(This post is going to be rather rudimentary HAES 101, but I need to spell it out because I’m still trying to work out what a lot of this means for me. Apologies for the tl;dr.)
A friend told me she’s just started a group Bible study using the book Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food. I’ve been on a hunt for HAES-type books written from a Christian perspective, so I did some flipping through this one with the Look Inside! feature on Amazon and on the book’s website, but I ultimately rejected it as being somewhat problematic. Here’s why (and if you’ve read the book and find my interpretation to be off base, please let me know):
Foremost, it looks to me like the book emphasizes weight loss, even without saying so directly. Although it says it’s not a “diet book” but a “lifestyle book,” nearly all of the “success stories” featured on the website recount participants’ weight loss as a result of following the study. Weight loss in this case seems to be equated not only with physical health but also with spiritual closeness with God; the book jacket (at least in the online copy) even says, “Reach your healthy goals and grow closer to God through the process.” That’s fine if the “healthy goals” are simply to adopt healthier behaviors. But if the “healthy goals” the book is trying to help the reader reach are in any way weight-focused, then the writer is conflating spiritual maturity and weight, and that’s problematic.
Then there’s the whole issue of food cravings — which in this usage seems to be shorthand for “cravings for foods that have low nutritional value.” This sentence from Health at Every Size has really stuck with me: “If you’re treating your emotional needs with food, you don’t have a food problem, you have a self-care problem.” Everything I’ve believed up until this point was that if I’m craving foods as a way to fill (or more often, muffle) emotional needs, then it’s the eating that’s unhealthy; when in fact, I’m discovering it’s the opposite. If I’m doing a good job of caring for my emotional and spiritual needs in healthy ways, then I’m not likely to be using food to fill that role, and the problem of emotional eating pretty much solves itself.
(I’m not claiming that this is true for everyone’s experience with food cravings and emotional eating; my experience is only my own, and I can’t speak for anyone else.)
Sometimes, too, we tend to describe behaviors as “emotional eating” when in fact they aren’t based on emotional reasons at all. When we diet and deprive our bodies of the food intake it needs, we may be able to override our bodies’ drive to eat for a time; but there comes a point where, biologically, our body begins shouting so loudly for food that we can’t help but eat. We attribute it to a lack of willpower or to emotional eating, but in fact it’s a result of the rush of hormones our bodies release that are designed specifically to make us eat. What and how much we eat is not entirely under our conscious control.
Within the environment of intuitive eating, I can eat whatever I want, because those wants are based on mindfully gathering feedback from my body; I know that my cravings are biological, not emotional. My body is learning that I’ll give it the foods it asks for, so it responds by asking for the foods that it needs; and I’m honoring God by trusting Him to use the body He gave me, made in His image, to take care of me. When I divorce chocolate from the connotations of guilt and food-sneaking and forbiddenness, and I’m not using food to fulfill an emotional need, then the only cues telling me to eat chocolate are my body’s physical hunger needs for that specific food. And once I’ve had as much as I need, I can set it aside and go on with my day, not carrying guilt for eating the chocolate, and not thinking about the next time I’ll get to sneak away and eat more of it. My relationship with food is no longer obsessive, but simply to meet my needs.
When my cravings aren’t colored with scarcity or guilt, I find myself craving nourishing food much more often; because while the way a specific food tastes is desirable, what’s more desirable is the way a food makes me feel. We spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what foods are best for us to eat, which ones are good and which ones are bad, but in the context of intuitive eating, this pretty much resolves itself. In the context of intuitive eating, the Food Guide Pyramid becomes not a prescription for how we’re *supposed* to be eat but a description of the foods our bodies are naturally craving, with individual variation for each unique body; the foods we crave are the foods we need to be healthy; the foods we choose are the foods we need, not because we have to, but because we want to.
(This is kind of an oversimplification of this whole process, which I hope to address in more detail later, but it’ll do for now.)
Food itself doesn’t have a moral value. The act of eating a Twinkie, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. Paul responded to the Corinthians’ question about the morality of certain foods by saying, “Everything is permissible — but I will not be mastered by anything.” With intuitive eating, I’m not being mastered by out-of-control cravings, but am able to mindfully respond to my body’s needs.
Because I know that eating releases serotonin and endorphins, I can recognize that it is intended to be a pleasurable activity and not feel guilty for enjoying food. When I’m eating only what I know my body needs, I can be satisfied that I’m not turning that pleasure into idolatry. Caring for our bodies is a moral issue, but I’m learning that caring for our bodies is incompatible with dieting — intentional weight loss defies too many of our biological processes and is contrary to how we were designed to function, and it decreases, not increases, our bodies’ health.
So, when a Christian book promises to teach me how to “Replace rationalization that leads to diet failure with wisdom that leads to victory,” I’m wary, because what it seems to be saying is that “rationalization,” not biochemistry, is what leads to diet failure and that there is Biblical “wisdom” that will result in diet victory — i.e., being able to maintain permanent weight loss. This sounds to me like it’s not only promising something it can’t deliver — because our bodies are designed not to achieve diet “victory” — but that it’s intertwining it with our relationship with God in a way that I believe could lead to further frustration and spiritual depression. For me to find a book about food cravings and Christianity useful, it would need to acknowledge that food cravings are, to an extent, valuable biological feedback from our bodies about what they need, and not impediments to a closer relationship with God.