*In the past 48 hours on two separate occasions at two completely unrelated events, I’ve been called to be open and vulnerable to truly impart inspiration for change to others. Talk about scary! In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness, I wanted to share my journey with food and how I arrived at my current relationship status: “It’s Complicated”.”
A client once told me, “You don’t know where I’m coming from. You’ve always got it so together. You’re beautiful and fit, you have a handsome husband, a perfect child, and good hair. You just don’t get me”.
You guys, I seriously almost fell over from utter shock. Me? Having it all together? Not in a million years, lady. If you only knew what a train-wreck I really am!
Appearances are deceiving, and in a world of Pinterest crafting and staged Instagram pictures, the standard by which we judge ourselves and our achievements is ever increasing to an unattainable level. Literally. It is virtually impossible to have six pack abs, perfectly curled hair, sitting on a beach drinking a margarita all while preparing a gourmet meal for your 5 perfect children amidst creating a magical wreath for your 3 story home. I’m not buying it. And, frankly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
And, you know, social media isn’t the only scapegoat here. Sure, we are all guilty of posting our life’s highlight reels with exaggeratory verbiage while intentionally and craftily leaving out the struggles and pitfalls we are truly experiencing. It’s totally normal to want to keep our shortcomings and little secrets to ourselves. The world is a jungle and it is survival of the fittest, so why would anyone willingly expose their weaknesses?
The real issue underneath it all is that we hide behind a facade of falsehood. After all, we are judged initially by the way we look, so as long as we look good, everything is hunky-dory, right? In fact, nature has groomed us to judge initially based off of physical attributes, which is why peacocks have such majestic feathers, lions have mane, and women started wearing makeup and high heels. (Okay, so high heels and make up aren’t natural, but thank goodness for them! Am I right?!)
What if all of that was taken away and our true inner beings were exposed?
That’s scary. Like, really scary.
In all candidness, being open and vulnerable terrifies me. It is easier to keep things light, airy, and surface level because it’s safe, predictable, and reduces the risk of pain, both mentally and physically. Talking about shows, the latest gossip, and what’s for dinner all are distractions we keep in our back pockets to prevent ourselves from opening up. However, true change takes place outside of your comfort zone. That sucks, but it’s true. Being uncomfortable allows the body to enable adaptive mechanisms so that in the future, you can be better equipped to handle the situation should it arise again.
During sessions in clinic, I ask my patients to be as open with me about their past and present as they seem comfortably fit because the more I know, the better I can help. It isn’t terribly uncommon that whomever I am connecting with during that time sheds a tear or two because, after all, how cathartic is it to dump the emotional baggage you have been carrying for so long? And, because I am a Registered Dietitian, much of the baggage revolves around food. That emotional baggage runs deep because food is the first relationship we have in life. Sure, you may have been embraced and hugged by your mom first, but you were being fueled by food and nutrients long before you were born. Food is life.
It is only fair that I share the same openness and vulnerability that I ask of my clients. And, trust me, beneath this big blonde hair and happy personality is a train-wreck. But, that’s life and that’s what makes us understand one another. When it comes to food, don’t we all have some sort of emotion it conjures up? Perhaps happiness, frustration, confusion, neutrality, etc.?
So, what does food mean to me?…
Food is and has been so many different things to me at different times in my life.
1. Food is/was control.
I used to have an eating disorder. How cliche, right? Isn’t that how most young girls get into the nutrition field? Well, I am no exception. I was in high school, on the cheer-leading squad, deciding what to do after graduation, working my first job, barely staying afloat amidst the teenage drama all while my developing body uncontrollably changed shapes despite my best efforts to keep it the prepubescent appearance it once was.
When stresses increase, Type A people, like me, grasp for control because it makes us feel stable. When everything is seemingly unmanageable, we will settle for any bit of power, and food is a really quick and easy aspect of life to manipulate. Sometimes this transition of control is healthy, but a lot of times it gets abused and disordered eating ensues.
I’m lucky enough to have navigated my way through the throes of bulimia and exercise addiction, but would be foolish to say that those ghosts don’t still haunt me. Nurturing healthy thoughts around food and my body is like having another relationship in my life. It requires attention, care, awareness, apologies, acceptance, courtship, and utter dedication. If I treated and talked to my loved ones nearly half as badly as my inner voice talks to me at times, I would be a very lonely person. It isn’t easy overcoming disordered eating, but it is possible and worth the time and efforts.
2. Food is/was comfort.
We are groomed as babies to seek comfort in eating, and for good reason. Food is a necessary aspect of life. Instinctually, humans are designed to dislike the feeling of hunger and find solace in food. This is all well and good, but what happens when food is the only comforter? What happens when nothing else makes you happy? And what happens when this relationship eventually brings you shame and guilt?
It’s easy for food to be the quick fix for your emotional state. Food is comforting and tied to celebration, tradition, culture, safety, security, and predictability. Food is like having a constant friend, but just as in real-life human friendships, smothering, abusing, and taking advantage of that relationship can backfire. Withholding, negotiating, and controlling what I ate led to addiction to food, which perpetuated a cycle of restriction, binging, shame, and binging again to pacify my feelings.
Again, it’s not easy. It’s actually really, really freaking hard to remedy and save this relationship. And, again, it’s a daily struggle to differentiate emotions and related cravings. Do I want to eat because I’m bored? Sad? Or really, actually hungry?
My best advice is to listen to your instincts. Get introspective and tap into your intuitiveness. Your first, gut reaction is usually right. Instincts have kept humans alive for a long time, and intellect is what catapulted us to be the dominant species. But, intellect also muddies the waters and makes us second guess ourselves. Second guessing when it comes to food never works out favorably because second guessing causes one to rationalize bad decisions. Being aware of your body, what it is saying to you, and respecting your intuition will allow you to be free from self-doubt and truly connect with the body in which you reside.
3. Food is/was healing.
I spent years beating my body to hell through restrictive diets, too much exercise, pushing it to the limits, and ignoring physical symptoms of deterioration. Who cares that I felt crummy if I looked good, right? Who cares if I alienate my friends to spend extra time at the gym? Why would I want to acknowledge these inner demons if I can distract myself with another marathon to train for or a strict meal plan to consume my life?
My wake up call didn’t come until getting diagnosed with an autoimmune diseaseand being told I’d likely have a hard time starting a family. It always seemed too far off in the distance that those years of physical and mental abuse on myself would finally catch up. For the first time, I realized that my food relationship affected more than me. By hurting myself I was hurting others.
Thankfully, part of the solution was simple: be more intentional with my food, exercise, and sleep. This meant eating with a purpose; the purpose of healing, nurturing, and regenerating. Exercising smarter, not harder. Resting and allowing my body to recover instead of always being behind the eight-ball.
So, what’s up now?
It was an unusual feeling accepting my body for whatever shape it decided to become once I stopped forcing and controlling it to be something it isn’t, but I actually love and respect my body more than ever. It’s unapologetically me. After all, who doesn’t love an authentic Prada purse over a counterfeit? Sure, it’s easy to settle on a cheap imitation for the the quick satisfaction of completing an outfit, but waiting and saving up for the real deal pales in comparison. One may not be able to tell a difference at between a fake and a real one at first glance, but further inspection and longer use always reveals a fraud.
(Okay, just for the record, I don’t have and probably will never have a Prada purse. I hear they are nice though!)
My best advice?
Hopefully, you are at a point in your health journey where you’re ready to make a positive change, even if it’s a small one. Take it from me, your body will function so much better if you work with it instead of against it. Those hunger pangs are there for a reason. You’re tired for a reason. Your body is giving out after so many hours of physical effort for a reason. Listen to it. Our subconscious knows what’s up. It’s our conscious mind that messes things up.
Instead of punishing your body, try nourishing it. Get into the habit of saying one nice thing about yourself on a daily basis. And practice vulnerability. (I say practice because most of us are taught to be strong and poised and not show weakness for the sake of keeping things copacetic. Being open takes practice, and the best way to enhance this skill is to surround yourself with people who allow you to be you, without recourse, regret, or second guessing. This is something I am constantly working toward.)
The first step is to distance yourself from a strict, quantitative approach to food. This means not relying on calculations of calories, grams of fat, etc. That approach totally takes your feelings, physically and emotionally, out of the equation. You have to be able to rely on your decisions if you want to be successful in anything. Calorie counting is like the meddlesome boss that tells you how to do your job. Sooner or later you’ll get sick of it, and then what?
I get it, it’s scary to let go of the “life preserver” and comfort of counting calories, but relying on numbers to guide your food choices alleviates the responsibility and humanness of food decisions all while disconnecting you from yourself.
No one is going to tell you how to live your life. Take accountability for your choices and you’ll have much more long-term ask for help. (If you are looking for help navigating your nutritional destiny, I offer one on one counseling in my clinic in Houston, Texas that offers a more personalized approach. I also have partnered with Avenu Fitness to offer a 30-day long program called the 30 Day Reclaim which will give you the tools you need to enhance the pillars of health for long-term change with the help of community support and education…and it’s all online!)all know what is healthy and what isn’t, and if you truly don’t,