The Question that Radically Changed the Way I View Food


An unanticipated dinner table question

‘Is that a real thing? Do women really eat out of emotion at times?’

That was the question my husband asked one night as we sat at a large round table at a local Chinese restaurant in the old part of the city where the topic of food and dieting had come up amongst a few of the women.

I immediately felt like a twelve-year-old girl again, like finding out someone read my diary and had peered straight into my soul. I was caught off guard and embarrassed, thinking a thousand ways to strategically answer the question he had unexpectedly shot at me.

He had overheard one of women comment on eating brownies even when she didn’t really want them, but how she ate them anyways because she felt sad or lonely some days and brownies were one thing that could make her happier.

The conversation between these women continued about different diets and ‘lifestyles of eating’ from Paleo, the Daniel diet, raw food diets, and other such things, all concerning this topic of food.

I watched as his eyes scanned the room and landed back on mine as he waited for my response. I giggled, still feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable with the question he had posed. After realizing that there was no hope of getting out of answering this question, I mumbled and fumbled around to find words, and eventually said ‘well yeah I guess sometimes’ as if my answer was merely speculation and not from my own personal experience.

My mind thought back to days I would come home from a long night at work, beat down, tired, and frustrated, where I would occasionally eat three chocolate chip oatmeal cookies for breakfast before falling into bed. I cringed remembering the times I had continued dipping my spoon into a pint of ice cream only to feel my spoon scrape the cardboard bottom of the container and then realize I’d consumed the entire thing. Or the few times I may or may not have had consumed half a bag of Dove dark chocolates when that miserable time of the month in imminent.

An unexpected response

I braced myself for how he would respond and what he would think but he didn’t slam the all too common emotional eating habits or degrade the way women view and interact in their relationship with food.

Rather, he noted how different it was from the way he approached food and eating in a matter of fact way. This grabbed my interest so I asked ‘well then how to do you view food every time you eat?’

He explained that he saw food as a way to nourish his body, to give him the sustenance he needed, and to supply him with mental and physical energy. He explained that when he sits down to a meal, he views what he puts on his plate as one of the many ways he is taking care of himself.

I asked then what his view of dessert was since unfortunately it is not the largest group on the food pyramid, although I would be quite alright if some nutritionist was able to make a revolutionary discovery to argue that fact that it should indeed be the largest group. He said he thought dessert was simply meant to be enjoyed, usually with other people.

I was surprised by his response, also a little embarrassed still that I had incriminated the entire female population by admitting to emotional eating that we are guilty of partaking in and implicating myself in the matter.

Challenging the foundation of the way I viewed food

Over the next few weeks I began to notice my attitudes towards food and how I approached mealtime. It wasn’t intentional at first; I just couldn’t get it out of my head that way he seemed to think about food. It was weird to me, I had never heard someone talk about food like that before.

I have a history of struggling with disordered eating, it was an issue for a little while in high school and again in college for a bit, but since those times I have maintained a well-balanced lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating while still enjoying the sweeter things in life, like bluebell ice cream, my mom’s strawberry cake, and peanut butter pie. But there are still days where old habits can sneak up, voices seem to whisper incessantly, and I focus a little too much of what I am or am not eating.

What he said that night at the table challenged the foundation of my view on food and eating. What if that’s how I started approaching food as well? What would change?

What if I viewed food as a way to nourish my body and provide for it rather than using food as a punishment or reward system, as a positive or negative incentive?

I often catch myself thinking thoughts like;

  • ‘oh it’s ok to order a burger and fires tonight because you ran four miles today’

  • ‘well you skipped your workout today so just have one helping of mashed potatoes instead of two.’

Or when I’ve had an off day and haven’t eaten a well balanced diet, (i.e. it’s 4pm and I realized that the only fruits and vegetables I’ve had all day are the Crasins in the trail mix I ate for lunch, hardly what you can count as a fruit serving) I will make myself order a salad with no dressing (yeah I know, how stupid is that) when we go our to dinner with friends that night.

For years now I have used positive incentive or bribery with food, like I’m a child whose parent is trying desperately to establish good behavior patterns in, and I have done this completely unaware.

I punish myself with food when I do something ‘bad,’ like failing to eat a well balanced diet that day or eating three cookies along with an unspecified amount of cookie dough while in the process of baking.

I withhold and punish myself so that next time I don’t eat three cookies, I get up a little earlier in the morning to juice fruits and veggies, or run a few extra miles later that day, or whatever the ‘next time’ is.

Setting food up to be a system of rewards and punishment, positive or negative incentive, only sets us up for failure because of the mindset it forces us to adopt.

Positioning food this way sets it up as another area in our life that we need to work on, to do better at, the make better choices in, and then all our choices become labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ This sort of labeling will inevitably induce shame and self-consciousness especially in the realm of eating.

Shifting perspectives

So I’m trying to change my perspective in small ways these days.

When I look at my plate I try not to see the ‘good’ things and ‘bad things on it but rather the value it is adding to my body’s nourishment then and my overall health whether that be physical or mental.

I didn’t know there was an alternative way to view food until we sat there eating roasted duck with plum sauce that night at the table when Justin asked if emotional eating was a real thing and I hesitantly confessed it was.

Dropping the labels ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ setting aside the positive or negative incentive, and approaching meals as a way to care for my body and myself, has drastically changed the way I see my plate when I sit down at the table.

Maybe this can help change your perspective too.