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The Food Diaries: Why We Eat

Please Stop Watching Me Eat!

You dig into a bowl of Rocky Road as an antidote to a tough day at the office. Or you can't resist a second helping of mashed potatoes over dinner with your closest friends. Whatever your style, it's guaranteed you're not the only one who uses food as an outlet for what's going on inside. Guilt, pleasure, happiness, depression — for each of us, eating sustains us on our emotional journeys in life.

Please Stop Watching Me Eat!

By Rory Freedman

When it comes to emotional eating, I've been through the gamut. As a child, I was picky with what was put on my plate, so dinner was a constant battle of wills. According to my father, I had two choices: eat my vegetables or spend the night at the kitchen table. But I would not be bullied. I discovered an effective alternative: throwing up on my plate. I was excused.

As a teenager, I had long stopped letting a man — my dad — tell me how to eat. But apparently I still had some hurdles to clear. When my college boyfriend cheated, then confessed his infidelity, I lost about 10 pounds in two days. My roommates begged me to eat, even bringing me my favorite meals. But I felt empty inside; food had lost its allure. My body disappeared, along with my sanity and my faith in men. (Fortunately, my self-worth remained intact: I kicked that boyfriend's sorry ass to the curb.)

By my late 20s, I'd entered the take-charge phase of my life, and I hit my stride with food. (Thankfully, my faith in men had also been restored.) I cared deeply about what I put in my body and where my meals came from. I'd learned my lessons, and I wanted to share my insights with others. So, with my friend Kim Barnouin, I decided to write a diet and lifestyle book called Skinny Bitch.

Last May, Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, was photographed holding a copy of Skinny Bitch, and virtually overnight, sales skyrocketed. Although the global media frenzy was a gift from the publicity gods, I now find my diet and lifestyle under scrutiny: "How many rolls is she having?" "Did you see how fast she ate that?" "She ordered fries?!" Suddenly I feel weird eating in public. When I go to a restaurant, I can't shake the feeling that at any moment a photographer is going to pop out from under a table to try to catch me eating something "bad."

Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing to hide. I eat really well, almost all of the time. But I also indulge in occasional crap, which I don't feel the least bit bad about. (When it comes to cupcakes, the answer is always yes.) The goal was never to be some kind of robot eater, or to convince anyone else that they should be one. As Kim and I say in Skinny Bitch, "Just because we wrote this book doesn't mean we're perfect. If you see us eating junk food or doing beer bongs, don't hold it against us. We believe in enjoying life and maintaining a healthy balance. We're human." But the media never quotes that part of the book; they make it sound as if we tout a diet of lettuce and sprouts. Now I'm paranoid that they're out to get me: "Destroy the Skinny Bitch!"

My new challenge is not to let the recent attention spoil my greatest passion in life — eating. So far, so good: I still refuse to be bullied. People can say what they want. I will eat what I want. And if that photographer ever does spring out from under the table, I'll invite him to join me. (Hopefully, he'll be cute.)

Freedman is the coauthor of the best-selling books Skinny Bitch and Skinny Bitch in the Kitch.

Do I Dare to Apricot?

By Martha McPhee

Standing in the backyard of my friend's house in Italy, I watched as she plucked an apricot from a tree and handed it to me. I was 16, from New Jersey, and until that summer the only fruits I'd known were store-bought. But here, in this town snuggled into the foothills of the Alps, the apricot tree grew outside the kitchen window, its blush-colored fruit dangling like ornaments. Inside, my friend's mother prepared a midday meal — squares of thin homemade pasta rolled with bechamel, ham, and Parmesan, topped with a dash of butter and cream. In the oven, a roast sizzled; its smell wafted into the garden where I stood.

The apricot languished in my friend's palm, waiting for me. Her hair spilled about her broad, lovely face, and her dark eyes said, Eat it and you'll see. Donatella was a proud girl. She loved her country, her language, her appetite, and she wanted me — a quiet American visiting on a summer exchange — to love it too.

The fruit broke in half easily, plump and tender. I put it in my mouth. All these 27 years later, I can still taste it — succulent and sweet. Devouring it that afternoon pulled me inside Italy, made me adventurous in exploring new tastes. Over the next few months, Donatella urged me to venture further: cheese, salami, pheasant her father shot, uccellini (birds so tiny you eat the bones) on creamy polenta, pesce in carpione enjoyed at a ristorante overlooking the town's lake. That summer in Italy, I learned to appreciate not just the food but its origin in every bite, a sensation long sanitized out of most American cuisine. A tomato tasted as if it had just tumbled out of the garden; a fish retained saltiness that could only have come from the sea. I came to understand why I preferred peppers in August, strawberries in June, chicken from the butcher, handmade lasagna. I enjoyed taking apart the flavors of a dish as they settled on my palate, like someone distinguishing among the various instruments in an orchestral piece and appreciating how they stand apart and work together at once.

Time carried me away from that summer, but food, I came to understand, could transport me emotionally back through the years — to Italy and many other places I have since visited. A potato, for example, carries me to a roadside stand in India, eating masala dosa with my husband in a field of sunflowers. Fine dark chocolate takes me to the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, where I traveled with my father to taste Teuschers at the source. And an apricot, originally from China, transported across the Persian Empire, embraced by Mediterranean people, imported to America by the Spanish, and now grown stateside and sold in a bin at the local farmers' market, always returns me to Italy. One bite and I am 16 all over again, a little Americanina in an Italian garden, traveling through a portal to my past.

McPhee is the author of L'America, Bright Angel Time and the National Book Award finalist Gorgeous Lies.

Confessions of an Emotional Eater

By Karen Karbo

My name is Karen Karbo, and I am an emotional eater. I suppose I should feel some shame about this, but since I'm healthy and of normal weight, I've decided to embrace my moody appetite instead. The secret to my success? I understand well the urges that send me to the pantry. Some emotions — like frustration — require the immediate consumption of a pound of onion rings. But other emotions are better weathered by watching a rerun of CSI. When I'm fearful, for instance, or feeling blue, I have no appetite at all. (This is part of my dour, pessimistic Slav heritage. In fact, my glass-half-empty family is so skinny, I go home to lose weight.)

For my fellow EE Anonymous members, I have this advice: If every feeling in the human emotional pantheon sends you diving headfirst into the Entenmann's, you're going to have to re-prioritize, or else make "Big Is Beautiful" your lifelong motto. The better strategy is to connect different emotions to different food groups — and learn which feelings require no food at all. That way, the greater your mood swings, the more balanced your diet becomes.

And here's another tip: It's a myth that emotional eaters live on ice cream and doughnuts alone. People tend to think that because we snack from the heart, what we reach for is always bad for us. Not so. When I'm consumed by pure rage, I prefer food I can tear with my teeth or crunch so loudly I can't hear a word anyone else is saying. In those moments, an apple or a big carrot is more satisfying than a soft chocolate chip cookie. Ditto celery — known as a dieter's delight, but I like to think of it as Anger Management.

The best thing about embracing my emotional eating is that I've never fallen prey to what ruins so many less eccentric eating plans: guilt. In my world, all food is comfort food. What you eat simply depends on how you feel. And assuming I have a normal week, one where I rage at my cell-phone provider and feel delirious while riding my horse, content at a friend's party, depressed by the evening news and amused by Paris Hilton's latest shenanigans, I figure I've got the major food-pyramid departments covered. As long as I eat — or don't — according to my emotions, it balances out in the end.

It's not a perfect system, but for me, it works. Last time I hopped on the scale, I found I weighed the same as I did in college. You might say I'm having my cake and eating it too — but only a small slice, with the frosting scraped off.

Karbo, a Pulitzer-prize finalist, is the author of the novel Trespassers Welcome Here and the nonfiction book Big Girl in the Middle with Gabrielle Reece.

Reconciling Differences

By Chee Gates

My southern-fried mother believed in serving "real food" because, as she told me, it sticks to your bones — and your brains.

"I didn't eat nothin' but London broil and collard greens when I was pregnant with you," she used to boast. "That's why you get all those A's and your thighs are thicker than cold grits."

Imagine the look on her face, then, when I sauntered into the kitchen — a cocky age 13 — claiming I'd never eat meat again and condemning her bloodthirsty influence on my palate. This was in 1992 — before so many cosmopolites started lobbying for PETA, back when much of the urban middle class thought that vegetarians were beatniks from Southern California. Actually, the notion of the diet having been imported from a land far away was part of what appealed to me: I thought of my watercress salad with chickpeas and pine nuts as an assault on my socially homogenous background. I wanted to distinguish myself from the rest of the world — to hold myself aloft from mediocrity.

But several years into this dietary protest, my pledge to be a health nut cracked. I developed an affinity for glazed doughnuts and began to spend my free time loitering in bakeries. By the time I was 20, I weighed 174 pounds and wore a size 14. My butt looked like two waddling Jupiters. The thing I feared most had come true: I'd become an everywoman with a trans-fatty appetite. There was a drastic disconnect between my mind (I felt like Xena the Warrior Princess) and my body (I looked like Garfield the Cat).

A Rastafarian neighbor brought this to my attention one day, waking me from my stupor. "You're a conscious Sister," he said, flicking his finger beneath my double chin. "You should look the part." Lord knows he was right. So a little more than two years ago, I began amending my jiggle. I exercised like a maniac. I began a "can't-have-anything-that-tastes-good" diet. Sucrose, salt, soda, saturated fat — all exiled. I'd indulged enough in my former life, I thought. If I wanted my physique to represent my spirit, I'd have to eat for strength, not pleasure. Within six months, I emerged lean and eager, like an Olympic hopeful in training.

Initially, my fear of complacency sustained this transformation — the restricted food portions, the rigorous training schedule. When I slipped, I felt as if I'd lost one of my stripes. But after months of militantly following my new regimen, I began to question its wisdom. If I was as enlightened as I claimed, I realized, I should be able to make compromises without feeling marginalized. I should be able to occasionally enjoy the confections that make life sweeter without feeling like a failure.

Living by such a restrictive code was becoming lonely and anesthetizing. I didn't feel liberated; I was bound by my own ideology, hell-bent on perfection. And so I reconsidered, adding a leniency clause to my diet that allowed me to miss a workout or drink a pint of lager without repenting. Eating a glazed doughnut doesn't make me average, just as abstaining doesn't make me excellent. My diet is not a litmus test of my worth. I'm finally convinced that I am so much more than what I eat.

Gates is a staff writer at FITNESS.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2008.