What if I never stop eating?
A common fear in recovery from both eating disorders and chronic dieting, is this fear that once you start eating, you'll never be able to stop. So you stay away from the high-calorie foods in an effort to "protect" yourself from overeating. I myself have gone through the process of surrendering to my body's signals and describe how you, too, can make peace with ALL foods.
When I shared a video of me eating a bowl of Ben & Jerry's ice cream on my Instagram stories last week, my DM's blew up with messages such as "how can you control yourself around that?!" and "I could never have real ice cream in the house because I would eat the entire tub". Even though I used to think the same way, I honestly felt a strange distance from these questions...which made me realize how incredibly far I've come.
During the times of my eating disorder, I would never have anything "unhealthy" in the house out of fear that I would indeed, not be able to control myself around it. Living with my family though, it was a bit impossible to not have anything "unhealthy" in the house. So how did I cope with this during my eating disorder? I wouldn't touch it. The cookies, the ice cream, the nutella, it was all on my "bad" foods list. And anything on my bad foods list, was off limits. Even staples that I now eat every day such as bread, pasta, cheese etc were on my bad foods list because carbs! dairy! My eating disorder had me convinced that certain food groups and certain types of food were unhealthy. Unfortunately, diet culture continues to confirm such notions which is a shame, as I believe EVERY food can fit into a healthy lifestyle.
I tried to replace my "bad" foods with "clean" alternatives such as light ice cream, sweet-treat-flavored protein bars, high-protein cookies and sugar-free spreads. I avoided sugar at any costs and replaced it with artificial sweeteners. Looking back, the amount of diet foods I was eating was just absurd! I had myself tricked into thinking these "replacements" actually were satisfying me--little did I know this was an acquired preference caused by my brain's extreme aversion to eating anything I deemed as "bad".
Thinking About Food
Even though I believed I didn't "like" the real, sugar-filled-made-with-real-butter treats, I thought about them a lot. I would stare at my sister eating donuts with her friends in ultimate jealousy. When someone wouldn't finish their plate, I simply could not FATHOM the idea of doing the same. Eating a bite of something and being satisfied and not wanting more did not exist in my realm of mental capabilities. Whatever was on my plate, I had to finish, otherwise it wouldn't be "complete" in my OCD mind.
I got obsessed with portioning my food in ways that would ensure I wouldn't eat "too much". I weighed everything I ate, and carefully measured each bowl of cereal, each tablespoon of nut butter, and even cut pieces off of bread slices to stay under my allotted daily amount. I would spend extra money on pre-portioned items to avoid the temptation of eating more than the recommended serving size.
Writing about that time of my life now, has me reminded of dreams I would have about food. Rather, I should say nightmares! I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating profusely, having a panic attack, as I had dreamed that I had eaten an entire bag of cookies or an entire tub of ice cream. "Did I really do that?" I would seriously question it as I sat upright in bed, panting and body checking to make sure there were no signs that I had overeaten. The next morning, I would be BEYOND RELIEF that it was "just a dream". But instead of seeing these vivid experiences as a sign that my body actually NEEDED to eat more of these "fear foods", I saw it as a confirmation to stay even further away from these foods. Because if I got near them, my nightmares would become a reality!
So what happened when I started eating normally?
When I went into treatment for my eating disorder in 2017, I was face-planted into 6 months of eating all the foods I had forbid myself of for years. My first day at Carolina House consisted of bagels with full-fat cream cheese, rice krispie treats, cookies, brownies, hamburgers, pasta...the first day LITERALLY checked off all the boxes for my long list of fear foods. That I would be face-to-face with these foods was difficult as hell, but at the same time it felt SO good. It felt so wrong to willingly eat these foods at each meal and snack, but I finally felt like I was ALLOWED to do it. Of course, I was "allowed" to eat these foods all along, but the eating disorder was so strong that I simply wasn't capable of doing it alone.
I cried every single day during my first 4 weeks of treatment, begging my parents to come pick me up and exclaiming that this was the completely wrong approach. "This isn't the healthy way to gain weight! I am going to become addicted to eating junk food! Once I get out, I won't know what normal eating is anymore!" And exactly that was the crux that I wasn't aware of. There's no such thing as a "healthy" way to gain weight in recovery. Your body doesn't know the difference between 200 calories of a artificially-sweetened-fat-free-high-fiber protein bar and a donut. There's no such thing as being "addicted" to food. There's no such thing as junk food--ALL foods have their time and place. And lastly, what I deem as "normal" eating nowadays couldn't have been farther than what I thought it was 3 years ago.
Now the Real Work Begins...
were the words of my therapist on the day I discharged from IOP at Carolina House. I had spent half a year facing my biggest fears, eating foods I thought I would never eat again, undergoing intense therapy, and gaining over 30lbs (14kg) of desperately needed weight. It was time to go back to "normal" life...but what did that look like?
Transitioning from a period of support to everyday life was extremely difficult for me. Having to fully make my OWN food choices and ALLOWING myself everything because I wanted it instead of "I'm allowed to have it because I'm in treatment" was a daily battle. I do recall a small relapse some time post-treatment, probably caused by overwhelm and fear of doing the wrong thing. I lost a bit of weight, and that's right about when my extreme hunger and period of overeating came over me.
Extreme Hunger & Overeating
In September of 2018, I gained a LOT of weight in one month's time due to daily episodes of binge eating. THIS was arguably the hardest part of my recovery (harder than treatment!) because I was on my own and my body was sending me signals it never had before. Treatment provided me with structure and security--each day I knew what I could expect. But when you experience extreme hunger and start overeating to make up for all those years of restriction...now that's a whole new ballgame.
Every day I would eat packages of cookies, finish jars of nutella and biscoff, polish off tubs of ice cream, and gorge on entire boxes of cereal. It was like my body had taken over my brain (which essentially it did) and I thought it was never going to stop. I would wake up each morning saying "today I'm going to be good" and I would eat my oatmeal and my salad and my servings of fruit until, come afternoon and I would replay last night's entire binge. This went on for months until I told myself: whatever I'm doing, whatever goal I'm trying to achieve, it's not working. So how did I know what was going to work? The thing I hadn't tried yet, because it was the most scary.
Unconditional Permission to Eat
That thing was unconditional permission to eat. I never thought I would experience bingeing because I had been to treatment and had "conquered" all my fear foods already. But I think that's where treatment centers fail (and the ED healthcare world in general) is that it's still very diet-culture focused (as ironic as that seems!). All throughout my recovery, with every doctor and dietician and professional I saw, the focus was on serving sizes; 1 cup of oatmeal. 1/2 cup of applesauce. 1/4 cup almonds. 8oz of milk. Not only did this FUEL my OCD, it strengthened my anorexic/orthorexic brain to perceive food as numbers, instead of perceive it for exactly what it is: FOOD.
During treatment, we were told to eat 2 cookies, maybe 3, and that was a "normal" serving size. But think about the huge cookie deficit we've created over however long you've had your eating disorder? Say a "normal" person eats a cookie every day (and that's undershooting the amount of sweets). If you had your eating disorder for 2 years, that's a deficit of 730 cookies! So feel free, go ahead and restrict yourself to 2 cookies once in a while...but if you want more and don't allow yourself because it's not "normal", remember that what you've been doing for years isn't normal. Getting to a place of normal is going to proceed in an ABNORMAL fashion.
It's easy to tell yourself you've eaten a 1/2 cup serving of ice cream which means you're not restricting because you allow yourself "treats", but if you want more, you're restricting yourself. If you want to eat the whole tub but hide the ice cream or get mad at your family for buying it because you don't allow yourself to, that's restricting. Eating anything LESS than what you really want, is restricting.
The Urges will Subside
The reason your body wants ALL the food is because it doesn't trust that you're going to give it that. For your body, restriction is the same as a famine. And when someone comes out of a famine (think world war II survivors), you bet they overstuffed themselves back to nutrition. Same goes for you (and by the way, you don't have to be underweight to need to undergo this process). After all the restricting you've done, how does your body know you're not going to keep doing it? You have to show it that there's an abundance of food. You have to prove to your body that all the food you could possibly ever want, it's right there. And to do that, you have to eat all that food, eat that food until you're completely satisfied, eat that food to your heart's content.
But because you're body doesn't trust you just yet, it obsesses over food, dreams about it, and your life literally revolves around food. We obsess over what we don't have, so it's simply a sign you're not giving your body enough food! Your body is smart and knows this--so when you have the opportunity to eat a high amount of calories, you will have this incredible urge to eat it all because it's what your body really wants.
Knowing this, I gave myself unconditional permission to eat, whatever that meant. I ate the packs of cookies, the jars of biscoff and nutella, and I would go to the store to buy more right when I was finished, so that I wouldn't have to worry about feeling restricted the next time the urges to eat came again. I would wake up and eat a big breakfast in the morning to show my body there was no reason to need to overeat later, because there was enough food.
Sure I gained weight throughout this process and it was extremely difficult, but slowly, my body learned to trust me again. After months of eating a full tub of full-fat ice cream or a jar of peanut butter or a pack of cookies every day, eating all that just becomes boring. At some point, I simply didn't want to eat the whole tub of ice cream anymore--a couple scoops was enough.
Although you're probably reading this and thinking you're some kind of anomaly and that you will eat yourself into obesity, the human body doesn't lie. The hundreds of thousands of stories from recovered individuals (including me) aren't copy and pasted from some kind of fairytale. Your body thinks you are living in a famine and is sending you signals to ask you to get out. So prove to your body that there is no famine. Prove to your body that you can have all the food in the world. Because you can. And you need to.
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