You Are Not What You Eat

“You are what you eat.” 

A catchy little saying we have all heard so many times, it must be true, right? I wanted to explore this phrase, what exactly we mean when we say it, what it shows us about our cultural understanding of food & health, and how accurate it is. 

OK so, first of all, what kinds of things does this phrase imply? Here are some things that come to mind:

  • what you eat determines whether you will be healthy or unhealthy
  • what you eat reveals something about your character, morality, intelligence, etc.

Here are some of the issues I have with this way of thinking.

It oversimplifies and overstates the relationship between food & health.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that what you eat has no effect on your health (I’m a dietitian, after all, so I’ve literally devoted my career to the idea that what we eat does matter). However, the issue is that sometimes we place too much emphasis on the food, at the expense of other things that impact health. 

On an individual level, this could look like obsessing over our food choices to the point that we miss out on social connection by avoiding gatherings where we might be tempted to eat “unhealthy” food, or attending them but being so focused on counting calories or macros in our head that we are not fully present and engaged in the moment or our interactions with other people. Or it could look like spending so much money on fancy supplements, powders, juices, etc. that we put ourselves in a position of financial stress. 

On a societal level, this hyper-focus on food choices could look like spending all our time and effort trying to make people feel guilty about their “poor food choices” rather than focusing on ensuring equitable access to a wide variety of foods or other important areas like accessible mental health care. 

How much exactly do our food choices impact our health outcomes? This is obviously difficult to quantify, but one review found that “healthful dietary patterns were associated with significant but modest risk reduction (15-30%) for all-cause mortality and coronary heart disease” (1). In her book Anti-Diet, Christy Harrison discusses research indicating that “eating and physical activity combined account for only about 10 percent of population health outcomes” (2). 

So, again, I’m not saying our food choices don’t matter, or that we should not care, but just that they are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to health. Nutrition is full of grey areas, whereas sometimes I feel like the conversation around it can be so black-and-white. And health is so much more complex than just what we eat. Which leads me to my next issue with the phrase “you are what you eat”…

It overemphasizes our personal control over health and ignores social determinants of health.

Mikkonen and Raphael (3) argue: “The primary factors that shape the health of Canadians are not medical treatments or lifestyle choices but rather the living conditions they experience. These conditions have come to be known as the social determinants of health.” 

What exactly are these determinants? Things like income, employment, race, and access to health services. You can read more about it here: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/population-health/what-determines-health.html

Experiences with circumstances like poverty, unemployment, and discrimination are stressful. Stress has real physical effects on our bodies and over the long run can disrupt the function of our immune systems, hormones, and metabolism (3). Researchers have been able to measure these effects and find that, for example, everyday discrimination is associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation and risk factor for cardiovascular disease) (4). 

Additionally, our food choices, although we might like them to be 100% under our control, are also influenced by environmental or societal factors like food availability, media, and public policy. 

Again, I’m not trying to argue that nutrition and food don’t matter, but just that they are one piece of a very big and complex puzzle. One that involves not only individual choices and responsibility, but a big web of social, cultural and institutional effects. 

If our health is a priority to us, nutrition can definitely be supportive in this pursuit, but judging or shaming ourselves or others is not helpful. Which leads me to my next issue with the “you are what you eat” mentality.

It moralizes food choices.

In our culture, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables (especially lower calorie ones) are generally recognized as “good” while more calorie-dense foods like sweets and chips are frowned upon as “bad.”  Now, I’m not trying to argue that all foods are nutritionally equivalent, but just that these moral associations can be harmful. 

Think about some of the things we commonly say that reflect this type of thinking: “oh no dessert for me please – I’m being good!” or “oh my gosh I was so bad today, I ate two cookies! I’m going to have to work extra hard in the gym tonight.” 

So if we eat things that are “good” or “clean,” we feel virtuous and responsible. But what about when we eat something “bad” or “dirty”? This can lead to spirals of guilt and shame, which have a negative impact on our relationship with food (if you want to learn more about what it means to have a healthy relationship with food, I have a blog post on that topic), and can put us into cycles of restriction and overeating or feeling out of control with food. Shame and guilt also lead to eating experiences that are less pleasurable. Feeling guilty inhibits our ability to tune in to our own body cues around hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. 

Not only can this kind of moralized thinking cause us to judge ourselves, but on an interpersonal and societal level it is associated with stigmatization and exclusion of individuals who don’t conform with this supposed “picture of health” (2). Going back to my previous point and the social determinants of health… stigma is harmful to health. 

This kind of thinking can also even lead to disordered eating. Researchers have defined orthorexia nervosa as a “fixation on eating healthy food” to avoid illness and disease (5). There is a focus on quality and purity of food, in an attempt to ensure that the body is pure (sounds kind of like “clean” eating or cleanses, no?)

So… are you what you eat?

OK, so those are my issues with a seemingly innocent little saying. I’m not saying food choices don’t matter. But they aren’t the ONLY thing that matters, and they occur in a much bigger context than we often consider. And, most importantly, they don’t define your character or your worth as a human being.

So, no, I don’t believe you are what you eat – you are SO much more. 

References

  1. Kant, A. K. (2010). Dietary patterns: biomarkers and chronic disease risk. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 35, 199-206.
  2. Harrison, C. (2019). Anti-diet: Reclaim your time, money, well-being, and happiness through intuitive eating. Little, Brown Spark.
  3. Mikkonen, J. & Raphael, D. (2010). Social determinants of health: The Canadian facts. York University School of Health Policy and Management.
  4. Beatty Moody, D. L., Brown, C., Matthews, K. A., & Bromberger, J. T. (2014). Everyday discrimination prospectively predicts inflammation across 7-years in racially diverse midlife women: Study of women’s health across the nation. Journal of Social Issues, 70(2), 298-314.
  5. Bratman, S., & Knight, D. (2001). Health food junkies: Overcoming the obsession with healthful eating. Broadway Books.

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