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A study looking at two groups of women - one Thai and one Swedish - showed that how they felt about the food they were eating affected how much iron they absorbed from their meals.
From a 2007 New York Times article that summarizes the study's findings:
In fact, in the aforementioned third variation, the women in the study absorbed 70% less iron. Why is this wildly fascinating and important? Lots of reasons! Let's look at two of those reasons today.
Reason #1: This finding shows that enjoyment actually matters when it comes to eating - from a nutritional standpoint. This flies in the face of current cultural beliefs about how the body processes food.
Currently, our culture believes that all bodies process all foods in the exact same way. This belief has led to several problematic and reductive conclusions, including:
The belief that everyone should eat one, single way
The belief that "healthy" eating is more important than joyful eating
The belief that if you gave everyone the same food they would all end up with the same outcomes
The belief that eating culturally relevant foods - or comfort foods - isn't a part of good nutrition
We learned a few weeks back that in U.S. culture, food is primarily seen as "fuel" for the "machine" that is our body. We learned that this idea is derivative of European thought. This body-as-machine ideology has lent itself to the "calories in, calories out" adage.
This study makes a case against this reductive, utilitarian approach to food and body. How? To begin with, machines are uniform. If our bodies were, in fact, merely machines then the findings of this study would not be possible. If the "calories in, calories out" ideology were accurate then it should lead to similar rates of iron absorption in all the study's participants. But that's not what happened.
Reason #2: This finding reminds us of the inexplicable, amazing powers of the body and of the role of pleasure in creating healthy humans.
When I began doing fat activism about 10 years ago, I never, ever invoked scientific research. I hated how empiricism was expected of me whenever I wrote or spoke about fat advocacy because I saw this issue as one of human rights, pure and simple.
Why did I need data to explain that there's nothing wrong with fat people and all humans deserve dignity?
Over time, as my work became more professionalized, I found I was unable to fight against the demand for the scientific basis of my claims. So, I gave in. Honestly, it felt terrible in my body because I knew intuitively that humans don't thrive when our lives are primarily understood through the lens of data, as they are now.
A few years after my decision to acquiesce to data demands, I was having coffee with Lindo Bacon. They were doing research for a new book, and they shared that the deeper that they got into the work around dietetics and weight, the more sure they were that the body was actually inexplicable, that a lot of what we think we know about food is probably wrong. They shared this study we're talking about today with me as evidence of this feeling.
Learning about these women's iron absorption filled me with tingly inspiration (that sounded very, very nerdy). It reminded me of my earliest conviction: there are many, many things that we can't explain - and that we don't need to.
Joy, dignity, love, connection - this is what humans need much more than a food pyramid or rigid understandings of how to create "health" on a mass scale through food.
If desire and positive feeling can affect how much iron a person absorbs from their meal, imagine all the incredible things that our bodies are doing all the time.
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+ Take a look at my books: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (I narrated the audiobook), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion