No More Guilt with Every Bite

At the pottery studio where I take classes, someone recently brought in a box of donuts to celebrate a Hallmark holiday. They were left on the counter with a note that said—Enjoy!

The conversation among women in the lunchroom that followed was depressingly familiar. “Ooooh, they look so good, but I shouldn’t be eating this,” said a woman who cut a chocolate frosted donut into quarters and took one. Another woman chose a whole plain donut, the smallest one she could find and said, “I worked out last night, so it’s OK.”

I’ve seen this behavior again and again—among young women as well as older ones and with thin women and heavier women. Interestingly, I’ve rarely seen men do this. Most of the time they help themselves to a treat. Or they don’t. But men don’t seem to participate in the chorus of guilt, denial, and shame about eating and enjoying anything that has fat, sugar, or salt in it—in other words, anything that is considered a treat.

Many people forego sweets or salty snacks because of concerns about diabetes or heart disease. I respect their need to abstain and recognize that the box of donuts—while meant to be a generous bit of fun—is a trial.

But what I’m referring to is the ingrained habit many women have of not allowing themselves to simply enjoy a treat. First, they must apologize for wanting it, then if they have some, they feel excessively guilty. Or if they take a portion, they feel compelled to justify it: “I had a salad for lunch, so I can have a piece of cheesecake for dessert.”

Why? Because in our culture, it seems like everyone feels they have the right to monitor or criticize a woman’s weight. We learn at an early age that what really matters is being thin and attractive, despite the many positive messages to the contrary.

I’ve made those same apologies and given the same justifications. But seeing how often this conversational pattern occurs makes me sad. And angry. I wish women felt they had the agency to eat whatever is appropriate for our own health and weight without defending or apologizing for our decisions.

I’d love to see a group of women savor a treat without guilty apologies. To refuse to characterize the moment as “pigging out.” To hear them exclaim, “This is so good!” and own their enjoyment.

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Self-Destruction: Food?

Diabetes and heart disease roll through my family history. A past generation stopped farming, but kept eating three squares plus in-between all with a strong coffee. They dropped eating pie at ten and two, but substituted snack foods. Then there were the midnight suppers on card club nights. Three bowls stood on the table in our family room: nuts, pretzels, and chocolate kisses. Somehow I was a skinny kid and stayed that way into my mid-twenties.

One grandfather was tall and thin, one short and wiry. They ate substantial food and drank a fair amount of alcohol. Then there is the picture of my mother’s mother with two of her sisters. They were all in their late forties and belts in the middle of their dark dresses suggested they once had had waists.

Pregnancy brought gestational diabetes my way. For seven months I managed my nutrition with extreme care. The rewards were simple: a healthy baby and no need for insulin. The years since have not been worth noting. I stay physically active. I stay away from excessive eating, alcohol, and eat a relatively balanced diet. But I eat too much, have just recently scaled back carbohydrates and sodium and given up French fries. My doctor wouldn’t call me stout, but said I had muscle structure that meant I’d never be thin again.

Having lost sixty pounds in his forties, my father watched everything he ate to manage diabetes and congestive heart failure. If the scale was up two pounds he reviewed the prior day and made adjustments. That was his daily discipline for decades.

I watched his diligence with admiration and an increasing sense of doom. But I have to admit that as he began hospice and food restrictions were lifted the message was odd: Now that you’re too frail to make it to the dining room, too tired to sit with your family or friends, too confused to enjoy an old favorite meal, eat whatever you want. All those gooey caramel rolls, omelettes, steaks, grapefruits, glasses of orange juice he had given up over the years; all the notebooks he filled with blood sugar levels, calorie counts and sodium amounts; helped prolong his life. Food could have killed him.

The only living member of my birth family, I wish the lessons learned as my brother and parents passed were enough. On a daily basis, treat food as fuel, don’t confuse eating with comfort. Now. It’s a statement about self-worth and the larger hunger for more good years.

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