Language matters. Belief matters. Thoughts matter. How we speak to each other matters. How we speak to ourselves, matters. All of it. If you’re reading this, these ideas probably aren’t news to you, so I want to take this to a concrete example and then, zoom out to consider its effects.
There are many things that unite the human experience, but one that is absolutely universal — eating. We all need to take in nourishment (nearly all of us — daily) to sustain our existence. While there are examples of the human body being able to sustain itself without food for three weeks, I can’t think of anyone who would recommend doing so with any kind of regularity. Some folks will eat three times a day, some folks will eat five times a day, and some will eat more or less.
Depending upon your upbringing, where you grew up (geographically), and the kinds of events that were influencing the time (or had an influence on your lineage), you may have a particular relationship to food and eating. Some may have been trained to eat everything on their plate, so as not to ‘waste’ the food (ignoring any kinds of signals from your body). Some may haven’t been able to eat as much as they wanted because there wasn’t enough food to go around. Some may have had an abundance of food and never had to worry about either of those things.
Let’s focus on the scenario where people were trained to eat all the food on their plate. There are very good reasons as to why someone may have had this message communicated to them — (i.e. growing up in the Great Depression, there wasn’t a lot of food to go around, so if you had food, you ate it). This same way of thinking would have been passed down to the next generation and when they became parents, they would have said the same thing to their kids (even if they were living in conditions that would have seemed “rich” compared to the situation in which they grew up in when they were kids).
One step forward from this is being “full.” Have you ever been asked by someone whether you’re “full?” Have you really thought about what that means and how you’re answering? “Have you eaten so much food that you could not eat a single bite more or else you’d burst at the seams?” Is your “cup” (i.e. body) filled to the brim, such that any additional drop of water would case it to overflow? Do you really want to feel “full” after you eat? [NOTE: I’m abundantly aware that there are people out there who don’t get enough to eat and are perpetually hungry and if you happen to be one of those people reading this post, then please forgive what may seem like insensitivity. While there is obviously a problem on the one hand where people don’t get enough to eat, there is also a problem on the other hand, where people eat too much — and that’s what I’m trying to address here.]
Right, so, “are you full?” What an awful question to ask someone. A question where the norm being held up as positive is, “being full.” As a parent, I’m forced to confront commonplace words and phrases on a daily basis. Do I want my kids to develop an aggressive language for when they’ve completed a task or accomplished a goal (i.e. Yeah, I “killed” that test). Why would I want them to bring “kill” into their daily lexicon? Such a violent word. Such a misplaced word (in this context).
When it comes to eating, the question that I hone in on, “are you all done eating?” And if it’s the last ‘meal time’ of the day, “are you all done eating for today?” This has the added benefit of trying to make sure that they’re not going to emerge from their bedroom 10 minutes after you’ve put them to bed and ask for more food. Anyways, yes — “are you all done eating.” It might seem simple in that it’s still a binary question, but the inherent norm is expunged. No longer am I priming for one to feel like they’ve eaten “so” much food. Instead, the person can rely on their internal bodily signals to indicate to them whether they’re done eating “for now.”
I did say I wanted to “zoom out,” so here goes — worldwide obesity has tripled (!) since 1975. More people live in countries where people die as a result of being overweight than underweight. (Wait, what?!) Yeah, that’s right. About 40% of adults (18 and up) — globally — are overweight. Forty percent. FORTY PERCENT! How can we possibly be eating so much. [NOTE: I recognize that there’s a solid argument to be made here about what we’re eating vis-a-vis super-sizing our diets with sugar and corn, but let’s park that for now.]
Diet is absolutely important, but maybe even more important is our relationship to food. Are we eating to “get full” or are we eating to nourish ourselves? Are we eating until we’re done eating, until our body gives us those signals that tell us it’s time to stop eating, or are we trying to clean our plates and ensure nothing goes to waste?