What We Eat Versus How We Eat

What You Eat Versus How You EatWe place too much emphasis on what we eat, and not enough on how we eat. How we eat says more about our relationship to food than does what we include (or exclude) from our diets. In a world of dietary rules, this sentiment may be unpopular. Many of us define ourselves by what we eat. For the most part, I think this is foolish (see footnote for exceptions).[1]

A sidebar: When I started Motherfigure, I vowed to avoid food or weight talk. I have already broken that promise here and here. I made this vow because I’m tired of the conversation about our collective culinary sins. I thought I could revolt by ignoring the topic. I quickly realized this omission was naive. Talking about postpartum bodies without discussing food is unrealistic. However, I’m not a food cop. And I’m definitely not a food saint. 

Dietary Contradictions

Many moms spend their entire adult lives jumping from one food trend to the next. Usually these “lifestyle changes” (even obvious diets now rebrand themselves as lifestyle changes) are about what should be excluded from your menu. I’ve read more of the fad books than I’d like to admit. And I’ve spent countless hours reading obesity researchers who dismantle much of the cherry picked science found in these books. I’ve read…too much. This isn’t a humble brag. This is an admission. Even I, who likes to pretend I’m above the diet fray, am buying these damned books.

As a result, my brain is a swirl of dietary contradictions. Whom am I supposed to believe? Whose science is right? Why do they all think some conspiracy is afoot? Why are we all food puritans? And why do people gladly leave their critical thinking skills in the dustbin when adopting the next popular diet (ahem, “lifestyle change”)?

The most obvious truth is humans can thrive on many different food choices. From what I can tell, the science does not villify any macronutrient. Therefore, fear of food is mostly a hunka hunka wasted time.

Does this mean we should eat whatever we want? Sorta, within reason. The what clearly matters, but we have more wiggle room than diet book authors like to admit. Even processed food need not signal the end of our civilization. Sure, our health will benefit from eating fruits, veggies, and other “whole” foods. Most registered dietitians agree we should limit added sugars, trans fat, and overly palatable convenience foods. But worrying about eating the “perfect” foods (a definition that changes depending on who answers) feels less important than paying attention to how we eat those foods.

What Do I Mean by How?

Think about how you eat.[2]

  • Do you consistently over-eat or under-eat?
  • Do you have food triggers?
  • How big are your portion sizes?
  • Do you leave food on the table?
  • Do you take seconds?
  • Do you snack mindlessly?
  • Do you constantly think about food?
  • Do you feel guilty after eating the “wrong” foods?
  • Do you sit down or eat on the go?
  • Do you know if you are full? Do you leave food out between meals? If so, what kind?
  • Do you keep junk food in the house that you magically expect willpower to stop you from eating?
  • Do you cook a separate meal for yourself and watch your family eat a different, “less healthy,” version?
  • Is your identity connected to what you do and don’t eat?
  • Are you always trying a new diet?
  • Do you believe finding the right diet will solve your body image problems?

The answers to these questions aren’t black and white. Nonetheless, they deserve consideration. For example, if you consistently over-eat, ask yourself why. Is it because you binge eat under stress? Or, is it because you simply don’t pay attention to portion sizes?

Conversely, if you under-eat, ask yourself why. Are you trying to reach an ideal weight? Are you separating foods into good versus bad? Are you actually forgetting to eat (foreign to me, but I’m told it happens)? Are you afraid of food?

Figuring out how you eat will have more of an impact on your mental and physical health than arbitrarily giving up food groups. This statement has provoked some arguments. Diet has become oddly polarizing. And this dietary encampment drives me crazy.

Food is supposed to be about bringing people together, about nourishing our bodies and our social interactions, about keeping ourselves from literally dying, but also about enjoying ourselves.

So, let’s chill out. Let’s stop fearing our plates. Let’s eat.

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  1. Many people exclude foods for religious or philosophical reasons (e.g. some vegans and those who eat kosher). That is a completely other topic. Therefore, in this post, I am focusing on people who exclude food groups or limit their diet because of dietary fads, nutrition myths, and bad science.  ↩
  2. Out of the too many books I’ve read on nutrition and diet, I can point to a handful that I actually liked. Mindless Eating is one of them. Wansink is a food psychologist (a real job) and talks about environmental triggers for over-eating.  ↩

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