How To Have A Healthy Relationship With Food
We spoke to Eve Simmons, co-founder of the body and food positive site, who told us about her personal journey to having a good relationship with food, and what we can do to create a positive mindset on what we put in our mouths…
Tell us a little bit about Not Plant Based…
It’s a website that was originally designed for the troubled eater, so people who have experienced anxiety throughout their life or have developed some more recent fears around food. There’s so much nonsense out there; information is so readily available but also very unreliable, so it’s difficult to know what to trust. As journalists, we found this increasingly frustrating because we’re trained to make sure the information is right, so checking things with experts was important to us. Coupled with our own experience of eating disorders, we knew how harmful misinformation can be. We felt like there was nothing out there that was finding the facts and asking whether there are any legitimate reasons to be worried about eating this or that. Would eating a sweet potato brownie rather than one with sugar and flour really make it healthier? Is there any reason to be anxious about one that doesn’t have sweet potato in it? So, we enlisted expert dieticians, academics and professors and started producing content that was myth-busting.
You mentioned that both yourself and Laura have suffered with eating disorders in the past. What was your personal journey?
I always had a healthy relationship with food, always ate well, never worried about anything. Then I got to 22, and there was a lot going on in my life. I lost a sense of my identity. It was a time of real instability. Around then, I got my first job working in the fashion section of a newspaper. I was looking at pictures of very emaciated models almost all day. I got so swept up in the glamour of the job. I noticed that my editor, who I adored, wouldn’t eat very much and over time I started to mirror her behaviour. In the industry, everyone was unhealthily skinny, and it became very normalised to me. I didn’t necessarily want to look like that, but I wanted to fit in. I started following all these healthy eating blogs. I stopped eating big meals for dinner, it made me anxious.
I couldn’t stop thinking about food, I was obsessed with getting my calories down. About eight months later, I’d lost about 15% of my body weight. I went to the doctors because I was having spotting when I wasn’t on my period, and all the doctors said there was nothing wrong with me – only one doctor I saw was concerned. He asked me to take my top off because I had back pain and he actually winced when I did. I knew I was underweight, but it hadn’t registered because no one said it out loud. Afterwards, I called my best friend and she said, “We all know, you’ve lost a huge amount of weight and it’s not OK.” That’s the point when I realised I needed help. It took about four months before I got my first appointment at an eating disorder clinic. I tried hard to put weight on by myself, but by that time it was so ingrained in me, I couldn’t do it. By the time I got into treatment I was admitted to hospital and I stayed there for six weeks.
What motivated you to get better?
My first motivation was getting out of hospital. I was lucky because my mother was ruthless, she made sure I was at the top of everyone’s lists – knowing my mum, there wasn’t any way that I wasn’t going to get out of it ok.
What do you think having a ‘bad relationship with food’ actually means?
Thinking about food too much. Thinking about it when you should be thinking about other things that’ll enrich your life. Just spending too much time intellectualising food choices rather than enjoying the sheer pleasure of acting on a whim and choosing a food just because you like it.
What do you think are the triggers for people who have an unhealthy relationship with food?
I think Instagram is a huge one. It makes you feel terrible about yourself. Not necessarily the images that are related to body image or food, just images that are related to everyday life. Eating issues are never really about food – they’re about not feeling great with yourself, and Instagram is rife for that.
Also, the obsession society seems to have with telling people that they’re making the wrong choices is a real problem. It emphasises that we’re all in competition with each other, whether its work or your body or the food you eat. You end up immersing yourself in this culture where it’s like a currency to have the best body and eat the best type of food. Instagram is reinforcing that, and high street food brands who think by introducing lunches that are only 250 calories are reinforcing that. Because its feeding into this rhetoric that we all need to eat less and better, whatever that means. We do have a problem with obesity, but its far more nuanced than that. Its steeped in generational culture and is also situational. There’s a lot of evidence that points to it being down to economic factors, cultural issues, location, and not having access to healthy, affordable food, or the time and resources to be able to cook them. All that doesn’t help those with a troubled relationship with food.
A lot of people think that eating a healthy diet means they can’t ever eat junk food. How do you get the right balance?
Literally just take out any rule you’ve ever learnt about eating, because it’s all bullshit. Most of it has been pushed and advertised by people who have a vested financial interest in making you feel bad about your body. So, I would say first, I find it quite useful to get angry and educate myself about how we’ve come to be in this weird situation with food – read books and find out the history behind it, because things don’t just exist in a vacuum. And it’s useful to discuss food neutrality, which basically says all foods are equal. Start trying to see every food that way – there are no good or bad foods, and you have to trust your body. Your body is extremely clever at knowing what it does and doesn’t want. Even without all these external cues, people generally do tend to eat a balanced diet. It’s about not putting pressure on yourself and knowing that adverts don’t tend to have your best interests at heart.
Are there any books you recommend for combating food-related issues?
Start by reading Fat Is A Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, and then The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh, Anthony Warner has a new book called The Truth About Fat. Online, The Conversation tend to cover health stories and unpick the truth behind them – the Science Media Centre are good at that too. You could also read a really great book called Eat It Anyway by Laura Dennison and Eve Simmons…
How do you think people can start making a change to having a healthy relationship with food, and how can you maintain that state-of-mind long-term?
Eat it – it literally is that simple. Just eat it anyway. All the studies on people, from those who have had a severe eating disorder to those who are a bit anxious about food, show that the single most effective thing to do is, like exposure therapy, to eat the thing that you’re scared of and sit with the uncomfortableness. The first food I ate in hospital was a mac and cheese and it was terrifying. I had huge anxiety, but I had to eat it. But after I had three mouthfuls, it was like a switch went off in my head. It’s almost like you can feel your brain changing, and that kind of is what happens – the neurological pathways that build up over time, which are a result of you avoiding something, reinforce your wariness about it. But once you eat it, those pathways change slightly, and you’re like, “This isn’t that scary, and now I’ve eaten it and I’m not obese or dead”. It just grants you this freedom. So, I would encourage people try the thing they’re worried about and see how it feels.
What’s your three quickfire tips to keeping a healthy relationship with food?
I’d never say steer clear of Instagram because I know that’s unrealistic. But I would say, be curious about Instagram. Ask questions. Be naturally sceptical of every post. Don’t stay on one post for too long.
Have other things that stimulate you. Learn something new, whether that’s a language or an instrument. Have something else that gives you a sense of meaning and pleasure. Learning is such an important tool. If you keep learning you’re always understanding life isn’t just about you. For me its feminism and politics, for other people it’ll be something else.
Eat it anyway.
And I’m going to give a fourth: Surround yourself with people who like food and don’t care if they don’t have a flat stomach. That’s so important. Surround yourself with people whose desire to have a happy life and a healthy appetite is greater than their desire to be thin. If this doesn’t apply to your friends, then see them on fewer occasions. It’s not something I think should be negotiated, because the people we surround ourselves with give us a sense of who we are. You want to be with people who you feel 100% safe with and don’t feel judged with. Have a nice good cull and don’t feel bad about it, because at the end of the day, you are the most important thing.
To find out more, visit NotPlantBased.com
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