Disordered eating: the history of my relationship with food
It’s hard to say when it started because it’s hard to remember a time when I had a balanced relationship with food. I guess like most things it probably traces back to my childhood, but I’m almost hesitant to even say that because it makes out that I had a trying childhood with terrible parents and lasting psychological damage which couldn’t be further from the truth. I had a wonderful childhood filled with love and support and, in the main, I would say I’m extremely well-adjusted; we just all have our stuff and it can’t be avoided - I’m not even sure it should be. Imagine if we never had any challenges to overcome.
When I try to pinpoint what might have triggered this volatile relationship I have with food, there are little things I remember. Like when my sister wouldn’t finish her food and my parents would say “See how good Danielle is, finishing her dinner?” (incidentally, we all comment now how she is the only one who can stop eating when she’s full). My parents are not at fault and I know enough people with kids to understand trying to get them to sit down and eat can be a constant battle. But I guess that was the beginning of me associating eating with love and praise.
Then I started school and the people-pleaser in me came out in force. I would be praised for finishing my lunch whilst my friends would be reprimanded for leaving food “when there were children starving in Africa”. This reinforced my ‘eating equals being liked’ mentality and I would finish everyone else’s lunches to stop them getting into trouble. At high school my friends would make disgusting concoctions of cakes mashed up with slush puppy poured over it, dripped over toast and all stirred up etc. (school canteens were pretty unhealthy back then!) and see if I would eat it. I would be surrounded by a crowd of people thinking I was hilarious. The holy grail for someone with a compulsive need to be liked.
I was bullied during my last year of primary school for being a nerd because I had been accepted into a Grammar School. I wasn’t one of the pretty, popular girls and in that last year I withdrew completely. I took these insecurities with me into high school and I was at that age where I became obsessive with the way my body looked and the way people saw me. I went on every diet under the sun. Including barely eating. I would lose a lot of weight, be really happy, then put it all back on again once I had resumed normal eating. I became obsessed with my weight and my happiness was completely determined by what I saw on the scale. I remember being on a course in Southampton and after dinner I went back to my room to do endless sit-ups, hoping I would somehow get rid of the food I had just eaten. My weight was never stable and my relationship with food even less so.
I went to uni and nothing changed. My weight continued to fluctuate as it always had, I would cycle through working out and eating salads to watching TV in bed with chocolate, sweets and crisps and not go to lectures for days on end. I remember speaking to my friend who said living in halls was the best time she had at uni, and I told her that was my least favourite year because I just remember feeling fat and poor.
In my final year I met Steve and in January 2014, we started running together. After that became a routine, we decided to take a look at what we were eating and had a complete diet overhaul. For about a year I was the slimmest I had ever been. I started feeling comfortable in my clothes and confident in my skin, but my mindset about food and weight hadn’t changed. I hadn’t healed my addiction to sugar and chocolate, I hadn’t healed the feelings of guilt every time I ate something “forbidden”, I hadn’t healed my tendency to binge after restricting myself. I hadn’t healed the way I felt about food and it still completely consumed my life.
That year was the longest I’ve ever felt even remotely in control around food. After that, I decided to switch to a ketogenic diet which, given my attitude towards food, was a terrible idea. If I ate the smallest amount of carbs, I was a failure and would binge on chocolate. I started using a site to track my macros and became even more obsessive. I would put in all the meals I was going to have that day, then keep adding in exercise activities I hadn’t yet completed until the numbers looked right. Then I would go home and do all the exercises I had logged so I wouldn’t go over on my macros. I’ve since learned over-exercising is a form of purging, the same way some people with bulimia will force themselves to throw up after a meal. That was in 2016. Between then and now there have been some good days and there have been some very low days.
What does my relationship with food look like now? It’s hard to say because it’s constantly in flux. There are days, sometimes weeks or even months at a time where I feel completely out of control. I wake up thinking about food and counting down the minutes to when I can eat again. There have been times when I’ve found it really difficult to be in social situations which involved food. If I was out to dinner I couldn’t focus on the conversation because I was staring at the food on my friends’ plates wondering if they were going to eat it. I still find it extremely difficult to stop eating when I’m not hungry or let myself get hungry before I eat. There are still many, many days where it seems I am completely unable to escape the deluge of food thoughts which flood my mind. Often people wonder why it’s a problem, “you’re not fat” they’ll say. Which is valid and coming from a place of love, but the truth of the matter is I don’t feel I have the power to stop when I want to, and to feel that out of control is awful.
A while back when I was feeling particularly down about my current situation with food, I decided to turn it around by listing the things I had achieved since I first began this journey:
· I no longer restrict any foods (I am vegan so I don’t eat animal products but I don’t consider that a restriction, it’s an ethical choice).
· I do not obsessively track what I am eating and I am not obsessive about my exercise.
· I rarely weigh myself.
· I haven’t eaten to the point of being sick for a long time (not because I was making myself sick, because I physically ate so much food my body couldn’t take it).
· If I eat badly, I no longer miss a meal to try to “balance it out”. I eat my normal meals which are healthy.
· I have a lot more awareness of my self-sabotage. I often feel powerless to stop it which can be more frustrating, but I can catch myself in the middle of a negative thought pattern or damaging cycle.
· I’m more aware of my emotional eating triggers. When I feel the overwhelming urge to eat, I can usually figure out what feeling caused it.
· I haven’t binged for a long time. Probably because I stopped restricting my foods.
· I am very appreciative of my body and I’m finding more often than not, I am happy with the way I look and feel.
· I spend less time comparing myself to others around me.
· And probably the most important, I’ve stopped trivialising my overeating, recognised it for what it really is an am being open and honest with myself and others about it.
And when I look at that list I am so proud of how far I’ve come. I’m so far removed from the young, insecure girl I was ten or fifteen years ago. But this is not a blog about how I overcame my overeating for good; I haven’t and am still on this journey, I still struggle. Some days it feels like I’ve taken a huge step backwards but when I look at the bigger picture I see how far I’ve come and I know, even though it might seem like a million miles away, one day I will be free of this toxic relationship with food and will enjoy it for what it is. Not a treat, not a source of suffering, not a loyal companion, not a crutch and not a way to make people like me. Just nice-tasting, nourishing fuel for my body.
Some days I get frustrated and upset that it seems I will be forever trapped but I remind myself that everything happens for a good reason. Like maybe one day I will be able to help other people because of these things I’ve had to overcome. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that I am not alone in this. The sad truth is, more people than not do not have a balanced relationship with food and the likelihood is there will be many people who can identify with one or all parts of what I’ve shared here. And this really only scratches the surface. It’s difficult for me to articulate in words what is a complex relationship and there are too many things to share in a blog. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll write about this, but it’s a start. And if all it achieves is to help one person feel less alone in their struggle, then that’s a win in my books.
There are two books I’ve found to be really helpful on the subject. The first is Beyond Temptation by Sophie and Audrey Boss. That book helped me to stop having forbidden foods and since I stopped restricting what I am allowed to eat, I have had less of a tendency to binge.
The second is Skinny Thinking by Laura Katleman-Prue. This book, as the title suggests, is about healing the way we think about food and understanding the whole truth about food to help us stop romanticising it.