Eating is as much a mental experience as it is a physical one. Stress, body image and the gay culture’s obsession with fitness and physical attractiveness can all greatly influence our eating habits and relationship to food.
When we are stressed, hormones that prepare us to “fight or flee” are dumped into our bloodstream. These hormones can trigger the cravings for foods that produce the quick energy needed for fighting or fleeing. What are these foods? Carbohydrates, which are frequently thought of as the “c-word” in gay male culture. For others, stress can lead to a decrease in appetite and more restrictive eating. During stressful times, blood is pumped away from the slow-acting digestive system and pumped to our extremities—arms and legs—for the quick getaway. These disordered eating habits are common and normal during stress. But if they linger after the stressors have gone away, then the risk exists for devel- oping an eating disorder as an overall way of coping.
If you find yourself eating too much or too little when stressed, incorporate moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk or jogging, a lot of laughter and quality time with friends into your schedule to help inoculate yourself and loosen the power of food as a coping tool.
What we think about our bodies impacts what we feed our bodies. Body image is a powerful motivator to eat right— or eat less. Our culture’s incessant focus on looks and attractiveness is one rea- son why gay men have the highest rates of disordered eating—over 15 percent. Guys’ jeans are now available in skinny and super skinny. Devil’s horns (the indentation of male hips made visible by significant abdominal muscles) and six- packs are now part of the male body ver- nacular. A 2010 New York Times article on Kellan Lutz being Calvin Klein’s new underwear model attributed his success as a young actor to his abdominal muscles. “The single lesson,” wrote the article’s author, “is success by six pack.” Many take this message to heart (or stomach) and believe that having the perfect body will automatically lead to success and happiness.
A healthy relationship with food and body starts with a balance of hard work, play, meaningful relationships and time for oneself. Worry less about your abs. Disregard cultural definitions of the “perfect body.” Relax and shift the focus from food to you!