How to Build a Relationship with Food From Scratch
I remember the first time I weighed the food I would eat for dinner. In my early twenties, I thought weighing grams of grilled chicken and bell peppers was excessive. Despite advice I read online, measuring out an actual tablespoon of almond butter to spread onto a rice cake sounded ridiculous, and I was afraid to let something so arbitrary—“serving size”—rule every component of each meal.
It’s hard to remember that mindset now. I pull out my kitchen scale for every single meal I eat in a day—which is five, one every three hours, every day. The concept of “eye-balling it” applies more to baking than it does to foods I actually eat.
Confident people have always been an anomaly to me. I stare at them on the street, study their smiles on Instagram, and watch in awe as they speak. How they became that way, to me, is an impenetrable mystery. For most of my life, I believed my own confidence would grow as my thighs shrunk and my belly flattened. And if not confidence, at least some sort of peace—an easy state of inertia where I could walk through the world without the fear of others’ eyes on me.
As a lifelong picky eater, the concept of eating healthy meant eating less. So, I did. If I was hungry, I was doing it right. Still, I gained weight. Eventually, I decided to try something different: I would just force the vegetables down. I purchased a meal plan online that, like many before it, promised to help me establish a healthy relationship with food. With absolutely no confidence it would work, I trotted into the grocery store and put items in my cart I’d never purchased in my life: cauliflower, zucchini, oatmeal, blueberries, broccoli.
Seven pounds disappeared in one week. My disbelief and utter joy led to a 12-week-long momentum that dropped me down a total of almost 40 pounds. I loved looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself, and I absorbed every single “You look great!” and “Oh my gosh!” as confirmation that I had done what I’d set out to do.
A year later, my revelation about eating more but eating better transformed into a skyrocketing caution around the foods I’d gotten to know. I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep the weight off. So, naturally, I constantly recounted what I’d learned during my “weight-loss journey.” I thought about macros at every meal and wrote them down. I weighed myself and my food each day. I journaled my weekly progress or lack thereof. I avoided social gatherings for fear of commentary on my salad choices, and I started recognizing myself in the mirror again; the self-criticism was back in full force.
Although a few years have passed since I lost the weight, I think about this time in my life every day. And it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that someone accurately described what my mind went through as my body changed. Whitney Catalano, a Registered Dietician Nutritionist and body image coach based in Los Angeles, recently sat down with The Tylt on a sunny Friday afternoon. Framed by hanging plants and our producer Ashley’s two dogs, Catalano decried the idea of losing weight in order to be healthy—a blasphemous claim for some, a freeing concept to others.
According to Catalano, the term “diet” is defined as “the pursuit of weight loss.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a lifestyle or a fad. If a person’s goal is to lose weight by eating a certain way, they are on a diet. When pursuing weight loss, Catalano says instead of becoming healthy mentally and physically, people tend to become obsessed with control. The first bell of many started ringing in my mind.
Rather than feel strong at the gym or empowered after following an instinct to eat a certain food, dieters tend to feel shame—embarrassment put into overdrive that they cannot control their cravings. As a result, control over surroundings, food and workout practices tend to keep those feelings of inadequacy and shame in check, but in their place anxiety mounts, which only contributes to weight gain.
“I don’t think people realize how much brain space food is taking up in their lives and how much time they spend thinking about food and their bodies,” Catalano told me. “That’s a really hard part of this process. Dieting and controlling food becomes your identity.” As she spoke, I felt a familiar guilt rise in my stomach.
The Tylt reflects questions back to its audience that are already floating around in everyday conversation. Some are serious and some are silly, but all give readers a chance to voice their opinion, have it count and see where the rest of the audience falls when considering the same question. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that diet, nutrition and exercise questions abound.
Between August 2018 and May 2019, nearly 57 percent of voters agreed going vegan is a better diet for fitness than going Keto. Between October 2018 and March 2019, 54 percent of voters agreed intermittent fasting is not a real diet. In the summer of 2019, 53 percent of Tylters said they loved marathons as a form of exercise. And in the spring of 2018, 52 percent agreed they were done with diets altogether. What’s clear from these debates and so many others is that voters care about the food they put into their bodies and how they go about doing so. But according to Catalano, caring about a habit and changing a habit require two entirely different mindsets.
“What I’ve found is that people just have so many voices in their heads, so many things they’ve read, so much information, that they can’t even hear themselves.” In Catalano’s experience, people are at a loss with how to interact with food because they’ve absorbed insight from so many different places. After taking in the advice of not only every expert on the internet, but also every friend, parent or coworker, building an individualized relationship with food sounds completely foreign, if not impossible, to many.
Food is a tricky thing. It is fuel and excess, culture and control, celebration and sadness. Our lives are as intertwined with the foods we eat as they are with one another. As one colleague at The Tylt often says, “The history of the world is the history of food.” We are what we eat; yet, so many love what they eat only to hate themselves immediately after the last bite. The result is a toxic culture of doubt, fear and diets. Catalano believes in a straightforward but revolutionary solution: giving up the idea of losing weight.
When she first voiced this during our conversation, I mentally rolled my eyes. Yeah, okay, I thought. You can tell me to let go of my desire to lose weight, but you can’t make the decades of medical advice focusing on nutrients, vitamins, and yes, weight loss, disappear. Catalano believes weight-neutral nutrition and intuitive eating are the solution.
As Jennifer Duran, a Registered Dietician Nutritionist based in Seattle, confirmed in a separate conversation, intuitive eating has been around for decades as a 10-step process for those battling eating disorders. Duran, who has a clinical background working in long term rehab facilities, inpatient treatment centers and more, says she is excited to see intuitive eating make its way into the public view. “I think it’s actually really helpful for the population at large,” she shared.
Intuitive eating does away with the idea that some foods are always “good” and others are always “bad.” Such restrictions, according to both Duran and Catalano, do not lead to positive health outcomes, and they also contribute to the cycle of guilt and control that dominates many people’s relationship with food.
Duran used rice as a simple example. “You might think rice is bad because you’ve heard people gain weight from rice or it affects blood sugar,” she explained. For some, this concept translates to a habit of avoiding rice altogether. But Duran cautions clients; if rice is an important part of someone’s culture or simply something they enjoy eating, labeling it as “bad” then “creates more rigidity. It creates more shame…it creates an unnecessary black and white thinking around food that isn’t really helpful,” Duran concluded.
While listening to both Duran and Catalano, I can see their point of view. I believe them. But I still weighed out exactly 30 grams of rice for my dinner last night.
In doing so, Catalano’s perspective rings true: A relationship with food is just like a relationship with any other person in your life. You have ups and downs, but no matter what, you seek balance and happiness from the relationship itself. Why, then, is the relationship we share with food so difficult to maintain?
Catalano says it all comes down to control—not necessarily the inability for so many of us to give up control over food, but rather our disbelief that fully giving up control is even possible. “If you are trying to control food all the time, you’re not actually trusting yourself, trusting your body, trusting the food,” Catalano says. She often reminds clients that when they lack trust in themselves and in food, their body reacts—it is not an impartial observer. “Your body also can’t trust you because you’ve probably been on diets, you’ve probably restricted…but all your body wants is to be fed, that’s it.” As a result, Catalano works with her clients to reestablish things like hunger cues, which should serve as a dialogue between the body and the mind—a physical notice that it is time to eat—but too often become a sign that you’ve done something “right” or “wrong.”
When it comes down to it, Catalano argues eating intuitively and pursuing weight loss cannot coexist for very long. Catalano is a strong advocate for “weight-neutral” nutrition, in which people are encouraged to eat for their health and eat for their beliefs, but not to drop the number on the scale. “At a certain point…you’re going to have to make a choice. Do I go with what my body wants right now? Or do I cut calories, and stay in a calorie deficit, to try to lose weight?”
Duran works within a similar framework. “My approach with working with people is meeting them exactly where they are,” Duran said. Regardless of belief system, past weight fluctuation, or even socioeconomic status, Duran believes achieving health is possible. “The standpoint of health at every size moves away from the concept of weight or [body mass index] as a determinant of your health outcomes.” To me, a world in which weight does not matter sounds like a fantasy, but Duran doubled down: “We’re not going to look at your weight…we’re really just going to focus on how you move each day, how you manage stress each day, and what types of food keep you feeling really good.”
Both Duran and Catalano are aware that while controlling food becomes a critical issue for some, others deal with the opposite problem: a lack of control over the foods available to them. Catalano argues socioeconomic status and marginalization are the strongest links to poor health outcomes. It’s no secret that heavily processed and fast food is also extremely cheap and widely accessible. Furthermore, when it comes to marginalization, Catalano points out the obvious: being under chronic stress is horrible for one’s health.
Catalano’s frustration was clear as she sat up in her chair, “It’s just so much more complicated than ‘there’s sugar in all the food.’” According to Catalano, chronic stress and food insecurity contribute to poor health outcomes far more than the public’s supposed addiction to sugar.
Duran often works with clients in low-income groups and maintains her approach of meeting others where they are. Finding and maintaining a healthy relationship with food is still possible, Duran says, and she encourages clients to focus on the basics: fresh fruits and vegetables—or canned or frozen—and staples like rice and beans. “And what works for them,” Duran added. “Where do they shop, where do they live, and what do they enjoy eating?”
It seems for both Duran and Catalano, the same basic question is at the root of every client relationship: no matter what someone comes to the table with, how do they want to live their life from that point on? Although I’d imagine everyone might answer the question differently, behind the years of defenses or hardship is one answer: “being comfortable in my body.”
Relationships are not transactional. Despite what I told myself my entire life, you can’t exchange a certain amount of weight for confidence. Weight loss became a sort of game for me a long time ago. It’s not a fun one, but it’s one I feel a mandate to win. I have to outsmart the system that is my body in order to gain muscle, lose fat, and build confidence. After speaking with Catalano and Duran, I found myself wondering exactly what kind of game I’ve been playing this whole time, if not a losing battle.
Catalano’s words stood out early on in our Valentine’s Day conversation—a day I’d already predetermined as a “loss” so I’d feel less guilty eating. “There’s such an intense obsession with health,” she said, “you start to wonder if any of it is actually healthy.” I almost laughed on camera.
Winning this game has nothing to do with the way my body looks, and it has everything to do with deciding not to play.
I’m still working on it.
CREATURES OF CULTURE