As I sit in the drive-thru waiting for my vanilla shake, it occurs to me that I have a first-world relationship with food. What I’m eagerly anticipating to consume isn’t about feeding my body. In a physical sense, I don’t need a luscious, creamy, cold, smooth, delicious vanilla shake.
But I sure do want one.
In my life, food past long ago beyond the role of necessity, and into the realm of luxury and accessory.
While I may eat because I’m hungry, I don’t do so with a mindfulness about nourishing my body. Quite often my aim is convenience. I go to fast food because it’s quicker and easier than preparing something myself. I buy prepared foods because it’s faster and easier to open a box and add water than it is to do all the peeling and chopping required when you cook from scratch.
But I don’t only eat because I’m hungry. I eat because I’m happy. I eat because I’m sad. I eat because I’m bored or because the food is just super appealing. For example, I already know cake tastes good, so you wouldn’t think I’d feel the need to try it every time I see it. But I do.
Sometimes I eat as part of an experience. Even though I watch countless movies at home without it, I can’t go to the movies without buying my hot buttered popcorn. That salty, buttery, crunchy treat is part of the joy and fun of going to the movies. In my family, food is a central part of every event. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, religious and secular holidays – there’s gonna be a spread laid out no matter what the occasion. And there are different foods associated with different events; it wouldn’t be Easter at my house if there weren’t a ham. And mashed potatoes and broccoli casserole and rolls and green beans…
Food has become a part of my emotional landscape.
But the real purpose of food is to nourish the body. The idea of food as actual nourishment conjures pretty pictures in my head: amber waves of grain swaying gently in the breeze, green shoots rising up from rich brown earth. I envision fruits and vegetables and seeds and grains, ripe and full and colorful, bursting with the vitamins and minerals and proteins I need. Tree branches laden with apples or cherries or lemons or peaches. Deep green lacy leaves of kale. Juicy, red, ripe, plump tomatoes. Ah, how the earth provides what I need to live and grow and be strengthened. I twirl in a circle in a field of wheat, my frothy summer dress floating around me, and when I pluck a golden stalk, the sun glints off the grains as they flow between my fingers. In slow motion.
In my head it’s a beautiful thing. In reality it’s a lot of hard work. So I pick up some dinner at the drive-thru or I throw a can of something on the stove. Maybe I toss a frozen dinner in the microwave. It’s easy, quick, convenient.
But the thing is, there’s no food in my food. We have taken what the earth naturally produces and turned it into something different. We’ve genetically modified it, sprayed it down and injected chemicals into it. Prepared foods are scientifically engineered to please and addict us. Chemicals are added to make them crunchier or sweeter or saltier or smoother. More chemicals make them last longer. Still more chemicals are added to mask the taste of all the other “additives”. We’re not even tasting what we think we’re tasting.
It’s like having a real strawberry and a child’s plastic strawberry on a plate; we have been conditioned to desire the plastic fruit. It smells better, it tastes better, it has a better texture. It fits perfectly in our mouth, and when we bite down there is just the right amount of juice, just the right amount of pith. We think it’s the superior fruit, because it was designed to make us think so.
I’ve come to understand that the foods I want to eat are very nearly not food at all.
But still I want them.
As I take another drag of vanilla deliciousness, I joke to myself that I might as well apply it directly to my thighs. But the truth is that doing so would be just as effective, because the benefits of this milk shake are purely cosmetic. It tastes good. I enjoy consuming it. It gives me a sugar rush. It makes me happy. It satisfies an emotional craving and gives me comfort after a tough day. But the value is all on the surface, and the positive effects are temporary.
Still, while my shake doesn’t serve food’s primary purpose, the purpose it serves is compelling.
I’ve been working on my eating habits for over a year now. That seems like a long time, but it’s really tough to turn away from the delicious, easy, delicious and just really tasty foods that I crave. And that’s before you add in boredom and event eating and food “therapy”.
I am only just now coming to a point of real change, but even so, it’s still not about wanting healthier foods.
I want to be healthy. And I want to want apples and broccoli and salmon and kale and blueberries and tomatoes and quinoa. But I don’t yet have a natural desire for those healthier foods. What I desire is McDonald’s and doughnuts and ice cream and Cheetos and Chinese take-out and Mexican sit-in and easy and fast.
I realize it’s not all my fault. I realize that billions upon billions of dollars have been spent by the food industry to find the magic formulas that will keep me coming back for more. Just the right fat, just the right salt, just the right sugar. The right crunch. The right size. The right smell. They know how to blend the flavors so I don’t get tired of it too soon. And they know exactly where that taste should hit on my tongue so it’ll disappear quickly and I’ll keep chasing the flavor rush.
But I am the one with my hand in the chip bag. I still want those chips, but it’s my responsibility to take control of my wants. It’s my responsibility to change my patterns of thought and behavior.
At this point, my changed mindset is not about what I want, but what I don’t want.
I don’t want to consume chemicals masquerading as food. I don’t want to be fooled by labels that purposefully mislead consumers into thinking a food is healthy, when even a cursory glance at the ingredients clearly shows that it’s not. I want my Hamburger Helper and SpaghettiO’s (with meatballs), but I don’t want all the junk they’re made of.
Change is hard for me, and life-long habits do not get altered overnight. Still, I honestly didn’t think this would be a multiple year project. But I haven’t given up, and I’ll accept that as the win it is.
I may still be at the beginning stages of this food attitude adjustment, but at least I’m making some progress. I’ve understood what I was putting into my body since the beginning of last year, but I was so ingrained in my eating habits that I resisted change: “It hasn’t killed me yet, so one more fast food won’t either.”
But now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m saying, “My body deserves better.”
And it really does. So I’ll keep working on it, and be glad that at least I’m thinking about what I don’t want to ingest anymore. And each positive choice will build on the new eating habits I’m forming. Eventually I’ll start actually craving fresh fruits and vegetables and all that healthy stuff.
Maybe someday I’ll even look forward to and enjoy the time and effort it takes to cook from scratch.
But one step at a time, right?
Items of Interest:
Here’s an interesting article about the science of processed food, engineered cravings, & the fat/salt/sugar magic formula: Food Cravings Engineered by Industry