Social Pressure, Misguided Assumptions Foster Unhealthy Food Habits

Mariel Rossi deVries, staff writer

Not so subliminal messages about what we eat constantly bombard us and because eating is a necessary part of life, we cannot escape them. Teachers in P.E. tell us to eat more “healthy” food, while other voices promote various dietary strategies founded in “science.” 

The conflict between what we are told to eat and what we want to eat is damaging to both our emotional and physical health. Unfortunately, many people make the wrong assumptions about food and what constitutes healthy eating.

One fact that may be hard for people to wrap their head around is that “all food is good, in moderation and variety,” said Deborah Waterhouse, a certified nutritionist.

Throughout childhood we are told what to eat and why to eat it by our parents. My parents taught my siblings and me that a diet of organic, unprocessed food was the optimal way to eat. I became used to looking at food labels and turning down offers for ice cream.

In extreme cases, such obsessive attitudes about food can lead to serious health problems, including disordered eating.

Even in milder forms, restrictive eating habits can be detrimental. For instance, calorie cutting, or avoiding certain foods, can impact brain function. Although most kids around Lamorinda are not starving, a restrictive diet can trigger the part of the brain related to food deficit.

People often use food as a tool to make themselves feel better, and our current food culture drills into us the idea that by controlling food we can reshape our bodies and lives. However, dieting can end up fostering unhealthy habits.

A study done by the University of Minnesota was summarized in an article written by Cynthia Bulik, which said, “When you restrict food, suddenly, you develop the urge and the capacity to binge.”

Even for those who do not pursue a strict dietary plan, the message about “healthy eating” can have a negative impact in more subtle ways.  A subconscious notion that certain foods should be avoided can cause a person to lose the ability to eat “intuitively.”

Let’s say someone decides they cannot eat candy bars because they feel they are too sugary. The conscious avoidance of such foods can actually cause the person to crave them more. Eventually they give in to these cravings, and end up eating more than if they had just allow themselves to eat without restrictions or judgement.

Years of restricting foods eventually caused me to develop a serious, life threatening eating disorder, resulting in 2 years of treatment. After spending time in the hospital and residential treatment, I was able to reorient my views about food and understand that it was not the food that was bad, but my unhealthy habits around it that hurt my relationships and body.

One of the challenges I faced was the fear that if given the chance to eat what I wanted, I would become overweight. In our society, anyone who doesn’t look like thin supermodel is considered unattractive. Unfortunately, what society seems to say is attractive and what science knows is normal and healthy are not the same.

The fact is that reaching a healthy body mass index (BMI) is more likely when one does not obsess about food. The department of psychology of Ohio State University summarized that “intuitive eating was related to lower rigid control, lower psychological distress, higher psychological adjustment, and lower BMI.” Most obesity comes from lack of exercise and eating more that what one’s body needs: So instead of trying to control what you eat, focus on listening to what your hunger tells you.

Ideally, the process of intuitive eating should start at birth with the child learning to listen to what their body wants. While many parents believe that their kids will just eat sweets, it is more likely that they will grow into adults with a healthy response to hunger. According to the article “Undiet” from The Baltimore Sun, “Given a chance, your body will choose a variety of foods.”

While current health education is intended to provide the tools necessary for students to make healthy decisions about eating, ideally, it needs to involve a certified nutritionist who can best answer questions and guide students on a path to wholesome eating habits.  Simply telling students what to eat and what to avoid is not the right strategy.