Why Eating Can Make Me Depressed

Monday, March 21, 2011

I've returned to Barnard on a pretty dreary day, so I feel compelled to open up the week with a pretty dreary post. Yet, as with all dreariness, it's designed to make you think rather bring you further down in the doldrums. So, enjoy.

I consider myself a conscientious eater. I have made peace with my food issues, questioned the food fads put up in the media, and tried to separate eating from body image and make both of those more positive.
Yet I still get caught up on one particular eating paradigm: sustainable eating. This (admittedly very long) article by Michael Pollan opened up that can of worms again for me, the first time having been after I read his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The article, and his book, tout the mantra "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He goes on to debunk the myths of nutrient-based nutrition and favors whole foods for the reason that they are better both for the farmer and the eater. And I find all that wonderful, interesting, and something that I want to apply to my life - until I reach the grocery store or the restaurant.
Finding whole foods in the grocery store is easy enough if I stick to the right aisles (produce, meat, dairy), but the basic fact is that these foods need preparation. Which means equipment and time. For a college student that doesn't have an oven, that rules out a lot of possibilities. So, heading deep into the center aisles, I began to scour labels and decide what a whole food looks like when industrially prepared. Those foods I found that contained even something that remotely resembled a whole food were extremely expensive. Again, a college budget does not allow for much wiggle room. What I came out with wasn't nearly what Pollan intended when he sat down to write that article.
Thus I came out of the grocery store anxious and somewhat depressed at my gatherings, and with one key question: how can I possibly make sustainable eating work for me? Or for anyone else who has a low-budget and low-time lifestyle?

The answer is two-fold:
1. Giving yourself a darn break. I think sustainable eating has to come in small increments; on the one hand, because American culture hasn't caught on to it, on the other because you can't flip a switch and change your monetary situation, the amount of time you have, or your cultivated eating habits from childhood on up. Pollan presents some good ideas, but self-selecting the parts you can do and setting aside those you can't requires a personal evaluation.
2. Separating self-worth from eating. Thinking about the emotions that came up for me after I left the grocery store, they were very much akin to those I had when I was dieting. Sustainable eating presented an unrealistic set of goals that, when I failed to meet them, caused me to spiral down the ramp of low self-esteem in the exact same way. While this is not to say that sustainable eating is the same thing as dieting or that you do it for the same reasons, but the association between eating habits and self-worth is the same. The only way to make changes without those same negative thoughts is to recognize and recognize that the two are not parallel.
Pollan may include some really good ideas for a fulfilling sustainable eating pattern, but he doesn't address any of the other concerns (money, time, or emotion) surrounding what you put on your plate. It's up to everyone else to fill in those gaps with their own solutions.
What is your take? Should sustainable eating even be put in the same sentence as dieting? Does it exclude people? Should it be the norm? And how would you make it happen if that were your own goal?

You might also be interested in posts about eating at restaurants.