The other day I overheard a conversation among women about food.  Some of them were praising one of them for how “perfectly” she ate.  She responded that she wasn’t “a perfect eater” which she was totally OK with because she loves cinnamon rolls.  Then they praised her even more for how much they appreciated her honesty and realness.  You know, she was so down to earth and everything.

I’m sure these are lovely women who I would probably really like if I got to know … but I knew a blogpost was coming.

Because here’s the thing – is “realness” and “embracing imperfection” really about admitting that we don’t always follow food rules perfectly?  In fact, that conversation highlights perfectly the exact issue we have with food:  food morality.  We are good or bad, eating clean or dirty, being obedient or cheating, feeling virtuous or guilty.  Food has become a religion, maybe even better described as a cult.  As humans we are inherently imperfect and will make mistakes which makes us vulnerable to these messages that following food rules can make us feel more worthy and pure.  But maybe to still feel honest and human and relatable, we admit our food sins?

I guess this always hits close to home because I am religious, a Christian to be more descriptive.  I firmly believe that one of the biggest distractions in life is fixation on body image, declaring our faith to a certain diet or way of eating and calling it perfection.  We worship food rules and fit bodies instead of worshipping a loving Heavenly Father and the Savior of the world.  This holds us back from really growing and progressing in ways that matter.

I should be clear – I don’t think that wanting to feel well nourished and be physically fit are inherently wrong (I would probably fit into that category), but I hope we can all agree that making it priority, going to extremes and measuring our worth and value based on what we do or don’t eat or how we do or don’t look is mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually unhealthy.  But we do that.  It may be subtle and because of the culture we live in, we may not even realize we are doing it since it’s become so normalized.  We measure the quality of our day by how well we ate, not how well we loved.  We avoid making memories because of how we look instead of using our talents and abilities to bless the lives of others.  We sit around and praise other women (and men) for how they look and what they eat instead of who they are and what they do.

Maybe it’s worth noting that my faith and beliefs are that we will be perfected one day.  Not on our own though, it’s through grace and good works.  It won’t happen in this lifetime and likely not that soon in the next.  But perfection is something I think is actually attainable one day, but not something I think we as humans are ever capable of on our own.  I also think that God’s idea of perfection is much different than ours, particularly when it comes our bodies and our food.

What we eat is never indicative of our worth or value.  We are inherently worthy.  Also, I’m of the opinion that God is not going to judge you for eating chocolate cake.  He’s also not going to exalt you for eating lots of green smoothies.  I genuinely think he’ll care more about who you’ve become rather than what food you’ve eaten.

Food is not a moral issue.  Is that really the perfection we are trying to attain?  Because if so, I’m good with not being perfect.  Perfectly following food rules is not my idea of perfection.  I’ve actually been there.  The pursuit of perfect eating damaged my relationship with myself, with food, with exercise, with God and with others.  It was all I could see. I lost who I was and my whole identity was wrapped up in being fit and eating clean.  I know that’s not what God wants for me.  I’ve never felt further away from God or more unlike myself than when I was pursuing perfect eating.  Letting go of the food labels, food rules and food morality cleared mental space for things that really mattered to me.  I had more energy for my family, my faith and – yes – taking care of myself in ways that were more effective and truly supportive.  God taught me who I was, but only after I made Him priority.  While your situation may not be as severe as mine, my professional experience is that our current nutrition culture is so distracting.  It reminds me of this quote:

“And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this!  And this!  And this!”  And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.”

— Ian Thomas

When I was struggling with Orthorexia, I avoided all social gatherings (or at least said I wasn’t hungry or had already eaten).  This included family dinners at my parent’s house.  My mom is a great cook and I love all her recipes.  Some of them include condensed soups (you know, like cream of chicken, cream of mushroom, etc) and I avoided them at all costs when I was in my eating disorder.  I remember one day having the distinct impression that those meals were made for me with love.  My mom loved me and her food would never hurt me.  As a Christian I really do try (VERY imperfectly) to think about what Christ would do and make an attempt to try to kind of do the same.  I know without a doubt that He would gladly accept whatever she offered Him, including her recipes with condensed soups.  I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t even cross His mind because He would be more concerned with what was in her heart, not her enchiladas.

That was really pivotal for me because it exposed a HUGE incongruence between my behaviors and what I truly valued.  Really, overcoming Orthorexia was a huge lesson in humility for me.  A very common characteristic is feelings of superiority when following food rules, which I definitely experienced.  It’s still difficult to admit that but I think it’s a good example that highlights why I felt so anxious all the time – I wasn’t living according to what I truly valued.   It’s because I made peace with food that I was able to make peace with myself and peace with God.  I totally believe the first step away from God is to see yourself different than someone else.  “Aren’t we all beggars?”  The idea of food morality and clean eating just feels so elitist, likely because of how I felt when I subscribed to that way of thinking.

In conclusion, I respect that everyone’s beliefs are different and I’m not writing to convince you of anything other than you deserve better than to feel judged for how you eat.  I’m also definitely not saying that following food rules or a diet makes anyone evil, but that you are inherently worthy and do not need a diet to save you.  I think setting the intention to live a life full of things that bring meaning and feel valuable will probably make you happiest.  I hope you’ll make a difference in this world because of your talents and wisdom and gifts, not because of what you eat or how you look.

For more on perfectionism, here’s probably the most healing and rewarding article I’ve ever written:  Perfectionism

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD