Eating disorders: What do they have to do with baking? Or travelling?
Well, by focusing on my journey through baking and travelling, I imagine that a lot of content on this blog will be food-centered. With that in mind (and because it happens to be National Eating Disorder Awareness week!), I wanted to be honest about something: I have an eating disorder.
By the end of 2019, I expect to have a doctorate degree in nutrition. Although I am not a dietitian or a nutritionist, I still feel like this is a ridiculous juxtaposition. And it doesn’t end there. Despite being well-educated on nutrition, I create my own food rules and categories. I believe that a healthy diet includes things that nourish you not only physically, but also culturally, socially, and emotionally; and yet, I focus only on calories. I am fortunate in that I am not living in poverty and have access to an abundance of food, but still I choose to restrict. I am committed to promoting health and nutrition in my career, but I have not been kind to my own body.
Although my eating disorder has evolved and changed over the past decade, the fact is that I have not had a normal eating pattern for about ten years. In my mind, I have never looked sick or emaciated – like a person that you would see if you googled “anorexic” - but regardless of what I see, the fact is that I have been functioning well below a healthy weight and body fat percentage for nearly half my life. Living with restricted food and high activity levels became routine and normal, and for a very long time I convinced myself that I was healthy and happy (I wasn't).
A combination of factors has brought me to the place that I am now: committed to getting healthy. A while ago, I was told that I was unlikely to get pregnant or have a healthy baby at my (then) weight. Although my husband and I are not certain if and when children will be a part of our future, the thought of that option being taken away from us was heart-wrenching. In addition, when my husband got unexpectedly sick last year and lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, it really made me think: “what if that were you?” I had at least enough awareness to admit that even an aggressive bout of the flu could have killed me.
Along with those fears, I became acutely aware of how physically and psychologically unhealthy I had become, and how everything negative in my life could be traced back to my eating disorder. My hair was falling out and thinning; I was cold all of the time; and I lost the energy or desire to exercise. For about two years, I had also experienced persistent discomfort and swelling in my abdomen (which I now know is symptomatic of malnutrition and protein deficiency). In addition to the physical symptoms, I had developed anxiety; was becoming irritable and moody; and found myself dreading social situations. I couldn’t focus on tasks; lacked motivation; and had chronic insomnia (regularly functioning on less than 2 hours of sleep for days).
By nature a highly motivated person, I have managed to function despite these symptoms by pushing myself to go to see friends and continuing to complete tasks at work and school. However, I know that I have not been excelling in these areas as much as I could be if I weren’t sick. It is a lot easier to write a paper when you aren’t thinking about how you should be working out instead. It is also a lot more enjoyable to have a meal with a friend when you aren’t stressing about how many calories are on the plate in front of you.
(You may have noticed that I keep switching tenses. I can’t decide which to use, because unfortunately much of what I have said is still true.)
A couple of months ago, I remember walking past a café and seeing two girls around my age eating some cake. As I kept walking, tears burned my eyes because I was envious of these women. To me, it appeared that they were simply enjoying one another’s company along with what I consider to be one of life’s greatest pleasures: dessert. I couldn’t remember the last time that I did that without first thinking about how many minutes (OK, hours) I would have to spend doing cardio and/or rationalizing how much food I could eat for the rest of the day to “make up” for the cake. An eating disorder is destructive and all-consuming; it eats away your thoughts, your relationships, and your body (which quite literally starts to consume itself).
So, why am I even bothering to write this and put it out into the world? In part because I feel like it is important to be honest in a world that is now dominated by social media highlight-reels. Until now, I have told only a handful of people that I love about my problem and although I don’t owe anyone an explanation, I have still felt like a fraud at times. Did I really eat that triple-scooped gelato cone in Italy that I posted on Instagram? Yes. But know that I also did so after careful consideration and factoring in the 20,000+ steps I took that day that “compensated” for it.
I also hope that this admission might resonate with somebody else who has been suffering in silence. Despite the recent surge in body positivity movements, the fact remains that Western cultures continue to focus on a singular body type (thin!) and the problem has only intensified with the simultaneous emergence of so-called “influencers” and their #bodygoals, #fitspo, and #cleaneating posts. The struggle for many women is real, and accepting and addressing an eating disorder takes a ton of work and support.
Finally, putting this in writing makes me feel more accountable to getting better and establishing a healthy routine. I hope that this blog will become a platform on which I can challenge myself; a way to reflect on my relationship with food and a much more productive way to spend my free time than scrolling through social media.
If you made it to the end, thank you for reading. I promise it will get lighter from here (except there will be butter. Lots of butter.).