Food demonizing and the perils of “all or nothing” thinking

Half white half black sign that says "Good" on the white side and "Evil" on the black side. Under "Good" it says "Good is that which is morally right; righteousness" and under "Evil" it says "Evil is profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity."

There’s an article making the rounds and it’s recycling an old idea: “Nice ‘Health’ Foods You’d Be Better off Avoiding.” The recycled idea: some foods are evil. We’ve blogged a couple of times about this already. See my “Why Food is Beyond Good and Evil” and “Let’s Think Differently about Healthy Eating,” and Catherine’s “Beyond Good and Evil (Food)” and her follow-up the next week.

My big theme is about food moralizing and how just makes things worse. You’re not “good” because you ordered the salad instead of the fries. You’re not “bad” because you ordered the fries instead of the salad. Fruit juice isn’t “evil.” Celery sticks aren’t “virtuous.” It’s all food.

So what’s on the latest list? Some familiar items that people like to label as “bad”: fruit juices and smoothies (because sugar); granola (because sugar); fat-free or low-fat things (because sugar); dried fruit (because sugar); agave nectar (because sugar). Then there were a few surprises: almond milk (because not as much protein as cow’s milk); gluten free unless you’ve got celiac disease (because sugar and fat); coconut oil (because saturated fat); and vegetable chips (because fat and salt).

What’s really being demonized here, if you read the explanations? Mostly sugar. Next culprit: fat. And finally, salt.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that if all of the foods I ever chose to eat were sugary dessert-type foods, my diet would be lacking in nutritional value. It goes without saying that the body requires a diversity of nutrients and that means branching out into veggies, whole grains, and foods that are rich in protein.

I also like Catherine’s point about being a food pragmatist. She says that she and her fellow food-pragmatists “eat what works for us. We figure out what works through a complicated process of experimenting, reading and learning, forming some goals for ourselves about what health means to us, taking into account our preferences and constraints (economic, social, geographic, cultural, etc.).”

I’m also something of a food pragmatist these days. It’s the evolution of my successful transition to intuitive eating. There are foods that do not work for me (garlic — I cannot digest it in anything but the smallest of quantities; fried foods at lunch time — they make me want to sleep).

That’s not the fault of these foods. As Catherine and I both say, different foods are neither good nor evil. They just are. Maybe they agree with you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe some have more nutritional value than others, but nutritional value isn’t the only reason we eat. Think of the central place socializing and celebrating around food has in just about any culture you can think of.

When we demonize foods and decide that we will never eat something because it is “bad” (even if we like it), we generate a feeling of deprivation and temptation. It’s human nature often to want what we (think) we can’t have. I see this all the time around food.

Last night I was out for Indian food and at the end, when I was already satisfied and done, they brought the bill along with a mini-chocolate for each person. Instead of pocketing mine, I opened it. I took one bite and realized that not only was it not a good chocolate, I simply didn’t want it. So I left half of it on the table in the wrapper. One of my companions noticed and said “aren’t you virtuous, eating only half a chocolate?”

And a few weeks ago a box of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls ended up in our office. A whole box. As a food pragmatist, I know one thing if I know anything: those things give me a headache.  So terrible is the headache I get from them that I do not feel the least bit tempted to eat even half (nevermind that they are decidedly un-vegan). But the whole day everyone in the office was treating the Cinnabons as if they were the embodiment of the devil. I really shouldn’t was either explicitly said or implicitly conveyed in the guilty look people had as they slunk back to their offices to enjoy their decadent treat in private.

I don’t know, but when I’m going to enjoy something that I think is a delicious treat, I’m going to enjoy it wholeheartedly. I’m not going to proclaim how many times a week a person “should” eat a cinnamon roll or what else they might want to include in their daily diet, but I can promise you that no one in the office lives on these things. They were special treats to be enjoyed. If regarded instead as something that you “shouldn’t” have but are having anyway, then the full potential of savouring it in all of its delicious glory falls to the wayside.

All or nothing is not a great strategy and can work against us.

There are exceptions. Sometimes, as Catherine said about her and pasta, there are things that for whatever reason we have a lot of trouble being moderate about. But again, that doesn’t make them demons for everyone. I am fully abstinent when it comes to alcohol. That’s not because alcohol is inherently evil. It’s  because it’s not something that works for me (pragmatist).

Do you demonize foods? Is it working for you?

Let’s Talk about the Myth of the Skinny Vegan Bitch #tbt

Here’s a #tbt for you from four years ago. Though I would venture that veganism is more popular now than it was then, and is gaining followers all the time, myths still abound. And one of them is that you’ll get skinny real fast if you opt to eat a thoroughly plant-based diet. You won’t necessarily lose weight at all. But that’s not a reason not to try it. Another myth is that you can’t possibly retain muscle if you’re vegan. You can! I’ll write about that sometime next month. Meanwhile, enjoy this old post. I’m vegan, but I’m neither skinny nor a bitch (or so I like to think anyway)!
Tracy

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

vegan-food-cc-300x400Here’s how the first installment in the Skinny Bitch series (authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin) starts:

Are you sick and tired of being fat?  Good. If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to get skinny...

This is not a diet. This is a way of life. A way to enjoy food. A way to feel healthy, clean, energized and pure. It’s time to reclaim your mind and body. It’s time to strut your skinny ass down the street liek you’re in an episode of Charlie’s Angels with some really cool song playing in the background. It’s time to prance around in a thong like you rule the world. It’s time to get skinny.

It sounds almost empowering.  Almost.

The first red flag?  If you’re full of self-loathing then…wait for it…getting skinny is the answer!  If that’s not clear from the introduction, it is made…

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I love air too, but not for lunch

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones--white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has "Just breathe" etched into it.

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones–white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has “Just breathe” etched into it.

I’ve been blogging recently about food alarmism, that annoying tendency some people have to demonize certain foods by talking about how they’ll kill you.

But the most out-there food fad that’s ever come to my attention has got to be “breatharianism.” Sam sent me a link to “‘Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food.”

This couple–Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello–claims that humans don’t need food and water, that they can survive on the ‘energy of the universe’ alone. Apparently, since 2008 “they have survived on a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times a week.” Castello claims to have eaten nothing during the entire nine months of her pregnancy with her first child. Since she wasn’t used to feeling the sensation of hunger, she says, she “lived fully on light and ate nothing.” Considering pregnant women are meant to eat more not fewer calories to support the growing fetus, it doesn’t sound like the best approach to pregnancy.

She said living on air in the breatharian lifestyle also cured her PMS. Ricardo made the astute observation that “breatharianism” is a great way to slash the cost of your food bills.  Now that they have two children, they eat from time to time so they can share that experience with the kids. Castello says:

“Now, Akahi and I eat very sporadically — perhaps three or four times per week at the most. I might have a few vegetables, a juice or a bite of an apple with my children. Sometimes we have a glass of water too.”

“Whenever I eat now, it’s not because I’m hungry — I just don’t remember that sensation.”

Okay. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person who believes in reserving judgment and letting people live their lives as they wish, with the rough qualification that they not harm others. This pair claims not to impose their breatharian lifestyle on their children.

But when they say they don’t eat and instead exist only on the ‘universe’s energy,’ my first thought is that they have to be lying. I’m no scientist (or mystic), but I think we can say with a fair bit of confidence that you can’t live on ‘universal energy’ alone. My second thought is that okay, so they might eat something (a piece of fruit here, veggie broth there, the occasional glass of water every few days), but it’s not enough.  In reading about their approach, it’s not exactly that they demonize food.  They just consider it unnecessary. Food is not unnecessary. Granted, the air we breathe is also necessary. But surely it’s not sufficient to sustain a person? Don’t we have all sorts of science to back this up? This approach to eating, where the end result is to lose the sensation of hunger and eat very little (if not nothing) sounds alarmingly like an eating disorder.

It seems that I’m not the first person to question the veracity and sense of their claims. After the first article (quoted above), they released a clarificatory statement explaining that they actually do eat a bit more than they originally said:

“We do eat, just not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” the couple said in a statement to The Post Wednesday. “When we went through the ‘Breatharian’ transition 21-day process, our intention wasn’t to stop eating, but rather to heal on a genetic level, information that gets passed through the generations and manifests in each person in different ways (like ‘hereditary’ information). The not-eating was like a side effect that we freely explored when we were a young couple, without children, and also through Camila’s pregnancy.”

There might be more to it than what I’ve talked about here. They say it involves “conscious breathing” techniques as well. And guess what? They offer courses on that which range in price from $200 to $1700.

The upshot here is this: it’s a variation on a food fad. You can dress it up with “universal energy” and “conscious breathing,” but in the end it’s just another way of depriving yourself of food. I’m the last person to tell people what they should eat. But please, please, eat something. And eat enough.

If you’ve heard of any other equally outrageous food fads, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

 

 

The Trump 25?: Stress, weight gain, and American politics

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

We’ve been writing quite a bit on the blog on the things we do to find peace and relieve stress in tough times. We’ve talked about dog walks, hikes in the woods, yoga, time with friends, and beautiful music.

Mostly those things, in addition to being instrumentally valuable in terms of health and stress reduction, are also valuable for their own sake. It’s just plain good to spend time with friends and appreciate joy in the world.

But I confess that in addition to the things that I want more of in my life, I’ve also been eating a lot of delicious food. Delicious food also is good for its own sake. But I’ve been eating more of it than I like, on reflection, and I haven’t fully appreciated a lot of it. I’ve been eating for comfort, not joy.

Now I’m a defender of eating for comfort. It’s not the worst thing you can do. (For me, and for lots of people, alcohol might be worse. There is also a lot being written right now about drinking one’s way through the next four years. I’ll pass on that.)

Food serves a lot of purposes besides nutrition. My blog post which defends eating to relieve stress is also about what I cooked on the US election night. That post seems sad and naive now. I thought it was going to be a stressful evening but that it would all end okay. I confess too that when things started to go bad, I found refuge in sleep. “Wake me when Hilary wins,” I said to Jeff, before drifting off.

Wrong.

Four years is a long time to be comfort eating. And it turns out I’m not the only person thinking about this.  See Stress Eating is Now an American Pastime Thanks to President Donald Trump.

In an interview in the New York Times TV producer, director and writer Judd Apatow talks about stress eating and gaining weight. He says, “Most of us are just scared and eating ice cream.” Me too. Salted caramel ice cream is this year’s favourite. Sometimes I worry I am going to associate the flavour with Trump trauma.

In another New York Times piece called Trump Made Me Eat It, Joyce Wadler writes that her Greenwich Village Weight Watchers group is talking lots about Trump weight.  Trump tweets, she writes, and instead of your usual low cal yogurt you find yourself reaching for a chocolate croissant.

Barbra Streisand is also tweeting about Trump and food. “Donald Trump is making me gain weight. I start the day with liquids, but after the morning news, I eat pancakes smothered in maple syrup!” the singer tweeted.

Oh, and just in time, a new study seems to show a link between stress, elevated hormones, and obesity. However, the researchers note that they aren’t really sure about cause and effect. After all, in a fat phobic society it might make sense that larger people are stressed out by attitudes towards their bodies. That is, being fat might be stressful (duh!) rather than stress causing overweight.

In all of this, I don’t mean to trivialize politics. Or to make this all about healthy eating. Or even to criticize eating as a way of relieving stress. But I am interested in the choices we make in hard times. What fuels us to engage politically? What choices support our active, politically and otherwise, lifestyles?

How about you? Are you making your usual food choices in these tough months? What’s your plan for eating in the time of Trump?

 

Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Finding my fitness spirit animal (Guest post)

I have figured out my fitness spirit animal.

My desire to get in better shape has been a long time coming. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who truly enjoys physical activity, who opts for a salad instead of something crunchy and deep-fried. One of my good friends is one of these people. It seems to come to her naturally—she runs marathons for fun and honestly enjoys vegetables. She often says that her spirit animal is a hamster because she can relate to the need to run on a wheel that doesn’t go anywhere—just to burn the energy.

I envy these people. And I cannot relate to them at all.

In the past I’ve related most closely to lazy housecats. Or maybe to a blubbery seal sunbathing on a rock with half-eaten fishtail dangling from its mouth.

 

seal-on-rock

This is how I spent much of the last two years: sprawled out on my couch with Netflix and a family-size bag of chips balanced expertly on my chest. (For you non-snackers, a family-size bag is much bigger than a regular size bag.) I was going through some intense stuff in my personal life and so hibernation seemed the most sensible option for a time when I was feeling so emotionally raw. And don’t get me wrong…I do have some fond memories of nights alone surrounded by blankets and snacks, like any happy seal would. I don’t regret this perhaps necessarily indulgent time in my life. But the problem was that it became a fairly regular habit. From “What the heck, just this once!” to “Oh, maybe I’ll only indulge on weekends,” to “Well, Thursday and Friday are basically the weekend,” and so forth. You get it – it got out of hand.

I think part of the problem was also that I viewed myself as a very physically awkward person, so anxiety around my own physical awkwardness prevented me from taking action sooner. I just never thought of myself as an “athletic person.” And this would always be reinforced when, in the past, I’d be working out and feeling strong and graceful, only to catch my reflection in an ill-placed mirror and suddenly think, Oh God! Is that what I look like right now?? (Have you ever seen a seal try to get around on land? It ain’t pretty.)

 I mean, I probably suffer from an average degree of female-related self-consciousness about my body, but the combination of athletic anxiety and my perceived physical awkwardness didn’t help.

Who knows, maybe it’s that “fitness clothes” (bright and skin-tight) just aren’t that flattering on bodies like mine (soft and curvy with doughy bits). Don’t get me wrong, I do love my body and have admired myself in many a reflection on a good day—I even considered entering a burlesque show once—but by today’s standards of “fitness,” or what it means “to be fit,” I often see myself as too round, soft, and flat out awkward to be an “in shape” person. And it doesn’t help to see people with gazelle-like grace running past me on the street while I get sweaty just from walking around with a backpack on. My idea of what it meant to be active had become too dichotomous.

However, during my time of hibernation, another friend of mine had completely transformed herself from a hard partyer to heavy weight lifter. It was inspiring to see her journey and what appealed to me most about her story was that she had done so with no previous experience or even inclination to make such a change. When I asked her about her experience, she told me that she too had been initially intimidated by fitness culture and by gyms, never daring to try more than the elliptical or treadmill. But the real clincher for me was when she told me she still indulges in homemade desserts and other delicious treats every night. She still has nights sprawled out on her couch with Netflix.

It was a revelation.

Never before had I meant a healthy and fit person with the same lazy, snack-fueled inclinations as myself.

Image result for hamster on a treadmill

I used to think there were two kinds of people: the gazelles and the hamsters of the world who love to run and don’t eat junk food, and the housecats and blubbery seals like me, doomed to lie about on our rocks and couches indefinitely. And while I know that different people have different inclinations (health- and activity-wise), it took me a while to realize that “fitness” is a wide-ranging sliding scale.

I used to think that being healthy and fit meant pretty much never eating fun stuff again, never lazing about guilt-free again. And this would mean that becoming healthier would be changing who I am and giving up some of the things I truly enjoy. It hadn’t occurred to me that incorporating fitness into my life would be about harmonizing my internal athlete and couch potato, my inner hamster and housecat.

While so much of the culture around “being fit” can seem impenetrable, exclusive, and intimidating—especially for someone who has never known quite how to go about it—finding someone who had found a way to take control of her health and wellness in her own way was eye-opening for me. I just had to find my own way that worked for me.

Strangely, I had been afraid that becoming healthier and more active would mean losing a part of myself. But what I learned was that I had it in me the whole time. My fitness spirit animal is still 100% a blubbery seal. But here’s the thing about blubbery seals, they know how to relax on land, but they get down to business under water. They are my fitness spirit animal: the perfect combination of awkward and graceful, blubbery and strong, lazy and active.

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Tracy de Boer is a real adult lady currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy at Western University. She is passionate about the ways philosophy enables people to think critically about everyday life. She is also very sad about the results of the U.S. election. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, @tracyrwdeboer.

 

Canine Fitness Coach: Don’t Celebrate Your Skipped Meals (Guest Post)

The last time I wrote about why my dogs are my fitness heroes, I talked about how they’re always motivated, and exercise for joy, not for calorie-burning.

This time I want to talk about their adorable yet irritating tendency to beg food from anyone they meet. This includes their ability to deploy their beseeching eyes and convince almost anyone that they’re on the brink of starvation.

2016-08-07 06.32.48

Seriously though we are about to collapse from lack of snacks

But my poor dog training skills aside, one new lesson I am trying to learn from these beasts is that hunger is not a reason for celebration (though they do admittedly often see it as an emergency). There’s this trap that I fall into entirely too often, particularly when I’m busy (though the frequency of this state of busy is itself an issue for discussion), which is to eat far less than I know I should, mostly because of poor time management. Now, this is a pretty common problem, and here’s some ways that people like me talk about it:

“I know I should have, I just didn’t have time to eat lunch today.”

“There just wasn’t a break between classes and things just had to get done, so I just couldn’t eat before training.”

The problem, though, isn’t just the skipped meals. It’s the fact that secretly, humblebraggily, I’m proud of having skipped them. This pride is a holdover from a mentality that calories are bad (they aren’t). But being secretly proud of your skipped lunch should make as little sense as being secretly proud of your skipped workout, because both types of activity (eating and exercising) are important.

For one, the quality of my training definitely goes down when I haven’t eaten enough. Though I don’t get hangry like lots of people – it’s more like… hinconsolable. And in case you haven’t tried sobbing your way through a circuit, I can assure you it’s not recommended. Especially given that said sobbing usually takes place in front of my partner, who works in the fitness industry, and can’t stand calorie-counting, weight loss based approaches to exercise, or his girlfriend tearfully attempting to wall ball.

Food is great. We don’t function well when we’re lacking in it. And we probably shouldn’t take pride (even secret pride) in things that are hurting our overall well-being. Especially if the only reason we’re taking pride in these things is because of an unhealthy relationship to food and eating.

So here’s the official recommendation from the canine fitness coaches I live with.

Don’t skip meals if you can help it. And if you can’t help it, don’t view it as somehow beneficial or a bonus calorie deficit. Oh, and if you forgot to pack lunch, maybe there’s a friend who might be persuaded to share.

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Hello yes I am very interested in pasta salad

 

Sugar free September? Good God no?

 

Image result for sugar free september

We’ve thought a lot about sugar here on the blog. There was Tracy’s plan to dump sugar, your reaction, and her change in plans. See her posts Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox. and Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up.

I’m officially leery of quitting sugar entirely. See Six reasons this feminist isn’t giving up sugar and Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff.

And I think I can safely say, for me at least, I don’t want to open up that particular can of worms again for awhile. However, our experience of blogging about sugar convinced me that it’s controversial and complicated. This issue isn’t easy.

That’s why I was super surprised to see the Canadian Cancer Society advocating Sugar Free September.

About Sugar-Free September

Fancy a month off the sweet stuff to help raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society?

Sugar-Free September challenges you to go sugar-free for 30 days to raise vital funds for the Canadian Cancer Society to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.

Commit to quitting the cookies and brownies, lock up the doughnuts, ditch the candies and kick the sugar habit by signing up to Sugar-Free September and raise money for life-saving research and vital services for people living with cancer.

Most Canadians consume diets high in added sugar, which can lead to excess weight gain. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer.

Get your health and body back on track by reducing your intake of food and drinks with added sugars from your diet for an entire month! It’s a great way to learn how easy it is to moderate consumption while also feeling the benefits of healthier eating.

Image result for sugar free september

I worry that this feeds into food fear and that very little good can come of it. I worry that people who want an excuse to adopt a very restrictive diet will find this appealing. And I worry it will hurt people with a history of eating disorders.

But that’s me. I’m the over-thinking worrying sort. Pretty much an occupational hazard!

What do you think? And if you’re doing sugar free September, how’s it going so far?

Image result for worrying