How do you tell people that the first thing you think about every day when you wake up in the morning is food?
How do you explain that no matter how hard you try to concentrate, all you can think about is food?
Why would you admit that you spent thousands of dollars to study abroad one summer and all you could think about while you were driving around the English countryside was food?
To whom do you confess that you once loved literature, but the only things you read anymore are food magazines?
What do you write about when you are an aspiring nonfiction writer pursuing an English degree, but all that occupies your thoughts is cooking, exercise, eating and calories?
When is the right time to casually mention that you have your meals planned out sometimes as much as a week in advance?
Where do you draw the line between “normal” concern about eating healthy and complete obsession?This is the fifth installment I’ve written in a series called “Going Hungry,” which documents my journey into anorexia. Episodes 1 through 4 can be found here.Some of my friends and family were very surprised when, about a year and a half ago, I started being open and vocal about my eating disorder. Many never would have guessed that I was undereating, and here’s why:
- I didn’t tend to vocalize my anxiety.
- My weight was relatively stable for much of the time that I was undereating.
- I often seemed to eat a “normal” amount when I ate shared meals, like at holidays and trips with friends to restaurants, but usually underate when I was alone.
- I never said that I was “on a diet,” in so many words, and I never refused to eat any food or group of foods (carbs, fats, sugar, etc.), preferring rather to eat less of everything.
- Many people, like myself at the time, had unrealistic notions about how much food our bodies actually need. Many people don’t realize that undereating is dangerous.
- Many friends and family didn’t realize just how much I was exercising.
In fact, for many of my undergraduate years, I arguably didn’t have anorexia, but a milder form of disordered eating. And a lot of disordered eating in our culture goes completely unnoticed because restrictive eating is considered “normal” and even “healthy.”
Even I didn’t know that I had disordered eating, at least not at first. But I did for sure know that something was very, very wrong.
All I could think about was food.
My thoughts would comb over and over again through my daily diet: everything I had even the previous day, what I would eat today, what tomorrow. Where I once had stored novels in my head, I stored only menus.
I would “treat” myself after finishing my homework by allowing myself to read food magazines. I would imagine the process of preparing each recipe in vivid detail.
If I ate anything beyond what I had planned or beyond what I considered normal, thoughts of that food item would occupy me for hours.
One of the things I prided myself on the most was the fact that I was “healthy” (i.e., I ate little and I exercised a lot).
Food was, for a long time, the first thing I thought about when I woke up every. single. morning. for years.
I remember this all coming pretty intensely to head the summer after my sophomore year of college, when I did a short study abroad trip in England and Scotland.During that trip, I had only been feeding my own self for a couple of years. I remember feeling concerned that I’d gain weight on the trip, and I was also, for some reason, very concerned about spending money. Our professors had group dinners at nice restaurants planned once or twice a week, and I often went out with friends, but when we didn’t have supper provided, I often ate very small meals like single slices of pizza or microwave meals from the grocery store. A large breakfast was provided at most of the places where we stayed. I never snacked, and often, I skipped lunch, believing that the large breakfasts should be enough to hold me over to dinner.
As the weeks went on, I noticed that food was the first, second, and last thing on my mind. It was incredibly discouraging! I wanted to enjoy the Yorkshire hillsides as much as I had when I was a kid, be amazed by the Globe Theater, notice the details on each stained glass window, to imagine battles fought around each castle, and learn something interesting about art or history or literature. I wanted to form memories that I would always enjoy coming back to.But how do you go to your professor on a study abroad trip and say, “I think something’s wrong. I can’t concentrate on anything besides food.” How do you admit that to your friends and family when they ask how the trip was after you’ve gotten back? At the same time that I was incredibly discouraged by my mind’s own obsession, I was also incredibly embarrassed. It seemed like such a petty thing to be focused on, and I believed I had some kind of deep character flaw. I believed that I must be emotionally dependent on food and therefore shallow and weak. Therefore, I responded with anger and secrecy rather than confiding in anyone else.Now I know that, in fact, obsession with food is a symptom of semi-starvation. Men who participated in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment all the way back in 1945 reported intense fixation with food throughout the 6-month semi-starvation period and throughout the weight restoration period–and they were on a 1570 calorie per day diet, about half of their healthy 3200! Think about how many women today do 1200 calories a day. No wonder those kinds of diets are hard to sustain!
Now that I realize what was happening to my body biologically, I have a lot more forgiveness for myself. I was young, I didn’t realize how much I needed to feed myself, and I was concerned about my weight and my wallet (two very common things for a young woman–or just about anyone–to be worried about.) I now realize that my psychological distress on this trip and throughout my undergraduate years was a biological response. I wasn’t a bad person; instead, my body was trying very hard to tell me something, and I wasn’t understanding.
So why, if I was ashamed to admit to this for all those years, am I confessing to the whole wide internet world now?
I’m telling you to inform or remind you that, if you are are struggling with and/or recovering from food- and body-preoccupation, and food is all you can think about, it doesn’t mean that you’re a shallow person who has his or her priorities all wrong. It doesn’t mean that you’re emotionally dependent on food. It likely simply means that you’re not eating enough.
I listened to the lies that the beauty and “health” culture had taught me, and in doing so, ignored the truth my body was desperately trying to communicate to my brain. I obeyed all the voices saying, “Careful about what you eat. Careful about what you eat,” rather than the powerful voice chanting louder and louder in my thoughts, “Please please please please please eat more!”
And here’s the most important part: if you feel frustrated that you’re constantly thinking about food, if you’re on a diet and believe that you eat “emotionally,” you cannot simply will yourself to think about other things. You can trick your mind into focusing on something else for a while, but your mind will inevitably revert back to the fuel it desperately needs until you start feeding yourself enough, consistently, on a regular basis. Until your body trusts you to make food a priority in your life, it will occupy your mind and won’t back down.