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All Worked Up: Our Obsession With Food

I went to the bookstore today, to browse the magazine racks. In the food section, the spreads were like centerfolds: lushly saturated with color, glossy with sauces, the food looked almost indolent. The cover lines read “Desserts to die for,” and “Decadent dinners.” Adjacent to this were the Healthy Living sections. These were the headlines on the magazines there: “Fat-loss formula.” “Your weight minus eight” “Be thinner in 30 days.” “Foods that fight fat.” “The best cancer-fighting foods.” “Blast fat.” “Fat-melting foods.” “Lose 10 pounds this month.” “Glycemic index for weight loss.” “Four-week slim down.” “Drop two sizes.” “Eat more, weigh less.” Later that evening, when I fed our household animals, I noticed that the cat food box read “What cat wouldn’t do anything to be set loose in a deli?”

For the most part, we Americans are just impossibly worked up on about food. It can “blast fat” and protect us from cancer, and a cheesecake is worth dying for. We are alternately tormented with food porn and then chastised for eating it. We would even sell our feline souls to have free run of a deli.

It wasn’t like that for my grandmother. Stewing tomatoes and okra, chopping mustard greens, shucking corn–she saw food as utilitarian stuff that just happened to taste good. She fed it to us children, so we would grow healthy and strong, and made blackberry pies because it was the best way to use the bucketfuls we’d collected during the day. There were no tangy pomegranate molasses glazes or pungent harissa sauces; it was good, solid food, fuel for the bodies working on the farm. As far as I knew, she never counted a calorie or tried to melt fat (except in her cast-iron skillet), and she hadn’t a clue about the glycemic index of collard greens. But almost everything she ate came from the farm, and she lived to be 96, in robust good health until the very end.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped being so worked up about food? What if we stripped our meals, our clothing size and the numbers on our bathroom scale of their supposed power to extend our lives, fix our problems, and make us thinner, happier or somehow better? I wonder if not getting worked up about food, and being more matter-of-fact about our meals, is one of the first steps on the way to eating intuitively.

Loving and enjoying food, truly appreciating the seductive pleasure of a well-crafted meal, is a vital part of life. But when we start obsessing about it, giving it disproportionate power over our health and happiness, that’s when we disconnect.

When we’re frustrated by the mundane troubles of our daily lives, food is the fastest, easiest, path to pleasure and gratification. It’s always available, it never says “no,” and it’s instantaneous: who wants to spend an hour in quiet meditation, when five minutes at the pastry counter will yield the same results? Food is pleasurable, but it’s not a spiritual experience. Whether you call yourself spiritual or not, there’s a part in each of us that longs for a connection to something beyond ourselves that we can’t name. And whether you see food as a nuisance or think a cheesecake is “to die for,” it won’t get you to that connection.

What’s your relationship with food? Do you see it as an occasional necessity, or as a route to health, self-love and your overall happiness? Be honest with yourself. And please comment; I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, General Health, Health, Inspired Eating, Spirit, , , , , , ,

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Lisa Turner

Lisa is a chef and nutritionist with more than 30 years of professional experience and formal training in food, nutrition and product development. She’s written five books on food and nutrition and is the creator of The Healthy Gourmet iPhone app, and has been a featured blogger for many national sites, including Huffington Post and Whole Foods Market. Lisa is a faculty instructor at Bauman College of Culinary Arts and also teaches food and nutrition classes and workshops to individuals and corporations. She's a black belt in Ninjutsu, an active volunteer in the Boulder Valley school lunch system, and an avid wild food forager.

77 comments

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1:11PM PDT on Apr 27, 2011

I love food! I try to eat really healthy, and I'm majoring in clinical nutrition. So it's a significant part of my life :)

8:16PM PST on Jan 11, 2011

when i was growing up, my parents had each other, and since i did not feel that there was room for me in the family, i went to food, and it became me BEST FRIEND. i could be alone with it and spend hours eating one noodle at a time (of spaghetti, etc) - just to prolong the experience. IT WAS WONDERFUL!

later it started to affect my health, and my weight, and since that scared me, i decided to do the same thing recovering alcoholics do - and that is to cut it out. of course you cannot cut out food all together, just as alcoholics cannot cut out all liquid, but i could cut out the trigger foods, which are those with salt or sugar, cooked and/or processed - just about everything but raw fruits and vegetables.

though i do eat nuts and seeds, i know that i will not stop if i try to include anything with salt in it. i have had to include beans and potatoes because of the cold climate, but i am nervous about it because i am on the verge of overeating all over again - merely because they are starchy and cooked.

yes, i have lost some weight, and yes, my health has improved, but i am constantly on the watch for overeating tendencies! i don't know if there is such a thing as 'intuitive eating' in my experiences, but i think that is exactly what 'normal' eaters do all over the world!!!

1:03PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

I am enjoying a peach as I read this article. I love food but hate to cook so I don't eat that healthy. I don't eat processed foods anymore, so my diet it pretty bland. I'm also trying to practice going vegan so that makes it blander but I'm willing to give up meat and dairy so not to contribute to animal abuse. I know of one lady who says she hates to eat, but she is over weight, so apparently he doesn't hat it that much.

10:38PM PDT on Aug 31, 2010

Hi all,

Obviously, I love food too ~ and it provides plenty of pleasure. But loving something and obsessing about it are two different matters entirely. Love is a respectful relationship that often affords a great deal of pleasure. Obsession is an unhealthy relationship, in which we may expect the object of our obsession to fulfill all of our needs.

Thanks, everyone for your comments!

12:41AM PDT on Aug 31, 2010

i love food, too

8:22PM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

I feel sorry for people who view food as simply fuel

11:12AM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

I love food too! I've recently become vegetarian, working on going vegan. I have learned so much about healthy, fresh food and I love it! I've also discovered veggies that I never knew I liked. I can't wait to learn more recipes and try new foods (:

11:03AM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

I love food! Cooking it, reading and learning about it, everything! To me it is a meditation to prepare meals that are healthy for my family. The simpler, the better. Farm fresh is best !!!

10:39AM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

I come from a culture where spicy food and food cooked with many different herbs and spices are the norm. In general, my people are of healthy weight, not obese, yet we like to eat and eat well. Lisa Turner's comment "... my Southern aunts and grandmothers didn't use harissa, pomegranate glaze, or intricate sauces; even garlic was considered exotic. The food spoke for itself..." isn't one-size-fits-all (sorry, bad pun).

9:22AM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

One side I saw with food was my mother's struggle with anorexia and constant fad dieting. In the end, she gained more weight than anticipated, mostly because she messed up her metabolism from dieting and being obseessed about eating as little food as possible. I think a lot of the skewed attitudes about food start at home.

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