Do you want to change your life to be happier? Before you make sweeping changes, take a look at the little, everyday parts of your life. Big things like career, house, family etc, really do matter, but so do the small things that make up your day. Improving your happiness with something that occurs several times a day is just as important as fixing the big issues.
One such thing is eating, because it happens many times every day. If you improve how you experience eating, you can get really great “value for effort” in terms of quality of life.
It should be so easy: In our modern world where availability and selection is better than ever, eating should just be about nutrition and satisfaction. But it is not just that. Our relationship with food is fraught with guilt, anxiety and worry. If you yourself haven’t experienced this, someone close to you has.
The Pew Research Center (December 1, 2016) found that a majority of Americans think they should eat healthier and consider US eating habits to be less healthy than earlier.
A significant portion of us are unhappy about our bodies (Fiske et al., Eating Behaviors, 15, 2014, 357-365), and many Americans, while spending billions of dollars on diets and weight loss products, are embarrassed about dieting.
We eat many times a day and think about eating even more often. When we worry about our eating habits, it causes unhappiness by a thousand cuts, because we are constantly caught in negative emotions and thoughts.
Mostly, we suffer alone, because an uneasy relationship with food is a source of shame. The perception seems to be that cool people don’t struggle with food. They eat what they want and still maintain a healthy weight. The rest of us just haven’t succeeded in finding the right diet. And we hold that against ourselves.
We are all part of the problem. The way we talk about diet and eating makes food into a test of our personal character. We identify ourselves by our food preferences and we talk about sinful eating. We judge ourselves and each other by how (un)healthy we eat.
We think about food a lot, and we hate ourselves for that. We try to restrain ourselves, we give in to temptations, and we feel guilty afterwards. It can dominate our days, especially when we have ‘sinned’: Even if everything else in your life is near perfect, you can still be miserable if you struggle with food, because you have to deal with it every time you have a meal, every time someone around you eats, everytime you are confronted with the opportunity to buy food or with an image of food. In other words, every few seconds.
My quarrel with this modern view of food is that it ignores basic facts about human nature and causes unnecessary suffering. We misplace the blame, when we view it as a personal failure to have a troubled relationship with food. The game is rigged against us.
The modern world simply does not work very well with our biology and our basic instincts. We often perceive the way we live today as a natural and logical result of human evolution, thus believing that we should be able to make a modern life work. But our societies have developed not out of biological evolution (at least not of late), but out of cultural and technological changes.
This doesn’t fit our biology anymore. Our brains and bodies are designed for a completely different food environment. We are built to preserve energy, to eat when food is there and to be focused on our next meal. In a world where food is never more than 30 feet away, this is a problem.
Our eating used to be regulated from the outside by the scarcity of food. Now, we rely on an internal regulation that hasn’t been upgraded to the current situation. Combine that with a life full of stress and not enough exercise or sleep, all of which decreases our ability for self regulation. It is a wonder that we don’t have even bigger problems with eating.
You’ve probably heard all this before, but we need to acknowledge it on a fundamental level. Otherwise, we will continue to judge ourselves for just being human. Despite this age of technology and updates (perhaps human 2.0 is underway?), we cannot change the facts of our biology, and we should factor them in when we judge ourselves.
Perhaps if we stop blaming the individual, we can start working towards societies that allow for a better balance with human biology. But for now, we struggle with food.
We find our own ways to try to manage the dissonance between the external environment and the internal impulses. It is not an easy job, and I wish we gave ourselves more credit for working so hard at it – and left more leeway for finding idiosyncratic solutions.
If Shame Worked, Obesity Wouldn’t Exist
“But without the shame holding me back, I’ll be out of control and blow up to hippopotamus size”, my clients say when we talk about this. The old idea of guilt, shame and punishment being the thin line between us and a life of sloth and gluttony is alive and well in us. Only it isn’t true, quite the opposite.
When we feel shame and regret, we are less able to balance our eating and more prone to turn to consolation, often in the form of food, after which we feel guilty. And so the vicious cycle continues.
A study from University of Pennsylvania showed that the more people had internalized negative views of obesity, the more likely they were to have problems linked to obesity.
Shame was not making them live a more healthy life, in fact, it was increasing their health risks significantly (Pearl et al., Obesity, 2017; 25 (2): 317). If shame worked, we wouldn’t have the obesity levels we do.
Shame has been tried, are you ready for trying something else? Instead of blaming yourself for not meeting the unrealistic expectation of an easy relationship with food, give yourself permission to struggle with it and find your own way. Eat your meals without that side of shame.
This is not a short cut to weight loss. My book on mindful eating says that eating mindfully instead of dieting can make you happier and reach a balanced relationship with food. When it came out, many people asked more questions about how letting go of diets could make them lose weight, not about how it could make them happier. The paradigm of the virtue of weight loss is strong.
This is not about getting thinner. It is about getting happier. Which would you rather be? Which do you choose?
Kamilla Lange is a clinical psychologist, a mindfulness instructor, and an external lecturer for US college students. She is also the author of a book on mindful eating called Vind Kampen mod Vægten. She is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.