Mindful Eating -- Should Food Manufacturers Tell Us When We're Full?

So, this got serious. Trigger warning for eating disorders!

Jun 7, 2012 at 12:01pm | Leave a comment

There's a new study that says if you give people clues -- edible clues -- when they reach the end of a serving size, they'll eat less. College students were given tubes of chips, some of which contained a dyed red chip to indicate various serving sizes. No one told the students why the chips were dyed red.

This is kind of fascinating because it is a prime example of just how desperate our culture is getting to control what people put in their mouths.

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Shall we dye some of these green beans red?

I say fascinating because I can't think of another word that adequately conveys "makes me want to laugh at the ridiculousness going on here but also makes me want to cry at the ridiculousness going on here." Imagine it in Spock's tone of voice when he's just witnessed something that is complete anathema to his Vulcan philosophy.

By "Vulcan philosophy" in this case, I really mean "belief that individuals get to make their own choices."

Now, I'm not actually saying that mindful eating is a bad thing. I'm saying letting a prepackaged food tell you when you've had enough isn't actually mindful. In fact, that's kind of the opposite of mindful. It's genuinely interesting that people look for external cues to tell them when they are done eating -- but manufacturing further ways for people to give control of their appetites to food manufacturers skeeves me out. We're taking evidence of the way people are disconnected from their hungry and using it to justify further widening the gulf between individuals and eating competence.

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There's a lot of hype about restaurant portion sizes but if you're hungry, then eat.

If we want to talk about mindful eating, I think we have to teach people to recognize their own hunger and satiety cues. You know -- the ones that our diet culture has taught us to ignore and disregard until some of us don't even feel them anymore.

I don't talk about it extensively because I still tend to dismiss my own history of disordered eating as being not that serious. But let me talk about it for just a minute now: For a number of years in college, and as an adult before I stopped dieting, my eating was so deeply disordered that, in hindsight, I have no idea why no one said anything. Except I do -- no one said anything because starvation diets are considered good choices for fat people.

During this time of my life, I was fairly well obsessed with serving sizes. More specifically, I was obsessed with serving sizes so that I could eat less than that and calculate what fraction of the calories listed I had actually consumed. Pre-packaged foods were a must because they had that convenient caloric and serving size information printed on them. When friends took me out to dinner, I did the math in my head -- and I always rounded up so I could make myself think I was eating more than I was.

Somehow, I became convinced I was an abnormal eating machine -- that the only way I could be fat was that I was somehow eating an obscene amount of food. Our diet culture reinforced this idea, told me I was lying when I ventured to say that I didn't think I was eating all that much anyway.

I certainly wasn't eating healthy.

And I lost a lot of weight. I was the thinnest I've ever been as an adult, a size 14/16. I imagine that if I had continued that lifestyle (which also included working two retail jobs and walking for miles a day to school and back), I'd have continued to lose weight. At least to a certain point. And I worry, sometimes, that I'd also have died -- and that no one would have realized why.

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Eating a waffle and bacon does not make you a bad person.

At my lowest point, I passed out in a theme park. Trust me -- being able to tell people you've been wheeled out of Halloween Horror Nights by an ax-murdering zombie is not nearly as funny as it seems at first blush. Because then you have to tell the embarrassing story of how you collapsed because you hadn't eaten more than a small snack bag of Cheetoes for three days before you chose to run around all night in the rain from scare house to scare house. And you feel like an idiot. Because OF COURSE that's going to end in disaster, right?

I'm not arguing that there is a direct linear connection from Point A Dyed Potato Chips to Point B Lifetime of Disordered Eating -- but then again, there might very well be. Because this cultural insistence that we all eat too much legit makes me feel kind of panicked that, you know, maybe I AM eating way too much. Which throws me right back into that spiral of starving myself. And, as so many It Happened To Me articles have proven, we are never as alone as we think.

The article makes a point that the students were not informed of why some of the chips were dyed red. But I can't actually believe that means the students didn't know the red chip meant the end of a designated portion. Because not only are people fairly smart about these sorts of things even when they can't articulate their reasoning, we've been trained by the world around us to know that limitation markers like that exist.

Red means stop.

I don't think it actually takes someone sitting a person down and saying, "Hey, when you hit the red chip you should stop" for people to already know the implications of that color. The wheels on the bus go round and round and red means stop. This is kindergarten training in lifelong effect.

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I used to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables because I had no idea of their caloric count - which threw me off my eating disorder game.

Every appetite is different. Also, it is not actually the end of the world if someone eats more chips than the manufacturer thinks they should. Are humans lousy estimators? Yes, we often are. This is why you should never bet money on carnival games where people guess your height and/or weight. But being a lousy estimator is not actually a good reason to trust the food science industry with what you should put in your body.

Yeah, I don't really have a lot of love for the food science industry as a whole, it's true. But I'm not even saying that out of spite. I'm saying that because it's your own body and I think you as an individual are probably better equipped to make choices for it than some researchers who have never met you.

I trust you with your body.

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Eating is not solely about fueling the body anyway - it's also about community and pleasure.

Another complication of depending on false signaling like this -- you can't really stack carrots and dye one of them red. I mean, you could, if you devised a new product packaging system for them. That's happened before (look at baby carrots, after all), but it seems far more efficient to deal with the way people are increasingly unable to interpret their own body's needs, the way people are increasingly distinct from their physical selves.

Things have been a bit stressful lately so I've been skipping meals again, falling back into old ways of believing that I must somehow be eating a whole lot more than I think. A little while back, I took what was basically a group therapy course with Michelle, who is known as the Fat Nutritionist. We explored a lot of why we struggled and learned a lot about eating competence, normal eating. One of the most powerful and surprisingly difficult things that we did was give ourselves permission to eat -- or not to eat -- as we needed to.

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This is the kind of food instruction I can live with.

No lie, I cried like a baby after that session. Because permission is such a simple thing but our culture really has tried its best to take it away from us. Yeah, I know, it's just a study about some edible stop signs. Some people are going to talk about how they like having predetermined serving sizes instead of having to think about it and some other people are going to say it's easy to ignore stuff like dyed red chips. But I will tell you this: I don't want to be wheeled out of any more theme parks.

You are allowed to eat. And no red chip can take that away from you. But, man, do food manufacturers seem to want to try.

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Here, take this. It's dangerous to go alone.