When What Nourishes, Destroys: Exploring How Food Guides Impact Eating Disorder RecoveryJul 08, 2022
This blog is part of a special 12-month series titled, “Inclusive Eating Disorder Recovery: How Yoga Therapy Can Help” written for Yoga for Eating Disorders. Through my blogs and related social media posts, I will explore how we can use the ethics of Yoga, personal practice, movement, breath, focused attention, and meditation to create recovery spaces that are inclusive and reflective of diverse lived experience. Join in the conversation on Instagram by following along @yogaforeatingdisorders and @holisticyogatherapist.
Food guides are graphic representations of all or some of the messages of the dietary guidelines. They typically represent the recommended food groups in the suggested proportions for a good diet…The most common examples of food guides are in the shape of a food pyramid and food plate…an important symbol in a nation's nutrition communication and education strategy. —Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
Culture has been clearly identified as a cause of, and expression of eating disorders, notably in North America, and has slowly spread across the world - with increases in Asia and in systemically excluded populations in North America. In this blog post, we’ll explore how government issued food guides impact eating disorders and how yoga therapy can support inclusive recovery.
Lobbying Power and Food Guides
Government issued food guides seem benign enough. Governments are generally elected to support the wellbeing of their citizens. It is reasonable to assume that published food guides are evidence based to support overall population health because a healthy population is a preventative measure to address increasing healthcare costs.
However, these guides have and continue to be influenced by the concerted lobby efforts of a series of large international corporations that value profit over public and environmental health. This has resulted in a global food system that places maximum corporate gain, through the production and consumption of high calorie, low nutrition foods, ahead of nutritional, environmental and human resource priorities.
Unfortunately data indicates that major food and beverage companies with significant lobbying power continue to have significant influence on what gets published in dietary guidelines around the world. The impact of lobby groups like grain and dairy farmers used to be more obvious in previous food pyramid iterations where consumption of those food groups was privileged over others.
In recent years countries have responded to increased consumer awareness and shifted away from pyramid models to plates, still divided by food group. These sectioned plates center a Euro-centric approach to preparing and consuming foods separately and marketing often privileges specific foods like avocados, kale, salmon, or blueberries which have large marketing budgets to increase their prevalence and consumption.
To appease these powerful influencers, along with international food manufacturers, more recent food guides have taken a compromising approach. Instead of obviously encouraging the consumption of some food groups over others, these guides attempt to educate people about the importance of reducing dietary trans fat, added sugar, and sodium. Critically, they don’t identify the main sources of these nutrients, leaving it to consumers to educate themselves in a world of conflicting information.
Lack of Cultural Representation
In addition, these dietary guidelines often either completely ignore traditional and cultural foods and ways of eating, or vilify them as unhealthy despite the fact that they often encourage more nutritionally and environmentally sound practices. An example is the choice to use the divided plate based model, that does not account for the one-pot or combined food cooking practice that is common across many cultures.
These cultural or ancestral foods and ways of eating are rooted in the traditions, ingredients and ways of preparation specific to a geography, ethnicity, religious practice or cultural community. They often align with beliefs about food use and preparation and can be symbolic or religious in nature. They are often central to familial connection and identity formation.
The lack of cultural representation or ethnically diverse illustrations in food guides and plates often sends an unspoken message that local and cultural foods may be unhealthy.
This is done in a bid to further encourage the consumption of foods that increase profits for their lobbyists while ignoring ancestral ways of eating that can have positive impacts on health. This is particularly notable in cultures where staple, ancestral foods like rice, wheat or breadfruit are now deemed too carbohydrate heavy to be healthy, or too rich in plant fats to be nutritionally sound.
This messaging, in combination with advice from care providers who are educated to adhere to these public health guidelines can lead to increased food restriction or complete rejection of food groups, and a higher experience of disordered eating, especially in systemically excluded populations who do not see their traditional foods represented as healthy or appropriate choices.
Why Yoga Therapy Can Help
How can yoga therapy support a more inclusive eating disorder recovery for people who live with an eating disorder and who may be seeking care that includes incorporating their cultural foods and ancestral food practices, which they may perceive as unhealthy or undesirable?
We have already explored how the niyamas (nee-yuh-muhs) can generally be helpful. In this post we are going to learn more about how we can apply the niyama of saucha (shau-cha) to recognize how patterns we have learned no longer serve us. This recognition is supported by the practice of the niyama of svādhyāya (svahd-YAH-yah) which can deepen our understanding of how the things we do may harm us.
Śaucha (shau-cha) is usually translated as cleanliness. While it applies to physical practises like bathing and tongue scraping, it does not just mean physical cleanliness. Cultivating saucha includes practising our ability to recognise the habits we have picked up in our life that no longer serve us. This includes habits instilled by external focus, like eating patterns informed by food guides that lead us to reject traditional comfort foods because we are told they are too starchy, sweet or fattening and cannot be good for us.
Bringing these deeply rooted and externally enforced approaches to eating can make it challenging to restore our relationship with traditional foods that are often prepared in ways that increase nutrient accessibility, and restore our connection with our identity and community. This is because we often have to take the time to identify these well practised ways of thinking that we have been taught before we can enjoy those foods again.
Svādhyāya (svahd-YAH-yah) literally means ‘one’s own reading’ and this practice of reflection, and deliberate pause to study the self helps us become more aware of the things we do, to ask why we do them, and to explore if they are doing us more harm than good. This might include pausing before making food choices, and exploring if centering some foods over others might be doing us more harm than good. This gentle, curious approach to our relationship with food can help identify what actually supports our wellbeing and bring us in closer contact with our true self, and restore our relationship with our communities. Svādhyāya also encourages us to learn more about what fascinates us, which might include deepening knowledge about ancestral or cultural food traditions.
The practice of yoga, particularly when it is a customised practice co-designed by your yoga therapist will help you reconnect with these practices, and cultivate your capacity to become curious about your approach to eating and recovery, identifying habits which might no longer serve you, and exploring ones that restore your relationship with food and community.
This is done with the eventual focus of achieving your goals. Since the practice of saucha and svādhyāya include habit identification and reflection, your yoga therapist will help you (re)build this capacity by suggesting an accessible daily practice that includes self reflection, observation and study. Your task is to tap into the self discipline necessary to motivate yourself to complete it.
This deliberate way of deepening your self awareness and where you might struggle with it, as well as which techniques help you change over time is particularly helpful in recovery because it gives us the space, and the attention to observe where we might limit our success, or where additional supports might be useful as we re-learn how to commit to maintaining our wellbeing. As our capacity to reconnect to our purpose grows, we are better able to practise new habits, and restore our relationship with food and community.
Call to Action
If you are a researcher, you might use the practices of saucha and svādhyāya to explore your internalised perceptions of what healthy food is, or to dive deeper into the systems and structures that inform your research questions. You may also explore the purpose that drove you to your work. Over time, you might examine how the systems you work within centre specific ways of eating and examine how you can use your privilege to shift the culture, or the policy. You could also choose to deliberately model inclusive practices for your colleagues - including ways to include more culturally appropriate and inclusive approaches to food, or by specifically adding an analysis of ancestral foodways to your work.
You might also choose to help build the body of research and knowledge around traditional food systems, to help fill the gaps in information about what it is like to be experience disordered eating along with multiple forms of discrimination and how that impacts access to care and support. The practice of saucha and svādhyāya when it comes to how you see the world might also help you decolonize your approach when working with systematically excluded colleagues, or change how you work with communities.
If you are a care provider, you might use a saucha and svādhyāya practice to explore your biases towards specific ways of engaging with food, and deepen your knowledge of traditional or cultural food options that support the communities you work with. You may also use these practices in your work with individuals to design solutions that enable them to reclaim cultural or ancestral ways of food preparation and eating to support healing and connection with community. You might also ask questions or policy and decision makers, and become more clear about what inclusion means in your organisation, and how you can remove barriers that exist as you support recovery.
If you are seeking care for yourself, or someone else, your practice of saucha and svādhyāya might include seeking knowledge of your cultural or ancestral food ways and reconnecting with them in a way that feels safe and accessible. You might work with your yoga therapist, or other care providers to explore ways to incorporate those foods and practices into your healing journey. Or you might name the barriers you experience in learning more and incorporate these foods and practices as they relate to eating disorder recovery to your care team and community so they can help work to address the systems that maintain and enforce those barriers.
If it feels comfortable you might also use the practice to inform research and to help change systems at a more fundamental level. You might also choose to share which forms of care or support to address eating disorders within the context of multiple barriers, or ongoing exclusion were most helpful so that other community members, care providers and system builders are aware and can integrate that information into their decision making.
If you are already using the practice of saucha and svādhyāya to deepen your self awareness and reconnect with ancestral foods and cultural practices to support your recovery, we would love to learn more about what you are up to.
Please share how it is going so far, what has worked well, and what you might set aside. Tell us in the comments, or message us on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist and https://www.instagram.com/yogaforeatingdisorders
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