Happy Monday, friends. As I’ve mentioned recently, this is National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week. Each year, I use this week as a chance to give more attention to EDs here on the blog. Last year, I shared my own green recovery story, in all of its messy ups and downs, for the first time. This year, I’m sharing five questions to ask about your relationship with food, in the hopes that they can help you to make conscious, compassionate, and nourishing choices.
NEDA week is usually given a theme, and this year, the theme is “three minutes can save a life.” The idea is that taking only a few minutes to assess one’s own relationship with food can be the difference between continued suffering and getting help.
I would extend this to suggest that, in three minutes, you can also talk to someone you know who is suffering, make an appointment with a heatlhcare professional to discuss your relationship with food, or call a loved one and say “there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” In other words, three minutes can be the timeframe in which you choose to speak out about your struggle (or invite a loved one to share his/hers), and speaking out is often the first step toward healing.
NEDA is offering an anonymous, confidential online screening that takes about three minutes and can help you to assess your own risk. I think that’s a great idea, and it also got me thinking about the larger theme of checking in with oneself and staying accountable.
A theme that keeps coming up in my work with clients is that, while there are many resources available for those who are actively suffering from EDs (including in and outpatient therapy, group counseling, specialized dietitians and therapists), there are fewer sources of support for life after recovery. You seek help for an ED, and with any luck you have the support of health care providers in guiding you toward physical wellness, cessation of destructive habits, and (if applicable) weight restoration. But what happens after that? Even if the most harmful behaviors have been eliminated, it’s inevitable that certain thought patterns and anxieties will remain.
And then there’s the other big question: how to eat? Many treatment programs focus on eating for weight restoration, but they don’t necessarily give one the tools and guidance that enable a longterm, healthful relationship with food. In the wake of the recovery process, many women and men find themselves needing to learn how to eat again, for life. There’s a surprising scarcity of guidance on this score.
As someone who has identified as recovered for a while now, I recognize that triggers and stress can challenge one’s recovery. I do active work to “protect my recovery” (a great phrase, which I recently stole from a reader) by asking myself questions that help me to be honest and accountable when it comes to my relationship with food.
In considering these questions, I realize that many of them are the same questions I asked myself back when I was facing recovery for the first time; I’ve simply carried them into my life as a “recovered” person with a new set of meanings and focus. For me, the goal is to continually cultivate awareness and self-care while rejecting the tendency to use foods as a means of control or self-punishment.
So, here are five questions to ask yourself about your relationship with food. For those of you who are struggling, these may help you to name and articulate the struggle, and perhaps they will encourage you to seek out support and help. For those of you who have identified as recovered for a while, these questions may still be relevant, a means of “checking in” and staying honest. And it’s my hope that all readers, regardless of their histories, can use these questions to create more nourishing and sustainable food choices.
Much of the struggle of an ED–or the lingering afterlife of an ED–involves the persistent denial of food cravings, food desires, or one’s own deep-seated intuition of what the body needs.
I’m not saying that every single food craving is sacred. We all crave candy or chocolate sometimes for no greater reason than that these foods can feel comforting, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re what we really need. But I think that most of us have a strong overall sense of what we need as far as nourishment goes, and sometimes we become very, very good at denying those needs.
During my disorder, I was perfectly aware that it wasn’t “normal” to feel lightheaded as I climbed a flight of subway stairs, to see stars every time I stood up from my desk, or to be starving and obsessing over my next snack a mere thirty minutes after lunch. Yet I continually resisted the enhanced energy intake that would have helped me to feel better and be healthier.
During my early raw food days, I sensed that my body needed quite a bit more complex carbs than it was getting, but I routinely denied myself them, hoping that, by loading up a bit more on avocados and zucchini noodles and leafy greens, I’d somehow fill the void.
Consistent denial of the foods we need for health, energy, and vitality depletes us, and it often sets us up for future binges and overeating. If you feel as though you are continually saying “no” to yourself when it comes to foods you need for wellness, it’s time to check in and explore what it feels like to eat toward satisfaction. This is an unnerving process, especially if you have struggled with imbalance in the past, but it’s crucial to recognize that persistent self-deprivation will only deepen the problem.
Intuition-led eating doesn’t happen overnight, not for folks with long ED histories, and I’m a firm believer that structure and planning are important even when intuition is the longterm goal. Still, recognition of one’s own appetites and commitment to serving those appetites is an important first step toward longterm balance.
In this day and age, it’s particularly easy for those of us with EDs or ED histories–who are already prone to competition and self-comparison–to spend too much time studying what other people are eating. Instagram, Facebook, websites, newsletters, and blogs give us more than enough material.
Curiosity about other folks’ eating habits and favorite foods is not, in and of itself, harmful. On the contrary, it can be a good source of inspiration and motivation. But inspiration and aspiration are different, and attempting to shape one’s own food identity around what works for another person does little to cultivate or strengthen that intuition we were just talking about.
The longer you study other folks’ eating habits or look to other people for clues about what is and isn’t the “right” way to eat, the longer you’ll avoid the process of tuning into your own appetites and needs. Cultivating food habits that honor one’s own hunger is not a simple process–it can demand patience, practice, and sometimes gentle guidance in the form of a dietitian, a coach, or a therapist. What won’t help the process along is continually shifting your focus to other people, rather than turning it inward in an attempt to listen and become responsive to your body.
Oftentimes I tell clients that the first step toward a more peaceful relationship with food is to do a detox of social media, email subscriptions, and health/wellness reading (this is pretty much the only “detox” I endorse!). It’s not that the material in question isn’t valuable; it’s simply that all of the reading and studying and Googling doesn’t always serve the larger goal of self-exploration.
So, before you emulate something you’ve seen or read about or heard about, ask yourself whether you might be better served by studying and working to better understand your own food needs and patterns.
I have a pretty hard and fast rule when it comes to my own food habits: if any practice or behavior is not one that I could comfortably and healthfully sustain longterm, then I don’t do it.
This immediately disqualifies most of the “cleanses,” “clean eating” initiatives, 3 week “reboots,” and elimination diets I’ve come across, because even the more satisfying ones don’t take into account special occasions, travel, socializing, and other spur-of-the-moment stuff. It eliminates big statements like “I don’t eat refined sugar,” because I do, when the right vegan cookie presents itself. It keeps me from committing to anything that isn’t a realistic, lifelong pattern.
This is what works for me. I understand that, for many folks, doing a temporary experiment with food can help to root out problematic patterns and instill healthful new ones. But I do think that more attention needs to be given to longterm sustainability in our dialog about food choices. What’s the value of a dietary style that’s so socially stifling or strict that it can’t be sustained?
For many people–especially those of us who tend toward extremes–it’s actually not so hard to do some sort of strict elimination or cleanse. We thrive off of the rules and the self-denial and the strict boundaries. What’s difficult is learning how to dwell in moderation, to find the middle path, and to create a flexible pattern that serves our health. The more time we spend diving into temporary experiments, the less time we spend figuring out what will work for life. And isn’t that the goal?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been amazed at my own capacity to separate reason and judgment from my eating behaviors. When it comes to food, I’ve convinced myself to do all manner of experiments and diets and habits that I would have no trouble identifying as disordered or problematic if I were to see them on paper.
It’s not easy to reconcile this disconnect between what we know to be rational on the one hand, and what those pesky ED voices encourage us to do on the other. But one simple starting point is to actually write down the behavior you’re considering, as well as your motivations for considering it. Take a moment to think about it rationally. If you were to be presented with this behavior for the first time, would you think that it was healthful and wise? Would you say that it serves a better longterm relationship with food?
If the answer is “no,” then perhaps it’s time to modify your plan and consider a different, more reasonable behavior instead. You can continue to use writing as a means of cultivating more awareness and stopping yourself before impulse or emotion get the better of you.
Each day, my clients tell me about their critical inner monologues. Sometimes I’m shocked at the cruelty that these monologues and thought patterns reveal.
I’m no stranger to having a nasty inner critic. A large part of my ED recovery was learning how to quiet the interior voice that tells me that I’m worthless, lazy, inadequate, or failing. That voice will be with me always, even as I acquire more tools for contextualizing it. In my capacity as a nutritionist, I do my best to reveal those cruel inner voices for what they are: projections of fear, unjust words we absorbed in childhood, and/or shame that we’ve been forced at some point to internalize.
One helpful exercise in silencing the critical inner voice is to speak its words out loud (or write them down) and ask yourself: if a friend told me that she was thinking these things or saying them about herself, what would I say? If your impulse would be to offer solace, comfort, and reinforcement, then it’s time to direct those same tools to inward, cultivating more self-compassion and forgiveness.
There’s a corollary for this with food. If you feel yourself contemplating a food behavior that is an extension of shame, guilt, self-loathing, self-punishment (or any of the impulses that our harsh inner critics like to sanction), then it’s a good time to speak the behavior out loud, or to write it down on paper and read it. Then ask yourself, “how would I react if a friend told me that he or she planned to eat this way? Would I be worried? Would I think that it was self-punishing or overly restrictive? Would I think that it was an expression of self-loathing or shame?”
If the answer is yes to any of those questions–or if you simply feel that this is not a behavior you’d want to see a loved one engaging in–then it’s time to reevaluate, and think of food patterns that are more caring and nourishing.
In honor of NEDA week, I invite and encourage everyone to spend some time thinking about these questions or other questions that can help to create a more conscientious relationship with food. Three minutes really can be the difference between engaging in a problematic food behavior and using one’s critical thinking capacities to discover and commit to a more healthful behavior instead.
I’d love to hear what questions and means of “checking in” are helpful to all of you as you work through your relationships with food. What did I miss, and what has proved most effective for you?
As always, I wish you all strength and forgiveness and patience in your journeys toward recovery, or your ongoing cultivation of self-care through food. To anyone who is struggling out there, I encourage you to use this week as an opportunity to ask for support or pursue healing. Remember, no matter what, that you are not alone in the fight.