I love food. I enjoy thinking about new recipes, planning menus for dinner parties, cooking, and, of course, eating: everything from fresh baguettes, cheeses of all kinds, chocolate, and, especially, the New York pizza I grew up with; the kind that turns the paper plate transparent because it’s so greasy.
Fewer than ten years ago, though, I wouldn’t have been able to admit that this most basic of human comforts--food--brought me so much pleasure. In fact, food didn’t bring me all that much pleasure in those days. For a full ten years--from age 14 to 24--I struggled to get by mostly on Diet Coke and Granny Smith apples. I was eating so much raw broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and spinach that I had intestinal trouble and my doctor, after calculating how many servings of fruits and vegetables I was consuming each day, insisted that I needed to cut back for the sake of my health.
I had to cut back on vegetables andfruits. For my health.
My body--still growing during many of those years; I was a very late bloomer--craved heartier nourishment, and as a result, I began an unhealthy pattern of alternating self-starvation with the consumption of huge meals (often eaten in secret) after which I always felt guilty and awful. Once, I walked for miles and miles to ‘atone’ for what was, in retrospect, a thoroughly normal meal. I was embarrassed to be seen eating. I didn’t want anyone to know that I secretly loved food as much as any person, maybe even a bit more.
I thought the ideal attitude to have toward food was indifference: ‘fill the tank with healthy fuel, not too much, just enough’ was the philosophy I tried to live by. If I happened to enjoy eating something at one time or another, I’d be filled with guilt and shame. Dietary “righteousness”--usually in the form of huge salads with no dressing besides a splash of vinegar--was all that could please me. I tried to live as if I had no sense of smell or taste; no hunger or cravings.
I wish I could say there was a single moment in time when that all changed--a New Year’s resolution I made to start enjoying food and stop abusing it (and my body) for good. But the truth is more complicated, as the truth often is. When I became pregnant at age 23, I knew I had to think at least as much about my baby’s health as my own, and when he was born, and I nursed him, I found myself feeling profoundly grateful for the chance to feed him, to provide for his needs. Over time, I began to suspect that, in a similar way, God loved to feed me. I planted a garden and watched food grow. I picked peaches and apples from trees planted decades ago. I caught fish in the lake and cooked them for dinner with plenty of butter and lemon, and didn’t even feel guilty about it.
I was beginning to understand that food wasn’t appealing and delicious so as to tempt me into the sin of gluttony. Food was appealing and delicious because God made it that way; because God wanted me to taste and see that the Lord is good; because God delights to prepare a table before me, to fill my cup to overflowing. The kingdom of God is not described in Scripture as a banquet for nothing. God welcomes us home, like the prodigal, with a feast. To enjoy food--to anticipate the fragrance and texture and taste and receive it with thanksgiving--was not a sin. It was sacred.
We live in a culture that makes it easy for us to indulge any and all of our food cravings almost whenever and wherever we are--and one that, at the same time, presents us with a (literally) narrow version of constitutes physical beauty. It is not surprising that the majority of American women and girls are dissatisfied with their bodies and attempt, in one way or another, to change them with diet and exercise. And let’s not forget the $20 billion--yes, billion--diet and weight loss industry that’s eager to sell us a ‘fix,’ the quicker the better.
There are, of course, situations that call for changes in habits of eating or of physical activity. Such changes are harder than swapping out last year’s calendar, popping a pill, or discovering a ‘miracle’ diet. Change comes differently for different people. But it rarely comes quickly, and it rarely comes in response to fear--the sort of fear of fat, food, and my own appetites that ruled me for ten years.
Whatever journey you may be beginning--or continuing--this new year, consider: God made food for your body, and your body, with all its needs and desires, to need food. Whether you eat this or that matters less than that you learn to receive it with joy for what it is: a gift.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Sojourners, Books & Culture, RELEVANT, and others. She also regularly contributes to Her.meneutics. Rachel lives in Malawi, Africa with her husband Tim and two little boys. You can read more from her at her blog, or follow her @rachel_m_stone.