Ex-UN Advisor Elizabeth Nyamayaro: “We need to stop putting moral judgment on eating”

Ex-UN Advisor Elizabeth Nyamayaro: “We need to stop putting moral judgment on eating”

To mark World Food Day, the humanitarian and nutritionist asks us to rethink diet culture, and take a fresh look at our relationship with food

By Elizabeth Nyamayaro

It’s happened countless times. You’re hungry and open your refrigerator, but nothing looks appealing. So, you jump on your favourite food-delivery app and order your go-to indulgence – a medium margherita pizza – rationalising that tomatoes are at least a vegetable, and healthier than pepperoni. The pizza is hot and crispy, just as you like it. You devour it and are wholly satisfied – but only for a few minutes.

Suddenly, a wave of guilt washes over you, and before you know it, it’s no longer about the pizza but everything you hate about your body: the size of your thighs, your stomach, your arms. You begin to count calories, feel awful about the missed gym appointments, and just like that, you fall back into a cycle of self-loathing and food guilt.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many women and girls today grapple with food shame. In a world of unrealistic beauty standards and a diet culture fuelled by social media, it’s easy to internalise negative feelings about your body image and, as a result, your eating habits. These feelings of guilt and shame often create a toxic relationship with our food, leading to restrictive diets, food deprivation and binge eating.

In her newly published memoir, Thicker than Water, the actress Kerry Washington charts her struggles with food shame. “By the time I got to college, my relationship with food and my body had become a toxic cycle of self-abuse that utilised the tools of starvation, binge eating, body obsession, and compulsive exercise,” she writes. Her words are a powerful reminder of similar challenges faced by millions of women and girls worldwide. Research shows that in the UK alone, between 1.25 and 3.4 million people are affected by an eating disorder.

So, how can you stop this toxic relationship with food?

elizabeth feeding children with the united nations world food programme in indonesia

Elizabeth Nyamayaro in the course of her humanitarian work

As an African, I believe my culture might provide some valuable insights. I grew up in a small village in Zimbabwe, where our lives centred around food. As a small agro-community, we grew our own food and, after each bountiful harvest, threw lavish ceremonies to celebrate the fruits of our labour. Sharing our food gave us a sense of belonging; it’s how we expressed our love for one another. Yet, we also understood that a bad harvest could mean the difference between life and death for our whole community. Thus, we cherished our food, seeing it for what it truly is: life – just as my grandmother, Gogo, taught me when I was five.

“We cherished our food, seeing it for what it truly is: life”

“Food is life, my dear child,” Gogo stated one evening as we sat around a blazing fire inside our small hut, preparing supper. “What does that mean, Gogo?” I asked, taking my eyes off the sizzling pot of vegetables before us. “It means that food is a special gift that we must all cherish,” she explained. “Food gives us life; it nourishes us. Without food, we all perish.”

It took a near-death experience three years later to fully comprehend Gogo’s words. We were in the midst of a severe drought that had devastated our community, leaving us with nothing to eat and drink. One day, I collapsed onto the ground from hunger and thought I was going to die. Thankfully, a fellow African, an aid worker with the United Nations, found me and gave me a bowl of porridge that saved my life. This moment brought a profound meaning to Gogo’s words, and inspired me to become a humanitarian.

Several decades later, my humanitarian work remains a constant reminder of the importance of food. We live in a world where one person among 10 globally still goes to bed hungry each night due to a lack of access to food. On the frontlines of global hunger, I have witnessed the fragility of life as families grapple for survival in the absence of food. On the flip side, I have encountered numerous women and girls, especially in the West, who starve themselves, despite having access to an abundance of healthy food. Both situations are truly heartbreaking.

As women, we are often told that self-love is the most radical act, especially in a world that places so much value on appearance and perfection. We need, then, to stop putting such moral judgment on eating; food, in general, isn’t ‘bad’. Similarly, you aren’t ‘bad’ for consuming certain foods. Contrary to the restrictive diet culture, your body requires a variety of nutrients to function well, which can only be derived from eating an abundance of food. The goal is to make healthier choices most of the time, while still allowing yourself to indulge some of the time – so go on, enjoy the pizza.

Elizabeth Nyamayaro is an award-winning humanitarian, nutritionist, and former United Nations Special Advisor on gender equality. She wrote about her life and experiences in her memoir, ‘I Am a Girl from Africa’. Find her on Instagram @enyamayaro

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *