I recently opened up my Instagram DMs to eating disorder and recovery questions, a practice I tend to participate in on a weekly basis. I’ve been thinking about one particular exchange ever since. I’ll drop it below:
For those with a history of disordered eating, for anyone enduring a complicated relationship with the term “healthy”, food can easily consume a huge portion of the mind. When I first began true recovery (I had a few fruitless attempts that came before), all I could think about was food. I feared it, and yet I craved it. I had restricted myself for so long that part of me saw recovery as a free-for-all, the perfect excuse to finally just get to eat. You mean I had to eat? It felt like a dream.
But I was terrified that this newfound freedom would run untethered, that I would lose control, that I’d eat into oblivion. And thus, I feared food during this time. The power it could possibly have over me.
It became all I thought about.
Even as I progressed in my recovery and began establishing a positive and balanced outlook toward food, the topic remained at the forefront of my mind. Instead of fearing it, I was intrigued by it. What could I make for dinner tonight? I’d wonder while brushing my teeth before school. I fell in love with cooking and this new passion was exciting. I wanted to be in the kitchen 24/7, trying my hand at every dish under the sun.
My relationship with food was now a positive one, pulsing with passion instead of perpetual fear, but it was still an obsession nonetheless.
Once I left home for my freshman year of college and had significantly less time to spend cooking, I realized just how much of my thoughts food consumed. This wake-up call drove me to search for new ways to fill the void. At first, I felt lost without food guiding every move. I had grown attached to cooking and eating as an identity crutch.
It takes time, to grow. To expand. Here are a few ways I made my life bigger, bigger than food, bigger than an obsessive fixation.
1. Prioritize relationships
My eating disorder sabotaged nearly all of my relationships. I spent the majority of high school moving through the school day in silence. Avoidance. The rest of the time I could be found hiding in my room, never wanting to be seen, petrified to spend time with anyone…what if food was involved? How would I avoid it?I lost plenty of people during this time, and rightfully so.
Upon careful reflection, I came to realize that when I isolated…that’s when I thought about food the most. No distractions. No one to please other than myself. I would lay in bed and scroll through recipe blogs and local restaurant menus. I would play on Pinterest and find new recipes and stare at stacks of pancakes deep into the night. Nothing to distract me.
I’m an introvert through and through, but I’m still human. I get lonely. I recently realized that my youth is not mine to keep forever, and that I should be taking full advantage of it. I’ve been saying “yes” more and more: to late nights out, to lunches in the city, to day trips and to simply lounging around my friends’ apartments instead of lounging around my own, alone.
It’s hard for me to put into words how much immersing myself in other people’s lives has changed my own. The past year I’ve pushed myself beyond my social comfort zone, and I’m beyond grateful I’ve done so. My relationships are stronger than ever. I feel fulfilled, and happy, and just fortunate for all of the love and support in my life. When I’m out late into the night on a Tuesday, dancing in an empty bar with my best friend, I’m not obsessing over what’s for breakfast. When I decide to head back to my friend’s place after class instead of holing up at my own, I’m not watching the clock counting down until dinner time.
Do you see what I mean? When I’m out in the world, interacting, engaging, strengthening relationships and simply giving back love, food is an afterthought. Making memories forces me into a headspace where I’m present and focusing on more fulfilling endeavors. Plus I can always pack a snack in my bag, right?
2. Trust your intuition
I used to think that I had to plan out a day’s worth of eating in advance. I remember laying in bed on a Sunday night, my mind racing, trying to assign every meal for the week. By the time I fell asleep (albeit hours later), I could have told you exactly what I’d be eating for lunch on Wednesday.
But here’s the thing: would I even be craving that meal then? How could I know that from now?
I never gave my body a chance to simply talk to me. I was terrified to go into the week unprepared. This forced me to spend hours thinking about food. What would I eat? I needed to know down to every last morsel.
Eventually I began to feel burnt out from this mental work. It was exhausting! I slowly began to throw caution to the wind. I remember the first time I went to bed and thought, “I’ll worry about what I eat when the time comes”. Best sleep of my life. Not to be dramatic.
Once I began living and eating intuitively, my obsessive food thoughts no longer had a place in my mind. Sure, I still thought about food. I’m a foodie! It’s natural! But not to the controlling extent I had before. For me, living intuitively means accepting that I can’t always be such a damn Type-A planner about everything in my life. It means letting life happen. It means investing trust in the only body I’ll ever have.
We tend to look externally to make decisions about our own individualized journey. Health is subjective; it looks different for every single person. Why are we so desperate to standardize such a beautifully complex concept? All of the answers we need are right at our core. Why do we mute our bodies, distrust their input? Once I let my heart guide me, my mind was at peace.
And my world became so much bigger. I had the mental space and energy to entertain new thoughts and activities. I felt like I could breathe. Oh, and I actually began eating foods I truly wanted. Revolutionary!
3. Say yes
When I began recovery and found a passion for cooking and eating well, food was all I could think about. I wanted to cook all day every day. Do you blame me? I had five years of lost meals to make up for, right?
I may have been eating and restoring my health, but controlling tendencies from my disordered past still lingered. I applied them to my cooking endeavors; I had to be the one cooking everything I ate, I was only allowed to eat carbs at one meal a day, etc. Crazy, stupid, irrational criteria that had no logical backing.
But it kept food on the forefront!
I kept myself in a box. I refused to say yes to anything that came my way because it would interfere with my ability to comply with my food rules. My best friend would text me and ask if she could pick me up in a few, do you wanna grab lunch? I’d break out in a sweat. I couldn’t eat lunch out- I didn’t prepare it myself. I couldn’t eat at this time- not enough time has passed since breakfast. On and on and on like this. My rules ruining my life.
Again, a burn out took place. I couldn’t keep up with all of my self-inflicted needs.
So I started saying yes. To invitations, to new foods, to new ingredients and flavor combos. I started saying yes to less control. And even one step further, I started putting myself on the initiating end of invitations. Instead of waiting around to be invited out, I’d take it upon myself to put together a dinner and movie with friends. Pushing myself to endure more meals out of my control helped me think about food less. Now it wasn’t solely my responsibility 24/7. I could finally breathe. Plus, I was getting inspiration from others while breaking any last lingering food fears and anxieties at the same time.
Life is so much more than the food we consume each day. Our worlds are bigger than our pantries! These are just some of the many ways I’ve made my life bigger and put food on the *mental* back burner. I hope they provide you with a strong jumping off point toward less food obsession and more mental peace!