For people with eating disorders, situations surrounding food, restaurants, and eating with other people can cause a lot of distress.
Early on in my recovery I used to hear a lot of eating disorder chatter in my head around mealtimes. My eating disorder (ED) would encourage me to restrict my food intake & say things such as:
“You better not have much for dinner….you had ice cream as your afternoon snack; you should be ashamed of yourself. You cannot afford the extra calories.”
“Skip dinner & workout instead…that’s what your body really needs. You don’t need food.”
“I can’t believe you chose an item on the menu that is over 600 calories…who do you think you are?”
“You better not clean your plate….your friends will think you are a pig.”
“In order to eat out, you must look up all of your food options and the nutritional value of them so that you can identify a meal that is safe. You cannot afford any extra fat in your diet.”
“If you even consider getting a roll, no butter.”
“After that binge last night you don’t deserve to eat today.”
“You must workout if you are going out to eat…if there isn’t a way to workout, order a salad, light on the dressing.”
“Your friends and family can go hours without eating and you are starving a couple of hours after each meal…why can’t you just learn how to eat?”
ED doesn’t only use food restriction as a tactic. He also encouraged me to over-eat, eat when I wasn’t hungry, or binge-eat when I was tired, anxious, or bored. It’s all or nothing with ED. This “counter” ED would say things such as:
“You already had one cookie today you ruined the meal plan…might as well eat the whole box.”
“Binge. It doesn’t matter how hungry you are…..binge to numb yourself…binge because you want to…binge just to binge.”
“You don’t need one dessert…you need about 10 desserts. Treat yourself.”
“If you really want to recover you will just eat chocolate, sweets, and fast food each day. That’ll help you out a lot even if it makes your body feel bad.”
“You need chocolate or you won’t be able to make it through the night.”
“It doesn’t matter what your body might be trying to tell you…you need seconds, thirds, & even forths! Eat up while you can!”
“You can only have birthday cake once a year….on your birthday. Make sure you get the biggest piece you can cut so that you can make up for all of the other days that you cannot afford the extra calories.”
As you can imagine, restaurants, sleepovers, traveling, unplanned meals, changed plans, and new environments can be particularly triggering for people in recovery.
In my own recovery process, exposing myself to new or uncomfortable food situations was one of the most helpful strategies that I developed.
For example, even if it was the last thing I wanted to do, I would say “yes” to a dinner invitation from one of my friends. Then, I would go to the restaurant and do my best to order a meal that followed my meal plan + was something that I actually wanted to eat. I would try to ignore the calories on the side & listen to when my body was hungry & when my body was full.
Afterwards, I would reflect on the experience: How was the meal? Did I eat enough? Did I eat too much? Did I honor my hunger? Did I listen to my body? Did I enjoy conversation with the person I was with? Did I choose my order based off of my taste preferences and meal plan or off of the calories? Was the meal enjoyable? One of the hardest (but more important) things that I learned to do was to observe my actions without judging them. For example, if I overate at a restaurant, it was naturally for me to automatically judge my own actions:
“I’m so stupid why can’t I just listen to my body and eat like everyone else?”
“I cannot believe I ate that dish. I am going to get fat.”
“I’m not going to recover because I can’t even go to a restaurant without having anxiety and obsessing over the food I am getting.”
“I should be ashamed of myself for my eating disorder.”
“I have no self-control.”
“I honored my hunger too much. I should feel guilty.”
None of these thoughts are from my healthy self. They are from ED. In therapy, I have learned to step back and look at situations in an objective view, & then identify parts of the situation that could look a little different the next time:
“It was hard for me to read my hunger and fullness cues today, but that’s okay. I know it’s going to take some time. I did the best I could. Maybe next time I will eat my food a little slower and be intentional about not restricting food earlier in the day.”
“I ordered the pasta dish that I wanted. Pasta doesn’t make me fat. Pasta doesn’t make anyone fat. Pasta is pasta. Even if I ordered pasta the next time I went out, it still wouldn’t make me fat. My body needs food.”
“I have an eating disorder. It isn’t unusual for people with eating disorders to have anxiety around meal times. The restrictive and deprived brain starts obsessing over food when it doesn’t receive enough of it. When I keep properly nourishing my body I will stop obsessing over food.”
“My eating disorder isn’t my fault.”
“My body is in a starvation state….it is sending signals to my brain to get food & get it now…what seems like a lack of self-control is really my body protecting me.”
“There is no such thing as honoring my hunger too much. Honoring my hunger is good. The next time I go out to eat I want to honor my hunger again. ”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had meals that were painful, awkward, uncomfortable, frustrating, and even upsetting. It’s all apart of the process. Exposing myself to situations where I felt uncomfortable enabled me to go through the growing pain that lead to transformation. The painful practice was necessary to move into intuitive, mindful, & even enjoyable eating.
Although I hear less ED chatter in my head each day, I still do have moments where ED tries to challenge what I have learned in recovery.
The resort that my Husband and I stayed in on our honeymoon was all-inclusive resort.
As much food as we wanted, however we wanted it, whenever we wanted it.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, snacks, ice-cream, and room service were available from 6:00 AM until 2:00 AM each day.
A year ago, this situation would have been an absolute nightmare for me: too many decisions, too much food, too many calories, too many choices, too overwhelming.
As I walked into the all you can eat buffet, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this experience was just another opportunity to practice good recovery skills.
There were some times when I didn’t eat enough & had to go back and get a snack.
There some were times when I ate a little too much.
There were many times where I honored my hunger and ate until I was full and satisfied.
There were times when I ordered dessert & other times when I didn’t.
There were times that I ate 3 meals a day, & others when I ate 5.
There were times when I ate breakfast at 6:30 AM and others when I ate it at 9:00 AM.
It was a planned, yet spontaneous food adventure, & I loved every minute of it. Every bite I took was a step away from ED and another step towards full recovery. With another successful exposure therapy session under my belt, I am only stronger than I was before the trip. At this time last year I wouldn’t have eaten most of the food served at the resort. Here are some of the foods that my husband and I enjoyed on the trip, the food that ED convinced me to deny myself of for so long:
If you’re in recovery for an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns, embrace new food adventures, show yourself grace, practice, practice, practice, & try to have some fun while you’re doing it.