The New Gastronome
Living with Food Restrictions
by Francisca Feiteira
by Francisca Feiteira
**Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders**
Intensive agriculture, chemicals, and the industrialised food industry have created basic foods – bread, milk, meat, and vegetables – that are environmentally and socially unhealthy. At the same time, the vast amount of ultra-processed foods in our supermarkets often have little nutritional value, causing many people to pay more attention to their diets. An idea that has recently been put under the spotlight by the broken food system, as well as societal body standards, and an increase in diet-related diseases. While not a bad concept per se, in this article, I want to dig into the negative side effects of this movement while trying to understand how it can affect a person’s mentality towards food.
I will explore the stories of three women who, for different reasons, decided to change to a seemingly healthier, more restrictive diet. I will investigate what led these women to their new diet, the physical, mental and social effects it had on them, and how they feel about certain kinds of food now.
Diana: A Restrictive Diet to Heal Gut Issues?
Diana lives with her parents in Guimarães, Portugal. She is 28 years old and started dieting when she was a teenager, even though she grew up in a family that always had vegetables and seemingly healthy choices on the table. Her wish to be skinnier and more self-confident made her go on some crazy diets – as she put it – that mainly consisted of cutting carbohydrates and eating a lot of salads. In 2013, she started feeling sick, experiencing stomach pains, bloating, discomfort, and constant cramps, which led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis and a strict dietary and medication plan. She had to stop eating spicy foods, chocolate, greens, and alcohol and kept dieting even though her doctors allowed her to eat all other foods. She still ate with her family and friends and made exceptions for cakes and other treats during special holiday meals. The medication worked well for the first four years but failed shortly after, so Diana decided to take care of her health herself. She bought books, read blog posts, and followed health influencers on social media to start her journey of recovery. To achieve what she thought would be the perfect healthy diet, she also decided to cut out lactose, gluten, fried food and sugar on top of her previous restrictions, but nothing seemed to work, and she continued to feel bad.
Diana stopped eating with her friends and brought her own food to any social events, aware that she could not eat with them without suffering stomach cramps as a consequence. Naturally, these restrictions influenced her mood, and Diana increasingly felt down, without any willingness to eat or meet her friends and often ended her day crying in bed. “There were a lot of very hard moments”, she told me but, luckily, various natural doctors helped her with her disease. She took food more seriously as a way of healing and learned which foods negatively affected her, consequently excluding those specific foods alongside gluten, dairy, and red meat from her diet.
“Even though she has been in therapy, she still rationalises the process of eating and envies her friends for being able to eat exactly what they want without thinking about whether the meal will be good for them or make them gain weight.”
Now, Diana has complete control over what she eats in a day, shopping for the special products she needs like seeds, gluten-free oats, plant-based milk, nuts and nut butter, dried fruits, quinoa, millet and co. Her favourite meal of the day is breakfast, which consists of lemon water, scrambled eggs, chia pudding or oat pancakes with fresh fruits. She always brings her own lunch to work, but she no longer brings her own food when she goes out with her friends because, thanks to therapy, she feels safe to try new things now. When she eats dinner at home, she eats it alone as her family prefers to eat around 20:30, which is too late for her. Nevertheless, Diana considers each meal a special and meaningful moment and is trying to move away from her extremely restrictive diet, as she still cannot eat intuitively and without thinking. Even though she has been in therapy, she still rationalises the process of eating and envies her friends for being able to eat exactly what they want without thinking about whether the meal will be good for them or make them gain weight. After all these years, she has a hard time even knowing what she wants, but on the rare occasions she has tried to choose without overthinking, she said she felt light and happy.
Sónia: A Restrictive Diet as Prescribed by the Nutritionist?
Sónia is a Portuguese woman living in Germany with her husband and cat. She is 34 years old, and every single one of her breakfasts from 2016 to January of 2021 has consisted of a kiwi, a sunny side egg with added egg whites from a package made without fat in a non-stick frying pan and four rice toasts. She started to eat like this when she lived in Amsterdam, where she began her self-proclaimed health journey. She went to a nutritionist that recommended a non-carbohydrate diet, and started to eat a lot of vegetables, nuts, oats and seeds. The nutritionist explicitly designed every meal, and Sónia began to overeat on the few things she could eat as she never felt full. This led her to get bloated and caused a lot of stomach pain and cramps.
Nevertheless, Sónia followed her food plan for five years. She was always the one to cook for her family, but since she followed such strict plans, she usually cooked one meal for herself and a different one for her husband. While he would eat from a regular dish, she had to eat from many small plates with precisely weighed-out ingredients on them. All of this started because she wanted to feel good when looking into a mirror and because she wanted to know what it would feel like to be ‘fully healthy’, so she followed the nutritionist’s instructions to a T. However, after years of amenorrhea and a miscarriage at the beginning of the year, Sónia decided to start seeing a psychologist to improve her relationship with food slowly.
With the help of therapy, Sónia is now finding new joy in food. She is trying to listen to her body and be more spontaneous. She said she lost years of her life, constantly feeling hungry and never truly enjoying food because of the guilt she would feel after eating. Now, working on finding a new balance, her period has returned, and she finally changed her breakfasts. She was also able to go out to eat with her friends again, which used to be a great source of anxiety as she was not able to control the situation and was scared her friends would suddenly decide to go to a pizzeria, which was entirely out of the question for her. Sónia had started to exclude herself but is now able to start eating outside again. She has also begun to cook only one meal for her and her husband and wonders why she never questioned the nutritionist’s strict indications. She recognised that women often have a problematic relationship with their bodies and feel a lot of pressure from different sides. Still, she also wishes she had not allowed herself to get so completely lost inside the diets and ideas – it was not worth it for her.
Joana: Is Intuitive Eating Restrictive?
Joana is 22 years old and lives in Lisbon with her parents and brother. She has a very interesting peculiarity: ever since she was a baby, she cannot eat sweets. She is also primarily vegetarian and eats a gluten and dairy-free diet. Both Joana and her mother started to care about healthy eating four or five years ago, and she immediately fell in love with the topic, beginning to study food and nutrition to make new dietary choices. Progressively, she started restricting as Joana considered healthy food to mean the least processed food possible, a lot of fruit and vegetables, good quality products and a diverse diet. She feels very good in her body and positively deflated since cutting out gluten. The changes also helped with skin problems and persistent headaches. Since her family also enjoyed the changes, Joana rarely eats alone, even though her mother does not always understand why she won’t eat certain food, which makes her feel judged. Her biggest change in diet was her breakfast, which now consists of a smoothie bowl or a vegan yoghurt with fruit. She also listens to her body and only eats in the morning when she is hungry, enabling her to fast longer between dinner and breakfast, which makes her feel better.
Generally, Joana tries to eat intuitively, does not count calories or follow restrictive diets. She simply tries to be the healthiest she can be, giving preference to complex carbohydrates rather than cutting them out entirely and not obsessing over her body. Sometimes she is happy with it, and other times she is not; still, she feels guilty if she eats something that she knows isn’t healthy for her body or overeats and feels full. Joana is afraid that she could become obsessed with diets and restrictions because she sometimes loses herself in those feelings and remembers past experiences with diet culture.
Having conducted these three interviews, I noticed that all three women followed more or less the same path: a tendency to dieting during adolescence which led to them eating in a restricted manner for some years. All of them wanted to have a healthy diet and perfect body, struggled with body issues – either wanting to lose or maintain their weight – and separated ‘good’ food from ‘bad’ food, which led to a relationship with food based on fear, guilt or rationalisation. To a certain extent, this led all three of them to struggle in their social lives – some more than others, which makes sense when we consider that food is not simply a biological need but also a social bond, a collective of memories, a source of pleasure, and a way to connect with ourselves, others and our ambience.
These stories can help to understand how deep some of these spheres can be and how easy it is for our minds to get caught up in trends and thought patterns without getting out of it by ourselves. The fact that both Diana and Sónia decided to get help from a psychologist showcases just how much of a mental process these restrictive diets have become. When we eat in a restrictive way, we end up having all our personal spheres orbiting around our next meal, allowing our diet to become bigger than our life. This can also be showcased in the fact that the word ‘afraid’ was always present, and all women reported the inability to simply enjoy their food. Diana finished her interview telling me that she still does not dare to eat bread – an ingredient that forms the base of our culture.
“So, instead of looking at food as a social bond and a source of joy and gratitude, every meal comes with a sense of deprivation and loneliness.”
This separation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food suggests that there is only one right way to be healthy, an argument underlined by social media. All three women said that although they find inspiration and can learn more about food and nutrition online, it’s hard to be constantly shown people who have the perfect diet, creating a destructive dynamic of comparison, confusion and guilt. Therefore, the idea that we have to find and create new friendship groups and communities who share the same diets as us – often via Instagram – replaces simply enjoying food with the people in our lives. Diana does not eat with her family even though they live together, and, while Sónia and Joana eat with theirs, Sónia used to cook separate meals for her husband and Joana is often faced with judgement from her family. So, instead of looking at food as a social bond and a source of joy and gratitude, every meal comes with a sense of deprivation and loneliness. It is not the meal that counts but the nutrients and calories within it.
This new way of eating separately from your family also has cultural implications as we tend to see food as something that unites people. Our family is the very group of people with whom we share the bread. In fact, the word ‘companion’, whose meaning implies familiarity and friendship, comes from the Latin com ‘together’ and panis’ bread’.
Gradually, food is losing all its convivial, social and cultural magic and is reduced to its nutritional values. But as it has always been more than the sum of its parts, switching to a restrictive diet forces us to restrict our social lives as well, for how are we supposed to share the bread if it cannot be eaten anymore.
Photos ©Deines Rojas
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome or The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.