Is Our Obsession With Food Healthy?

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Do we love food or do we hate it? Are we defined by Masterchef — or by The Biggest Loser? When did the experience of eating become so mired in shame and watchfulness rather than self-nurture? We asked the News Therapist to explain to us the simultaneous craze for new information about diets and about cooking in popular culture. Is there any such thing as a healthy obsession with food?

Our interest in food and eating seems to be at an all time high. A brief trawl through the TV guide for the week and a quick glance at the weekend news supplements reveals a cornucopia of programs and articles devoted both to the cooking of food and to the restriction of eating. Is there a connection between our passionate interest in preparing food and our current preoccupation with dieting and obesity?

At a time when we have moved away from schedule-feeding our babies, we appear to be schedule-feeding ourselves. I find the confessional food diaries that appear in some current magazines particularly chilling. These are the segments where well known people reveal their food intake for the day or the week, and then one expert or another comments on the apparent healthiness of their diet.

Reading these pieces encourages a kind of weird process of comparison in me. I usually think first, "how can he survive on that?", then move on to "I’m eating too much". I think about my body, their bodies, and suddenly the whole experience of food and eating becomes mired in a sense of shame and watchfulness. In this state, how can we possibly tune in to what we want and when, and how much of it we need.

In a culture handed over to experts, we have now gone so far as to surrender our plates for inspection. We tell each other about our transgressions like we’re in the confessional and wait eagerly to hear the food priest or priestess tell us what our penance will be. We watch shows where we are supposed to be shocked and disgusted by what and how much people are eating. Then they get in trouble, and we are meant to enjoy their struggle to get back in the good books with their various task-masters and -mistresses.

Diets have gone undercover, in a bid to make them more acceptable. So-called "healthy eating" plans, have at one time or another incorporated varying degrees of balance. These plans have now become an acceptable way to describe what are essentially food restriction behaviours. We’re detoxing, cleansing or boosting our immunity. We’re "off" certain foods — as if they were dangerous drugs.

Listen to yourself or someone else discussing their latest food plan. There rarely seems to be any tenderness in the language here, it’s all crime and punishment, shame and failure.

There’s a kind of strange exhilaration that comes to many of us when we practice this kind of nutritional tough love. I remember fasting in my teens, and having an incredible sense of finally being in control of this wayward body and its constant insatiable demands. I would spend days in a kind of bizarre state of separation, ostensibly caring for myself physically while actually experiencing a profound dislocation from my body. I saw my body as a Labrador: if I let it off the leash it might never stop eating.

Weightloss shows are fascinating in a similar way for many of us, if the ratings are anything to go by. There’s obviously a genuine focus on getting real about disordered eating, and an awareness of its impact on the contestants.

But there is also an extreme distancing of responsibility and connection that seems to happen between each person and their relationship to feeding themselves. As if they have shown themselves to be incorrigibly incompetent, and as a result, none of their natural impulses can ever be trusted again. Control of their diet is handed over to others, and like feedlot cattle, they become slowly used to eating what they are given in order to meet the standard. They are regularly tempted, and everyone is proud of them when they resist. They are trussed, painted and sprayed at the end, and sitting in our living rooms, we marvel at their transformations.

Some of the most instinctual eating I’ve ever experienced took place when I was breastfeeding. My daughter would cry out for food, I would feed her, and usually she would drop into a deep sleep of tiredness and digestion afterwards. I was usually in tune with her hunger, maybe from having just produced so much milk, and so I would often be eating toast over her head, crumbs dropping down onto her onesies.

Babies who are not held enough while eating will fail to thrive despite taking in enough food. How do our failures to care for and nurture ourselves with food affect our growth in other ways?

Could it be that our focus on ideas about food, like our focus on idealised sex, actually distances us even further from pleasure and from satisfaction? I love to watch some cooking shows. But if the pleasure here does little to connect us to our own experience of preparing, eating and sharing food, then it becomes a kind of pornography. It sets up an ideal of the beautiful and the desirable so far from our own lives that we can hardly help but feel our own lack of sauciness.

And yet cooking shows may also be our way of expressing our longing for a return to the love of food as nurturing, vital fuel for living. Just as when I was briefly "off" wheat and dairy, my run-of-the-mill dreams were suddenly invaded by images of pizza, we are spending more and more time looking at food, thinking about and talking about food — and yet my sense is that we have never experienced less pleasure in feeding ourselves. Food has become fetishised — stylised and separated from the vitality both of where it has come from and the job it’s actually meant to do.

Writers, therapists and health researchers interested in intuitive eating, such as Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, and Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch from the website Intuitive Eating, have been exploring the political, social and physiological benefits of following the body’s signals about hunger and satiety for decades now.

But as we spend more of our leisure time watching people cook and eat food or severely restrict their eating, we spend less of our time listening and responding to our bodies’ needs. Watching cooking and eating seems just to drive us to watch more cooking and eating. Could this be a signal that we are hungry to do more than just look at the pictures?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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