Navigating "Health" with an Eating Disorder
My last post invited commentary about “balance” and struggling with conflicting thoughts about what is healthy, and what might be eating disorder behavior/mental health distorted thinking. While it was written from me (in eating disorder recovery), for the person who has those tendencies, and for awareness about diet culture, perhaps you took it as conventional commentary on the topic of health...
Sure, not everyone has an eating disorder, is genetically set up for that path, or thinks into what we hear everyday about “health” too much… but maybe that’s a problem. Maybe health is more than what we see on the outside, and what we put on our plates, “clean” or not.
For instance, when I grew up, I knew how to eat and, so, I was "healthy." I ate when I was hungry, stopped when I’d had enough, chose a variety of foods, moved my body with joy, and rested when I was tired. I was rarely sick or injured, and I felt strong and energetic.
I saw other people who were thinner than me and I struggled with the “fairness” of it all as a teen, but my intentions didn’t change. My body worked, and no outside source had any real influence. I still ate the same, and moved the same because of these reasons: I did what felt good with natural hunger/fullness cues and my energy levels… simply put, I knew and trusted my body.
Where did (does) that change? Perhaps I am genetically predisposed to an addiction gene. Perhaps I was holding onto this until something triggered my response. But I don't think I'm alone in this struggle.
Here is the thing that many people who called “balance” to be the answer may not understand: to a person with an eating disorder, or has the behavior of one, it’s actually not about the food. It's not about nutrition or exercise, or truly, about weight. Maybe at first, but when an eating disorder or eating disorder behavior actualizes, it's not. Balance is out of the question in every regard for someone with a mental blind spot for what is “right” or “good,” even for themselves.
For some people, maybe food is this total mystery. But as I’ve mentioned previously, I knew food. I knew what I should be doing, food-wise, but I had other mental roadblocks that had nothing to do with food. In fact, if I knew how to cope otherwise with what life was throwing at me at the time, perhaps I’d be worried about “balance” and “moderation” with food, instead of trying to/not to survive.
So, as we navigate the new year and the “health” claims thrown at us, let’s take a look at them, through the eyes (and ears, from what I've heard from others) of someone with an eating disorder, eating disorder behaviors, or scared that they might be teetering on that fence of addiction*. Notice that many of these fears must be met with honesty about yourself… which is harder than following a black-and-white “health” plan.
(*Please note that this is in no way medical or health advice, but merely my personal opinion through my experience with an eating disorder, and a call to recognize the harmful influence of diet culture.)
I've heard and felt many of these comments and struggles:
“Hey, everyone is saying you need x,y,z to be healthy… WHAT IS HEALTH?”
I love this definition of health from Merriam-Webster: “a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well; a general condition or state”
Health, by this definition, has nothing to do with weight, muscle tone, number of miles run per week, scoops of ice cream, or plates of kale. It has everything to do with thriving and generality… over time. Some days I feel really healthy: I take care of myself, and I’m happy about it- I’m thriving. Other days, I feel like I can’t do anything right, have a headache and low confidence, and forget why I’m trying- maybe that’s unhealthy?
What it looks like to you when you’re “thriving” is way different than me. Maybe thriving for you is meditating every day, or never stepping in a gym, hosting 10 cats, or reaching out to old friends, squatting 200+ pounds, or being 20 pounds overweight (says a doctor’s unnecessary BMI chart), and truly following your passion, loving every minute, and oh yah, your blood test labs are perfect and your general state is rock star status!
All I know is that I feel good when I’m “thriving” and doing what I know to be good for myself and my body, and feel really crummy when my “general state” is off.
“What is too much health? Where is the line?”
Too much health can be a bad thing. The obsession, fear, and anxiety placed on us (by ourselves or other influences) to follow this magic potion of “health” is exhausting. Definitely not thriving. If you are altering what gives you pleasure and comfort in your entire life so you can find health and added stress, then maybe it’s too much. It’s different for everyone, but this calls for honesty with yourself.
When I was struggling with an eating disorder, “health” was a big motivator, but when I crossed my line, I wasn’t honest with myself about it because I thought online magazines, out to make a profit, knew better. My line was when I avoided social situations in search of health. It was making excuses, lying, and feeling tired and uninterested in my own life.
“Balance,” you’ll say. Sure, but my line wasn’t designed around health. I placed health in there to have control and power. There is no balance in an irrational search for these things. When a person with an eating disorder begins changing behaviors, still there is no balance; there is only questioning thoughts and behaviors, and doing the opposite of what you think to be true. Balance doesn’t matter at the moment.
“I want to be healthy, but it’s overwhelming.”
Sometimes, we do have to change habits, thoughts, or behaviors.
First, think about what “health” means to you. Is it positive mental thoughts surrounding a particular issue? Is it not being out of breath walking up a flight of stairs? Is it cooking meals for your family to build better relationships? Is it feeling relaxed when you go to a restaurant? Health is what we’re doing and feeling inside, but the only reflection of health we look at is external.
Choose one thing you want to tackle first and look honestly at what is realistic. Then ask yourself, “What is the very first thing I need to?” Small changes and efforts, with consistency, add up.
“I’m overweight, and want to lose weight, but I have a history of restricting.”
Sometimes weight does matter: you need to medically gain or lose weight. In my opinion, that needs to be addressed with a team (doctors, nutritionist) before and while working on the mental and behavioral aspect.
I’ll say that consistency is your friend. Remember when you were restricting and weight flew off? But remember how miserable you were, and how weight flew back on? Yes, remember that. Weight is not the issue; your behaviors and “thriving” state are.
Now that I’ve reached this “set-point” in my life, I’ll tell you that 1) I don’t weigh myself, ever; but 2) I feel healthier and lighter when I’m happy. Thriving. When I get in a routine, when I’m consistent in doing what I say I want, I feel confident in how I’m treating myself… and sometimes that confidence reflects in my body, but certainly my body image.
If you are worried about restricting, ask yourself what else, besides food, you will restrict in your life. If it's a desire and not a necessity, then where (honestly) is it coming from? Ask yourself if your weight is a reflection of you thriving.
“I’m torn between ‘treat yo self’ and ‘health’.”
Maybe, balance callers, this is where you come in. Treat yourself. Then thrive.
Listen, we can’t expect to feel our best eating treats all the time, the same way we can't find "balance" or confidence and freedom following health rules every second of the day. Both will leave you exhausted and probably pretty grumpy. I’ve tried both.
As someone in eating disorder recovery, at first I wanted a plan: give me rules to live by. But life gets in the way of that plan (parties, restaurants... good things!), and it's frustrating. So you have to throw out the rules and live by your own. That means failing and thriving- balance.