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The Metaphors We Eat By

As some of you may know, I am a graduate student in English. One idea we study in the English scholar world is called Cognitive Metaphor Theory. It’s the idea that we humans think in metaphors, or analogies. The idea was first introduced in a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson titled Metaphors We Live By.DSCN1550A simple example of this is the ubiquitous use of “up” or “high” to mean good and “down” or “low” to mean bad. (“I’m feeling down”; “How could you stoop so low?”; “He’s our top competitor”; etc.)

Some of these metaphors are quite harmless, but others can be dangerous. Associating darkness with evil, for instance, is one of many factors that contribute to racism. This isn’t to say that cognitive metaphors are bad; merely that we need to be aware of them and be conscientious about how we apply them.

One metaphor you’ll sometimes hear is that food is like money. You might hear this if someone says they need to “budget” their calories, or that they “splurged” on a rich treat.

Again, I’m not sure that the food-money analogy is inherently terrible, but it is one we need to think critically about.

You see, for a long time, I lived by a cognitive metaphor that I now believed endangered my health: the notion that eating is like shopping. Specifically, that it’s like clothes shopping. Specifically specifically, that it’s like clothes shopping with a credit card.

Here’s how the analogy worked, in my brain:

  • I acknowledged that it’s sort of necessary, but consider anything beyond what’s necessary a “splurge.” I know that sometimes, you gotta buy new clothes. But I’m often tempted to buy something I hadn’t planned on, just because I think it looks nice, and if I give into that temptation, I remind myself that I can’t buy “frivolous” clothing too often. Sometimes I even feel guilty about the unplanned purchase. Likewise, for a long time, I acknowledged that I needed to eat (sometimes), but considered any snacks between meals, desserts, and even larger meals to be “splurges” that I needed to be careful about.
  • I often went without. I’m not concerned if I go a long time without buying clothing, and in fact, I’m proud of myself when I reuse the clothes I have rather than spending more money on new clothes. Likewise, I used to think there was no harm in going a long time without eating, and even thought it might be good for me.
  • I did the math in advance. When I shop online or in the store, I look at the price tags on everything and often add up my total bill in my head. Likewise, I once read all nutrition labels, counted calories, and sometimes mentally added up my daily total.
  • Everything, whether necessary or unnecessary, had to be paid off eventually. When spending with my credit card, I’m putting myself in debt. I will have to pay that money off later, even if it’s for a necessary expense. Likewise, for a long time, I believed that every single calorie I ate had to be exercised off, and not just the treats, but the healthy meals, as well.

This metaphor wasn’t healthy, as you can see. It encouraged me to eat far too little and think what I was doing was good and disciplined of me, rather than dangerous and obsessive. I do my best not to think of that metaphor anymore. (Although, as my regular readers probably know, I sometimes slip up.)


English major nerd that I am, I was driving around on the golf cart at work earlier this week when a nerdy idea occurred to me. I wanted to share that idea with you, and what better way than by Thinking Out Loud?Thinking-Out-Loud2If I’m going to think of food as analogous to money, there’s a much better metaphor I could use: that of paying the utility bill.

Here’s why:

  • It’s mandatory, not optional. Paying the utility bill is necessary for health and well-being. If I don’t pay, or don’t pay enough, the heat could get switched off in January or the water could get switched off mid-shower. Likewise, when I didn’t eat enough, my body was compromised and couldn’t operate to its full capacity. I was cold all the time, I lost my period, and I couldn’t think straight or focus.
  • It has to be done on a regular basis. I have to pay my bill on time. I can’t just decide that I spent enough on heat last month and therefore I can’t spend anything on heat this month. My heat would get shut off. Likewise, just because I eat more one day doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll need any less the next day. And that’s because….
  • How much we need varies lot. Sometimes the utility bill is high. Sometimes it’s low. A lot of that’s outside of my control, depending on things like the weather and the age of my house. Likewise, sometimes I need to eat more, and sometimes I don’t need to eat as much, depending on how much energy my body is using in a day. I would never turn down the heat when it’s really cold just because I didn’t expect to pay that much. Likewise, I shouldn’t ignore my hunger just because I didn’t expect to eat that much.
  • I’m mindful, but not obsessed. Yeah, I make a habit of, for instance, turning off lights before I leave rooms and shutting windows before I turn on the A/C. But I’m not constantly checking the dial on the thermostat every five minutes, and I certainly don’t plan exactly how much I’ll spend on utilities or calculate what I’m spending day by day, hour by hour. Likewise, I try to make a habit of paying attention to my intuitive eating signals and feeding myself (mostly) healthy fuel. But it’s not anything I try to perfect or count in advance. Or afterward, either, if I can help it.

I acknowledge that it’s not a perfect analogy. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that eating food is boring and as practical as paying the utility bill. I acknowledge that we eat for pleasure, too, and that sometimes we eat more or less than exactly the amount our body needs.DSCN1474Still, nerd that I am, I believe metaphors are important. When we retrain our brains as we recover from an unhealthy state of mind, like disordered eating, one effective tool can be awareness of the metaphors we live by (or eat by) and a conscious effort to think in a different metaphor.

Have you ever heard of Cognitive Metaphor Theory?

Do you ever, consciously or unconsciously, think of your food in metaphors? If so, what metaphor do you think of?


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  1. This isn’t something I can say I’ve ever thought about, but this is so interesting. Great post!

    1. Joyce says:

      Cognitive Metaphor Theory’s kind of a nerdy grad student kind of thing, but once you learn about it, I find it applies to so many areas of life.

  2. I remember spending SO much time trying to figure out the best way to “spend” my calories, so yup… the food-money analogy is one I’m definitely well aware of. And it’s such a sad way to think… as if we’re putting ourselves on an “allowance” and not taking into account that our bodies might need more or less depending on the day.

    1. Joyce says:

      It is a sad way of thinking. It’s very harsh, not just on our bodies, but on our minds, too.

  3. Ellie says:

    This was really interesting Joyce. I like the metaphor of the thermostat because the body has one inside it as well (the hypothalamus). I have only ever heard of food in the bank account metaphor, but now I’m thinking of other ones. I’ll let you know if I think of any ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Joyce says:

      Hypothalamus–I’ve never heard of it. Now I’m curious to know more!

  4. This is great way of thinking about things. I’m guilty of obsessing in the past and thinking of food in that same exact way. Thanks for sharing this–love how you phrased it!

  5. Joyce says:

    I hear you, Heather. The trick is to learn how not to obsess, which is a lot easier said than done.

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