Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.
Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.
Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.
For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.
And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.
Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.
But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.
I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.
For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.
This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.
For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.
When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.
Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.
While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.