Naming Food

Dear readers, I haven’t forgotten about you.  There were so many blog posts and social media posts last week about racism and anti-racism and there were so many amazing, powerful voices that needed to be heard that I felt like I needed to stay silent. 

Brené Brown talks about comparative suffering and encourages us not to rank our suffering and diminish its significance because other people are suffering more – and I totally agree with this. Our struggles with weight and food addiction and eating behaviors and self image and all of the other things that we battle are real and important. They are absolutely worth talking about. They cause us pain and suffering and grief. However, I felt like last week just wasn’t the time to post about them. And someday soon I’m going to tackle the subject of fat bias (I hate that name, by the way) – the fact that people with overweight & obesity face discrimination because of their excess weight; discrimination from employers, from coworkers, and even from doctors and other health professionals. Not today.

We need to keep returning to these issues of weight and food addiction and eating behaviors and self image. We need to keep addressing them. Naming something diminishes some of its power. Naming something makes it easier to attack it. 

I listen to podcasts all the time; when I’m driving, mowing the yard and even when I’m alone in the kitchen making dinner. I typically listen to influencers and business leaders – people that are successful in various areas of life in which I want to improve. I figure I can use that listening time to try and absorb what these people know in order to improve myself, my ability to connect to other people and my business. 

I can’t even tell you who I was listening to the other day, but something he said stuck in my head & I haven’t been able to shake it.  Therefore, I moved it to the top of my list of things that I want to write about. This person was talking about how he and his kids name their food before they eat it – not in an unhealthy way, but just to identify what they are eating. However – they don’t use the words “breakfast,” “homemade,” “healthy,” or “processed,” – words that we typically use when talking about food. 

This family classifies what they are eating as:

  1. Fuel  – or – 
  2. Celebration – or –
  3. Addiction

In the short time I’ve started doing it, I have found this to be really powerful. Most of the time I eat for fuel. Fuel is something healthy that needs to be put into my body to keep it running. Scrambled eggs in the morning are fuel. They serve a purpose. I don’t love them. I don’t hate them. They just are. Same thing with my salad for lunch. Fuel

Tonight is my youngest son’s twelfth birthday. Since my kids were old enough to comprehend the concept of money, I have given them a birthday budget and have allowed them to decide if they want to spend their money on a big party (like those inflatable places when they were little or renting out a sports place when they were older) or have that money go towards a gift – or a combination of the two.  When my kids turn twelve, they are able to get their first phone.  Since all of Tanner’s birthday budget is getting applied to his new phone-to-be, he has no leftover money to apply to his small pool party.  In addition to paying me for part of the phone, all of his party expenses have to come out of his own pocket. At twelve, he’s relatively poor, and as we started planning, he quickly realized that he can’t afford a store-bought birthday cake. Instead of having to do yard work to earn enough money for an only so-so store-bought cake, Tanner decided to make his own cake. He labored last night for hours making his perfect, homemade birthday cake. When we sit down tonight to sing him happy birthday and he presents his homemade cake, I’m going to have a small piece of it. That cake going in my mouth is celebration. I’m going to celebrate Tanner and his twelve years of life and his efforts at making his own cake without an ounce of guilt. 

Now, let’s say I creep back into the kitchen tomorrow night after the kids go to bed & cut myself another piece of cake and eat it standing at the kitchen counter alone. That piece of cake wouldn’t be celebration. It would be addiction. In fact, if I have a leftover piece tomorrow, I will have to classify it as addiction. It definitely wouldn’t be fuel and in good conscience, I cannot call the day after my son’s 12th birthday a celebration

Eating something in front of the TV at night while watching TV is rarely fuel. It’s addiction. Eating pizza crust off your kids’ plate while doing dishes after you just finished your nice healthy dinner is addiction. Much of the eating we do is actually addiction. Making ourselves aware of it is huge. Naming it is even better. 

Before you start browsing through the pantry tonight trying to find something to curb that desire to munch while watching a movie, talk to yourself. Ask yourself if you are browsing for fuel or addiction. Regardless of what you choose to eat (it might even be something pretty healthy like almonds), if you are eating it for reasons other than fuel, you are perpetuating a problem. A problem that has likely been a huge contributor to your excess weight. Don’t beat yourself up about it – negative self-talk doesn’t make us better humans – but at least define it & acknowledge it and let it settle in your brain for a while. See what planting that seed will do for your overall views about food & eating. 

Then, when you have let that simmer for a while, start attacking the concept of celebration. We all celebrate. It’s human nature. It’s social. It brings us together. I’m not opposed to celebrating but I think many of us have taken the concept of celebrating to a whole new level. 

Do this activity for me. Make a list of all of the things you are for-sure going to celebrate for the rest of the year. Mine would include:  Tanner’s birthday, My mom’s birthday, my sister’s birthday, my sister’s graduation, the day my kids go back to school (this normally wouldn’t be a celebration but after the spring we had in my house, I’m turning it into a celebration this year!), my dad’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, my two-year anniversary of Heartland Weight Loss, Jill’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.   One or two unknowns might pop up but those are the biggies that I can forsee.  Those are twelve moments that I am going to allow myself to eat something completely decadent and non-nutritious without any guilt.   Approximately two per month.  One every two weeks.  Not bad.  Not awesome, but I can live with that and not let my eating habits fall apart.  

However, let’s say we expand the list of celebrations to include everything that could potentially be classified as a celebration. In addition to these twelve biggies, what if I told you I was going to celebrate: the end of each workweek (fridays), when the Royals win, when the Chiefs play, the Fourth of July, Labor day weekend – all three days of course, every time someone at work has a birthday, when someone is kind enough to make something that looks good, Halloween (and the week following Halloween when the bags of candy linger) and the Christmas season (which we all know begins on Thanksgiving and lasts until New Year’s Eve).  

Now my list of celebrations has just grown to about 180 days.  And chances are, more of these types of events are going to present themselves during these months.  Someone I know is going to retire.  Someone is going to get a promotion.  Someone is going to have a child get engaged.  If I allow myself to indulge every time I celebrate something like this, I’ve given myself permission to eat wonderful, decadent things almost every day for the next 6 months.  And if I have a strong emotional connection between celebrating and eating something fantastic – and I don’t allow myself to indulge, then I’m going to feel deprived every time one of these events comes and goes unless I partake.  And we all know how deprivation feels.  It feels bad.  

If we want to change the outcome (the excess weight), we can’t just focus on the weight and the desire to lose it.  We have to focus on the process.  We have to focus on changing the thought processes that we currently have and replace them with other, healthier thought processes.  There is no way on this earth I’m going to convince you (or me) that cake is “bad”.  It’s not.  It’s lovely.  However, cake belongs in the realm of celebration.  And if that isn’t enough – the concept of celebration needs to be redefined to include only those things that deeply impact you personally in a positive way.  

My son making his own cake and setting it down on the table on his birthday impacts me deeply.  It is truly a celebration.  When one of the labor and delivery nurses turns 28 and someone brings cake into the breakroom, I don’t need to eat that.  I don’t need to celebrate that person by indulging.  I can congratulate her and smile at her glowing for a day, but me eating a piece of cake that someone else bought for her doesn’t really have a lasting impact on my emotions – or hers.  And if I am offered the cake and decline it, she isn’t going to be offended.  She isn’t going to take it personally.  She likely isn’t going to spend more than a millisecond processing the idea that Courtney is turning down cake before her thoughts move on to something else.  

These are stories we tell ourselves.  Justifications for the things we do that feel good.  We have to rename and rethink what we do and get off this emotional roller coaster that we have gotten on with food.  Food is one of three things.  

  1. Fuel      – or – 
  2. Celebration     – or – 
  3. Addiction 

Spend this weekend naming what you are eating and see what you come up with.  

In addition, spend a few minutes today writing down all of the things you are going to celebrate from now until January 1st, 2021.  You have 203 days left.  How many moments are you going to hand over to celebration?  Once those have been subtracted, how many moments are you going to allow yourself to give in to addiction?  Once you’ve added those up – put them on a calendar.  Then ask yourself if that calendar looks like someone that is in control of his/her weight.  Take an honest look and decide if that calendar looks like someone that is a healthy eater that has occasional indulgences or someone that is out of control who occasionally tries to reign in their behavior.  

If you want to be a healthy person that is in control of their weight, you have to change more than your goals.  You have to change the processes – you have to change your behaviors.  You have to make the right choices over and over again – day after day – moment after moment.  You have to have an overall picture of awesome health – with occasional moments that are not.  It isn’t easy – especially if you are surrounded by people that are on the celebration / addiction track.  It requires changing yourself and going against the normal flow of things.  It can be done, but it’s uncomfortable.  Especially at first.  It gets easier – just like with everything – but it doesn’t come naturally.  

Keep going and as always, if you need help, you know where to find me!

Courtney Younglove, M.D.