Finding food

(This is in response to a few comments on my last entry.)

Food and emotions. Do you have a hard time separating the two?

I used to. I still do, sometimes. But I'm learning to tell the difference, which is actually a pretty cool skill to have. I know plenty of non-eating disorder folks who haven't gotten the memo on it yet, either.

There is a big difference, I think, between using food to stand for your emotions and having emotions about food. The first can be problematic, but I think that the latter -- recognizing and expanding our emotions towards food -- is part of healing itself.

I know this is not clear yet, so let me give you a few examples, starting with all of the meanings that food have (an anthropological perspective). Food may mean fuel to you, or warmth, or love, nourishment, pleasure, guilt, reward, sin, happiness, delight, punishment, satiety, sensuality, taboo, connection, home, embodiment, blessing, or burden.

Any more? Please do share.

I think that part of what happens with eating disorders is that the meanings that food can have are severely reduced, just as the actual food consumed may be restricted or limited in variety (hell, we always binge on the same old things -- don't we?). For example, to someone with an eating disorder, food rarely means pleasure or nourishment. In fact, food is more often a burden or a sin to them. But even people who don't have eating disorders may have difficulty connecting with the delights and blessings of food, so trapped are we in a culture that equates denial with virtue.

One reason that I have turned to food magazines and other food media is that they have helped me to expand (diversify!) my attitudes towards food. Food is not uni-dimensional: quite the contrary. Food has so many meanings, not only here in the United States, where I write, but in the thousands of cultures that exist across the world. Food should be diverse, as anyone who has ever consulted a nutritionist knows. We are made to eat many things, at many times, in many moods. It is not bad to have emotions about food. What can be harmful is when food replaces emotions, or when we have too few emotions about food.

People who are in recovery from eating disorders are often told "Don't focus on the food!" I was, and I have had plenty of time to think it over. In conclusion, I don't quite buy it. I think that part of recovery is learning to cultivate a new relationship with food, not to exclude it from one's thoughts altogether, nor to eat like an automaton. When we are having a problem with someone we love, we usually don't solve the problem by exiling that person from our lives; and yet, recovery from an eating disorder is often painted as a sort of exile from food, or from food-as-emotion, without realizing that there are so many different emotions that can surround food, and not all of them are harmful.

This is what I have learned to do in recovery, and here is my challenge to you: find a new meaning for food in your life. Add it to the ones you already have. Right now. Pick one that I listed above, or add a new one of your own. Maybe you lean the other way: you already enjoy food, but you don't think of it as physical fuel or nourishment, or you are disconnected from the sources of your food. In any case, look at food from a new angle. Visit epicurious or culinate or the slow food blog. Pick a recipe or an ingredient, a cuisine or a cause, a farm or a feedlot. Learn something new that you didn't know about food. And then think about where you are, and how that knowledge is changing how you feel about the food that you eat every day.

And let me know how things are going, OK?

~Ai Lu

P.S. GRM, Tiptoe, Emily Jolie: I had so much to say to your comments these last few days! Thank you for giving me so much to think about.


Victoria said...

As always, a beautiful and brave post.

Obviously people in recovery from an eating disorder can't avoid food the way someone with a drinking problem can avoid alcohol.

You propose a thoughtful and relevant way of looking at food for those in recovery.

Lisa said...

I want to let you know how glad I am to have found your blog. Your writing is insightful, and you could easily have a second career as a photographer.

Ai Lu said...


I think you hit the nail on the head. Eating disorders are very similar to addictions, but unlike addictions where the abused substance is not necessary for survival, and can be forsworn, food is very much essential. That can make recovery all the more difficult, because recovery means learning to live WITH food, not just AVOID food.

Lisa: I love hearing that my writing is reaching out to other women in recovery from eating disorders. Thanks for checking in.

Ai Lu