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In defense of the cupcake

2nd February 2008

In defense of the cupcake

Gourmet cupcakes

I recently interviewed my childhood friend Summer, now a pastry chef at a prominent local restaurant, for a profile piece in my paper. Summer’s signature dessert is a flight of cupcakes, featuring five distinct and delectable mini treats. After sampling her vegan chocolate cupcake with cream cheese frosting, it occurred to me that I felt absolutely no guilt in eating it – none whatsoever – nor did five pounds magically appear on my ass.

Last week on The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet, much was made of my healthy and balanced lifestyle. And, I consider my diet to be very healthy – my husband and I are vegetarian, we avoid trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup and most processed foods, we eat local and organic. And because I am vegetarian, I probably get at least the recommended amount, if not more, of fruits and vegetables a day.

We also heard from Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who ironically concluded a segment purportedly on fat acceptance with tips on how not to get fat – specifically, avoid “white foods” and don’t drink your calories. And of course, we also heard from publicist-turned-obesity-fanatic MeMe Roth, who, in the past, has likened cupcakes to giving kids antifreeze or loaded guns.

But a healthy diet doesn’t preclude “white food” or even worse, a cupcake every now and then.

Unlike some self-appointed food cops, I see the occasional cupcake very much a part of a healthy diet. Sure, cupcakes are loaded with evil white foods like sugar and flour. Even worse, the frosting is most likely a mix of even more sinister and pallid foods – Crisco and powdered sugar.

But it isn’t that the cupcake itself is healthy. Rather, de-personifying foods as “good” or “bad,” as well as a refusal to measure our self-worth by the foods we eat are integral steps in developing a healthy relationship with food.

One of the most difficult obstacles I had to overcome in my eating disorder recovery is the black-and-white thinking about food – the classification of foods as “good” and “bad.” There are healthy foods and unhealthy foods and there are good food-related behaviors and bad food-related behaviors, but food itself is neither inherently good nor bad.

All foods in moderation can be part of an overall healthy and balanced diet, regardless of how much you weigh. Yes, even the insidious cupcake.

Anyone who has ever attempted dieting or who has struggled with an eating disorder probably has stories of That One Food they’re not allowed to have, but endlessly obsess over and crave. For bulimics and others with binging disorders, falling off the diet wagon and indulging in “bad” foods usually triggers binging episodes of the kinds of “bad” foods sufferers have long denied themselves. I mean, who binges on carrots, right?

And as eating disorder therapist Matthew Tiemeyer reports, when parents label foods as bad and off-limits, or ban certain foods outright, the practice is usually bound to backfire. Not only does restricting food increase the desire for the food, it also encourages binging and eating in secret.

Anne Lamott writes of this concept in one of her memoirs. After revealing her favorite binging food – M&Ms – Lamott’s therapist advised her to buy a bag and keep them around the house to indulge in whenever she pleased. Lamott soon found that not only did she not devour the entire bag immediately; she learned to self-regulate herself because she knew M&Ms were no longer a “bad” food.

Kate, too, has come to realize the importance of “legalizing” foods and in eradicating the diet mentality of deprivation. Writes Kate:

But the one thing I know for sure is that the more I eat what I want and just let it go, instead of moralizing about it… the less I fear I am on the brink of devouring the WORLD. And the less I eat myself sick. And the more I eat nutrient-rich food because I crave it. And the more I can truly distinguish feelings of hunger from feelings of deprivation.

Dispelling the idea of “good” and “bad” foods is a pretty radical notion for many people and it’s not one I’ve completely mastered myself. While I rationally know that I couldn’t possibly eat my weight in Robin Eggs, every Easter I still try to avoid them nonetheless.

But in studying food culture, I have come to realize that food is so much more than sustenance – food defines celebrations, it unites and strengthens family and community bonds, it helps create and reinforce a common identity amongst groups of peoples. You don’t only break bread with people, you break barriers between class, race, and gender divisions.

A healthy relationship with food requires us to separate how we feel from what we eat. We are not “good” if we order the salad, nor are we “bad” if we order the pizza. What we eat defines who we are no more than the numbers on the scale determine our self-worth.

Go ahead and indulge in the occasional cupcake. I guarantee you that it tastes oh, so much better without a side of guilt.

Mo Pie and Rachel Richardson
Mo and I in front of the cupcake display at Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York.
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This entry was posted on Saturday, February 2nd, 2008 at 9:09 pm and is filed under Body Image, Eating Disorders, Food History, Health, Nutrition & Fitness. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 31 responses to “In defense of the cupcake”

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  1. 1 On February 2nd, 2008, Jackie said:

    Was Dylan’s Candy Bar as awesome as it looked on TV? I saw a segment about it on Oprah, I think.

  2. 2 On February 2nd, 2008, Nora said:

    Good for you! I’m just starting to come to this realization too. After so many years of distorted notions of food, it’s hard to move away from it… even if you tell yourself it’s ok, sometimes you don’t realize it until you have that one crystallizing moment :)

  3. 3 On February 2nd, 2008, Sarah said:

    Something about the photo you posted really struck a nerve with me. A lot of people are acting like food and fat is villainous and unhealthy but that photo is the epitome of healthy: two women genuinely happy, enjoying each other’s company in a sweet, colorful place. I’ve had times when I’ve starved myself, thrown up food, exercised until I had an ever-present limp, had no energy for anyone or anything but since I was thin, I was healthy??? You and Mo look a whole hell of a lot more healthy and nourished in the greater sense.

  4. 4 On February 2nd, 2008, Charlynn said:

    This is all so true. I’m going to print this out and re-read it when that all-or-nothing thinking left over from my eating disorder nags me.

  5. 5 On February 2nd, 2008, Jennifer said:

    There is so much truth in what you’re saying on this blog. Having struggled with eating disorder and body image issues myself I feel like there is so much double standard against and on fat and thing people and food choices. So I recently made a video about that (as a spoof of the male-gaze interpellating 2 Girls 1 Cup), just pure girls-only indulgence on cupcakes, as gross, silly, carnal, orgasmic as ever but really just having a good time. please watch it if you have time, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbkh0ZDm41w

  6. 6 On February 2nd, 2008, BigLiberty said:

    I actually just talked to my dad – a lifetime yo-yo dieter and one of the sources of my own disordered eating – about how if you actually just let your body eat what it wants, after some period of initial adjustment, suddenly you’ll see that you AREN’T binging on one ‘forbidden’ food, or eating the same bland two ‘good’ foods day in and day out (i.e., you’ll have more variety in your diet).

    For instance, a year and a half ago I was near my lowest weight post-anorexia. No, I wasn’t wasting away…to the eye. I was 215 lbs, 6′ 0″ tall. To maintain this shockingly low weight, I was eating one frozen Lean Cuisine a day, a cup of plain vegetables, a low-fat granola bar, and a bowl of raisin bran. I never drank anything with calories (neither milk, nor juice, nor soda). I also exercised, biking in Boston for about 1 hr a day. Sometimes I went to the gym, where I’d exercise 2 hrs a day (1 hr 20 cardio, the rest weights).

    Once in a while—once a month or so—I binged on Ben & Jerry’s, usually Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch. I’d eat the whole thing in one sitting (is that 1/2 pint? I forget). I attributed this binge to the fact that I wasn’t losing weight (215 lbs was a weight I couldn’t break through, even when I was semi-fasting once in a while, skipping a half day or whole day once in a while).

    However, that year and a half ago, I met the man who was going to be my future fiancee, and a few months later we were living together. I started eating what he, a skinny guy, ate — normal foods, homecooked meals with meat, potatoes, veggies. I ate breads (gasp!), rice (gasp!), and lots of wonderful salads.

    And you know what I WASN’T doing anymore? Binging. I also gained a good 40 pounds over about 9 months, and that’s when I stopped gaining (the 30-40 pound weight range that has been recently hypothesized I have experimentally verified ;) ). I’ve been at my current weight for about 8 months now, and there’s no sign of any more gain. I also eat healthier now than ever – veggies, fruits, ice cream, milk, cheeses, breads, meats of all kinds, eggs. My diet is varied, and I feel wonderful. I don’t overeat, and I don’t UNDEReat anymore.

    I have treats once in a while, like every normal person does (if they didn’t, bakeries wouldn’t exist!). I also love veggies and so-called ‘morally good’ foods more than I EVER did when I was dieting (they were my psychological enemy, if not my actual enemy, since I hated every bite).

    To those who want to make foods into “good” and “bad,” I want to ask you nicely to stop imposing your disordered food issues on myself and my children. Misery loves company; since I’m not miserable, go find someone else to corrupt and control.

  7. 7 On February 2nd, 2008, sso said:

    I still struggle with it, but this is exactly what I’ve been taught in every eating disorder treatment facility – that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and all foods in moderation are part of a healthy diet.

  8. 8 On February 3rd, 2008, Melissa said:

    This is exactly the stuff I’ve been reading about and trying to assert on my blog!
    Thank you for saying this crucial thing about food!
    Most of the naturally thin people I know- naturally thin in the aspect that they’ve never known a diet, don’t count calories and don’t really exercise on a reg basis- don’t view food as good or bad, they just eat if they’re hungry, stop when they’re satisfied and eat what their bodies are telling them to.
    I am striving towards this healthy
    attitude towards food as well, so I’m glad to see you mention it here!

    take care!

  9. 9 On February 3rd, 2008, Lauren said:

    I think this is a great thing for people to realize, that food is not good and bad. Just like you can’t feel fat. Fat is not an emotion. I often found that when I “felt fat” that was when I either starved myself or consumed myself with guilt by eating “bad” food. Emotionalizing our food and our physical appearance is a difficult thing to do, but necessary to break out of disordered eating. I find that a lot of people, ED or no ED, emote their food and their appearance.

  10. 10 On February 3rd, 2008, Sarahbear said:

    I just adore Anne Lamott. I’m currently reading her book Bird By Bird, because my writing prof. had recommended it to the class. Your relay of her M&M experience has just made me love her that much more.

    And it’s so relevant! I’m so happy to read things like this piece in your blog. I’ve been struggling lately, and being really hard on myself. At the end of last year, I lost ten pounds because I’d gotten sick and didn’t eat much for a couple weeks. And despite doing my best to convince myself that this was NOT a good thing, and that it was not healthy, I was secretly thrilled. And then this past month, I gained it all back, and I was so disappointed. And I have been beating myself up every time I eat a pastry. And this article just made me feel so much better. Thanks.

  11. 11 On February 3rd, 2008, Ise said:

    This one really spoke to me, since I love baking and sharing with friends and eating the good things I make, but when I started gaining weight, I gave it up — I think unconsciously, I didn’t tell myself “You can bake again when you’re back to X pounds” or anything. I just stopped. It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was a connection between my denying myself this pleasure (not just the pleasure of the sweet things, but the pleasure of the making, the pleasure of the sharing) and my repeated binging on other kinds of sweet foods. Baking every so often would have been far better for my health than not allowing myself to do it and binging instead!

    Anyways, I bought Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World and plan to put it to good use. But it’s amazing to me how once I identified that weird, punitive thinking was linked to my binges, I didn’t need to binge anymore.

  12. 12 On February 3rd, 2008, Jess said:

    My family’s kitchen was full of “bad” food until I was about twelve. I ate PBJ on white bread, sugary cereals, and pop-tarts all the time. You know what? I was never heavy. I intuitively stopped when I was full–well aware I could have more if I wanted later. Furthermore, there was plenty of fruit, veggies, lean meat, and other “good” foods to eat that I found just as appealing.
    It was only when my jumped on the weight-loss, moral food bandwagon that I developed disordered habits–skipping breakfast, denying junk food, then obsessing/binging. It didn’t matter that genetics dictated average size for me. I was convinced I would be a happier, more worthy human being if my diet was healthier than everyone else’s. Only recently, thanks to stumbling across FA blogs, have I stopped freaking out about everything I put in my mouth. I didn’t eat normally for almost 9 years. What a waste. I have found that my body will compensate for periods of “bad” eating if I listen to it–I eat less the following day or two because my appetite is reduced, and crave produce like no tomorrow. Now, I need to work on my fat-phobic mom and her 100-cal pack/WW fix. I know she’s hungrier than she lets on. And I know how much that sucks.

  13. 13 On February 3rd, 2008, Harriet said:

    Good post, Rachel.

    When my daughter was little she often hung out at a friend’s house. Our house was no-sugar, hardly ever any dessert, healthy eating, etc. Their house was open season on the candy cupboards. Years later my friend told me that the minute my daughter would arrive she’d head straight for the candy cabinets, to her own kids’ amusement.

    That was certainly my history–my mother was always on a diet, and I used to sneak downstairs and eat sugar cubes at night. Connection, ya think?

    So yes, I’m a big believer in no good foods and no bad foods. Just food, and your relationship to it, which hopefully is joyful and competent.

  14. 14 On February 3rd, 2008, ShannonCC said:

    Yummy post, except the Crisco part. I’m a buttercream icing gal ;)

    My own binging problems were not emotional, but still, I noticed a great change in myself when I decided to eat whatever the heck I wanted. The end of the good/bad food was wonderful and now I find it hard to nod and smile politely around the people in my life who still believe in it (which, other than the fatosphere, is pretty much ALL of them).

  15. 15 On February 3rd, 2008, Sherie Sanders said:

    A cupcake once in awhile is fine!!!! Personally, I think it is more dangerous to use health and fitness as a talisman for a false sense of security. Our society tells us just eat right and exercise and everything will magically fall into place. The most unwise delusion of all!

    Rachael, I met you at the think tank.(2nd to left in back in green in the pic.) Not only are you extremely cute in person (as well as bright, articulate, and charismatic) I have never seen you take a bad picture! You really do the movement proud!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. 16 On February 3rd, 2008, Rachel said:

    Haha, thanks Sherie. I owe it all to my fabulous hair stylist. That woman works magic, she really does.

    Was Dylan’s Candy Bar as awesome as it looked on TV?

    Not sure how it looked on TV, but it was pretty damn awesome in person. I had never heard of it actually – we were on our way to Serendipity because yes, I love that movie – and saw it and decided to stop in. It was so bright and airy and cheerful and smelled sooo good. I got a milk chocolate/almond bar for my husband and I to split, and a raspberry chocolate bar for my foodie friend Shauna.

    Ise: Years ago, I took some of the Wilton cake decorating classes. When I began dieting and then developed an ED, I donated every single one of my cake decorating supplies, from the pans to the color tints, to charity. I told myself that to get and remain thin, I could never bake again because I would be too tempted to eat it (I also told myself I’d have to cut myself off from my food-loving family, but that is another story).

    Now that I am sane again, I wanted to decorate my own wedding reception cake, which meant I had to go buy all those supplies over again. It was quite expensive, but the triumph in doing so was priceless, in a way.

  17. 17 On February 3rd, 2008, Sarah said:

    Great post!

    I think you’re right on about eliminating ‘bad’ foods as a moral category. As I read this, though, I was thinking about it from a different perspective– that of those who have to be on specific diets for medical reasons. I was on a gluten-free diet for two years after being (mis)diagnosed with celiac disease. All of my favorite foods tended to be based on bread and pasta, and I had to make a huge mental adjustment. Everytime I saw a tempting cupcake, I told myself, ‘That is poison. Why would you want to eat a poisoned cupcake?’ and moved on. I constantly had dreams in which I’d get halfway through an ice cream cone or a slice of pizza and then realize I was going to be sick for the next week.

    When I found out that I could in fact eat wheat, that gluten wasn’t my problem, I was of course thrilled. But now I have to re-train myself not to think of certain foods as ‘bad’ or ‘poisonous’ anymore. I do find myself bingeing on wheaty treats sometimes… but in my case the categories weren’t just moral, there was a real danger there (or so we thought). It’s hard to deal with, especially as a woman who also struggles with weight and body acceptance. Hmmm.

  18. 18 On February 3rd, 2008, Fairy Berry said:

    My bad food has always been cheese! I actually don’t know if it is that bad for you but it doesn’t matter. It’s a family thing…many generations long. So last night at a party, there was the usual cheese and crackers. I ate like half the cheese, because I haven’t had it in so long. I stopped buying it because it would just eat it by itself.
    Anyway, I binged by cheese last night and now I feel guilty. Because it is a “bad” food. So its refreshing to hear that maybe there is no bad food.

  19. 19 On February 3rd, 2008, Bree said:

    When my mom and I went to NYC last May, she wanted to go to Magnolia Bakery to get some cupcakes. Both of us are not huge cupcake/cake eaters. We bought half a dozen and those things were delicious, the chocolate being the best. Funny thing was, everyone in there buying cupcakes were slender gals. Mom and I were the only fat ones in the store!

  20. 20 On February 3rd, 2008, CynthiaC said:

    I don’t know if restrictions at home necessarily lead to wanting them at a friend’s house who doesn’t have such restrictions. I grew up in a strictly no soda pop at home unless it’s a birthday household. Would I order soda pop at a restaurant? Nope. Once, I even asked for water at a friend’s birthday party becuase I didn’t want to drink the disgusting bright orange fizzy stuff. I was 9 at that time. The abundance of soda pop in some households actually grosses me out.

  21. 21 On February 3rd, 2008, meowcat said:

    i agree that if you label foods “good” and “bad,” it leads to black and white thinking where you start craving all your “bad” foods. I use to be like that at the height of my eating disorder. Ten years later, that thinking is mostly gone, but when it pops in my head again I notice it and take it as a signal that something is out of balance in my life. Have I been doing things I enjoy? Getting enough sleep? Spending time talking with friends? Am I angry with my husband? Did I do something that I really didn’t want to because I felt like I should? I check in with myself and there is usually a reason why I’ve reverted to old eating disorder behaviors.

  22. 22 On February 3rd, 2008, Misti said:

    Okay, I’ll be the one to ask. What is the name of this magical restaurant with a cupcake “flight”?

  23. 23 On February 3rd, 2008, lt said:

    A yoga teacher of mine once said something beuatiful about this: so-called ‘good foods’ are good if eaten in the spirit of nourishment, not so if in the spirit of self-denial or fear. So-called ‘bad’ foods are good if eaten in the spirit of celebration and only bad if eaten from guilt.

  24. 24 On February 3rd, 2008, Rachel said:

    What is the name of this magical restaurant with a cupcake “flight”?

    Haha, Summer explained to me that in culinary terms, a flight is actually a sampler of sorts. There are no flying cupcakes I am aware of.

  25. 25 On February 3rd, 2008, Misti said:

    Yes, I understand that part…I’m pretty familiar with wine flights and such. Just wondering where the restaurant is.

  26. 26 On February 3rd, 2008, Rachel said:

    Ahh, ok. The magical comment threw me. It’s called Chalk and it’s in Covington, Ky.

  27. 27 On February 4th, 2008, Sarah said:

    This is a great post. As always you inspire me. I would love to get rid of my bad vs. good food thinking. Maybe someday I will be there.

  28. 28 On February 4th, 2008, Carter said:

    What a great post. I really believe you hit the nail on the head when you said moderation is the key. Focusing on those “good” and “bad” labels can become an unhealthy obsession, when the key is to just keep things in moderation. Keep it up and I’m glad you enjoyed your cupcake without guilt :)

  29. 29 On February 4th, 2008, Meg Thornton said:

    I’ve been working with de-criminalising foods in my life, and I figure I may as well pass a few tips which have worked for me on.

    1) If you want it, buy it. If you crave it, get several – and get the best you can afford. (This one works for me because I have a long history of comfort eating. If I have the “comfort foods” right there, my inner three-year-old knows I’m going to take care of her, and she stops trying to throw a tantrum. These days, I often don’t need to eat them at all.)

    2) Keep the pantry and the fridge stocked. (Again, for me this is related to comfort eating. I suspect another part of it is linked to family tradition – I grew up in a house with a full pantry, and so did my mother, and I really feel uneasy if I don’t have the shelves in the pantry stuffed to the gills).

    3) When you feel hungry, identify what you’re feeling hungry for, then eat *that*, rather than a “healthy” substitute. (This sounds easy, but can be very hard to figure out; there’s the psychological hunger that comes from “I’m feeling insecure” which winds up getting tangled up with the physiological hunger of “blood sugar falling through the floor, *FEED ME*” in a lot of people in our culture. After a while, you’ll get better at picking the “I’m feeling insecure” moments from the “FEED ME” ones.)

    4) Food is neither angelic nor demonic. It’s just food. It cannot be “good” or “bad”. My favourite way of remembering this is to remind myself of the following: of all the people who have eaten carrots since 1901, the vast majority have died. There is no need to feel guilty about eating. (And yes, I know this one is harder to get around than a very hard thing. I still have days of fighting off the Guilt Monster.)

    5) If you need to comfort eat, do it sensibly: work out which food is going to make you feel the most comfort, and have it *first*, as soon as the desire to comfort eat comes on. (I found making this a habit firstly decreased the amount of food I comfort ate, and secondly decreased the frequency of episodes of comfort eating).

    A lot of it comes down to liking yourself enough to admit you deserve to be looked after properly. I think one of the saddest things in our culture is most women don’t allow themselves to admit this; another is the way this attitude is spreading to the men.

  30. 30 On February 22nd, 2008, Lillian said:

    I enjoy ‘healthy’ foods. I rather not eat ‘sweet’ foods because I like the flavor of ‘healthier’ ones better. It’s matter of feeling depraved or not. I find that I truly want a plate of beans and rice over the ‘junk’ food any day.

  31. 31 On February 22nd, 2008, Lillian said:

    I corrected my webpage.

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