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Maia Miller-Lewis explores what really lies behind the old adage, and the impact it can have on relationships with food...

When I was a kid, my mother would always tell me ‘you are what you eat’. Repeated over and over again, this phrase became a mantra to follow when approaching every meal. Whether it was used to get me to eat more vegetables, or less chocolate, it stuck with me everywhere I went- whether I liked it or not.

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I saw it used by bullies to pick on the kids who has ‘smelly’ packed lunches, filled with delectable, such as a homemade curry, or a cheese and pickle sandwich. For a seven-year-old, trotting out this well know saying was simply a way to articulate their lack of understanding of different cultures and things outside of what they considered, ‘normal’. When you think about it, if you’d never seen a shisha kabab before- long, thin and brown, as tasty as they are, you may have mistake them for a something else entirely….

It was also used as a force for good. Who wasn’t eager to eat sweetcorn, imbued with the promise of becoming a big, green friendly giant! I often dreamed of the day, while stuffing my face with carrots, when I would be able to see in the dark.


But, for someone who struggles with food, whether they are a fully fledge adult, or a vulnerable child, this idiom takes on a whole new meaning. Staring at a slice of toast, stomach rumbling, having had nothing to eat that day, ‘you are what you eat’ conveys the image that you are just that- nothing. Losing all desire and love for food, you become an empty shell, devoid of the base pleasure of tucking into a fresh croissant- a blank page stating at an equally black plate.

There are many manifestations of this confrontation. You may feel that your physical appearance is inadequate. Spending most of the morning stood in front of a mirror, in place of the power to write, play an instrument or simply hug your friend, all you see is two big, fat, flabby arms. It could be about control. If everything is seemingly going wrong in your life; your grades are slipping, you’re not getting on with your mum, you may feel that the only thing you have any power over is your ability to say no- to punish yourself for something that in truth, you’re not to blame for.

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It is not just the individual who self-reinforces this mentality either. The societal expectation, especially on women to ‘eat ladylike’, is a corrosive force. Forgoing that rare steak in favour of a salad to ensure you won’t get ‘bulky’, every day, women are linked with their food preferences; judged on what they choose to digest to get the vital energy every human body needs. It’s an insidious, parasitic mentality, one that eventually, will cause even the strongest person to question their choices. Skipping lunch one day in fear of being watched can have a spiralling effect-one that isn’t easy to stop.

As many have surely tried, if you only eat apples, you may be able to retain your rosy, sweet exterior; perfectly polished and presented. But on the inside, you are slowly rotting- shrivelling under the pressure to ensure that what you eat doesn’t incur the criticism of those around you. But……it’s not all doom and glum! There are always people who care about, who can pull you back from the brink of whatever has pushed you to your own, personal edge. Hold on to the time when you were sat on the kitchen floor with your friends, eating ice cream out of the tub- even though you’re lactose intolerant! Never forget, the joy you felt having that drink to celebrate getting that great grade, or a that new job. At the end of the day, you chose who you are! Emotions around food are fleeting and, more often than not, will be forgotten the next day. Take ‘you are what you eat’, as a rallying cry, supporting your campaign to be the next sweetcorn giant. Don’t take it as a reason, not to eat the stinky cheese!


Featured image credit: flickr / all Fitness

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