Throughout history, ancient tribes practiced cannibalism with the intent of bolstering their own courage or energy by consuming their defeated enemies. They wanted to be what they ate: full of courage and vigor. They would even eat their enemies to vanquish their energetic spirits before they ascended to the afterlife.
Christian Communion also practices the consumption of the figurative blood and body of Christ. It serves as a remembrance of His sacrifice for us and transubstantiation says that as we consume the wine and bread, we are receiving Christ and His divinity.
Historical and religious references use “You are what you eat” in the positive and aspirational. When consuming that which we want to become or ascribe to, we take on traits and aspirations, and build us up to be stronger. But that brings me to the modern-day use of the phrase, typically attached to a photo comparing a pudgy body filled with images of pizza and processed baked goods galore versus the slim body with a rainbow of colorful veggies. “You are what you eat” has become judgemental as hell.
The challenge right now is that the phrase is actually being used in the derogatory, “Well, you know, you are what you eat,” as one looks at a person with a body that is not accepted. The person saying it may be right. There may be an overconsumption of unhealthy foods. There may be an imbalance in the nutrients needed for actually fueling the body, and instead, the body has gone into a continual fat-storage mode.
There is always at least 10 percent truth on both sides of a discussion.
But here’s the problem: “You are what you eat” does not help the person who is looking to satisfy hunger at the moment, nor does it show them a “healthier way” to eat. It does not help them when they just want to tell the speaker of the adage to go pound sand.
What does it do? It shames them for eating, and perpetuates a spiral where food (and people) are identified as being good or bad. That helps no one.
We are not defined by what we eat. We cannot look at a person and wholly guess what they regularly consume. That’s reductionist thinking at work. Even identifying my diet (vegetarian) – what does that really mean about me?
I am not a bag of double-cheesy popcorn (the last thing that I ate). Nor am I unhealthy for having just eaten it. I am not morally superior by any stretch of the imagination by my love of veggies. The food I eat fuels me; it does not define me.
The same thing goes for my patients and clients who struggle with their weight. They are not defined by what they eat. In fact, one of the first steps of helping individuals change habits is to separate out identity from actions. If one sees their actions as being a part of their identity, they do not see the ability to disentangle the two. They do not see the option or ability to change. And that is where they are wrong.
We all have the ability to change. We all have the option to look at our current actions and ask, “Is this helping or hurting me?” And then we get to make a decision of how we want to proceed.
My double-cheesy popcorn bag: I could have looked at it as hurting me, but I chose to think that at the time, it was helping me. Because it was what I wanted to enjoy. It had nothing to do with who I was as a person. It was nothing more than a bag of popcorn, and nothing less than perfection at the time.
We have an opportunity as physicians, coaches, parents, teachers, and family members to check the “virtuous” way that we talk about food. The rightness or wrongness of a food is defined by the person eating it, who has complete control over changing what they eat over time.
My food is not a moral value, and it does not define me. It fuels me. Food is fuel. While certain foods can be a more effective fuel for physical, mental, and emotional performance, so can certain words. Shaming and guilt-tripping our family members, patients, and selves do not create a positive “intervention” for change. It creates an unfortunate cycle where we retract, hide, and do not see change as being possible.
We can do better. I propose that we look at what each choice in food does for us: How does it make my body feel? How am I able to sleep and move and focus when I eat this food? How am I giving my body what it needs right now and what will keep it strong over time? And, how is this food the perfect one that my body needs right now? Eating the food that fuels aspirations and performance is much better to produce positive change than fueling shame, guilt, and misery. As we practice doing better, we will find ways to help ourselves and our communities create the habit of positive change. Because you are not defined by what you eat.
Wendy Schofer is a pediatrician. Erin Schofer is an undergraduate student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com