Examining addiction to food
Why connection is the only and true antidote to addiction
50 years ago, when my parents were growing up, their world was radically different than ours is today.
They often lived in big families. Even the people around them often lived in big families. This meant there were a lot of young people their age to play with.
They often lived in a single place their whole lives, which were often in the same place their own parents grew up in. They knew pretty much everyone in the locality and everyone helped out with everyone else.
They had no processed foods - everything came from the farm, not the supermarket. If you were hungry, there was nothing to mindlessly snack on - traditional snacks were made only a few times a year around festivals and given the huge families, they lasted barely a day or two. They did not worry about portion sizes, calories, carbs, and saturated fats.
They had little means of entertainment other than playing outdoors, reading books, or helping around the house. (They did watch the occasional movie in cinema halls, but TVs in homes were still novel and for the rich.) For my mother growing up, learning to sew and embroider was as much a means of entertainment as anything else.
Walking and physical activity were a way of life for them. They walked almost everywhere or took the public transport (which also meant plenty of walking to and from bus stops). My mother tells me she grew up watching her mother grind their own flour using hand mills and grind chutneys using stones. That is some seriously tough work.
Why do I bring this up?
Because I hear too much judgement and too many complaints from a lot of older people about how the food and exercise habits of our generation are all wrong.
Growing up, my parents were always proud that we are “healthy” eaters - we ate vegetarian, and according to my parents we didn’t use too much oil or fats in our cooking, and because we rarely ate outside (about once a year), they were extremely proud that we ate healthy.
I agree that all of this does make one healthy, for the most part (provided everything else was in place).
What my parents also did, was look down upon, talk down upon and shame others who did not fit their criteria of “healthy” eating. This included people who had a diet that was not limited to vegetarianism, used too much oils or fats, or ate outside any more than they did (which, I think, almost everyone did - because come on, who eats outside just once a year?).
They would never say this directly to anyone in the family, but we kids would hear it indirectly - they eat fried foods twice a month, but not us, oh no, we only do that once a quarter. Did you hear, my aunt’s neighbour’s daughter’s mother-in-law uses up 1 liter of oil in just a week? Her family is going to spend so much money paying doctors to help with their heart disease and cholesterol. (She and her family are fine. Meanwhile, I am spending all my money paying a therapist to deal with my body shame and binge eating disorder.)
When my sister and I grew up and moved away, (she after her marriage, and me for work), we each developed our own versions of what regular kitchen life looks like for each of us. The biggest difference for me as compared to my mom or sister was that I didn’t have to be responsible for anyone else’s food. I could cook if I wanted to, could eat outside or order in if I wanted to. I was also not as limited by price - things like eating out/ ordering in become expensive only if it’s for a whole family, it’s affordable enough for a single person.
Not only that - while I was the one cooking, I never really did make fried foods because it’s too much effort, but when eating out/ ordering in, it’s really tempting to eat fried foods and fast/ junk foods (because they taste good) and it needed zero effort from my end. Did my parents’ rules for healthy eating help me? No, not really. Not only did I feel like I was a failure for eating outside, I was actively hiding it from them to avoid their judgement.
To add to it, I was starting to feel angry that my parents didn’t understand me or the stresses and stressors in my life at all - they didn’t graduate from a top college and have the kind of pressure to earn and succeed in life like I did, they didn’t work in start-ups and have to prove themselves by working 14-hour days 7 days a week, they didn’t have the pressure to find their life partners like it was being expected of us, their life looked nothing like mine, they didn’t live in a world so full yet so empty, so lonely. It felt like a reflection of my food - so full of calories, yet so devoid of nutrition. The act of eating had become simply the motion of eating. It was a self-soothing mechanism.
The issues and struggles with mental health and loneliness, of having to deal with being a grown-up, of navigating things like death, loss, moving away, moving on, were alien. In the absence of knowing how to deal with them, many I know have dealt with it by abusing substances - alcohol, drugs, food. The trouble with addiction to food is, food is essential. You can’t swear it away or get into rehab like with other substances.
Yet, at the core of addiction, the antidote is always connection. When you shame a person for their food choices, however, you drive disconnection. You will never be able to connect with a person with whom you are not willing to sit in deep shame and empathy.
Having and building a network of friends and supporters, who understand our struggles, who have been through it themselves, who are willing to let go of who they want to be seen as to show us their true selves by sharing their own struggles, their own stories of shame - that kind of connection is the antidote.
Thank you for being one of those people for me.
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