Food, Fear, and Diabetes

devil's food cupcake with whipped cream filling

This morning I read two posts that collided, in a way, to illuminate for me the fears that we’ve attached to food. One post was from a friend with diabetes and one from a friend without diabetes. In the first, Jessica conveys the worry and guilt that many of us with diabetes feel as we grapple with our appetite for any carbohydrate, like pie or even cereal. (Can I eat those? What will they do to my blood sugar?) In another, a Facebook friend whom I know to be fastidious about health, even though she is not diabetic, linked to this column about the “toxic cocktail” of additives we ingest along with the foods we eat every day. (“For the vast majority of Americans consuming industrial foods, a veritable chemical cocktail enters their bodies every day.”)

Surely, there is a documented basis for these food fears.

It suddenly occurred to me, however, that the anxiety that people with diabetes feel about food is amplified by the culture we live in, a Western culture with ample food supply, and one that makes us worried not for its scarcity, but for its abundance, deliciousness, and (sometimes unknown) origins.

In a 1998 article for Psychology Today on “The New Food Anxiety,” which parses our epoch’s obsession with food and its ills and attractions, Paul Roberts describes the emotional and psychic meaning of food in the lives of children and adults. As children, “through eating we first learn about desire and satisfaction, control and discipline, reward and punishment.” And, as we develop into adults:

Food takes on extraordinary and complex meanings. It can reflect our notions of pleasure and relaxation, anxiety and guilt. It can embody our ideals and taboos, our politics and ethics. Food can be a measure of our domestic competence (the rise of our souffle, the juiciness of our barbecue). It can also be a measure of our love.

Control. Discipline. Anxiety. Guilt. Pleasure (not much). Ideals (the perfect HbA1C). Those seem like words from the diabetes lexicon, too.

I don’t recall there being good food or bad food when I was a child. We were hungry; we ate. Sometimes the dinner my mother made was delicious; sometimes dinner was just food. I never looked at a package to read its ingredients or nutritional content; my kids were trained to do that in school shortly after they could read. It probably wasn’t until I was a teenage girl and the adolescent obsession with the ideal body kicked in that I thought of my eating as related to my virtue. If I didn’t eat the pizza or full sleeve of Oreos, I was good (read: in control over my food and therefore the shape of my body). Interestingly, these ideas of virtue and food did not come from my parents, whose only comments about our bodies had to do with modesty. These ideas about food, weight, and body were in the culture.

Ideas about food still have to do with weight, but the association of food with virtue has become even more complex. A cupcake is no longer just the sum of its calories; now it’s a package containing trans fatty acids, additives, gluten, sugar, sodium, and possible traces of nuts. An orange is grown either organically or commercially (that is, chemically), and there are implications to eating either. Being a locavore is akin to the attainment of a kind of nirvana.

Perhaps these food-related pressures would be easier to bear if food hadn’t also, since my childhood, become more yummy! Look at the proliferation of food blogs out there. Check out the dishes on Sassy Radish, for example, or 101 Cookbooks. If you had a look at Heidi’s Spring Pasta Recipe (yum), would you ever want to boil a box of macaroni and open a jar of sauce again?

We live at a time when the food worries are higher, the food choices more ample, and our food knowledge prolific.

Add diabetes to this. Mix and serve. It’s no wonder why there’s so much fretting about food, implicit or overt (and mine included), on A Sweet Life.


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Michelle Page-Alswager
11 years ago

Carolyn, this line says it all: diabetes is “frustrating but illuminating all in one.” Reflecting on that remark actually helped inspire my post for today, on my riches as a motherhood. Too often I’m so good at describing the frustrations. It’s worth trying to write interestingly also on diabetes’s illuminations.   Mo, what inspires me to eat healthier often is healthy food! And I don’t mean 100-calorie packs (although I eat those). I mean walking past a pile of oranges or strawberries in the grocery store, seeing and smelling them, and being inspired to buy them instead of, say, cookies.… Read more »

11 years ago

What a wonderful blog and sadly true. I just tweeted this, as these are the issues that affect me and my Dad. Where do we find the balance while still enjoy life & eating?  I’m lucky because I like eating whole/real foods and thrive on the challenges to create tasty recipes that aren’t filled with fake icky ingredients. How does everyone else find their inspiration to eat healthier?  Thanks again!

Carolyn Ketchum
11 years ago

I never had to think about what I put in my mouth until diabetes came along.  It’s changed my relationship with food, no question!  It’s frustrating but illuminating all in one.  I always ate fairly healthfully, but now I am so much more conscious of what I am eating, what my kids are eating.  I think this article is great!

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