the HAES files: Food Phobic Nation—A Brief History

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jon Robison, PhD

“Good nutrition is getting a bad name — one that smacks of rigidity, guilt-making and extremism… Worse still, some eight out of ten (Americans) think foods are inherently good or bad… every single bite they take represents an all-or-nothing choice either for or against good health.”

Unfortunately, this two-decade-old pronouncement from the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter still rings true today. Americans live in a constant state of anxiety and confusion when it comes to food. We have been warned of the need for constant vigilance to protect ourselves from the dangers lurking in a wide variety of foods. As a famous diet doctor cautioned:

“You must treat food as if it were a drug. You must eat food in a controlled fashion and in the proper proportions – as if it were an intravenous drip.”

For many, if not most adults, a longing glance at a desired food is sure to elicit the following inner dialogue:

“I wonder how many calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, etc. are in that food…I don’t know if I should eat it…Will it give me heart disease, diabetes, cancer?…Will it make me fat?”

If the desire to eat ends up winning out over the fear, which it usually does, the anxiety, now intensified by the guilt of not having resisted, returns:

“I’ve really blown it now…how many miles am I going to have to walk, run, bike, etc. to get rid of those calories…”

And in response to the possible eventuality of acquiring some affliction in the future:

“Now I’ve gone and given myself a heart attack, stroke or cancer. That never would have happened if I hadn’t eaten this or that food.”

Over the years the ongoing barrage of proclamations from the government and health organizations about the “badness” (unhealthiness) of various foods has managed to wrench from many of us the natural pleasures of eating while turning food selection into an intellectual activity, replete with mathematical calculations, “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and dire warnings of dreaded consequences.

It started in the 1970s and 80s with the fear of fat – lipo-phobia. According to the experts, all fat was bad and we should eat as little of it as possible. But wait! Scientists soon discovered that only saturated fat was bad for the heart, while other fats were not. Then they discovered that only some saturated fats were bad while others were not. Then they said that polyunsaturated fats were good. Then they told us that, although polyunsaturated fat helped with the bad cholesterol it also lowered the good cholesterol, so what we really should be eating was monounsaturated fat.  Then research suggested that a low fat diet might actually be unhealthful for a significant portion of the population.

Confusing as all this was, most experts agreed about what should make up the bulk of our diet!  – Lots and lots of carbohydrates! Hold the burger, eat the pasta! Then came Gary Taube’s fateful 1991 New York Times editorial entitled: What if it has all been a Big Fat Lie?  Seemingly overnight we traded in our nearly quarter-century-long lipo-phobia for a new fear – the fear of carbohydrates – carbo-phobia – Hold the pasta, eat the burger (without the bun of course!).

To make matters worse, special interest groups have promulgated a host of other food phobias that continue to haunt people as they try to decipher what might be left that is still safe to eat. With little or at best contradictory scientific evidence for the claims, we have been told that meat is bad for the kidneys, that milk should not be consumed past childhood, that the cholesterol in eggs causes heart attacks, that sugar makes children hyperactive, that High Fructose Corn Syrup is a major cause of “the obesity epidemic” and so on.

Is it any wonder that in a 2001 survey in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, 43% of those polled said they were tired of hearing about what foods they should or should not eat and 70% said that the government should get out of the business of telling people what to eat? Perhaps not surprisingly, the media headlines recently heralded a study in the Journal of Nutrition that concluded “Nearly everyone fails to meet Dietary Guidelines.”

We are in desperate need of a serious serving of common sense when it comes to eating. With the possible exception of the recent “pink slime” (ammonia treated by-products in ground beef) nightmare, viewing foods as weapons of mass destruction is scientifically unsound and psychologically destabilizing. In fact, our burgeoning fear of foods has actually spawned a new eating disorder – orthorexia nervosa – the obsession with eating only “healthy” food.

With all of the admonitions to avoid this food, eat less of that food, and be sure not to get more than this percentage of calories from this food, maybe it is time to get back to basics. Wasn’t it grandma who said many years ago – drink your milk, eat your fruits and vegetables and go out and play? Maybe we need to reevaluate our alimentary recommendations. In this regard, perhaps we could follow the lead of our mother country across the sea, whose enlightened number one dietary guideline is – Enjoy Your Food!

Sadly, the committee responsible for the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans came one vote short of including “Enjoy a Variety of Foods” in their recommendations for fear that such wording “would unleash unlimited license” for people to eat “whatever.” The rest, as they say, is history.

7 Comments to “the HAES files: Food Phobic Nation—A Brief History”

  1. Love this article!! I could have written it myself! It is exactly what I have had to learn how to do to recover from my eating disorder. I have some food sensitivities due to Lyme disease so I need to be careful and practice listening to my body for food direction rather than rules about food. I need to make sure not to deprive myself of pleasurable eating otherwise my Ed takes over.

    Disordered eating is a common problem in our western world that is not a full blown eating disorder but a mental disorder recognized by the psychological community. It is what many of us engage in with the insanity you speak of. Serial dieting, losing, then gaining. Restricting for long periods of time (being on a “maintenance” plan to keep weight off. This all contributes to the disorder. Fear of fat, sugar, carbs, calories etc.

    It is understandable when our food has been so processed that it does not resemble natural food in the least that people become critical. Also, as our health suffers, we want answers. But for crying out loud, we are all going to die someday so to become obsessed with food to control our health is just trading a mental health problem for a physical one.

    Let us keep in mind what drives this news about food. It is money. Who makes any money saying ” eat a wide variety, get some fun exercise and don’t worry so much about food, relax more worry less”. That is not dramatic or compelling advice. It does not appeal to our Puritan, perfectionistic “, deny yourself and work hard or you will be a loser” mentality we have maintained and been taught. It smacks of mediocrity. God forbid we be imperfect.

  2. Great post!

    As a recovering bulimic, I have had to learn to let go of what I learned about food and learn to trust my body instead.

    To not be on some sort of diet, to not be dramatizing how perfectly I eat anymore leaves me feeling empty. I used to love thinking how I was so superior an eater and how I was so much healthier because I ate so “perfectly”. I was constantly aware of every little bite of food I was not getting. Food I really wanted but could not have be because it was “bad for me” or would make me fat.

    We live in a perfectionistic, materialistic, work hard or you are a loser, culture that values people who have money, perfect health, perfect bodies and vast intelligence. We value this extreme and are told to go for it over and over. We are taught to be ashamed of ourselves if we are not making it, not healthy, smart or able bodied. We are shamed constantly by media messages that promote the perfection myth and this myth is concentrated in body hatred and food fear.

    It is true there are many products produced that are stripped of nutrition and sold as food. This stuff is not going to support ones health, especially if that is all one eats. But, eating is a complex process. It involves satisfaction as well as nutrition. Our bodies and our emotions are involved in our choices. We cannot be machines when we eat. We need to nourish ourselves wholly when we eat. Food is sustenance in many ways.
    It is not our only sustenance, but it is basic and we cannot eat with only our heads calling the shots. We have more to us than our mental faculties guiding us. We can find ways to eat that are healthful in all ways. We can make room for ” junk ” food if that is what we really want. We can see how it feels to eat that way. We get to take our bodies back and decide for ourselves what is healthy for us.

    I know for me, having eating disorders ( bulimia and anorexia)and then disordered eating (serial dieting, obsessing on good and bad food) was not healthy for me overall. I am now learning g how to eat a wide variety of foods, exercise in ways that feel good for me and getting off my case for weight gain. I do not let doctored weigh me anymore because I practice HAES and my weight is of no significance in relation to my health.
    This is empowering for me and my health overall.

    Emotional intelligence teaches me that my needing to be perfect with food and weight was actually my way of managing my emotions. It is easier to be on a diet or obsess about good and bad food than to feel my life and feel my vulnerability. I would much rather be in control of those messy feelings. Dieting and food obsession is the perfect drug. It is socially acceptable, encouraged and rewarded. Being an emotional, slightly flabby, middle aged, single, woman who has a chronic disease is not what we in our culture like to aspire to. Yet, among other things, that is what I am.

  3. Thank you, Jon. Reading this was like breathing a sigh of relief.

  4. You put into words what I’ve been feeling/struggling with for years and years and years. At one time, I felt I was wanting to eat nothing at all…it was too damn much trouble to worry about it all. Thankfully, I realized exactly what you have said…that food has to be enjoyable for us or it will be a source of stress. Thank you for helping me continuing to process this.

  5. John, as usual, you are the voice of reason. Always enjoy your perspective. Statistics are about the masses, not each individual. We really don’t know what is going to happen to each and every person on the planet, although the media sure presents stories as if we do! Common sense and listening to the inner cues that our body gives us is the best advice of all. For all the rest of the hype, body image disturbance, eating disorders, body-hatred, starvation, dieting, etc. I encourage active resistance. Stop dieting, start living life to the fullest. Ellyn Herb, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist

  6. Well said. Will be sharing the article with clients Monday.
    Rachel Levi, MFT Clinical Director, Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment

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