Food is fuel. The end.

My daughter shared something recently that has me pondering beyond just the obvious point made in the article and because I realized I have many thoughts on the matter it developed into what you are about to read.  It was relating the difficulties parents face when they have certain rules for their own children at home and then those children visit other homes with other rules and boiled down to discussion about the age old and apparently sometimes still practiced “clean your plate whether or not you are still hungry, and you get no dessert if you don’t eat all your supper.”

I was raised with it, as were many of you, due in part to parents who grew up in a time when then were lucky to have food at all.  But there was little room or time for psychology back then and many general rules seemed to be about keeping order and doing things just because someone said so, all with good intentions and hopes that kids would grow up into good citizens who did not embarrass their parents (enter the people pleasing phenomenon here which is a valid topic of its own, but I digress…)

How did that all work out?  You tell me, based on the information available everywhere about obesity and mental health to mention only two. Add in the exercise programs, diet books and supplements, weight loss programs that now include therapy to address emotional issues and people in North America are still generally overweight.  I don’t have stats to share because everyone can look those up for themselves and even when I see them I forget them quickly at my age. This isn’t really meant to defend any particular psychological standpoint anyway.  Truthfully, I’m no expert on anything other than my own opinion!

I’m just a girl, sitting in front of a typewriter, trying to figure out why I want snacks when I’m not hungry and making great effort to turn off the part of my brain that tells me I deserve to have them anyway.

Before I go any further I might as well address the reality that my mother will be reading this and if I don’t add a disclaimer here that parents do their best with what they know and this is not about blame I will face the music next time I visit at the Lodge.  My parents weren’t the only ones who carried forward certain ideas about how things should be done and wouldn’t necessarily repeat the same things many years later.  OK mom?  Now that we’ve covered that….

I won’t recount the various incidents when food was an issue or treat you, the reader, like a therapist by listing point by point my now understood effects of certain expectations in my growing up years.  I will give but one example that pretty much sums it all up (and mom’s already heard it….)

I remember distinctly an occasion on which my family was getting ready to leave the house for a scheduled fun engagement of some kind –  I was about seven – and I was adamant about not finishing my meatloaf.  I hated it, I was gagging, I was not allowed to get up from the table until it was gone.  With the rest of the table cleared off, mom and little brother already either at the door or in the car, there was now not only the pressure of the chunk of meat on my plate but the stress of knowing others were counting down while I sat crying and feeling defeated.  My dad, in an attempt to diffuse the situation and unbeknownst to mom at the time, crouched down beside me and worked very hard to coax me to just eat one bite at a time and then be “rewarded” with the box of smarties he was holding just beyond my reach.  I remember feeling his sympathy, and eventually gagged it down and got my prize.

But who won here?  Not me.  

I loved smarties, but I had already at seven learned that foods I liked served as a reward and foods I hated were in the way of everything: dessert, play time, joining my family for an outing. Lastly, I was taught that even though we rarely had dessert in our house, and even though mom had exited the scene before the smarties came out (and would never have done this herself) I could be manipulated with food.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the first time; I know it wasn’t the last. I’m also sure mom wasn’t happy with dad when she later heard the story of bribery over punishment (we all know though, that regardless of threats mom was not leaving a seven year old alone at home because she didn’t eat supper) but in truth, they had both played their unique roles in that situation, as a team, regardless of whether or not they knew they were playing together.  

I did not learn as a child about food as fuel for my body, a finely tuned machine that, not unlike a car, need not be filled up to the brim unless it had used up the previous tank of gas.  I did, however, learn the following:

  1. Meal times were eating times and if you were hungry in between, eating would spoil your next meal.  My body was only supposed to require food on a schedule that worked for others.  God forbid I should wait with a growling tummy only to find out that supper was going to be meatloaf.
  2. Cleaning my plate was always expected, and on a rare occasion when there was dessert, there was no dessert at all for those who didn’t eat a whole plate of supper.  So stuffing myself to get to the glorious cake or ice cream was the only solution.  As well, if I wanted a second helping of something, I had to also take a matched scoop more of something else along with it – probably something I wasn’t as fond of – even if I had eaten everything else already because I wasn’t allowed to just fill up on something I liked.
  3. Once I was old enough to dish up food for myself, I was to eat everything I took because not doing so was wasteful.  So instead of throwing it into the trash I learned to waste it by swallowing it when I didn’t need anymore food in my body, thus treating my body like a garbage can. (Not to mention that if snacks had been denied in favour of waiting for supper it could have been the over hunger feeling that launched the too much dished up food in the first place!)
  4. I was to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in other places and I was lucky to have food and somehow my not eating it was offensive to them. I neither cared nor understood how they would know if I ate my supper or not.  (I do remember suggesting that they could package up my supper and send it off to Africa on more than one occasion, which is why you must be very careful which tactics you use to manipulate your children because eventually there will come a time when the alternate scenario you propose actually looks better to them than you think) 

One of the hard things is that we celebrate with food; birthday parties, family gatherings, special achievements, and again food is seen as the ultimate reward.  When I hit the honor roll in grade ten with more class awards than usual, I was taken out for dinner and allowed to order anything I wanted – which was, of course, a lobster supper at Kingsland Restaurant and somehow the fact that the rest of my family also got to go because of my achievement didn’t quite register at the time but it now seems a little funny.  Not that they shouldn’t have come, but the psychology of the whole thing is significant.  The premise – and therefore the message my brain received – was that I was being rewarded, not that we were all celebrating an event. We celebrated everything with food.  Many people do!  It’s not wrong, for centuries people have gathered together around shared meals; we just need to send the right messages.

And throughout my whole life, every time I sat in a restaurant and looked at a menu, the thought that went through my mind was that I should order the biggest meal with the most sides because this was a “treat”, an opportunity. And I would clean that plate because it had been paid for – first by someone else who was expecting me to clean it and later, as an adult, by me – and there’s no way I was leaving food behind.  It was decades into my adulthood before my brain could handle ordering based on my hunger level, avoiding the unnecessarily large portions, and being OK with leaving food on the plate once I was full.  

I began to recognize the deep rooted relationship my emotional side had with food when I noticed that while on any one of several diets tried over the years I would eventually and automatically reward my hard work or any achieved weight goal WITH FOOD!  Please laugh if you are with me here, because if we don’t laugh we will cry.  We have been trained for this, our brains are doing exactly what they were programmed to do from the time we were little.

How many times have you bought the family size bag of chips because it is far more economical than the small ones (don’t waste money) and then eaten the whole thing anyway?  Why pay for the small ice cream cone when the extra large costs only pennies more?  Have you ever added the fries to the meal only because it was a full meal deal?  Supersized because it was only 59 cents more?  We are frugal, aren’t we?  But we pay for it in other ways.  Many ways. For YEARS.

And now that we’re adults and our parents can’t tell us what to eat, how many times do we clean the whole plate because we don’t want to offend another cook?  (people pleasing 101)  

It started with being afraid to tick off our parents, to go to bed hungry, to miss out on the smarties. 

So now that I’m on my own and I can do whatever I want, I eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not.  I try very hard to “listen” to my body so that I recognize what hunger feels like.  I’m not perfect and even with all I’ve learned about myself and food I still fail.  But overall, I don’t care what time of day it is, my eating is scheduled by my body not the clock. There is no “lunch time”. 

I still have to make sure the food I eat is good fuel and I’ve learned what good fuel is now and why I need it, even if some days that smoothie is a brownish green color.  I stop myself before indulging in treats so that if I eat them I know it is a deliberate and calculated choice on my part, not a reaction or an autopilot kind of thing.  I can swing into Tim Hortons and grab timbits for mom and never care about eating one myself.  I can now buy the big bag of chips on sale on movie night, eat what I want and literally throw the rest of the bag into the garbage and close the lid without remorse. I remind myself as I am dumping something out that it is “waste” one way or the other if I don’t need it and that my body is not a trash can. And while my parents were very concerned that I learn about starving children in other parts of the world, sending money was always the better option because my untouched supper wasn’t making it past the post office door no matter how hard I tried to reason that out at the age of seven.  

I hope that as we go along we can learn to teach little children that food is fuel.  After all, that’s what our caveman ancestors knew, right?  Food is not medicine for when you are sad, it is not a reward for when you are good.  It’s not something you eat to please someone else, or because you don’t want to get into trouble. THOSE ARE EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS TO FOOD THAT HAVE TO STOP.  I’m sorry I had to raise my voice but this is very important.

It is totally OK to enjoy food, and food isn’t good or bad (that whole forbidden fruit thing is a dangerous mind game) there are just foods that do different things for us, so let’s teach kids that.  Instead of “cake is bad and veggies are good” maybe “do you know what these veggies are good for?” and then launching into a creative dialogue about why their body will be better with veggies than without them would be a better idea than comparing them to cake.  Nothing compares to cake.  We all want that cake. 

(HINT: if you’re going to hide pureed veggies in that cake batter, get the best blender you can afford.  Or they will find the one tiny little piece of a beet that you missed and forever hold you accountable.  Even when they are old enough to be mothering their own babies.  There’s no cocoa powder covering up that error or that memory!)

Please, let’s teach about food.  Not punish.  They have to eat to live.  They cannot avoid food.  They have to learn to live with food, use food, appreciate food, and not be controlled by food.  Empower them to make good choices about food and about their bodies so that it’s about their health and not just about someone else’s rules.  It’s just so much easier to start that way than to fix it later.  Fifty years later.