Because what is it, other than the desire to live? All of us must eat to survive, and ultimately, there can be nothing wrong with this. This exposes one of many lies: the desire to eat, even the desire to eat all the foods, is an act of self-love, not self-destruction. The will to not eat, however? What is that?
I know so many thin people who fear food, perceiving it as the enemy, the adversary, the challenge to be conquered and overcome – because if the food wins, they’ll be fat. And I know so many fat people who perceive food as the enemy too, as the temptress that is to blame for their misery and plight.
But I’ve read it. And I’m not convinced. Food does not kill us. Food keeps us alive. There’s a reason we crave calorific foods – it’s a biological imperative, and it can only be outsmarted or dominated for so long.
The turning point for me – a couple of years ago – I realised the only foods I didn’t feel some kind of guilt about eating were vegetables and nuts. And when I realised that was it, I could no longer escape the reality – my problem was not with food, it was with guilt and shame.
I decided that what I wanted was comprised of two points:
1. I wanted to be able to eat anything I wanted, without shame, and
2. I wanted what I craved to also be what was good for me
It didn’t occur to me, at first, that I might already be craving what was good for me – because I was still blinded by preconception, and I certainly did not trust my appetite. Like food, I thought of it as an adversary. But this desire for freedom led me to a whole bunch of investigation. Why was I craving the foods I was craving? My testosterone was down, and I’d been eating low-fat and low-calorie for years without realising it, and what brought my testosterone up again was eating massive amounts of butter and cream. I had thought that shit would kill me. But it made me healthier.
People talk about nutritional deficiencies, unresolved emotional issues, and a rebellious temperament as being to blame for certain cravings – as if it’s these things that explain why you might desire a food, forbidden or not – but few really talk about the obvious – we crave food because we need food in order to live.
And so, I also realised that if I was going to be healthy – if I was going to be able to get enough food in to support my training – let alone my capacity to live – I was going to have to eat foods that someone else says are going to kill me. And so, the next realisation: there’s no way around it – only I can be the one who decides what I do and do not eat.
There is no program.
The truth is that calories aren’t your enemy. They’re your friend. If you fight them, it’s only going to do you harm, because they are what keep you safe in this world, and the other secret truth: you need to eat more than you’ve been told. We are not actually overeating. I don’t think I know anyone who actually qualifies as one who habitually overeats, but I know dozens of people who think they eat too much. What is this based on? Assumptions that if they have fat, they are too fat, if they hunger, they must be somehow corrupt, weak or immoral, and a basic misunderstanding of the laws of thermodynamics, that it seems is near-universal.
To be clear: you crave high-calorie food, because this kind of food is the most efficient thing you can possibly eat to keep you alive. This is anything but a bad thing.
Think about how much effort is required – even today, in an affluent society – to ensure reliable access to good quality meals. People talk about drugs and food and reward pathways in the brain – if those pathways weren’t there, if food didn’t make you feel good, if it wasn’t worth the effort, if cravings didn’t exist – especially in a time or place where food was not so easy to access – nobody would have sought out food. We all would have died of hunger (or laziness) a long time ago.
Because the truth is – it’s not lazy to eat. Even these days it requires effort – maybe more so, in a certain context, because there is so much set up to try to stop us from eating.
There’s no such thing as empty calories. Calories themselves keep you alive. That’s the truth. All calories do this.
Hasn’t happened in a few years, but this image used to come to me, occasionally in a flash, of me as a boy, eating with joyful abandon, both hands, some sort of snacky, indulgent ‘bad’ food – but I never knew exactly what – and this joy, this sensual indulgence, this image of myself, eating with abandon, free from any kind of self-judgement – it would fill me with a deep feeling of shame. Self consciousness. It would make my vulnerabilities feel exposed, somehow. As if I knew the secret truth that I was... I don’t know what – powerless? Naive? Scared? Inadequate? Simply human, and not super-iron-willed-bullet-proof?
The last couple of years since I started working through this stuff, this image doesn’t come to me anymore. Looking back, it seems a strange thing, and I can’t quite remember exactly how it would go. Now I think of that image, and I feel compassion and fondness. But I don’t feel that sense of shame anymore, surrounding food, or the sensual enjoyment thereof. Not even remotely.
Because the lie is that food and appetite relates directly to willpower, to virtue, and that if you can discipline yourself when it comes to food, you can achieve anything. As if food is something that you should apply discipline to? No. Not even remotely. If you’re going to discipline yourself to something, make it worthwhile, but you can bet your ass that what you think you need is not true, and your body knows better. There are reasons for cravings, and cravings are your body’s way – your secret internal life that doesn’t always reveal itself to you – they’re your body’s way of taking care of yourself when you, yourself fail to do so.
I have come to see dieting as simply this: the glorified failure to feed yourself properly. It is dressed up and applauded these days as if it’s an achievement, as if it’s a sign of self-control, of righteousness.
We fear sex, too, and intimacy, and all the pleasures of the body. That’s not so surprising, given the history of a culture that developed hand-in-hand with thousands of years of religion and propaganda – not that I’ve got a problem with religion per se – but the guilt. Seriously? Pleasure is not the enemy – it’s not a moral position. It plays a role, biologically, it is not only natural, but necessary, and I simply don’t understand any more – why the shaming? It helps nobody, it serves no good purpose that I can think of. There are always better ways to learn about yourself – to learn about your vulnerabilities, desires, strengths and weaknesses – than through shaming.
Shaming does not encourage exploration or discovery. It does not enable, it only represses – which is, of course, the truth of why it is applied. If you were thinking for yourself, discovering and investigating, why would you submit to the humiliation?
In a culture where the threat or promise of sex (depending on your perspective) is so real, so constant, no wonder our standardised images for beauty have become androgynous, sexless. No wonder the aesthetic that is revered is one of discipline and control, in this pseudo post-apocalyptic world. We don’t trust freedom anymore, we don’t trust our desires, and we feel ashamed of indulgence.
You see all these articles these days – “hey, look chocolate doesn’t make you fat” – but then they always have this little chastisement – trying to be cute – just make sure you don’t eat too much! Winkface! Because – calories! OM Fucking G! Be afraid! We secretly know you’re all weak, indulgent beasts.
But there’s no need to be ashamed of your appetite, your desires, because your appetite and desires are not the reason you feel ashamed of your body. And messing with them, with what you eat, and how you train – that’s not going to cure your shame. If you want to cure your shame, work on the shame. The way to eat guilt-free chocolate is to eat chocolate and not the guilt. Eat more, unashamedly. Especially if you’re exercising, because your body needs it, and food is not the problem.
Also, I read this cool thing earlier. Men get eating disorders too. I am one of them, trying to write about it, and find a way forward.