Recently, I was talking to one of my clients about the need to "deserve" food. This is a narrative I hear from a lot of people (and one that's reinforced by the culture at large). Truly, how many times have you heard someone tell you they deserve to have dessert because they did XYZ activity today. I can hardly go out to eat without overhearing someone say "oh come on, you deserve it!" whether it's to dessert, a second drink, a meal that they would consider "bad". I should make it clear that I fully support their decision to order any of these things if they want it but it has nothing to do with whether they deserve it (they do). The idea that we need to deserve the food that we eat is problematic for many reasons but let's start at the top. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of deserve after this conversation. At the risk of sounding trite, let me share with you the definition of deserve per Merriam Webster,
deserve (v): to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward or requital
Reward or requital. Meaning that if you have it in your mind that you need to deserve food, you're either using it as a reward or as a punishment. This is a deeply problematic idea. First and foremost, food can just be food. By making it something we see in a positive ("reward") or negative ("punish") light, we are unable to view it as what it is: neutral. Not good, not bad, just food. As you've probably heard me (or others) say before, there's no moral value to food. It can't change who you are as a person. It can't make you a good person, it can't make you a bad person. The need for nourishment just makes you a person, plain and simple. You never need to justify your need to eat because at the end of the day you're a human who needs to consume food to survive (my hope for anyone is food would be more than pure survival- but I also know that depending on an individual's circumstances, food may solely mean survival at some point and that's okay too).
All that aside, the idea that food is always a reward or a punishment reinforces a lot of disordered behavior. A lot of eating disorder behaviors can be tied back to the idea of food as a reward and punishment especially. There are so many ways that rhetoric can be harmful whether it means pushing yourself to workout longer to "deserve" dinner, punishing yourself by bingeing (or restricting), rewarding yourself with food after a period of restriction. Even if it seems innocent, I would encourage you to explore (possibly with a therapist or dietitian if that is accessible) what your thought process is anytime your food intake is dependent on your behavior. Untangling the messy web that diet culture weaves to convince us we need to earn our food is exhausting and quite possibly painful but a very necessary aspect of recovery.
When we talk about the need to deserve food, we uphold this idea that your worth is somehow tied into how much food you eat. It's not. But when you have a complicated relationship to your body and your mind, it's easy to feel like you don't deserve even the simple things. It can be easy to feel like your body is not worth taking care of. But here is the thing: even if you can't see it, your body is always worth taking care of. Full stop. There's nothing you can do/not do that would make you unworthy of self-care or unworthy of food. There are a million things that make YOU a good and worthy person (exploring this and possibly making a list when you need a reminder might be a good idea) but what it comes down to is that you are worthy of taking care of yourself because you are a human. If you lay in bed all day, you still need to eat. If you mess up something at work, you still need to eat. If you fail an exam, you still need to eat. Even if you were a terrible person (and I can think of some really terrible people in the news right now), you would still need to eat. You are inherently worthy of proper nourishment, of adequate sleep, of taking care of yourself in the ways that you need to and that are accessible to you.
The last thing that I think is important to note in this conversation- sometimes you will want to reward yourself with food and that's okay. Some examples that come to mind- when you get a new job and go out for drinks with a friend, when you have a hard day and go out to get yourself ice cream to celebrate getting through it, when you have a birthday and someone makes you a cake. There's some nuance in this conversation as these things could technically be considered "rewards" but I don't see any of them as a problem - in fact, I would encourage all of them if they sounded appealing. We can't forget that food is not just fuel. It's part of our culture and connection with others. But the more we can view all food as neutral, the more we can connect with our body's inner wisdom (while still allowing flexibility when someone makes you a cake on your birthday) and make choices without assigning them moral value.
Food is not a reward or a punishment. It's not something you need to justify or explain. There's no upper limit to the amount of food you "deserve" to eat. No matter what hand of cards you're dealt in this life, one of them is the "right to nourish my body" card and it can never be revoked. Despite what diet culture may have taught you, your body is always worth taking care of.
Cover photo by Priscilla Du Preez