugar crusted scone. It might be a bowl of nutella gelato topped with sprinkles or a bag of sour candy or pungently flavoured chips.

Old habits are hard to break. It makes me think about what is feeding my hunger. Sometimes I am ravenous because I am tired. Sometimes I am premenstrual and the cravings are physically present. The tingly skin. Longing in my throat. Craving sugary and saltiness, a little at a time and over and over again until my cravings have subsided. More often than not, a small amount of something will satisfy my cravings. No binge required.

The hunger could be more psychological than physical. It could be from a place of restriction. Or, it could just be physical hunger. And it’s OK to feed hunger.

The food-loving part of my brain was weaned on celebrations revolving around well-made, delicious, comfort foods, passed down through generations. Food can elicit feelings of love and warmth in these situations. It has an ease in the kitchen around certain tasks. It finds comfort and joy in each stage of making a delicious meal. It loves seeing people enjoy the food I’ve made.

The critical part of my brain was conscious from an early age that society might think I was not the “ideal” size. There as no such thing as an ideal size, but my young self did not know. The critical part of my brain encouraged me to start dieting when I was around 12. Started monitoring how many french fries I ate at lunch with my friends. Fed a steady diet of glossy ’80s magazines about the correct way to look. That side of my brain made the warmth and love derived from food complicated. It made family functions stressful for awhile. It made my brain fill with silly slogans from diet culture, such as “nothing tastes as good as thin feels”, which is, of course, utter bullshit, but the point is that crap made eating for the joy of it, and nothing else, very complicated (at least in my brain, if not in reality).

A glossy, 80’s magazine cover – Glamour Magazine with not helpful tips, such as “5 Stay-Slim Strategies” for the holidays (oh, how little has changed!)

I remember a time in my 30s I had convinced myself that it was a good idea to go to a diet clinic where they help you lose weight by making you blow into an oxygen machine, which apparently tells you how many calories your metabolism normally burns, and based on that they give you a diet plan to follow. The diet plan was simply a calorie restriction plan that accounted for your regular metabolism plus any activity you were doing. In addition to that, you met with the doctor in the clinic, who talked to you about the psychology of your habit with food. This doctor was on a popular show on a cable network at the time, so he must have known what he was talking about… I remember it was getting close to my birthday and we talked about having a treat for my birthday, which he was in favour of, until I told him that the treat I wished for was fish and chips. He proceeded to tell me how fish and chips was the worst possible food on the planet because of the trans fats that were generated when frying the fish. Yes, this doctor believed that one meal of fish and chips was a big mistake. I was so brainwashed by him that I went and told my friends, that unfortunately, I couldn’t have fish and chips on my birthday because they were the “worst food” for you ever. They laughed at me, just as much as they should have. What a wasted birthday meal that was!

Exercise has helped my relationship with food. And I don’t mean in the “justifying my food” way, or in the “calories in”, “calories out” way. I mean that over the years, the more exercise has become a regular part of my life, the more it has helped me feel the good things in my body. It has made me feel strong. It has made me feel capable. The endorphins or generated serotonin help me forget about caring about what I eat or don’t eat. Choosing communities to work out in, that don’t focus on nutrition plans and trends, has helped me to block out that noise that I hate. I have long told myself that if I workout regularly, eat a balanced diet, including occasional treats, whatever that looks like is “A OK”.

It still takes a lot of blocking out the noise around me. It takes blocking out “wellness” plans being touted in the corporate world. It takes blocking out friends and family talking about how keto was the only way they can lose weight after 40. It takes ignoring the stupid jokes about the “Covid 15” that don’t help anyone. Perhaps, the key is not to try to “block” the noise, but to let it pass unjudged.

I’m OK with being “basic” in areas such as social media shares. But I’d like to live more what I know when it comes to not being driven by the food police in my head. I feel much more balanced about food, in general. But the food police are not totally silent, no matter how much I know better. The food police mentality, no doubt, still leads to moments of insatiable hunger. I’d like my default response to be “so what”. Satiate the hunger. OR I can choose not to. The choice is mine. But ditch the self-judgment. Hunger and food aren’t the problem. The way I look at hunger and food are the problem. The way society looks at female hunger is the problem. There are much more important tasks at hand than worrying about it. I’d like to fire the food police in my head once and for all.

Nicole P. lives and works (at home currently) in Toronto with her husband and 2 dogs. She loves movement in the forms of running, weight lifting, park conditioning works, and long walks. She’s looking forward to making delicious food for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) this weekend, although on a much smaller scale, because Covid).

4 thoughts on “Silencing my Mental Food Police

  1. I think you would find Kristen Kneff’s work on self compassion useful.
    I used to have thought police monitoring my every carb. I had rules and plans and strong ideas.

    Finding self compassion in my life has relaxed all of this. I like food. The police thoughts have gone. I still remember them, but they don’t rule me.

    There is freedom!


  2. Wonderful post Nicole! I’m 100% with you in terms of the history of your disordered eating and the ongoing challenge to let go of the policing thoughts. It’s so important to continue talking about these things with one another, reinforcing supportive habits of enjoying movement, enjoying food, enjoying sharing it! I hope you have a wonderful Rosh Hashanah, however small the gathering; Shanah Tovah Umetukah!

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