This article was originally published on Medium.
Healthy might be worse than you think
When I go to work, I get to talk to people all day about food — No TV food channels for me. I’m tuned in from the moment I get to my office.
These last weeks have been interesting. Girl scout cookies have arrived. Do you know how many women told me they ate (guiltily) a sleeve of cookies? (maybe men galloped through those cookies too but for now I’m talking about women — women who hate their bodies and who hate that they ate those cookies).
“This isn’t normal, right?” one patient demanded. She had been eating healthfully for weeks on end — but then, the damn cookies- the whole box in fact. “When will I be able to eat like a regular person? What’s wrong with me? Normal people don’t eat like that.”
Or do they?
The question of what is normal abounds. Almost all discussion about binge eating has to do with what isn’t normal. In recent years, the DSMV added Binge Eating Disorder to its roster of disorders. It is defined by eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time, feeling badly about the eating, feeling out of control. By definition “a large amount” means “larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances”. The question obviously is what do most people eat?
But maybe the most important diagnostic cue is not what is eaten, but how often. If you binge once a week or more for 3 months or so, you’re likely in trouble. But it’s the repetition, not the binge, that defines trouble.That’s interesting, no? Because it implies that maybe we all binge from time to time- and who doesn’t feel badly about themselves when they eat like that? It always implies a lack of control, uneasy feelings.
There is no question that everyone eats from time to time to quell emotions, to sooth one’s self, or just to blow out of the controlling demands of work, home or relationships. People get drunk (18.3 percent of us report binge drinking-Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation ), have affairs (that’s around 60%! Buss and Shackelford), lose their anger (12% of us have very serious anger problems, British Association Anger Management) or throw teddy bears at their kids (self report from many of my friends and patients!) yes, it’s quite amazing what people can do when they are frustrated, angry, despairing.
So in the scheme of things, can a sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies (followed by a pint of ice cream…or more) be normal?
Unhealthy is when food is turned to as a main way of coping with feelings or anxiety, when your life revolves around what you are going to eat or when one day of eating defines what is eaten the next day — again and again.
But perhaps the most defining criteria for unhealthy eating is what one thinks. My patients are tormented by the ongoing, relentless drone of noise about food in their heads. This is a very different experience than that of someone who binges, feels badly, but then gets reinvolved in life so that food plays a very peripheral backdrop role the very next day.
I’m concerned that being healthy in our culture has morphed into being perfect. And perfection morphs into robotic. Soon enough AI creatures will be ruling the world. I want to make sure that we all continue to take a stance about being human. Perfection is not the goal of being human.
As Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human”. How about in order to stay human, we have to “err”?
I’m all for days off, broken rules, and moments of impulse and sway. The critical part is that one moment doesn’t define the next (i.e., “blowing it” doesn’t mean it’s time to give up and keep eating- or to starve) and that one moment of bingeing doesn’t interrupt life (a Sunday night binge doesn’t mean work is skipped the next morning). If a binge is just one kaleidoscopic note is an every varied array of ways of being and feeling — then I’m all for the moments of disarray.
Eat, drink and be merry. And don’t let a book tell you how to do it. We’re still just learning what it means to be normal.