The following is an excerpt from The Living Diet: A Christian Journey to Joyful Eating. Used with permission from Church Publishing. All rights reserved.
In my favorite second-hand bookstore, I came across a title that I couldn’t resist—Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. Geneen Roth is the author of what turned out to be a self-help book detailing a way of getting and maintaining a healthy body weight by learning to listen to your body rather than dieting.
I note Roth’s work because of one of her most seemingly sensible suggestions: only eat when you are hungry. She argues that much of our disordered eating stems from using food as a way to avoid feeling: “Eat what you want when you are hungry and feel what you feel when you’re not.”
Every women’s magazine selling every kind of diet will tell you the same thing. Don’t eat emotionally. Don’t eat out of boredom, sadness, grief, depression, worry or stress. What I am about to say might seem strange. I agree with Roth that food can be improperly used as a way of numbing pain, and I know that learning to listen to the body is an important learning on the path to wellness. Yet Roth actually prescribes something that is impossible. It is impossible to not eat emotionally. It is impossible to eat only out of pure physical need.
Manna for Newborns
Jesus didn’t invent a connection between God and food. He learned it. Jesus’s people—the Jewish people—built their lives on the understanding that their history was tied to God’s invitation and action among them. Jesus was formed by this story and proclaimed the Good News from inside of it. It is a history of relationship, and it is a story of human hunger.
In the midst of their burning anxiety, with the great weight of the unknown bearing down on them, their focus narrowed on one key concern: they were hungry.
After the Passover and their escape from Egypt, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. They were no longer slaves, but they had not yet learned what it meant to be free. In the midst of their burning anxiety, with the great weight of the unknown bearing down on them, their focus narrowed on one key concern: they were hungry. They lashed out at Moses, arguing that he had liberated them only so they could die of starvation in the desert.
There is something primal about the wilderness experience of the Israelites. They had been shunted down the birth canal of their liberation into a new identity. But it would take time to learn their identity, to grow into it. They were uncoordinated, overwhelmed, and reacting mostly on the level of instinct. They were like newborns, and they responded to all of the terror and uncertainty like any healthy newborn does: they cried for food. As they cried, they encountered the world around them, their choices in that world and where those choices would lead them. At its worst, their hunger compelled them to forge a golden calf in a midnight fire when they had come to believe they were alone, and that gods and food could be created and manipulated by people disconnected from anything more meaningful than their single selves. Their choice, they would discover, led to death.
In contrast, there was a second choice that led to life. God offered them a sweet and mysterious heaven-sent food; this manna was God’s response to their cries of hunger and fear. It came with the dew of sunrise, a sweet flakey substance that could be shaped into bread or cakes. It was provided for them each morning as a blessing. The Israelites were to gather it, taking only as much as they needed for their families for that day. They enjoyed the manna for the first few mornings. Then they got smart. They began to hoard it. They didn’t trust that God would continue to provide for their needs. They had learned the lesson we teach still: there is not enough. They were thinking ahead, planning for the scarcity that was inevitable. But they received a surprise. Anything they took beyond what they needed turned to maggot-infested waste. God taught them their new identity by feeding them exactly what they needed, exactly as much as they needed, and in a way that made it clear that the source of their nourishment was the One who gave them life in the first place.
Hunger and Love
I had just given birth to my daughter Cecilia and was full of new-mother hormones. I was sleep-deprived and scared. I had no idea what I was doing, and doing the right thing had never mattered so much. In the overwhelming expanse of all that I suddenly did not know, my anxious mind settled on one worry—my daughter won’t stop eating! I was breastfeeding, and while I had been prepared for the fact that my newborn was unlikely to adhere to the kind of four-hour eating schedule that had once been touted as the norm, I was increasingly concerned by her insatiable appetite. I called my midwife, already mentally packing my bags to make a rushed trip to the hospital, and I explained the situation.
“She’s hungry?” my midwife asked. “That’s great!” Then she added, “Feed her!”
She had been safe, warm, and close in the dark world of my womb. She had been shunted into a bright, open, loud, and unknown reality. She was responding to this terror and uncertainty by crying for food.
I muddled my way through those early days. I learned about following my baby’s signs, sitting still and being present and nourishing to this new creature in my life. It was only much later that the penny dropped. My child was hungry. The one and only survival instinct with which Cecilia had come equipped had shifted into high gear. She was eating, and therefore she was living. She had been safe, warm, and close in the dark world of my womb. She had been shunted into a bright, open, loud, and unknown reality. She was responding to this terror and uncertainty by crying for food. As I held her and fed her, she invested herself fully into the project of survival, and more than that, of life.
In a 1987 scientific discovery, a group of researchers from the Karolinska Institute observed a phenomenon they named The Breast Crawl. A newborn infant, seemingly helpless in every respect—eyesight undeveloped, gross and fine motor skills at a bare minimum, not even strong enough to hold its head up on its neck—will, if left alone, follow a clear and discernible pattern of behavior that will result in that newborn finding their food source—their mother’s breast—and initiating feeding. The baby is literally hardwired in those first moments of life to do nothing other than use all five senses, every ounce of strength, to “crawl” towards milk.
The baby continues, in their first days and weeks, to develop the muscle and brain power to respond to the world around them, and as that development happens at its a lightning pace, they maintain one constant. They react to every fear, every need, every discomfort, with the desire to feed. From the beginning, that core instinct is inextricably linked to much more than their physical needs. As they feed, they are also held. Their skin touches the skin of another. They initiate eye contact, the gaze of the Loving falling on the Beloved. This brand-new life chooses survival, and built into that physical survival are the gifts—the necessities—of relationship, touch, and love.
Emotional eating is good, natural, holy. It forms the foundation of human life, which, from the outset, is clearly relational.
Cecilia’s first instinct led her to eat from her mother’s body, and as she did this insatiably and relentlessly, we fell in love with each other. Emotional eating is good, natural, holy. It forms the foundation of human life, which, from the outset, is clearly relational. Relationship and survival cannot be separated from one another; food is programmed to carry not just nourishment, but deep and powerful emotional content.
I don’t remember my own infant experiences of breastfeeding. And yet, at the same time, I clearly do. What else was I doing in those dark obsessive adult days if not trying desperately to connect? I was trying to crawl my way toward a warm body that would hold me, feed me, and show me that I was loved. I might remember nothing of that first year of my life, but the experience I no longer remember shaped me forever.
Only eat when you are hungry. Don’t eat emotionally. It sounds like simple and reasonable advice. And it shows a complete forgetfulness of how human life actually works, what human life is actually for. Eating is emotional. It is emotional from the outset and for good reason. Emotional eating is built into the agenda of survival. Telling someone to not eat emotionally makes as much sense as telling someone to breathe less. Breathing and eating are our primary instincts. Thank God.
Thank God for nourishing our bodies in a way that directly expands our capacity for giving and receiving love.
Thank God for lungs insisting that their craving for air be continually satisfied. Thank God for nourishing our bodies in a way that directly expands our capacity for giving and receiving love.
Yet knowing that eating is emotional does not mean we are trapped. It does not mean my addiction to food and my disordered eating had to be the last words on my life, or that our futile attempts at filling our empty souls by stuffing our faces with junk have to be the last words on our collective lives.
What was it the prophets said?—Why do you keep eating that which is not food? Those prophets have continually called the people to remember the lessons they learned on their wilderness journey, in the bread rained down from heaven on their newborn cries. Emotional eating has the capacity to teach us something, to remake us into who we truly are.
From The Living Diet: A Christian Journey to Healthy Eating by Martha Tatarnic and published by Church Publishing Incorporated. Used with permission. All rights reserved.