Finding My Way Back to Food in the Face of an Eating Disorder

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The red flag notification filled me with adrenaline, my limbs went wiggly and warm. It’s the feeling I now associate with a big swig of beer. But this was 2007, and I’d recently installed Honesty Box, the Facebook application where people could anonymously share their thoughts on others.

The new message read:

I’m worried you’re not eating enough.
You’re losing weight and I only see you
eat bites of cookies.

I felt another rush; my face got hot. I’d been made.

It was true, of course. In just a few months I’d lost what adults at the time still called my “baby fat” (even though I was 15). It was the kind of weight loss that comes from a record-scratch shock to the system, from three meals a day to barely eating anything. As an able-bodied woman just over five feet tall, I recognize the privilege my body is given in public spaces: It’s rare for anyone to outwardly question how much space I take up. Still, something in my brain was telling me that I’d never be small enough.

The evidence of my eating disorder was right there in the cafeteria, where I sat at a table every day with my Honesty Box-er. They’d noticed I’d stopped eating the lunches I brought to school, except maybe for a piece of fruit. And, of course, the cookies.

They tasted like Nestlé Toll House cookie dough and were always a few minutes underbaked—the perfect texture. Sold in three-packs for a dollar in the school cafeteria, I’d buy those cookies nearly every day. I’d break off a piece of one for myself, then give the rest away. Throw them in the trash if I had to. In hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me that I started baking regularly when I developed this obsession with food. With eating and not eating.

I grew up in a house where I wasn’t allowed to buy Oreos or Chips Ahoy, but always had the ingredients on hand to bake my own treats. I made chocolate chip cookies so often that my mom eventually taped the recipe inside the cabinet where we kept the flour and sugar. On weekends, I made tray after tray of those cookies, learning what little tweaks would do to the recipe. What if I added oats or peanut butter? Mixed in melted chocolate or toasted nuts? When the timer beeped, I was ready, armed with my spatula and willing to burn my tongue for that first bite. And those bites were euphoria. Then I’d snap back into reality, realizing I’d eaten half the tray. I’d spit out what was left in my mouth and wrap up the rest of the cookies.

Later, when the house was quiet, I’d go back to the package of cookies. Just one. Okay, two. Another bite. Black out. Spit. Only apples for the next five lunches, I’d bargain with myself.

The cycle repeated.

In college, I went through periods of the same restrictive and binging routines. Night after night, I’d eat a dinner plate piled with nothing but salad. Chug water. Hours later, I’d eat half a pizza, blaming my hunger on the post-homework joints we smoked in my friend’s bed. Then, the body-checking would begin.

Body-checking typically takes place in front of the mirror, judging the fit of clothing to measure whether one’s body has changed, and feeling parts of the body for areas of soft and hard. Eating Disorders: An Encyclopedia of Causes, Treatment, and Prevention describes it as a behavioral component of body image, presenting in “repeated attempts to evaluate or scrutinize one’s body shape, size, or appearance.” I body-checked compulsively throughout the day, and always after those late-night pizza binges. Feeling for bones, for the mushier parts of my belly and arms.

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Around the time I turned 22, my anorexic, bulimic, and binge-eating tendencies morphed into something else entirely. Something many people don’t even recognize as another disordered eating behavior.

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Orthorexia (named for the Greek word orthos, meaning “correct” or “true”, and Latin’s orexis, meaning “appetite” or “hunger”) was coined in an essay that appeared in a 1997 issue of Yoga Journal by Dr. Steven Bratman.

In the 1970s, Bratman was a cook and organic farmer on a commune. He believed in the healing power of food. He’d watch his cohabitants obsess over which diet they thought was “best” for the body, which ran the gamut of nutrient-dense, meatless, macrobiotic, dairy-free, allium-excluding, raw-only, wheat-free, unsweetened, unseasoned food. When he began practicing medicine, Bratman saw numerous patients who wished to heal themselves from medical ailments, everything ranging from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis to cancer—through food. As his worldview adapted, he yearned for a universal theory of nutrition. Instead, he realized that these people—all of whom believed their personal definition of “healthy” was the correct way to eat—had developed what he determined a “novel eating disorder.”

People with orthorexia are obsessed with so-called “healthy” eating.

Orthorexia is difficult to diagnose. Technically, it’s impossible—orthorexia nervosa is not yet formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s official criterion for psychiatric language. Because it covers such a massive, subjective subject, experts claim they cannot technically pin down substantiated orthorexic behavior. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) notes that without formal diagnostic criteria, there’s no real way to determine exactly what the disorder is, let alone know who suffers from it. Some professionals see it as an extension of an existing eating disorder like anorexia, or a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many don’t see orthorexic behavior as problematic at all.

For me, it was a problem. Though I was eating three meals a day for the first time in years, I was obsessed with what I thought were “good” foods (legumes, produce, whole grains, seeds, certain types of dairy) and “bad” foods (white sugar, meat, processed wheat, saturated fats, but maybe not coconut oil, certain types of dairy, and so on). I followed gluten-free, vegan, and sugar-free blogger recipes obsessively. I exercised compulsively. I adapted my trusty chocolate chip cookie recipe into a mutant: chickpea flour, almond flour, oat flour, coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, olive oil, coconut oil. Friends and family who’d expressed concern for me in the past commented on how “healthy” I looked, which I now think of as a perfect description for my body and mind at the time.

Healthy is undefinable. I was a living, breathing example of subjectivity: judged by the personal opinions of “good” and “bad” held by those around me, and holding them as fact.

Though I’d spoken with therapists, participated in recovery chat rooms, and taken online courses with health coaches trained to curb dangerous eating habits, it wasn’t until after college, when I learned about “intuitive eating” that things started to change for me. A term coined by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating means eating based on mindfulness instead of dieting and restriction. Tribole and Resch’s concept encourages people not to obsess over ingredients lists or nutrition facts, and to ignore the good-versus-bad food binary.

Intuitive eating means, in short: Eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you’re full.

I wish I could say that once I discovered intuitive eating I could leave my disordered relationship with food behind completely. But it’s important to note that many people recovering from eating disorders have a hard time eating intuitively, myself included. Spending years ignoring hunger and fullness cues made it hard for me to really listen to my body, and to trust it. As someone who’s struggled with both restriction and binging, it can be challenging to know what my body wants—especially when it’s one of those foods I used to think of as “bad.”

Though my relationship with food was disordered for years, it remained undeniable that I loved to eat and cook. So I started working in food media after college. I was no longer developing recipes just for me and assumed that I’d have to break free from my fear of certain ingredients, and of eating in general.

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But this was exactly when the modern wellness movement, propelled by the popularity of the very vegan and gluten-free blogs I followed in college, began to influence media writ large. Though many of these people’s dietary restrictions were used to combat health problems, as their blogs and social media accounts gave them platforms to preach, there was a democratization of wellness practices like never before. No longer only accessible to those who lived near Whole Foods or Erewhon, wellness became a thing everyone could participate in via the Internet.

My first full-time job in media was at a lifestyle website where my coworkers regularly wrote about restrictive diets like Whole30 and Keto. While my job demanded I create recipes to fit these guidelines, I saw how they could pave the way for disordered eating behavior. As I tried harder to practice intuitive eating instead, I slowly became the person in the office who told others not to look at the calorie count in their smoothie, that it was okay to eat the pastries that were ordered for someone’s birthday. I stopped exercising and ate a lot of French fries.

I felt free.

Then, one morning, I woke up and couldn’t button my pants. I shouldn’t have cared, but I spiraled. I fell back into my early habits: binge and restrict. Body-check. Repeat. But quietly—because I wasn’t supposed to be that person anymore.

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I’m an intuitive eater! I don’t care about my waist size!

Really, I was angry and sad all the time. I hated getting dressed and didn’t want to go out in public. I avoided seeing my friends from college when they moved to town because of how different I looked. Though NEDA explains that slips back into disordered eating “tend to be the rule, rather than the exception” when it comes to recovery, I felt like a failure.

After I left that job, it was early 2017—I’d spent 10 years obsessing over the shape of my body, agonizing over nearly every bite that passed my lips. There was no specific catalyst for recovery; it simply felt as good a time as any to try to break free from this self-made prison. I joined a gym where people have many shapes and sizes of bodies. I’d never cared for physical activity through sports, and started running in college to burn calories, but this was different. It made me feel strong to build muscle, and in my heart I knew that was better than feeling for my ribs and belly and spine. I donated the pants that I couldn’t button. I still have chickpea flour in my pantry, but now I use it to make socca. I eat bread and cheese and I bake my original cookie recipe. I try my best to recognize hunger and fullness cues. I don’t read nutrition facts or count calories—if I want pasta for dinner, I eat pasta; if I want an apple at 11 a.m. after I’ve already had a full breakfast, I eat an apple. I’ll have a couple cookies if I want them, but don’t feel the need to binge the whole tray.

I take it one meal at a time. But I’m not 100 percent over my issues with food. And I may never be.

The most challenging part of my eating disorder is that I know it’s there. I can separate myself from it, recognize the disordered behavior as I go through the motions. Guilt followed me at mealtime for a decade—how could I not recognize it?

It’s only in the past year or so that articles bashing wellness have started getting attention. Many influencers who built brands on recipes made with “good” foods have started to soften their rules, even abandon them altogether. One such figure, Lee Tilghman (also known as Lee From America, with a following hundreds of thousands of people deep on Instagram) started wellness blogging after going through recovery for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Tilghman was known to post about everything from intermittent fasting to recipes for gluten-free desserts to avoiding plastics—all part of a journey to live as “well” as she could.

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Then, in February of 2018, at the height of her fame and with little explanation, Tilghman announced she was going on hiatus. When she returned five months later, she admitted her realization that she’d developed orthorexia, and would no longer be creating the content her audience was used to.

“I truly believed I was doing something good for myself and others. I didn’t have the tools to know I was harming myself or possibly others,” she wrote in a recent blog post, owning her obsession with wellness and her hunch that eating disorders run rampant within the community. “While we tend to call those who are ‘healthy’ disciplined, strong, and [sic] with ample self control, many of these people are suffering.”

Aside from Tilghman’s shift and the growing body positivity movement on social media, I haven’t seen much in the way of pop culture that accurately represents the daily realities of coping with an eating disorder. I’d like to watch a movie that shows more than an emaciated teenage girl counting the calories of her dinner (then going into treatment and coming out “cured”). I’d love for there to be a show that explains that anyone can struggle with their relationship to food, and that recovery doesn’t have a fixed endpoint. People with larger bodies can have eating disorders. Men and nonbinary and genderqueer and trans people can have eating disorders. Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have among the highest mortality rates. Bulimia isn’t cool. Binge-eating disorder is real. Orthorexia, too.

The thing that makes eating disorders so complicated is right there in the name. They’re intrinsically linked to eating, a deeply basal entity our bodies literally cannot survive without. I still have to eat every day. I still want to eat every day. And that, ironically enough, is how I’ve managed to claw my way out of the throes of disordered eating.

But the thing is, this is just my experience. Indeed, people with eating disorders often follow similar patterns; there’s no one way to have issues with food. There’s no one way to recover. Some might find spending so much time around food to be triggering; for me, it’s exposure therapy.

This is why I made food my job. Because work should bring you joy, but it will likely take on some element of mundanity, because it’s everyday. Once I stopped obsessing over my meals and accepted them as a facet of daily life, I started to feel differently. Because every time I make myself a meal, eat it, and move on with my day is progress. And when I think back about something I ate joyfully, I feel relief.

Eating Disorders Anonymous defines recovery as living without obsessing on food, weight, and body image. According to the organization’s founders, recovery “is a process, not an event.” NEDA notes that some psychologists call it “the process of creating a life worth living.”

This process is never clearer than when I look into my freezer. It’s where I cram my various baking experiments, leftovers I can’t bear to throw away. Rooting around in there is an archaeological dig—it appears that in November of last year I was working my way through a large jar of tahini, over in the corner there’s half a plum-almond cake from August; last month I finished off a five-pound chocolate bar, so there are a few batches of those infamous chocolate chip cookies.

Usually I defrost a batch when I have people over or get a last-minute invite somewhere. But I’ve recently started taking out a few just for me, to eat on the couch in my pajamas at night.

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