mind your own plate and bod, please.

Today I wanted to take a little break from the fun of writing about cake and faraway places to talk about something that I have been thinking a lot about: how I let my interactions with other people affect the way that I feel about myself. With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts about how people talk to one another about the food they eat and the way they look.

 1.     Commenting on other people’s plates.  

 Please don’t comment on what I am, or am not, eating. 

Think about the last time you were at a dinner, or at a party. Did anyone comment on how much food you were eating, or not eating? Did they push you to eat more, or suggest you eat less? I hope not, but I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if they did.

In our culture and society, we are constantly policing one another’s eating habits, whether it be commenting on calorie content or portion size of someone’s chosen foods, or overall “healthiness” or “unhealthiness” of someone’s diet. When we make comments about what other people are eating, we position ourselves as being an authority on their health, wellness and lives. But do we ever have the right to be in that position?

In my own work in the health promotion field, I recognize that there are a wide range of interconnected factors that influence what people eat. These include individual factors (like personal knowledge, skills, and beliefs), social factors (like family norms), and physical and macro-level environments (like distance from stores, food marketing, and government policies). The point is that you never know why someone is eating what they are eating unless you are that person (okay, or maybe that person’s parent if they happen to be really young!). 

With respect to eating disorders, this is a particularly sensitive and tricky subject. When a loved one is afflicted with any form of eating disorder, it must feel extremely hard, frustrating, and scary for their family and friends. To my knowledge, there is no “right” way to comment on what someone is eating. However, there is definitely a wrong way. Questions and comments about how much or what a person is eating can not only very embarrassing, but also extremely triggering. 

My advice? Talk about literally anything else during meal time.

2.     Commenting on other people’s bodies. 

Please don’t make comments about my body shape, size, or appearance. 

My body – like many women’s – has changed a lot over my lifetime. This is to be expected as we age and develop. When I think back, I was actually quite happy with my body in my younger years. I ate what I wanted, moved as I pleased, and was generally content with how I looked and felt. However, I can distinctly remember many body-specific comments made to me in my teens that made me look in the mirror and question if my body was acceptable. As an adult woman, I wish I could say that others’ comments about my body have stopped, but they have only become more frequent.

Unfortunately, I highly doubt that I am alone here. In our society and culture, it has become quite normal to make comments like the classic “you look great, have you lost weight?” We are hardwired to view weight loss as an inherently good and admirable endeavour, and we regularly comment on how other’s bodies look. The problem is that unless you are that person, you have no idea how they truly feel about their body. Someone that looks “too thin” to you might agree, but be having a tough time putting on weight. They might even have a serious illness that is beyond their control. Alternatively, someone who looks “too big” in your opinion might be the healthiest and most confident they’ve ever been. You just don’t know, and quite frankly it’s none of your business anyway.

I recently became aware of how easily comments about other people’s bodies slip out of my own mouth, whether it be complimenting someone that I perceive as having lost weight, or a man that has appeared to gain muscle. No matter how well-intentioned, it is never anyone’s place to comment on other people’s bodies. Commenting on body shape and size can be quite upsetting and damaging to others self-esteem and wellness. For example, when someone like me hears “you look skinny,” I hear “you look good, keep losing weight to look better.” On the other hand, when I hear “you look healthy,” I hear “you look so much bigger, start losing weight to look better.” 

My friend Mel is a dietitian with an incredibly healthy and admirable approach to this subject. She recently explained that she makes it a point to never comment on other people’s bodies. Ever. Even in her practice, when people look to her for a pat on the back for losing weight (“see, I lost 5 pounds!”), she will shift to a topic that is not related to the person’s physical appearance (such as how they feel and how much energy they have). Mel’s approach is a revelation to me, and it has made me reflect on how I, and others, should complement others on features that have nothing to do with their body. 

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday; a day when many friends and family get together to share in a meal and be with one another. At my family dinner, I know I will avoid commenting on anyone’s body or how much – or how little – they put on their plates. I hope you will consider doing the same. 

eating disorders.

Eating disorders: What do they have to do with baking? Or travelling?

Well, by focusing on my journey through baking and travelling, I imagine that a lot of content on this blog will be food-centered. With that in mind (and because it happens to be National Eating Disorder Awareness week!), I wanted to be honest about something: I have an eating disorder.

By the end of 2019, I expect to have a doctorate degree in nutrition. Although I am not a dietitian or a nutritionist, I still feel like this is a ridiculous juxtaposition. And it doesn’t end there. Despite being well-educated on nutrition, I create my own food rules and categories. I believe that a healthy diet includes things that nourish you not only physically, but also culturally, socially, and emotionally; and yet, I focus only on calories. I am fortunate in that I am not living in poverty and have access to an abundance of food, but still I choose to restrict. I am committed to promoting health and nutrition in my career, but I have not been kind to my own body.

Although my eating disorder has evolved and changed over the past decade, the fact is that I have not had a normal eating pattern for about ten years. In my mind, I have never looked sick or emaciated – like a person that you would see if you googled “anorexic” - but regardless of what I see, the fact is that I have been functioning well below a healthy weight and body fat percentage for nearly half my life. Living with restricted food and high activity levels became routine and normal, and for a very long time I convinced myself that I was healthy and happy (I wasn't).

A combination of factors has brought me to the place that I am now: committed to getting healthy. A while ago, I was told that I was unlikely to get pregnant or have a healthy baby at my (then) weight. Although my husband and I are not certain if and when children will be a part of our future, the thought of that option being taken away from us was heart-wrenching. In addition, when my husband got unexpectedly sick last year and lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, it really made me think: “what if that were you?” I had at least enough awareness to admit that even an aggressive bout of the flu could have killed me.

Along with those fears, I became acutely aware of how physically and psychologically unhealthy I had become, and how everything negative in my life could be traced back to my eating disorder. My hair was falling out and thinning; I was cold all of the time; and I lost the energy or desire to exercise. For about two years, I had also experienced persistent discomfort and swelling in my abdomen (which I now know is symptomatic of malnutrition and protein deficiency). In addition to the physical symptoms, I had developed anxiety; was becoming irritable and moody; and found myself dreading social situations. I couldn’t focus on tasks; lacked motivation; and had chronic insomnia (regularly functioning on less than 2 hours of sleep for days).

By nature a highly motivated person, I have managed to function despite these symptoms by pushing myself to go to see friends and continuing to complete tasks at work and school. However, I know that I have not been excelling in these areas as much as I could be if I weren’t sick. It is a lot easier to write a paper when you aren’t thinking about how you should be working out instead. It is also a lot more enjoyable to have a meal with a friend when you aren’t stressing about how many calories are on the plate in front of you.

(You may have noticed that I keep switching tenses. I can’t decide which to use, because unfortunately much of what I have said is still true.)

A couple of months ago, I remember walking past a café and seeing two girls around my age eating some cake. As I kept walking, tears burned my eyes because I was envious of these women. To me, it appeared that they were simply enjoying one another’s company along with what I consider to be one of life’s greatest pleasures: dessert. I couldn’t remember the last time that I did that without first thinking about how many minutes (OK, hours) I would have to spend doing cardio and/or rationalizing how much food I could eat for the rest of the day to “make up” for the cake. An eating disorder is destructive and all-consuming; it eats away your thoughts, your relationships, and your body (which quite literally starts to consume itself).

When in Rome

When in Rome

So, why am I even bothering to write this and put it out into the world? In part because I feel like it is important to be honest in a world that is now dominated by social media highlight-reels. Until now, I have told only a handful of people that I love about my problem and although I don’t owe anyone an explanation, I have still felt like a fraud at times. Did I really eat that triple-scooped gelato cone in Italy that I posted on Instagram? Yes. But know that I also did so after careful consideration and factoring in the 20,000+ steps I took that day that “compensated” for it.

I also hope that this admission might resonate with somebody else who has been suffering in silence. Despite the recent surge in body positivity movements, the fact remains that Western cultures continue to focus on a singular body type (thin!) and the problem has only intensified with the simultaneous emergence of so-called “influencers” and their #bodygoals, #fitspo, and #cleaneating posts. The struggle for many women is real, and accepting and addressing an eating disorder takes a ton of work and support.

Finally, putting this in writing makes me feel more accountable to getting better and establishing a healthy routine. I hope that this blog will become a platform on which I can challenge myself; a way to reflect on my relationship with food and a much more productive way to spend my free time than scrolling through social media.

If you made it to the end, thank you for reading. I promise it will get lighter from here (except there will be butter. Lots of butter.).