Opinions, Column

The Culinary Cold War

The negotiations have intensified. “Can I have this bagel?” you ask yourself. No. Of course not. Do you realize how many carbs are in a bagel? Well, what if you have a salad for dinner? And some green tea. For the antioxidants. You sweet talk your dietary guilt complex, trying to get it to budge. The situation is tense, but you are a skilled negotiator, with years of experience in dietary diplomacy.

Screw it.

You eat the bagel. It’s delicious. But after the sweet rush of carbs and cream cheese dissipates, your guilt complex counterattacks with a full emotional offensive. You feel a sudden, intense desire to eat something green, or better yet, never eat again. What have you done? You are Kennedy, and this bagel is your Bay of Pigs. You may not have an entire nation depending on your decisions, but you do have your physical and emotional health at stake. So far, things are not looking good.

So what do you do? Who wins the war? Do you give in to the guilt, replacing pleasure with self-discipline? Do you militarize the dinner table, watching each forkful with the distrustful eye of a dictator? Or do you let freedom ring? Do you eat what you want, when you want, dietary norms be damned? Do you give in to your tendencies for emotional eating, masking it under a program of laissez-faire nutrition? I ask again: who wins the war? Then again, no matter who wins the war, you still lose. You let your fears, anxieties, and emotions rule what you eat. And in the end, this dietary Cold War can consume you.

Perhaps the Cold War analogy seems extreme. It’s not that serious a problem, this tense relationship with food. But what if it is? According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of female college students report dieting to control weight. This dieting may begin in good faith, but it often progresses to pathological, even dangerous eating patterns. Perhaps this widespread tendency can be attributed to media or beauty corporations or just a year in the high-pressure vacuum that is the college campus. Some say the Cold War began in the throes of WWII. Perhaps the culinary Cold War began in a war over body image.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something in the water here. Something that intensifies our need for perfection, whether in the classroom, on the field, or even at the dinner table. Just walk into the Plex, where you can find rows on rows of full ellipticals, each claimed by another perfectly toned, spandex-clad, fully motivated BC student. Or check out Mac or Lower, which churn out thousands of carefully organized salad plates a night. It’s perfect, right? We’re all healthy and theoretically happy. But then, what are these intense feelings of inadequacy and loss of control that flood my mind whenever I eat a grilled cheese or a Hillside cookie? Maybe you’ve felt them too. I’ve listened to enough dinnertime diet conversations to know I’m not the only one. The Cold War exists, no matter how natural our salads appear or how effortless our trips to the Plex seem to be.

I used to think this battle existed primarily outside ourselves. There were the people who dieted and the people who didn’t. The people who obsessed over calories and the people who looked at cookies like a gun-owning Republican looks at the Second Amendment. But now I’m not convinced. Somewhere along the line, this battle became internalized. We no longer fight on one side of the war, but rather let the war rage on within ourselves. We eat burgers, but then we feel guilty about it. Then we eat salads, but only begrudgingly, with an acute sense of restraint. Slowly, but surely, the troops have rolled in.

After years of this internal polarization, I’ve had enough. Frankly, I’m exhausted. I wish I could call out, “olly olly oxen free” and let this war come to a peaceful end. I’d call off the calorie counting and the emotional binge eating, the severe restrictions and the uncontrollable excesses. Tell the troops to go home. The war would end, on our terms. The dietary detente would rule, and we could once more enter the kitchen unarmed, with a relaxed mind and an excited stomach.

Unfortunately, I’m not a political science major. I received a D- on my first “How to Rule the World” essay, and I’ve since let any political aspirations go to the wayside. I haven’t figured out how to defuse intense geopolitical conflicts, much less my own struggle with nutrition. I’m told the solution lies in willpower or self-acceptance. Perhaps someday I’ll wake up and my guilt complex will be replaced by a more supportive sense of restraint. Until then, I’ll see you at the Plex or the produce section of Trader Joe’s. I may also see you in White Mountain, though hopefully not too often.

Until the armistice begins, I wish you strength and courage. Strength to fight on, but more importantly, courage to walk away from the war itself. I hope you treat your body with vegetable-induced respect, but still provide it with the satisfying pleasure of a chocolate chip cookie. I hope you enjoy every guilt-free, hearty, healthy, delicious, perhaps even chocolaty, bite.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

February 21, 2016