Quality, quantity, and a meat-based speaker's fee

I had the distinct pleasure of being the invited speaker yesterday at Fields of Athenry, in Purcellville Virginia. After the talk, I enjoyed a truly delicious outdoor potluck dinner and the company of a table of fierce activist women.

When speaking at an eating disorder event my mission is to describe the history and possibilities of the role of parents, and to make a plea for evidence-based practices, to an audience that may have set ideas about both parents and practice. When I speak to a general audience about eating disorders I'm hoping to dispel general myths about eating and eating disorders.

This talk was a different kind of challenge. Fields of Athenry is a haven for those seeking a healthy relationship with food - farm-raised, local, wholesome ingredients. The audience knows and embraces traditional, nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods. The Farm is a resource for healing and learning and darn good food. So how do you say "there are no good foods and there are no bad foods" to this audience?

Well, ask if they have any of those garden-warm hand-harvested tomatoes ready to throw at you before you say it!

To this audience it was not radical to say "food is medicine" but it was controversial to say "there are no bad foods."

I don't know how successful I was at conveying this, but my argument to this audience was one I still believe applies: Food is not magic. A Krispy Kreme donut is not poisonous. And a grilled teriyaki tofu wrap does not make a person healthy. What we choose to feed our family overall is, of course, of consequence. We do need to make choices about healthier ingredients - not all food is equal. But using the language of morality and framing food choices as good vs. evil is perilous.

Perilous because it makes us all sound like eating disorder patients: obsessive, rigid, trapped. Perilous because this thinking is negative, fear-based and punitive. It frames our relationship with food and "health" as a moral issue with all the attendant disdain and condescension onto others. It makes our weight and health into a simplistic judgement on our eating habits. And of special interest to me: this kind of approach to food makes it very hard to distinguish those among us with genuine mental illness in need of intervention.

Families can (and in my opinion should) plan and prepare and enjoy wholesome foods chosen with an eye to nutrition and avoiding damaging ingredients - that's not inherently disordered. I call that embracing health and enjoying one's family table. The "no good foods/no bad foods" mantra of eating disorder treatment isn't a "it doesn't matter what you eat" 365 coupons a year to McDonald's. It isn't a purgatory of dry bulgur wheat. And balance doesn't mean a 1/2 Big Macs and 1/2 Organic life, either.

I left the Farm, and Brad and Elaine Boland, the generous and kind owners, with a satisfied appetite and much to think about. Nestled in the back seat was a bountiful gift of fresh chicken and steaks that will nourish and be enjoyed by my family this week - relatives of the animals I walked among at the Farm. I've never received an honorarium in meats, before, and I'm looking forward to enjoying every bite!


  1. I think another strong point to make is that seeing food as good or evil is the effect it has on children who can't yet filter what this means...since I have become sensitized to the issues surrounding "good vs evil" food I am amazed and often shocked at how parents will talk about the evils of food (just recently one on salt), IN FRONT OF their young kids...now that is not healthy.

  2. Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely!

  3. I think it's incredibly important to emphasize that there are no good or bad foods. My younger sisters were in Kindergarten last year and they, 5-year-olds, were taught all about "healthy" eating and sent home with a food pyramid poster and a report card that included their bmis. This resulted in a lot of attention from the kids to one very overweight girl in the class (she wasn't just a little plump--it was enough to impede movement--but I still think it's completely uncalled for to tell her mother that she's unhealthy). My sisters also came home talking about fat and calories and checking labels and they said that's what they do at lunch with their other 5-year-old friends.

    Sorry, I know this is kind of long and not entirely related; I find it easy to rant about this. It just made me so mad, especially because my sisters are at a higher risk of EDs because of me. I gave them a long lecture about how fat and calories can really good and are needed to be healthy, which I believe they relayed to their friends. I just hate that Kindergartners have to hear that at all.

  4. In Indiana, some of the elementary schools send notes home to the parents if they have children that are in the overweight bmi categories.,.. the above comments made me think about that.

    You know the children will want to know why some are being singled out and handed letters to bring home... what do you suppose should be told to them?

    You get a letter because your bmi states you're fat??

    BMI is not accurate anyway... my friend, that's a body builder, has a bmi that puts him in the moderately obese category.

  5. Am curious..
    What do you think of those who abstain from certain foods do to religious reasons?

  6. My opinion is that if a culture has cut out a certain food throughout its history then the food is probably not needed nutritionally, right? But I know of no longstanding culture that cuts out things it needs.

    I also note that as a Jew, the one rule that pre-empts any religious obligation is health. The young, elderly, and ill are prohibited from fasting, for example. Exceptions are made to rules when health is compromised.

    What's your thinking?

  7. I don't really have a strong opinion on this. Certain religions do particpate in fasts. Some as individuals, and some as a group.
    A child/teen could fast due to religous reasons once and then realize they can do it with ease and then can go further into ED.
    Just a thought.

    There are "diets" out there that are in religious circles. One that comes to mind is Hallelujah diet. I haven't looked into it for the foods that they restrict or promote, but I know that parents are encouraging their kids/teens to particpate. I know of one lady that told me her teen d had been on this diet.

    I think that one would have to be very careful with these religous based food plans that are promoted, esp. with kids/teens.

    I do not have a strong opinion. I feel all food is "safe". I just got to thinking how many teens or kids in religious homes are taught by parents that these foods are prohibited for religious reasons or these foods are prohibited because this diet we found out about thru religiuos circles is the best and if you don't eat these type foods then it's wrong.

  8. Oh! I was ONLY referring to ancient prohibitions like Jews not eating pork and sacred cows in India.

    Very different business indeed than a sect or church creating new diets.

    And on fasting I have a strong opinion: NO. With what we know about the mechanism of low nutrition in those with a predisposition I would not think anyone with eating disorders in the family would be fasting - any more than a diabetic or a pregnant woman would.

    When I look back at the history of fasting saints and famous hunger strikers I think we may have been seeing anorexia and misinterpreting it.

  9. I think it interesting to look at why these animals have not made it onto the table in different cultures, for religious reasons, the way the animal is farmed?

    What concerns me is the growing acceptance of fast food as normal. Somehow we've lost sight of what wholesome delicious food is, either because we don't have the time to prepare it or don't know how to. It easier to reach for the processed food and our bodies are left to deal with the consequences.

    At the (alternative) school where I teach we have a blanket policy. No processed food in lunch boxes. At the school cafe there are no highly processed packaged foods. Meals, snacks, cakes, fruit salads, ice-blocks, juice, coffee..... are loving prepared for the students and teachers. Students contribute to preparation and serving of real food.

    Take a trip to India or any country that still indulges in traditional food. Smell the aroma of fresh herbs and spices and taste the difference of real food. The Indians know how to prepare some divine vegetarian dishes. When in India I always go vegetarian for hygiene reasons. It makes the steak taste even better when you get back home.

    Sorry, I do not consider junk food or highly processed food to be real. I find it an insult to even call it "food".

  10. Carolin,
    All food is processed, at some level. A farmer seeds the field, food is picked, cut, packaged....that is processing! It is dangerous to go down the slippery slope of calling some foods junk, especially for people with eating disorders. For my d, it started with fast food and by the time we finally took control of her refeeding she believed WATER was bad for her. Slippery slope.

  11. Carolin,
    I can understand how you feel for your own self and what you consider food.

    THe issue here is with kids and what we teach them. You tell, me, an adult, McD's isn't real food, it's bad food..it doesn't effect me much.

    You tell this to a 6,7,8, 12 year old, one who has that wiring for ED, perfectionist, anxiety, etc., it's a whole different field you are "sowing" the seed in. It's ground that is already fearful of germs, pesticides, fearful of failure, fearful of many things, now they are fearful of all the bad foods out there because there teacher(who they respect) or a parent tells them what is good and bad. Black and white thinking with these kids.

    There was a very good blog on this recently, junk science or junk food science blog..I'm sure I've fogotten name of it..Laura I'm surse knows the name.

    Again, it's not about adults and logical thinking, it's kids brains who don't think like we do, and they get fears and phobias much easier that adults. They also pick up on the adults in their lives and their over concern of food and they adopt the thinking and can go to extremes.

  12. Erica and Anonymous, my daughter to is recovering from anorexia, so I am mindful about casting aspersions on "food". I didn't choose McDonalds as part of her food regime once she started eating but there were processed foods she had.
    One of the joys for our daughter returning to food was growing things she could eat as well as enjoying a wide variety of flavors and culinary delights we as a family take for granted.

    What I refer to "highly processed food or junk food" is a product that is so far removed from its natural source, UHT or chemical additives that you have to read the label to find out what's in it. That in itself is disappointing and obsessive. Particularly to an anorexic.
    Of course there is an element of processing that occurs with food. The minute it is plucked from the earth and washed and prepared for consumption.

    When children think that milk comes from the shop refrigerator down town instead of a cow its a wake up call for all of us. Environmentally, globally, spiritually.
    The children I work with delight at making a crunchy bun from whole-meal flour, preparing their own butter and lili pilli jam to spread on top.
    If their parents choose to have processed food when they go home that is their choice but at least they have had the benefit of trying an alternative. Parents are choosing this type of education for a reason. They need direction and guidance just as children (5,6,7,8,9....) naturally look towards authoritative figures as role models, for our logical thinking and worldly wisdom. If we consider processed food and McDonalds O.K. substitutes for proper food what hope do they have?
    I don't have a fear or phobia around processed food. I choose to limit the amount that I have. It has its place. Unfortunately fast, processed food has become the norm rather than the exception.

    When I was growing up as a kid there were no Mc Donalds and limited processed food and we managed quiet well. So what's happened in the 40 years since. We have become complacent and too busy to allocate time to cooking proper wholesome food.

    Time to watch "Babette's Feast".

  13. ... and then there's all the "packaging" to deal with. Extra land fill. Yipee. We'll beat the rising sea levels yet!

  14. Carolin,
    You had stated earlier:

    "At the (alternative) school where I teach we have a blanket policy. No processed food in lunch boxes"

    What you choose for your child is your decision. I serve home cooked meals every dinner. We have balance in our meals. My kids do have the occasional fast food, and I don't shy away from it. The problem I see with kids like mine is the "blanket policies" your school provides them in regards to food. Do you search the lunch boxes daily? Why should a school determine what goes inside my child's lunch box? My children are not allowed chocolate at their school, and I'm ok with that, but who determines the definition of "Processed Food"? What messages are you sending children who already are prewired for EDs?
    No bad foods allowed..we need to be careful when we label foods or how much emphasis we put on foods at school, in my opinion. You may be trying to teach a child the alternatives, but again, my point is, this information can be perceived in the wrong way and taken to extremes.

  15. Fast food was never the norm in our house. I cook most meals and, like my mother before me, take great pleasure in feeding my family. I shop farmer's markets when I can, and truly enjoy fresh, delicious food! That being said, my d developed an eating disorder which started after we saw the film SuperSize Me and she read (at age 10, a precocious reader!)Fast Food Nation....bam. Because she was wired for it, she developed a true fear of "bad food."

    We must be CAREFUL what we as ADULTS present to children as information...scaring young kids does nothing to make them appreciate good food, but it does make them wary of all food. Care and moderation is needed.

  16. May I be annoying and say "I think you are ALL right."?

    I think choosing foods is adult work. And I think responsible educated adults can take that work seriously and seek the best quality and taste and nutrients they can find.

    I doubt there is any more than a handful of parents out there who truly believe the best option is fast food, or that highly-processed meals are equal to those cooked from scratch. People do this because they are caught up in time, financial, or social pressure. Modern families are under pressure to conform to schedules and lifestyles that preclude meal planning and family meals.

    Of COURSE it would be better if families ate well-thought out, skilled, home-cooked meals all the time.

    But this is all a different issue than the bad foods/good foods thing: one is a lifestyle being embraced, the other is about individual foods. Choosing a lifestyle of wholesome whole foods is good. Falling into a lifestyle of eating the easiest, cheapest thing available is bad. The problem is when it becomes about specific foods and the good food item is given a moral value and the bad food item is given magical powers to harm an otherwise healthful lifestyle.

    I think labelling things in the binary good/bad gives foods a power they don't deserve. And it doesn't help a family create a food culture around the table that is based on what food really ought to be: nourishment, pleasure, and a coming together of people.

  17. Food = nourishment, pleasure and a coming together of people. I love that, Laura! Thank you for your balanced take on this obviously complicated and emotional issue! How was the honorarium meat, by the way?

  18. "Food = nourishment, pleasure and coming together" was the exact script for "Babettes Feast". Providing a banquet for the local community amid calls of fowl play.

    I don't ever recall labeling food "good or bad".

    Our school bought in a "blanket policy" to elevate the mounting piles of rubbish and to bring awareness to the parents. Some children would arrive and have 90% processed packaged food in their lunch box. This in itself set up a rivalry between children, those that had it and those that didn't. If a child does bring something in then we simply ask them to keep it for happy home time. We have a saying, "keep the food nude" and the kids love it. We also ran a weekly competition to see how much rubbish we made in a week, just from lunches alone. How do we educate our children to take responsibility for themselves and the planet if we don't start off at grass roots level?

  19. Carolin,

    This may be ok for children who are not prewired to develop an ED, but setting up competitions around food and lunches is just what adds fuel to the fire for perfectionist thinking in these kids around food.

    So, you went from rivalry for processed foods to rivalry for unprocessed in order to save the planet. Competition at school should be on the ball field, spelling bee, or the sciene fair, and not the cafeteria.

    I know there are many anxious kids out there, who have to now worry about how their personal food choices may be harming the planet. They probably have their friends remind them now of it when they eat, so they can now choose to either carry around the guilt of damaging the planet. Perfectionist thiking kids won't damage planets so they will become rigid in their choices.

    These kids become OCD about it and will care more about saving the planet than nourishing their bodies because of programs like the one you advocate.

  20. We can provide our children with the best possible foods without triggering their predisposition to OCDs and eating disorders - it is all about the attitude of the adults and the messages transmitted, not the foods.

    There is a leap between "Here is your lunch, let's eat together. It is delicious and I chose it to nourish and fuel you." and "Don't eat that crap, it'll kill you." A big leap.

  21. Oh, and Erica - we roasted the chicken and it was lovely. Then I made stock from the bones and it is in the crock pot since this morning where I am making chicken curry.


  22. Anonymous,
    perhaps competition was the wrong word, and yes I agree leave it to the sports field. We did it to see how much waste we produce in extra wrapping and if we could reduce it.
    I'm very aware of sensitive kids and what there needs are. Many of the children that attend out school have been rejected by mainstream education as "too hard" and come with "labels" or diagnosis. We accept children from all cultures and nationalities in equal fairness. We provide them with the love, warmth and nurturing they deserve and require, no judgment, no labeling or insensitive comments.
    Mainstream education are now looking toward our school as "role models" because our style of education encompasses the whole human being.
    Laura the chook sounds great. Indeed YUM.

  23. Laura,

    I'm getting a little confused here on your latest comments.This will be my last comment on this subject.
    When re refeed our kids as you know many of us have used lots of heavy whipping cream in shakes, daily. I speak for myself...I have no fears when I pour the whipping cream in her shake. My best for my daughter to bring her back to health most likely would be looked down on by the food police, those who dictate to our kids what is healthy or not, those outside my home. Heavy whipping cream can be a life saver, for my daughter. Others may say, this is clogging her arteries.


    That's great your school is reaching out to these kids. Yes, I understand your intent to have the contest was to reduce waste. Your original comments about the processed food was that it wasn't even real food. I'm curious how you educate the child when you have this program. What do you tell them? Do you not mention that the choices of lunch they bring to school are healthier for them than the processed food they left at home that their parents bought them?

    This sounds like a project my brother would be heading up in his daughters' school.

  24. Anonymous,

    I'm never sure if one anonymous is the same as the next anonymous, here!

    I've found some of the comments about Carolin's school to be uncivil and personally combative. I don't understand it.

    Seeking high standards of nutrition and deliberative eating is a positive thing. (so is environmental awareness) Although some adults make it into an anxious and moralistic enterprise and harangue children that is the mistake of THOSE adults. I am strenuously against adults telling children that foods are "bad" or "junk" because I think we can reframe that by simply offering the foods we DO find wholesome and delicious.

    I do not find the two ideas incompatible.

    The "no bad foods" mantra doesn't mean there is no difference between foods and parents don't need to provide a wholesome lifestyle. And a wholesome family table doesn't mean putting every bite through an ideological test.

  25. Anonymous,
    we try an educate the parents on such topics by showing and providing healthy affordable alternatives to processed food. Ultimately, we have to respect a parents choice. Hence if they choose to buy such items we simply encourage the child to save them for home time. Many parents however are choosing to go to the school cafe after school to buy afternoon tea, a cheaper alternative to the processed food they may have once packed in the lunch boxes. The word is out, even locals who have no children at the school go there for coffee and cake!


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