Normal Eating (how I learned to eat)
My 13-year history of anorexia/bulimia left me with an enhanced sensitivity about food. My own eating behavior at this point is pretty normal. Some people might even consider it boring! My awareness extends more to other people. I observe the eating behavior of those around me – not in a condescending way, but I am simply curious why so many people have such difficulty with food, on both ends of the spectrum. I observe unrealistic expectations and lack of enjoyment. Just think how often you hear people say, “Oh, it looks sinfully good. I really shouldn’t.” If they eventually eat the sinful object, they feel guilty.
Consider one essential ingredient of most women’s magazines. At the airport recently, I was looking for something interesting, but almost every one of them was bragging about some great diet. I think one of them even claimed you could lose 8 pounds in 12 days. Actually, not to go off on a tangent, but this reminds me of the pollution problem. How often have we heard about how much waste is involved with packaging? We are told not to wrap presents, to buy with “waste awareness.” But if one takes a good look around, packaging is increasing at a rapid pace, and the packaged items are getting ever smaller. It is absurd.
How does that relate to food? Well, how many times have we heard that to lose or maintain weight, we need to change our diet or have a consistent diet, and that it is unhealthy to lose more than a couple of pounds in a certain time frame? Anyone who has ever dieted knows this, I am sure. There is no quick fix. Those who keep looking for one are probably intimately acquainted with the yo-yo effect.
So, today I thought I would outline my steps toward lasting recovery. In addition to Overeaters Anonymous and therapy, at some point I finally realized that food is actually fuel to keep me going. Despite my desire to deny it, I admitted that I wanted to live, and accepted that I needed food to survive. Recovery is about honesty.
Let me warn you from the start: This is not a how-to-recover list of instructions; it’s just what I did. Since I’ve always been stubborn and felt that I had to do everything on my own, I did it with the food as well. As I have said time and again, I wish I’d consulted a nutritionist. But I didn’t.
After several near recoveries, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months, I realized two things: I wasn’t eating enough during the times of recovery; thus I would binge at some point simply because I was so hungry. The second enlightening realization was: I didn’t know HOW to eat! I set out to research roughly how many calories I actually needed, and what three normal meals a day would look like.
Then I decided to eat three meals a day consistently – no more and no less. From previous experiences with recovery, I knew that I would be constipated, feel funny, possibly gain weight, feel weird or even panicky. So at the outset I vowed to see it through. You see, I’d decided that I’d really had enough of the sickness and I was willing to do whatever was necessary to recover. (I was only doing it for myself, by the way, not to make anyone else happy!)
There were no forbidden foods, no diet foots, and no low-calorie foods to binge on. My goal was normal eating. The only criteria was: it had to taste good. Why? Because I wanted to be satisfied, and I am a person of extremes. If I am not satisfied, I will eventually want more. (That was usually the point when I went off to the races.) I did get a fair amount of exercise at the time – jogged a couple of times a week for about 30 minutes, biked to work and night school – since I hoped that regular exercise would get my metabolism going.
When I ate, I always made sure that I had enough time, and chewed thoroughly. That enabled me to taste the food, to enjoy it, and by eating slowly, the body could send the “full” signal at the appropriate time. (I remember reading that somewhere as well. It’s true!) Now I am still a slow eater. When I try to “keep up” with other people, I generally end up with an upset stomach. It’s much pleasanter to eat slowly.
After a few months (or possibly longer, I don’t remember), something happened. I actually began to feel hunger and satiation. That brought me to the next step: varying the amounts, depending on my degree of hunger. Sometimes I ate more, sometimes less, but it always balanced out. It was important to not overeat, as that feeling was uncomfortable and to be avoided.
Of course it didn’t stop from one day to the next. During the first year or two, there were a few incidents. They generally were stress-related, and so I learned to recognize them as a warning signal and work with them. There was no need to punish myself or feel bad, I just took it to mean that my coping mechanisms needed some fine tuning.
Since I’d been somewhat underweight when I began recovery, I did gradually gain some weight back. Through regular, normal eating, my body was able to find its comfortable/appropriate working weight, and that has been my weight now for nearly 20 years (with the exception of two pregnancies, and over the winter I sometimes put on an extra 3 or 4 pounds, but that disappears by itself). There is no more up and down. (Oops! I actually have gained a few pounds since turning 40, but it was so gradual and barely noticeable, that I still feel the same. I just wanted to say that, to avoid fostering another unrealistic expectation!)
What you need to realize is: There is no quick fix. It doesn’t pay to deprive yourself – you’ll make up for it eventually! And recovery is about making a commitment to yourself. You are not perfect and don’t have to do it perfectly. Life is about ups and downs, why should recovery be different?
Although an eating disorder is awful, it is familiar. It’s kind of like being stuck in a bad relationship. My biggest hindrance in life is and has been fear – fear of everything and fear of the unknown. It was a big help to be willing to open up and try something different, a different way of life. But I think I’ll save that, as well as the issue of a distorted self-image, and the fact that bulimia and anorexia are not just about food for another blog, because the sun is shining and I want to go out for a walk. And I think this one offers enough food for thought. Remember? One step at a time!