Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Food is not medicine

One part of the U.S. National Eating Disorder that has always baffled me is the tendency to eat foods we don't like, or that upset our stomachs, just because we believe that these foods are healthy. I personally believe that a varied diet is a generally good idea, not just for health reasons, but for enjoyment of life, but why does that diet have to include things that actually taste bad to us? Things that make our digestive systems complain?

I suppose part of it is rooted in the mealtime conflicts, where children are threatened and cajoled into eating vegetables. Since these children were forced to eat things they actively disliked, they grew up thinking that a little culinary misery is necessary for a healthy diet. After all, if it isn't necessary, then that means mom or grandma didn't have a very good reason for doing what they did, aside from pure sadism, right? Or just not knowing any better, and it's difficult to view your mom that way.

I would wonder, how many people reading this (tell me, I do want to know!) were ordered to "fill your plate!" then ordered to eat the entire plateful practically at gunpoint? I was lucky enough that my mother rightly recognized this as a seed of later food- and eating-related mental issues, so she did not demand that we eat a particular quantity of food, nor insist that we eat particular items of food.* My grandmother, however, did and still does henpeck everyone at a family dinner if they have not piled high and subsequently eaten every bite, and she has never been respectful of my vegetarianism. Since I didn't get this treatment at home, I found it intrusive and offensive, and recognized that I was extremely lucky.

I was especially fortunate in that, because vegetables were not treated as a nasty medicine that must be eaten at all costs, I never viewed them that way. That, coupled with my parents' decent culinary skills, allowed me to enjoy vegetables, from Brussels sprouts to winter squash. I guess I was also a lucky child in that broccoli and Brussels sprouts did not taste bad or bitter to me; many children are sensitive to bitter flavors, making it more cruel when they are forced to eat vegetables that really do taste awful to them. Sadly, many parents do not know or care about this tendency, so by the time a child's taste buds have changed to tolerate broccoli and cabbage, they've been so traumatized by these items that they won't try them in adulthood.

Even so, many adults these days are conditioned to not just believe that it's required to eat food that tastes bad, but they feel guilty for enjoying foods that don't. Food isn't nourishment, it's medicine. You eat tomatoes for their lycopenes. Wine is consumed not for enjoyment, but because it contains reservatrol. Don't you dare enjoy that cup of tea, you're drinking it to get your antioxidants! Same thing for chocolate! And your birthday cake? You need to leave out the flour, butter, eggs, milk, and sugar--even if you aren't diabetic or suffering from celiac disease, because, well, because. Give me a break.

Can we stop this stupidity? If you don't like the way a food tastes, don't eat it. It's okay to have foods that might affect someone else badly--their medical conditions do not have anything to do with you. I'm allergic to peanuts, but millions of people eat them every day without a problem. So eat your peanuts if you can. I also can't eat bell peppers (although I will spare you the description of why), but you go right ahead and enjoy them. Meanwhile, I'll be having a slice of cake while taunting my friend A., who has celiac disease :)

Eat what you like. Don't eat what you don't. Stop using food as medication. Please?

* Please note that later eating issues were absolutely NOT related to food or weight. Seriously.


JoGeek said...

Well said! A healthy relationship to food should be a relationship to foods we like. I believe that our bodies generally crave what we need, nutrient wise, so if I don't crave a raw tomato (blech) then I'm probably getting those nutrients elsewhere through food I DO enjoy. Like that same tomato cooked in red wine and oregano. I do think kids should be encouraged to try something new (one bite) or something they haven't tried in a while (as taste buds really do change!) but I agree with you that forcing them to eat quantities of stuff they really don't like is just setting them up for an unhealthy relationship with food.

KateHarding said...

Sadly, many parents do not know or care about this tendency, so by the time a child's taste buds have changed to tolerate broccoli and cabbage, they've been so traumatized by these items that they won't try them in adulthood.

All other food issues aside, my parents (read: my mom) did a decent job with this one. The rule was, I had to try everything once a year. (No one really wrote this stuff down in a calendar. It was just, "Have you tried X this year? No? Have a bite, then.") So some vegetables I hated as a little kid -- broccoli, asparagus, zucchini -- I actually did find out I liked later on. After 12 or 13 years, though, they finally gave up on raw tomatoes, which I still hate.

But oh, there were other rules. I always had to eat "good stuff" before "bad stuff," up to and including having to finish my hamburger before being allowed to touch my french fries at McDonald's. (Anyone else think that's a little arbitrary?) So, to this day, when I get any sort of sandwich and fries combo, I eat the whole sandwich before I start on the fries. I never even realized this was at all unusual until Al commented on the weird, ritualistic nature of it.

One related thing I've written about is the idea that vegetables somehow only count if they're basically unadulterated. I might have discovered I liked broccoli a lot earlier if it had been smothered in cheese, or cooked carrots if they'd been served with plenty of butter. Considering kids A) are more sensitive to bitter food and B) need more dietary fat than adults, it makes perfect sense to start kids out on veggies that way -- but so many people really seem to believe that if there's fat on it, the nutritional value goes out the window. No, the low caloric value goes out the window, but the veggies are still under there, and as a bonus, they might actually taste good to a kid. Why is that so hard to understand?

Julia said...

My boyfriend has Crohn's Disease, which for him means he can't digest fibre. I can't tell you how many people are utterly flabbergasted when he explains that he can't eat vegetables. Really, he can't, unless he wants to spend hours in pain and in the bathroom ... and NOT get any nutritional value out of the vegetables, obviously!
What's healthy for him is meat, dairy and starch. He does, in fact, meet nutritional requirements. I'm amazed at it myself, but it's true!

Sarah said...

Heh, Kate, we had the same rule at McDonald's.

I think a lot of people think that they don't like Brussels sprouts because they are, so often, overcooked which makes them very bitter.

nukkingphutz said...

Well, I had a very... um... unorthodox childhood, so my relationship with food is a little schizo. From birth - 18 months, I lived with my parents, from 18 months - 5 years old, I lived with my grandparents; from 5 - 8, I lived with my parents; and from 8 on I lived with my grandmother (grandparents had gotten divorced 2 years previous). My father (whose will was law) and my grandmother had totally different attitudes toward food and eating. With my father, it was "you're not moving until you finish everything on that plate!" (I remember several times when I would fall asleep at the table because I simply could NOT finish it all.) With my grandmother, it was "okay, fine, but if you don't eat THAT, you're not getting anything else." (When I was younger; when I got to my teens, dinner was a mutual affair, so grandmother didn't have to set any 'rules'.)

But my kids? I got lucky - I somehow managed to get the weird kids that actually LIKE vegetables! And if they see something they've never had before? "Oooh, Mom! Can we try THAT?!" Yeah, they actually get EXCITED when they see a vegetable they've never had before.

Obviously, with 4 kids, I have one that likes something all the others don't (e.g. my 5 year old likes peas but none of my other kids do); or I have the ONE kid that doesn't like something when the entire rest of the family does (my 7 year old hates potatoes, no matter how I cook them), or some variation on the theme. But when they've got such a healthy attitude towards vegetables and food in general? I can handle not putting something on one of the kids' plates if they truly don't like it.

Andee said...

The main rule about eating when I was growing up was, I had to at least try what was served once. If I hated it I didn't have to eat it, but I at least had to try it. And I wasn't allowed to "make a peanut butter sandwich" or have any other substitution -- "we're not running a restaurant." Fortunately for them, there were plenty of vegetables I liked, so they eventually lit on those and served them all the time. I can't imagine the hell of having to feed a kid who didn't like any veggies at all.

And yeah, KH, the fact that I was introduced to spinach in the Green Giant creamed variety really did go a long way in getting me to like it. Yay for fat!

But I swear, this post reminded me of something in Townes Van Zandt's biography -- I don't have it on hand so I don't remember the exact quote, but it was from when he was 8 years old and his teacher told the class that eventually the sun would burn out, just like any other star. TVS asked her something like, "Then why do we have to bother to be good and eat vegetables and comb our hair, if the sun's going to burn out one day?" He never got an answer. Maybe that at least partially explained why he was so twisted.

Andee (Meowser)

Tari said...

I've always been a really picky eater, and my dad (the thrifty [read: poor] Nebraska farmboy) always insisted that "if you put it on your plate, you've got to eat it" pretty much I learned really young to only take a little of whatever I wasn't sure I liked to begin with. Easier to go back for seconds if I wanted them, than to spend the evening staring at my plate because I refuse to finish.

Hekateris said...

I'm not a vegetarian, but I love vegetables! There are very few veggies I don't like (although Lima beans are still one of them), but maybe that's because I was poor as a child and the 'option' of turning down food just wasn't there?

I don't recall ever being told I had to finish my plate, but outside of home I do remember feeling pressured to do so.

In the past few years I've been trying to put enough food on my plate, but not too much. I want to put the amount that I'll eat and be satisfied/full (instead of stuffed) with - and that's a struggle, especially when I'm not currently living at home and cooking my own food.

Lindley said...

My parents were of the "you'll eat what we cook, no matter whether you like it or not" philosophy, which led to many many evenings of sitting in front of my plate for (literally) hours until I finally gave in and ate the whatever-it-was, usually something tomato-y. By that time, of course, it was stone cold and even more unappetizing.

@kateharding: I love the "once a year" thing. I do that myself as an adult, because my tastes are slowly changing. I used to absolutely hate onions: I've discovered over the past few years that I can now tolerate Vidalia onions just fine.

carrie said...

My parents were strongly encouraging that I eat my veggies- in that they cajoled, etc, and used the famous line of "if you don't finish that now, you don't get dessert later" though my mom never followed that.

For me, with my relationship to food, the best part of my growing up was being exposed to a wide variety of foods. We didn't have 'kid dinners'. My brother and I ate what my parents ate. The only times I had mac and cheese were when everyone had mac and cheese. And now, I'm more adventuresome with my food. I like most things.

I am, however, exquisitely sensitive to bitter things, and I cannot get myself to eat broccoli, cauliflower or Brussel's sprouts. I will try them from time to time, but I haven't yet changed my mind.

RioIriri said...

Carrie, if you don't like them, there's no reason to eat them. They are even to be avoided by people with thyroid conditions (like me), although I do eat them from time to time, in small, thoroughly but not excessively cooked amounts because I like them.

It's so strange how broccoli and its relatives have this healthy mystique about them, where people think that you absolutely must eat them to stay alive.

Anonymous said...

kate harding: i love you. if only we were both gay.


yeah, i grew up also in the depression-era-raised, 'you'll eat it because food costs money, dammit!' camp, and that wasn't much fun. some nights, i'd sit at the table 'til it was cold and dark, refusing to eat [whatever] for very good reasons, usually.

but it was served because it was nutritious! how could i object.

i'll tell you: because whatever it was, like liver grown in feedlots, tasted like ASS. kids are smarter than we ever give them credit for.

garden-fresh tomatoes are AWESOME. grocery-store tomatoes SUCK ASS. i think it is fine to make the distinction between the two.

and effing *everything* is better with butter and salt, you can bank on that. hallelujiah.

Dreaming again said...

I grew up with my mother soaking every vegetable in butter and salt. Now, we had a 1/2 acre garden, so we had every vegetable you can think of ...soaked in that butter and salt.

I grew up, and my eating disoder refused to allow me to put butter, especially, but salt as well on anything ...
and I discovered that vegetables actually had their own unique flavors!

They did not taste like butter and salt!

My children love veggies!

They are horrified when someone ruins them by putting butter or cheese on their precious veggies.