Emotional eating and food addiction

Yesterday I read a great piece over on the Huffington Post: Eating Disorders Were Created Equal — So Why Don’t We Treat Them That Way? by Margaret Wheeler Johnson. This is something I’ve often pondered but have rarely – if ever – seen discussed, let alone at a place with as high a readership as HuffPo. Wheeler Johnson references a piece in The Daily Beast, So, Are You Recovered? by Emma Woolf: “What Woolf hits on in her piece is that we tend to see the three phenomena — eating disorders, a general cultural anxiety about food and weight and skyrocketing obesity rates– as separate problems with separate solutions. Instead, we need to recognize that they all stem from the same root. Obesity isn’t the opposite of anorexia (or bulimia or disordered eating or just distorted thinking about food). It’s its twin.

I’m sure if you haven’t already clicked over to read the article that you will after that quote. Go ahead, read it, I will wait. 😉

I think about weight, food, health, and subjects like that a lot – probably in part because I am a former anorexic in a 200 pound woman’s body. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think “Wow, what would your 20 year old self think about this?” She would probably think that I got lazy, and to some extent she’d be right. You can read more about my struggles with food and getting/staying healthy here. My 32 year old self isn’t a fan of it but for different reasons. I no longer have an all-consuming desire to be thin; I no longer feel like I am in control when I don’t eat; but I have noticed that in some ways, my relationship with food has just flipped to the opposite extreme.

The HuffPo article mentions a CDC statistic that nearly 70% of American adults are overweight. A sizeable (no pun intended) bit over half! You can blame anything and everything for this: laziness, lack of personal responsibility, mcdonalds and other fast food restaurants, our “on the go” society, desk jobs, the internet or video games, processed food and its marketing, lack of understanding/education about eating healthfully, but no one cause is fully to blame. It stands to reason that if the majority of Americans are overweight something is wrong with our relationship with food. Whether we restrict or binge, obesity really can be an eating disorder that is vastly more dangerous than any eating disorder where food is restricted.

When I look around, I see virtually no one who has a healthy relationship with food. I follow many health/wellness accounts on instagram, but while fitness enthusiasts and body builders may eat healthily, many of them don’t seem to have a particularly healthy relationship with food. One in particular pops into my mind, who puts Quest nutrition bars into the oven and bakes them for an “indulgent” snack. A world where one never eats a cookie or just opts for another, more healthy sweet processed food isn’t a relationship with food that I want to hold up as a guideline for how we should eat. The problem, is that whether we are eating healthy or unhealthy, food can become too big a part of our lives.

Food in our culture is many things – an indulgence, a comfort, a social activity, a pastime, an escape, but rarely is it seen as just fuel for our bodies. When I was at my healthiest when I was running regularly, my relationship with food shifted and became the healthiest it has ever been in my life. I started thinking about food as what made me go; I started paying attention to protein and how often I ate it (as a pescatarian – vegetarian except for seafood – it had until that point been very easy for me to have little or no protein in a day), carbs stopped being scary and started being a necessary part of a balanced diet. I ate a lot of egg whites, salmon, protein shakes, and I concentrated on getting the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings each day. It was probably the only time in my life that food was not my comfort, either in its restriction or in its indulgence.

My current problem came when I discovered sugar. Sugar is a staple of a processed American diet, but up until two years ago I had never been that big of a fan of sweets. I’d almost always choose pretzels over cookies, preferring something salty as a snack. When I quit drinking alcohol something in my body changed, I started craving sweets. It was new and extremely different for me, I didn’t even eat a piece of the cake that I bought for my graduation party. Suddenly I wanted ice cream and candy and cake! Then, when I went through a bad breakup, I realized that ice cream and candy and cake tasted really really good. There were days when I didn’t stop feeling hungry, when no matter how much I ate I didn’t feel satisfied. Never one to keep sweets in the house (once there was an open package of oreos in my pantry for 3 years. They just sat there untouched!) I found myself driving through Sonic and Dairy Queen for their blended ice cream treats. I’d pick up a two-slice package of freshly baked cake as I did my grocery shopping. I had four scoops of ice cream for dessert at a local Chinese food buffet when normally I just ate fresh fruit as dessert.

Sweets weren’t just my indulgence or comfort, they started to take on an almost sensual quality. The way the cold ice cream melts against your tongue on a warm, summer day; the rich, fluffy texture of a slice of cake; the way my mouth seemed to come alive as I bit into a piece of Ghirardelli dark chocolate; a kitkat’s perfect combination of sweetened chocolate and light, crunchy wafers; before I knew it I was eating in a way I had never eaten in my life. Not so long ago I did things like microwaving mini cinnamon rolls and putting vanilla ice cream atop them just because it sounded good. I started thinking about sweets the way I had thought about all food back when I was restricting, like a forbidden lover. I thought about when we could be together again, how good it would feel, how I would get a satisfaction that nothing else gave me… It should really be of no surprise to me that disordered eating translated so utterly and perfectly from restriction to indulgence. I stopped finding joy in denying myself but I found it again in comforting myself with food, either way I was controlled by food.

Wheeler Johnson’s piece goes on to ask: “What if we started reading our eating issues as part of the same story, of a culture’s broken relationship with food and a resulting body image crisis? What if we viewed all people who use food and weight to cope with challenges in their lives as worthy of compassion, whether they are fat or thin?” If we were able to do that, I think the story would begin to change. I’m still in the middle of mine. I’m beginning to control my sugar addiction with extreme portion control, just a little indulgence. I’m also starting to fight all the things inside me that seem to make it impossible for me to sustain good health. I know it’s possible because I did it before, it’s just that my fear, loneliness, sadness, all of that disappears for a moment when I take a bite of cake or put a spoonful of oreo blizzard in my mouth. I realize that food cannot make me feel whole, and that until I deal with the things that have driven me to try to fill that void with alcohol, relationships, attention, and now food that nothing will be able to satisfy me. That has got to be the first step, at least.

chocolate pie


Postscript to Abusing my body with food

I wanted to make one more point that I didn’t make on my original post “Abusing My Body With Food”. I think it’s also important that when we do choose to indulge, we choose high quality foods made with fresh ingredients to indulge in. For example, instead of eating the fifty cent, couple days old cake that I bought from Kroger, I could have chosen to buy a freshly made slice of cake at Campbells, a local bakery that I love. That would’ve been a much better choice for a less than healthy “treat”.

So if you do indulge, choose something that’s good quality – don’t get the frozen pizza (even the “diet” one) instead make it yourself or buy it from a local place that uses fresh ingredients. Don’t drive-through McDonalds for a burger, go to a restaurant that uses good quality beef and will cook it to order, etc etc etc.

oysters by visualnewbie

Abusing my body with food

Last night, as I sat on my couch watching Criminal Minds season four and eating “Oops, we baked too much!” fifty cent sale Italian cream cake from Kroger, I thought about something that @missionfitchick had said on instagram. I recently started following her, I like her positive attitude, frankness about herself, and photos of healthy meals & snacks. The photos show up in my instagram feed between photos of people’s rescue dogs and giant hoagies, massive desserts and scrumptious-looking asian food from @visualnewbie, @foodchasers, and @paulie702, my favorite “foodie” accounts. It is a little bit odd to have decadent images of calorie-laden foods in between posts about getting healthy and losing weight. There’s where I’m at though – I’m a foodie: Top Chef is one of my favorite shows; my new year’s resolution for 2013 was to eat in at least one James Beard Award Winning chef’s restaurant; I geeked out the time I ate at Chef Chris DeBarr’s restaurant Green Goddess and he came by the table. I love food in a weird and dysfunctional way and I always have. Back when I restricted food, over a decade ago, I was pretty much the same. I would walk through supermarkets, breathing it all in, looking at everything there was on the shelves, even though I wouldn’t let myself eat much of it at all and when I did eat it was organized with obsessive rituals and rules. When I started getting over my eating disorder related behaviors, I didn’t really get “healthy” I just started eating again.

deep dish pizza by foodchasers

As I sat there last evening, eating this gigantic slice of cake directly from the container, the phrase “abusing my body with food” popped into my head. I’ve spent 2013 trying to get back into my healthy habits. In 2010 I lost about 40 pounds when I started running, and that was the only time in my life I have had a non-adversarial relationship with food. My thinking really started to change, I saw food as fuel for my body – not something to fear, indulge in, hide in, or vilify. Fitness was my focus, not food, and I think that’s why it worked so well for me. As I began to really enjoy running, I was able to really enjoy eating healthy, “clean” food to make my body even better at what I was achieving. I stopped indulging in the occasional bottle of wine because it affected my performance too much the next day. The first time I ran a mile without stopping was the first time in my life that I had not only done something that I believed I could not do, but I had achieved it on my own, doing it for only me and not to prove anyone wrong or to prove to anyone else that I was good enough. And then I stopped running.

It happened gradually at first. I started working instead of being just a full-time student, so it was harder to fit in exercise since I hate mornings. I started dating the alcoholic and I didn’t take my running shoes on my ten day trip to New Mexico. I’d planned to, but she’d thrown a fit, “Why would you want to do something without me!??!” That statement is ridiculously emotionally unhealthy, but I still left my running shoes at home. Little by little the healthy eating started falling by the wayside too. I’d been off diet frozen dinners but I started bringing them to work as quick, easy lunches again. I started eating fast food that wasn’t subway. Then I fell into a depression during the 2011 holidays and started eating sweets. I had never been that interested in sweets, but all of a sudden I really wanted them. I ate dessert every night when I was in New Orleans, LA with my family and then when Michelle (the alcoholic) and I officially broke up, I started going to Dairy Queen and Sonic for Blizzards once or twice a week. Before I knew it, it was December 2012 and I had gained back 30-35 pounds of the 40 I had lost. It’s been really difficult to get back into healthy exercise habits – I spent most of February and this month losing 2 pounds and then gaining them back and then losing them again. Something really has to change, but I’m tired in the evenings and work stress has made it seem impossible to get out of bed early enough to work out.

I realized that whether I was restricting or over-indulging, I have always been abusing my body with food. Whether I wanted it to help me feel better about a bad relationship and that breakup, or wanted the exquisite control of a body screaming for food and telling it that I was too strong for that – I have always been abusing my body, except for that wonderful nine month period in 2010 when I finally somehow got healthy. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why anorexia & food restriction is body-abuse, but some people might scoff, especially the “fat acceptance” crowd, and say “why can’t you like yourself how you are? why can’t you eat a piece of cake and be ok with not being waif thin?” I don’t feel good right now. I’m all for accepting yourself as you are, loving yourself, accepting limitations, and I do that as best I can and have struggled for years. However, I feel like there are people out there who just get belligerent about treating themselves like crap, no differently than the people are insist that there’s nothing wrong with them smoking because it’s their body their choice. It is your body and your choice, just like it is mine and everyone else’s – but an unfortunate side effect I have noticed to “fat acceptance” has been to attack people who are trying to get healthier, and that’s not ok either.

healthy snack prep by missionfitchick

I don’t sleep as well as when I worked out and ate healthily, I don’t have as much energy, my depression is worse, I just don’t feel very good physically. When I think about all the crap I’ve started putting into my body again, it’s no wonder I don’t. Fried foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates, they taste amazing but they don’t do much good for your insides. I realized that my eating has become an extension of some of my self-hatred that really frustratingly still resides in me after 18 or so years of working really hard to get rid of it. I hope that phrase sticks with me; I think it will because it really resonates. It’s not saying I can’t have a piece of cake from time to time, because I can and I will, but saying that maybe when I reach for that fourth piece of bread at dinner that there’s something beyond hunger that’s driving me.

I posted a postscript to this, which you can view here.

Love your body

every time NOW’s love your body day comes around (oct 20th), i think about writing something. i have before, but nothing here on this – rarely updated – blog. this past oct 20th i again thought about writing but did not. tonight at a friend’s house i watched ellen’s interview with portia about her new book unbearable lightness and i thought, well perhaps it is time.

over the years i have explored the concept of “loving your body” and what that means. the conclusion that i have come to is that loving your body means accepting yourself as you are; being willing to change what is realistic to change in a healthy way; but most importantly it is about health: treating yourself, your body with respect. it is not anti-fat acceptance, nor is it saying that any shape or body type is better than another, but that we treat ourselves like something that it is important. i had a hard time with the concept when i felt like i had to accept myself exactly as i was in order to be a “good feminist”. well back then i smoked, i rarely exercised, i drank alcohol heavily, and i ate badly – i was overweight because i wasn’t loving my body at all. the easy answer would be that i needed to accept myself as i was, but i got to be the way that i was precisely because i did not and have never loved my body.

i’m pretty sure that when people look at me they do not see “recovering anorexic”. i am not gaunt, i’m still about 30 pounds heavier than my ideal weight according to medical professionals/bmi even though i have lost approximately 30 pounds so far this year. i don’t have that “anorexic look” that many former anorexics in recovery have, and frankly as i look at myself sometimes i think “you are an anorexic’s worst nightmare.” that’s pretty harsh but it’s true. i’ve never had a problem with extremes, it’s the middle-ground that i have trouble with. i never got as bad as i could’ve. in fact i never dropped very far into an underweight bmi, but it’s the thinking, the rituals that are the real problem of overcoming an eating disorder, at least they were for me.

me about 11 years ago
i don’t have a lot of photos from when i was at my lightest, but this is one before i went out one night. that skirt is a juniors size 3/4, i know because i still have it even though i have never been able to fit into it again. this was 1999-ish, i was around age 19.

watching portia tonight, talking to ellen about her book and her experiences was a difficult a teeny bit triggering. this comes on the week where i thought to myself “salad dressing has a lot of calories. no wonder i used to just eat lettuce with salt on it. that was smart.” of course i am now at the point where i mentally recoil and go, “oh no, that was not smart at all.” still, the line between healthy weight loss and slipping back into problem thinking is a fine one, and something that has terrified me for years. i don’t know if it is unique place to be, but i’ve never heard anyone talk about it. since i stopped restricting on a regular basis, i was never really a “normal” eater, but then what is normal for a woman in america today? i remember the photo of portia that they showed, of her at 85 pounds. my sister and i subscribed to quite a few magazines as teens: seventeen, cosmo, jane, glamor, details, spin, rolling stone, and that’s not even counting those we bought of the newsstand.

when i restricted on a regular basis, i ate a lot of chocolate covered espresso beans and went to starbucks a lot. it started off rather subtle; i’d purged for a summer in high school but never binged, eventually i stopped because i hated how out of control it made me feel. restricting was different though, restricting was all about control, strength. i went back to college, and i was terrified. i had only been to a community college for one semester, and it was in my small hometown. the community college in dayton, ohio was at the time 20 buildings and a parking garage larger than my old school. i started taking a creative writing poetry class and the professor wasn’t friendly in the least. i was afraid to talk to the other students that i deemed “cool”, i was just running on fear. the professor was so critical i started having trouble keeping food down, and thus restriction was born.

–2013 note: i never finished this post and kept it as a draft. i thought i’d publish it unfinished, because i really like the first few paragraphs about loving your body.