It was the summer of 2006, I had just finished graduate school and was starting in my first position as a registered dietitian. Everything was new, exciting, and I was thrilled to be covering an eating disorder unit within the hospital I was hired at. What I didn’t realize at the time was that year of covering an inpatient eating disorder unit would teach me more about food and what it means than anything else would in my entire career.
I was a nutrition expert and had many ideas about how to counsel and teach patients about good nutrition. I was armed with meal plans, group nutrition topics, an ultra positive attitude, and the determination that I was going to really get through to people. The other staff had gently prepared me that it could be tough sometimes being the dietitian on “the unit. I wasn’t sure why. What could be so tough?
So I began meeting with my patients individually once a week, leading nutrition group twice a week, and eating with my patients. Each morning I would go in early and help them select their food for the day based on their meal plan and goals, each week I spent 40 hours with these individuals. All different, all backgrounds, all types of trauma these people all shared one thing in common, fear of food. Something that brings most of us joy, a sense of community, and satisfaction, pained them.
None of my training in food and nutrition prepared me for this. The emotions that eating and weight brought to these individuals were powerful and complex. It’s not about just food, the disordered thoughts about eating are intertwined with trauma, feelings of anxiety, feelings of self, and self worth.
Food wasn’t food anymore. Which made me realize the emotions and value we put on food and the amount of self worth with which we let weight define us.
So many people are desperate to lose weight, it is a billion dollar industry. What I desperately wanted my patients to understand is that health is not a number, it’s not necessarily a body weight.
We have let fantasies of body perfection warp what nutrition really is. Instead of nourishing our bodies and leading healthful lives enjoying food, which is part of our culture to show love with food, to celebrate with food, we have let it become something we crave and battle, this singular focus of “good” and “bad” that we let define us. Seeing the extreme examples of this in the patients that I worked with showed me just how damaging this mentality had become. The more people strove for the “perfect weight” the “perfect body”, the more they cut out “bad foods” the more destroyed they became and the more obsessed they became with food.
It saddens me to see how much self worth people place in weight, but I can see why it happens and have felt it myself. We are surrounded everyday with messages that tell us either in pictures, writing, or video that we should look a certain way. There are a million other messages about nutrition trying to tell us how to look thinner, how to lose weight. That is not nutrition, that is not health, it robs us of the joy of food, and for certain people triggers extremely unhealthy behaviors.
I will never write about how to lose weight, I will never tell people how they should look. I don’t believe in giving food values such as “good” or “bad”. Health to me is being able to live life to your fullest potential, to have enough energy to live fully. It is not a number on a scale.