The False "Free Will": Burying the moral eating hatchet

When it comes to food, many of us wage a constant war against our own free will. We berate ourselves when we fail to make the "right" food choices, feeling as though we have lost the battle against our urges (Chocolate cake, anyone?...) Let’s face it: We have a warped relationship with eating. We need to eat--and we also like to eat, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing a thing! But that needing and that wanting, and the labeling of “good” and “bad”, lie at the heart of the war:

Why do we attach morality to eating?

Last week, we discussed the Health At Every Size philosophy on eating and weight.  HAES advocates for an “intuitive” approach to consumption and dismisses the utility of things like counting calories and weighing oneself in efforts to achieve better health.  It purports that “dieting”--restriction of calories and certain foods--produces stress-induced cortisol, which actually confounds weight loss and may even contribute to weight gain by triggering compensatory eating.  

Those who subscribe to HAES also believe that the cycle of "yo-yo dieting", i.e. repetitively losing and regaining weight, can have a deleterious impact on mental health. When we "fail" at diets, for one reason or another, we can experience feelings of incompetence and shame.  

But why do people experience these emotions? Why do we feel incompetence and shame?

The False "Free Will"

The sense that we cannot do something that we believe we SHOULD do can create feelings of incompetence, while the notion that our behavior is BAD can induce feelings of shame. Our culture teaches us that we have “free will” and holds us accountable for our actions through either socially or institutionally-based rewards and punishments. Therefore, when that free will lets us down, we direct our frustration inward.

We have the expectation that we should be able to control our urges: If we can’t, we’re somehow “animalistic” or “deficient”. After all, our abilities to know right from wrong and to self-regulate are what distinguishes us from other species! However, this struggle to make the “right” choices has existed since the biblical beginning of humanity, when Eve ate an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

When we moralize eating, we, in many ways, revert to this creationist perspective--the foundation upon which modern culture is still built--and ignore the evolutionary process through which humans developed strong survival mechanisms. We are essentially wired to engage in activities that facilitate reproduction, such as hoarding resources, including food, water, clothing, and shelter. Yet we seek them even when we don't need them--and therein lies the rub...

The Hedonic Urge

We seek resources like food and water not only when we need them, e.g., when we’re hungry, but also preemptively, in preparation for need. These are known as hedonic urges: We need food, but we also want food regardless of need. For instance, the sight or smell of food can cause the sensation of hunger even when we’re totally stuffed. Why? Because hedonic eating is driven by the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Maybe we eat because the food is simply there in front of us, or because it looks or smells delicious, or because we like the delicious idea of chocolate cake. In short, we eat when not hungry. 

So, while “intuitive eating” makes sense in theory, how do we eat intuitively in the presence of confusing, and even conflicting, signals about what our bodies need? How do we turn away from "war" with ourselves and toward mindful self-compassion?

How to Bury the Hatchet & Make Peace with Food

Here are five suggestions:

  1. Start with awareness (yes, shocking): Evaluate your inner experience with the pragmatic objectivity of a scientist, gathering information without judgement.  
  2. Tap into your sense of compassion by reminding yourself that we are essentially animals, no matter how much we study, or groom, or use Snapchat filters. The urges we experience exist for a reason: To keep us alive and safe.  
  3. Practiceforgiveness when you engage in a behavior purely for the sake of pleasure! Sex isn’t always for reproduction, food isn’t always for nutrition, and movement doesn’t need to be all about burning calories.   
  4. Re-engineer your environment to (a) reduce exposure to highly-stimulating, less healthy things, and (b) enhance the desirability of beneficial choices. This can include not keeping certain foods/beverages in your home or buying a new outfit to make working out seem more appealing. This might prove the trickiest step: We can only control the environment inside of our own homes, and, sometimes, not even there, depending on who we live with! Which brings us to the last tip…
  5. Engage in activities that foster impulse control. We live in a fast-paced world, which means we can benefit from deliberately slowing down and tuning in to the subtleties of the body’s rhythms. Doing so can help us learn to pause when we feel an urge, decipher whether it’s real or not, and make better decisions in response. Try these three strategies:
    • Include “quiet time”. Just you and your thoughts, and maybe a good book. This especially means turning off the TV, which bombards us with constant, inorganic signals to eat, drink, and feel.   
    • Prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation decreases inhibition, especially around food, and makes it less likely that you’ll want to do things like cook for yourself or exercise.
    • Move more. Exercise, especially varieties that require intense focus and patience, such as weightlifting and yoga, can help train your brain not to be distracted by errant whims.  

The morality of eating runs deep, but you can start to bury the hatchet and make peace--one day at a time and one meal at a time. It takes time to rewire the brain from shame and guilt to awareness and self-compassion, but practicing the steps above can help.

Cheers to empowered, anti-moral eating!