Food and I. It’s been a crazy journey.
When I was 14, I developed ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease. As it progressed severely over the years, medicines stopped working. When I was told my only option was the removal of my colon, my body viscerally refused. I threw myself into researching nutrition and mind-body medicine.
Long story short, I healed my intestines through some drastic dietary changes, avoided surgery, felt empowered, and began to share my journey on Empowered Sustenance.
That is my part of my journey with food. But there is another part of the story that has also shaped who I am and how I see food. It’s a story of disordered eating.
For a short period of time when I was around 12, I used anorexia as a coping mechanism. It gave me an illusion of control in my life when every other aspect of my life felt terrifyingly unpredictable.
It’s hard to think about that time and even harder to discuss. Thankfully, within a year, I recovered fully after the upheaval in my life settled and I received help from professionals. But that period changed my life forever.
Recently, one of my friends came to terms with an eating disorder. I was able to offer words of consolation as someone who has been there, done that. This experience pushed me to articulate the steps that I took to heal.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, my heart goes out to you and I hope that just a few of the sentences in this post will resonate with you.
1. I said it to myself first
Years ago when someone told me I had an eating disorder, even though I knew it deep down, I became more resistant to the idea. I had acknowledge the problem myself before I could change.
If you have an eating disorder, you can frequently hide it from family and friends, but you can rarely hide it from someone who has experienced disordered eating. My soul ached to see my friend following the same patterns that I recognized from my past. I tried to gauge the situation and felt like it wouldn’t be helpful for me to give her a “diagnosis.”
Last week, my friend and I had an emotional conversation when she had that lightbulb moment: “I have an eating disorder,” she said under her breath, more to herself than to me.
Naming the problem is the first step toward reaching a solution.
2. I began to feed my brain
The piece key piece of information that I wish I knew when I was in the midst of recovery? I wish someone had told me your brain is starving.
The brain of someone with an eating disorder is at an extreme nutrient deficiency, which I believe impairs one’s ability to think objectively about one’s situation (to see “outside” of yourself).
Often, the body has been deprived of fat-soluble vitamins, cofactors required for mineral absorption, and complete protein. These are all required for the synthesis of adequate neurotransmitters, such as the “happy neurotransmitter” dopamine. This deficiency also makes it more difficult to make habit-changing decisions.
When habits seem impossible to change, know that it’s not solely due to lack of willpower… the brain is literally sick. I remember in being in the dark pit that is anorexia, and my spirit was trying to tell me to climb into the sunlight. But my brain thoroughly resisted, and couldn’t seem to take me to the light. I believe the brain lacking nutrients is one of the factors behind body dysmorphia (seeing oneself as heavy when one is underweight), a hallmark symptom of anorexia. The good news is that you can heal your brain with food! Start focusing on the following “brain-healing” ingredients:
- Wild salmon – Wild salmon is rich in the anti-inflammatory omega-3s called EPA and DHA, which nourish the brain. It also provides protein, which is the precursor to synthesizing neurotransmitters.
- Fish oil – I recommend cod liver oil (liquid or capsules) which provides bioavailable (meaning your body can absorb it) forms of vitamin A, vitamin D and omega-3s.
- Eggs from pastured hens – Besides providing complete protein, the egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens are an exceptional source of brain-boosting components including fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
- Homemade bone broth – Folklore says that a good bone broth can raise the dead. Simmering bones creates a nutrient-rich infusion of minerals vital for cognitive function. Because bone broth has very few calories, many people with an eating disorder will readily consume it.
3. I told my practitioners
When I spoke about it, my eating disorder became a concrete problem that was easier to solve. At the time, my parents were taking me to a therapist because they didn’t know what was wrong with their daughter. They were deeply worried to see that the light had gone out of me.
It took more than two months of therapy before I gathered the courage to say to my therapist, “I am struggling with an eating disorder. I feel like food has control of my life. I want to recover.”
It sounds simple, but – at least for me – it provided a profound step towards recovery. You can speak with your doctor, a therapist, your acupuncturist… tell all the health practitioners in your life. These professionals will (or should) understand without judgement, and will be able to help you. You can also call the Eating Disorder Helpline to talk with a volunteer.
4. I broke one small habit, then the next, and the next
Habitual thinking patterns are the root of disordered eating and lead to food compulsion. While the entrenched thinking patterns take time to heal, we can start breaking habitual actions today.
Is there a food or meal that you eat daily and can’t imagine going without? For me, during my disordered eating, it was diet coke and a specific cereal. For someone else, it might be a meal replacement bar. I remember the morning I woke up and decided, “this is it. Today I will not eat my Special K with skim milk. It’s the first habit I need to break. It’s my wake up call to myself.”
It’s not so much about avoiding the specific food, but making the psychological shift to break the habit and emotional bond.
Another concrete habit I stopped in my eating disorder recovery was my extreme exercise routines. For example, I used to run on the tredmill every morning. One morning, the desire to reach a balanced life overrode the compulsion of that habit. In one day, I made a huge mental shift towards wellness by breaking that habit.
It’s impossible to explain the difficulty behind “just stopping” a habit like that to someone who hasn’t experienced disordered eating. It’s a big step, and requires courage and mental/emotional stamina.
5. Create more distance from food
When I was in the grasp of my disordered eating, my world revolved around food. When I wasn’t planning or cooking or calorie counting my meals, I thumbed through cookbooks and feasted on The Food Network. Like so many people struggling with an eating disorder, I sought solace in virtual meals.
A transformational aspect of my recovery included distancing myself from cookbooks, food websites, and cooking shows. This period allowed me to distract myself with soothing and restorative habits.
For example, when I felt tempted to seek the familiar comfort in planning my meals, I turned on an audiobook and began crocheting or drawing. This distraction provided a positive sense of accomplishment, as well, when I stood back and admired my handiwork.
6. Recognize health perfectionism
Years ago, disordered eating appealed to me because it gave me a perfectionist high. It lured me with the security of rules, regulations, order and routine. I believe nature and nurture factors gave me Type-A tendencies, and this personality aspect made me more vulnerable to disordered eating.
Stepping out of my perfectionistic approach in my eating habits was just part of my recovery. I believe an essential aspect included committed myself to perfectionism recovery in the other aspects of my life (such as school, sports, and hobbies ).
I encourage you to analyze your life through the lens of what I call health perfectionism, which I elaborate in my post Confessions of a Recovering Health Perfectionist.
I want to leave you with the same thoughts with which I concluded that post:
Healing is not about reaching perfection. It’s about constant adjusting and reorienting oneself in order to maintain balance.
The goal of perfect health is completely incompatible with mental and physical wellbeing. Approaching health challenges as a growth opportunity and balancing act is deeply empowering.
You can ALWAYS redeem your struggle
When I was talking to my friend the other night, I felt all the right words come to my mouth. I believe I was with her at that moment to listen and share my own experience. Suddenly my own past struggle with disordered eating felt redeemed.
If you are facing a pattern of disordered eating, know without a doubt that one day you CAN say to yourself, “That struggle was a crucial part of my healing journey, and because I faced the challenge, I am more in touch with my profound potential for healing in mind, body, and soul.”
If these words resonated with you, please pass on this post so that it might encourage and empower a loved one.
I would love to read more about the link between the brain lacking nutrients and body dysmorphia. Can you point me to where I could learn more about this? (It makes sense to me, but I work with people who experience this and would love to be able to back up the idea).