Selena, Abuela’s Enchiladas, and Cultural Recovery from Binge Eating Disorder
By Juan C. Hernández, Clinical Psychology, Doctoral Student
Eating is a bridge that connects food to our bodies. It is often politicized and moralized through our healthcare system, our family and friend networks, and within our own internal narrative.
Binge eating is loosely qualified as consuming an “unusually” large amount of food within a short period of time and is accompanied by a sense of loss of control. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by multiple binge eating episodes across several weeks and is marked by ensuing negative feelings such as guilt and shame (APA, 2013). BED deviates from other eating disorders due to the lack of compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging) following a binge eating episode.
Now comes the recurrent question ever-present in most of our lives, “How much eating is too much?” Under circumstances where feeding and eating large amounts of food serves as a transaction of love and connection, we here find diet culture’s fixation with food-related self-regulation and restraint directly at odds with our own cultural upbringing. It is in this trench of cultural discontinuity that we see a sudden shift in our ancestral lineage’s eating habits. Food has shifted from being believed to be healing (e.g., “la comida es medicina”) to being thought of as a weapon wielded for self-harm.
I wonder how each of us can move a little closer to connecting with our cultural traditions. How can we successfully integrate tradition back into our lives when we face immense social pressure to be “healthy?”
Here are a few directions and questions that have helped me reconnect:
- Share family recipes. Ask myself how substitutes to “make it healthier” bring the recipe further away from its historical tradition.
- Practice self-compassion. Try to remember some of the messages I heard as a kid after big meals that helped me cultivate a rewarding relationship with eating. How can I say those messages to with myself and peers now?
- Be patient and gentle. Abandoning diet culture is difficult, particularly as we exist in societal and familial systems indoctrinated into the beauty and health industrial complexes. It is okay for it to take time and effort.
- Pick and choose. Which of my cultural traditions do I think will help me? Focus on the ones I believe are healthy to learn from and which I can move on from.
- Define my goals: Progress not perfection. Relationships with food are dynamic and complex. What do I want mine to look like?
- Listen to Selena. Remind myself how food, music, and community all function together.
Potential ideas for healthcare workers:
- Collaborate with those seeking help to determine what they hope to accomplish by reducing food consumption. Make sure everyone involved (e.g., yourself, help seeker, supporters) has considered that food is one of the primary mechanisms by which people can connect to their history, and how a narrative of reduction may further alienate individuals from their community.
- Collaborate with those seeking help to counteract false messages typical of healthcare workers that overestimate the causal pathway between higher weight or higher adipose fat tissue and health outcomes. Particularly among minority communities.
- Collaborate with those seeking help to challenge a deficit-perspective of binge eating (i.e., poor self-regulation), and incorporate rewarding details of eating behavior. Exposing help-seekers to the possibility of enjoying food and the communal connection it offers and practicing inhibition towards the subsequent compensatory negative emotions.
- Collaborate with those seeking help to remind them that “recovery” is an ongoing dynamic process that they themselves cultivate.
BED is a distressing condition and is the most common of all eating disorders. Improving BED symptoms becomes increasingly difficult given environmental pressures (e.g., diet culture, family culture) that encourage BED-related behavior are present at all stages of life. Expanding understanding and openness to our own cultural traditions may be one avenue by which we can respond to those pressures.
About the author:
Juan C. Hernández is a third-year doctoral student studying clinical psychology at Arizona State University. As part of Dr. Marisol Perez’ Body Image Research and Health Disparities (BIRHD) Lab, Juan studies ecological systems of child development among low-income Mexican American children. Specifically, Juan is interested in the interplay between neighborhood and family networks that promote positive behavioral health outcomes among minority youth. Photo by Rob Ewing.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.