I remember once, when I had an eating disorder, a new colleague (who didn’t know I had an eating disorder) asked me if a wanted a cupcake.
“No thanks, I’ve already eaten,” was my response.
“Tabitha.” she said, “Nobody eats a cupcake because they are hungry, or because they need nutritional substance. If I thought you were hungry I would have offered to take you out to lunch. We eat cupcakes, just because they are cupcakes. We eat cupcakes for joy. And I’m asking you to share some joy with me.”
When I had an eating disorder, it would not be true to say that food was reduced to nothing but numbers. I literally fantasized about food, and it was so much more than that. Food was everything, and everything I did was for food.
On the other hand, the hand I ate with, I was totally eating by numbers. If I ate, it was calculated. Unless, of course, I was binging, when it was very un-calculated. My food intake was both meticulously controlled, and wildly out of control.
The problem was, I viewed the binge side of me as the unfavorable side. That was the “wrong” part of me. That was the reckless part of me. My binges were the reason I had to restrict. That was the undesirable way to eat. Now I know this is utter bollocks, and the binge side of me was my body trying to save my scrawny arse. My body had the knowledge and the wisdom. My body knew what needed to be done.
But like I said, I didn’t know that then. Back then, I thought that eating in a calculated manner was the correct way to eat. And I was so bloody frustrated at my body for wanting to binge all the time and basically completely disobey my neatly laid out consumption plans.
I had been on a nutrition course which had (apparently) qualified me to counsel other people on the “correct” way to eat. I was taught to teach them how to count calories, and how to calculate macronutrients. I was taught to teach them how to fuck up their relationship with food, and learning how to do that further fucked up mine.
After many years of eating by numbers (or trying to) I had developed the belief that I had to eat in a very specific, intentional way. I had to know how much protein, fat, and carbohydrates I was getting each meal. Meals were not about enjoyment, only calories and macronutrients. I believed this was the right way to eat, and I had nutritional science to back me up. Oh, my eating disorder just loved science. The more unemotional, the more clinical, I could believe food to be the better. Eating by numbers made me feel safer.
Apart from when it all went to shit every night when I binged.
I was utterly miserable when I was counting calories and macronutrients. Loneliness went hand in hand with my eating disorder. Sure, I could go out for a meal with friends if I starved myself all day. No problem. But when I got there I was so preoccupied with thoughts of food and trying to work out if the people I was with had eaten more or less than I had that I struggled to connect fully with the conversation and would leave at the end of the evening feeling … lonely.
Lonely, confused, and frustrated. Frustrated because I had worked out and restricted all day so that I could go out for a meal with friends, only to come away from that meal feeling socially unsatisfied and as if I had just spent the entire evening alone. It felt like a waste of effort.
Now, recovered, it is clear to me that back when I had an eating disorder I didn’t connect with people when food was involved because my brain was frying. And there were plenty of times I didn’t take friends up on the opportunity to eat with them. In order for me to go out and eat with a friend, I needed a lot of notice. I needed to have worked out extra that day. I needed to have eaten less. I had a list of conditions as long as my arm that had to be met before I could agree to eat out. Most of the time, due to this overwhelming list of conditions, I would say no. I would say no for a quiet life. I would say no because I didn’t want to deal with the anxiety that changing my food intake for a day would bring. It was always easier to say no, so most of the time that is what I said.
No big deal, right? Who says we have to eat with other people to be happy and healthy?
Humans evolved bonding over food.
I say, because it is my experience, that sharing food with other people is a faster track to connection than most other ways of socialization.
If you think about the role of food and sharing meals in human history, it is easy to see that mealtimes are important. Banquets, actually (which now would probably be classed as group binge sessions) used to be the way that business was done. Historically, especially before freezers existed and food was much harder graft to come by than it is now, inviting someone to your table to share food was … a big deal.
Literally, a big deal. That is how big deals were made. Kings and Queens sat together. Marriages were arranged. Land was bargained. Wars were started. Vendettas were settled. Bread was broken. And if you are Jesus, water was turned into wine.
The last supper was a supper for a reason. It wasn’t “the last meeting under the tree,” because that doesn’t evoke the same feeling of gravitas. Of importance. Supper indicates sharing, secrets, visions, romance, skillful conversation, heated discussion, arguments, unveiling, and that tingling anticipation of something magical about to unfold.
Sharing meals with other humans is a pathway to trust (or not) because both sides show vulnerability when they sit down and eat a meal together. The host is sharing resources. The guest is trusting that the host won’t poison them. Regardless of the circumstance, when people sit down to eat together, vulnerability is being shared, but so is the potential of a mutually beneficial future relationship.
Humans evolved sharing food. Humans evolved bonding over food. Food is a social tool.
When I had anorexia I used to frequently whine “why does everything have to revolve around food?” Birthdays, Christmas, holidays, family gatherings. Almost everything important involved a meal, and that used to royally piss me off when I had an eating disorder because the presence of food felt like a threat to me.
Nowadays, I can answer that question. The reason everything revolves around food, is because sharing meals is social glue for humans.
The biggest tragedy that happens when we reduce eating to calories and macronutrients is that we remove everything else. Eating by numbers takes away the important social, emotional, and psychological functions that food has for humans. And just because you don’t want food to be social and emotional and psychological doesn’t mean it isn’t. You can reduce food to numbers. You can try and ignore these other functions. But when you are wondering why you feel disconnected and unfulfilled, maybe you should start looking at the way you eat, and rather than trying to control it more, stop. Stop counting. Stop calculating.
Start enjoying. Let it be. Let it go. Just eat.
Eat with your friends. Eat with your enemies. Eat with your dying grandmother. Eat with your kids. Eat with that cute guy that asked you out. Eat because you are happy. Eat because you are sad. Eat because your boss is a pill. Eat in the pursuit of friendship. Eat for the sake of eating. Eat for joy.
Eat because food is more than just nutrients. Food is a comfort. Food is a way to feel connected. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay … it is by design.