Actually, You Are NOT What You Eat…

Most of us have heard the adage “You are what you eat” since we were young. But this is a completely BS statement in countless ways, and I hope to cover at least a few of them in today’s blog post.

Let’s start with the most obvious: you are a human. Humans eat apples. You are not an apple. You are not chicken. You are not pizza. ‘Nuff said.

But of course, the literal sense of the statement isn’t what folks are going for when they use it. What they mean to say is that the quality of the food we eat translates into our quality of life. But this isn’t even necessarily true, either. Here’s why:

First of all, there’s so much more to health than food. Proverbs 17:1 says it perfectly – “Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting, with strife.” In other words, our environments are just as important as the quality of the food we eat. “Healthy food” eaten in an unhealthy environment, whether contaminated by actual dirt/germs, or by negative attitudes, a toxic work culture, abusive relationships, or whatever else, can’t undo the damage of our surroundings. Taken a level deeper, obsessing over healthy food to the point that it creates psycho-emotional or spiritual harm negates any physical benefit that organic spinach might offer above and beyond conventional romaine. Emotional stress is just as influential over physical well-being as nutrition. A person can suffer a period of starvation and completely recover, but the effects of emotional stress endure long after the stressor is removed. What’s more is that many of the leading causes of death worldwide are actually unrelated to nutrition: cancer, infectious disease, accidents, drug overdose, just to name a few. “Eating healthy” doesn’t keep you healthy, especially if the process of doing so creates disease and disorder in and of itself.

And that brings me to yet another reason I loathe the namesake phrase of this post: it suggests that food is our identity. It plants the seed for the belief that what or how we eat defines who we are. Words like “good” and “bad” for food carry with them moralistic language that we far too easily come to internalize for ourselves – “Good” if we eat one food, “bad” if we eat another. But we aren’t — in either case.

In my teenage years, I fell victim to all the unintended consequences of this popular phrase. As an athlete, I saw eating as a means for fueling competition, and I was intentional about the quality of my food so as to maximize the quality of my performance. A teammate of mine was both a vegetarian and a better runner, which I interpreted as “Being a vegetarian will make me a better runner.”

“You are what you eat,” right?

But after becoming a vegetarian, I didn’t stop there. I also saw better runners who were thinner than me, so “thin” became my new means-to-the-end of improving my speed and endurance. But everywhere I looked, there was always someone thinner than me, running just a few steps ahead. (Funny thing, rates of eating disorders are highest among athletes.)

If “you are what you eat” was the end of the discussion, then I resolved to eat myself into being thinner and faster — or rather, not eat. But I never got thin enough to satisfy my eating disorder, and ironically never improved my speed, either. The fastest 5k I ever completed was when I was 15 years old. Clearly something went wrong with my math in the whole food/performance/identity equation.

The math is wrong in a lot of places actually, because binge eating jars of peanut butter didn’t make me any faster than my anorexic lack thereof; and that’s because the whole phrase is complete and utter hog wash.

Is nutrition important? Yes, absolutely. Should we be mindful of the quality of what we eat? Yes, absolutely! But is the Paleo vs vegan debate a matter of life and death? Only when we give it more power than it deserves, letting it define our identities, overtake our lives, and lay fertile ground for eating disorders which are among the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

I’m sharing all this as part of NEDA week, a seven day campaign designed to spread awareness of eating disorders. The theme this year is “Come as you are,” so I’m sharing my story as another piece of who I am. I’m a wife, sister, and friend. I’m a writer, soon to be author; a student, soon to be doctor. And I’m an eating disorder survivor, too. I’m a lot of things, but I’m so much more than what I eat.

So are you.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness) is February 24 – March 1, 2020. We’re changing the conversation around food, body image, and eating disorders! Join the movement and #ComeAsYouAre, not as you think you should be.


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