This appeared in Prevention in July 2008. For more great Prevention content, visit www.prevention.com
After conquering an eating disorder, my only path to a “healthy diet” is to savor every bite
“I’ll have the blueberry pancakes with bacon, two eggs sunny-side up, and coffee,” I told the waitress. My boyfriend, Tim, glanced up to catch her eye, but I wasn’t through. “Wheat toast. Oh, and could I also have the granola with yogurt and fruit? And water. And a Diet Coke with lemon. Thanks.”
After Tim had placed his order (puny by comparison), I could tell he was trying hard to keep his thoughts to himself. He failed. “I just don’t understand why you always get so much food when you never finish it,” he said. He was right–a fleet of truckers coming off a juice fast would have a tough time downing all that. I’d usually eat just a few bites of each dish, while Tim would scarf up the rest. “It’s not like you have money to waste, not to mention the waste of food. It’s crazy!”
It was crazy, from where he sat. But for me, it was a sign I was getting sane. I was in my mid-20s, just a few years into my recovery from an eating disorder. It started out as anorexia when I was 13, but soon turned into a hideous, secret bulimia. I’d parse calories and adhere rigidly to my short list of permissible foods. Then I’d rebel, eating everything I denied myself and then some, hating my body and my weak will. Sometimes I’d binge and throw up six times a day.
I wasn’t fat. My eating disorder was only partly about losing weight. Mostly, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was my way of trying to suppress any emotions I considered wrong or bad. Every time I felt angry, jealous, anxious, or sad, I’d stuff it down with food, or with an exercise meant to prevent me from eating, like running in place for an hour or writing a thousand times I will not eat. I honestly believed that if I could just will my body into shape, I’d be able to handle the pain of the rest of my life–my warring parents, my autistic brother, my adolescent insecurities. Of course, my eating disorder didn’t conquer any monsters–it just created a new one. Food, and the feelings I was using food to avoid, melded into a frightening many-headed beast, and I didn’t have a clue how to control it.
Fortunately, with a little maturity, therapy, and support, I finally realized that neither my appetite nor my emotions should be controlled–but rather fed, even indulged. Most important, they had to remain separate from each other. By ordering the entire left side of the menu, I was learning to listen to my body; my only rule was to stop when I was full. There couldn’t be any restrictions, or my bulimic side would eventually rebel.
And it worked. After a year on my “liberation” diet, I was relieved to find that when I let my body choose what it wanted, it picked pretty well. Not perfectly: It preferred butter to olive oil and had a hard time passing up carrot cake, hungry or not. Still, my weight was stable and healthy, and I was ordering only one meal at a sitting, thank you very much. And that’s how it was for about 15 years.
But a while ago I realized that my relationship with food was in trouble again–although this time, the signs were different. I was at a deli on my lunch break, chewing something healthy–I knew as much because of the dry, mealy texture. So I took a sip of water. Wow. That sure didn’t help–now I had a floury paste on my tongue. I looked down at my fake egg salad, mortared together with tofu mayonnaise, on seven-grain bread that probably would have tasted better had they quit at two or three. Why in the world, I suddenly wondered, was I eating this horrible thing?
For the previous 5 years, I’d been an editor covering health and nutrition–phytochemicals, antioxidants, good carbs, bad trans fats. It was a demanding job. I also married and had twin girls, and was running as fast as I could to meet work deadlines and fill my family’s every need. I was trying to be perfect–again–only now I wasn’t a teen counting calories; I was an adult using nutritional criteria to provide rules so I could feel in control of my chaotic life.
Whole grain “good” carbs? Check. Source of lean protein? Got it. Two of my five daily servings of fruits and veggies? Roger that; so, yes, I finished that disgusting sandwich, then ate a fruit salad, replete with antioxidant-rich blackberries. I hate blackberries.
That afternoon, I mindlessly grabbed a fistful of jelly beans from a coworker’s candy bowl. Then I furtively nibbled the icing off a cupcake, even though I wasn’t hungry. I felt like I was sneaking, but who was I hiding from? According to my own anything-goes approach, I could eat a whole cupcake if I wanted. But lately I wasn’t in touch with what I wanted. And just like in my bad old days, I felt compelled to steal some sweetness in rebellion.
Some people, I guess, can learn a lesson and be done with it, while others have to learn it again and again. In the hectic craziness of my life, I’d forgotten that I need to nourish myself emotionally as well as nutritionally.
Since the sandwich that left a lump in my throat, I’ve traded my job for freelancing to buy more time. Now I have enough energy to help out at school for Vivian and Sasha–and to be nicer to my husband, exercise, and occasionally see friends.
I’m back to indulgence mode, although not necessarily fistfuls of jelly beans. Now, when I become too concerned with what’s healthy–and not concerned enough about what sounds good for lunch–I take it as a sign to step back and figure out what I really need to feel satisfied. Sometimes, it’s a plain bagel (not whole wheat) with plenty of real cream cheese–hold the tofu stuff, please.