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Let’s heal how we talk about food


By Alexa Thomases     1/19/21 5:54pm

Content warning: disordered eating mentalities, food restriction

“I can’t believe I let myself eat that much.” “Tomorrow I’m sleeping through breakfast to save calories.” “I really shouldn’t have a big dinner before we go out tonight.” “I’m gonna get fat.”

What do these statements have in common? For starters, they all equate food with guilt. They all encourage restrictive eating for the sake of avoiding weight gain. And they’re all sentences I’ve overheard in Rice serveries.

Far too often, the way we talk about food on campus is toxic. Flippant comments like these reinforce a damaging collective mentality that limiting what we eat is praiseworthy, even when it runs counter to physical health and social fulfillment. In this culture, food choices hold moral weight. Body size is a measure of our willpower and, consequently, our worth. Less is better.

It’s no surprise, of course, that this mentality has reared its head at Rice. Diet culture is a powerful force; in fact, the weight loss industry is worth over $70 billion in the U.S. alone. By upholding thinness and food restriction, the industry sows insecurity so it can cash our checks.  I worry that American society is so saturated with this messaging — from appetite suppressant advertisements to magazines brimming with thin models —  that we can’t tell when we unintentionally perpetuate it. We think the way we talk about food is neutral. It’s not.

Overwhelming fear of overeating isn’t neutral. Associating food with weight rather than nourishment isn’t neutral. Experiencing guilt after eating a meal you love isn’t neutral.

In fact, these are all disordered eating mentalities. When we make an offhand comment to a friend that lends credence to such beliefs, we run the risk of being overheard by someone who has struggled or is currently struggling with an eating disorder. Moreover, we further ingrain these unhealthy thoughts in our own social circles.

I frequently see diet culture on campus masquerading as “health.” When we express a desire to “eat healthier,” too often we really mean “eat less” or “restrict food groups.” To be clear, neither of these are inherently healthy. Indeed, both are decidedly unhealthy when practiced in extreme. So in healing the way we speak about our food choices, I not only encourage us to stop using phrases like “I shouldn’t eat this” and “I’ve eaten so badly,” but also to stop labeling foods as “clean” or “dirty.” Once again, the nutritious content of food does not carry moral weight.

How should we discuss food, then? I don’t want to be misunderstood as advising against all food-related conversations. I feel quite the opposite: eating is one of humanity’s oldest social rituals. It’s meant to bring us together. We’re at our best when we engage in conversations that center the enjoyment of food rather than its nutritional content.

Next time you’re tempted to express dissatisfaction with yourself because of the type or amount of food you’ve eaten, consider making a comment about its taste instead. Rather than saying, “if I keep eating this I’m headed straight for the Freshman Fifteen,” tell your friend about how the bread pudding reminds you of a birthday party from third grade. When you’re tempted to joke that “this food is the reason I’m fat,” maybe express why you love it so much instead. 

Words have power. When we heal how we talk about food at Rice, we’ll start healing how we think about it too. In turn, we’ll set ourselves up for a lifetime of enjoying — not stressing about — the food that nourishes us. 

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