“Just eat.” I cannot begin to tell you how many times that was told this during my recovery. Each time it made me furious, and it also made me feel stupid. Why did food have so much power and control over me?
The fear of food, in my opinion, is one of the absolute worst fears one can experience. It’s a fear that you constantly face from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. It’s a fear that people rarely understand, which makes everything harder. It’s a fear that consumes your thoughts. You can’t imagine what life would even be like NOT thinking about food constantly. The foods that you loved at one time have now become a cause of torment. At every meal, party, restaurant, or get-together, you always notice and analyze what food other people are eating. So and so is not eating very much. Well no wonder so and so looks like that. It looks like so and so is trying to be healthy.
You feel like other people judge what’s on your plate, because that’s exactly what you do to others. Because of this, you feel like all eyes are on you as you decide what you want to eat at each and every meal. You feel like people judge what’s on your plate, and you want to make sure that your plate has the least amount and the ‘healthiest’ options. Many times, people will even make comments like, “you eat like a bird, no wonder you look so good!”, or “wow, you are just so healthy, I wish I could eat like that!” And these comments just add more fuel into the fear of food’s fire.
You feel pressure to eat a certain way, and you are afraid if you make one “slip up”, your body will balloon. This fear is completely overwhelming, completely exhausting, and makes a person completely miserable.
Facing ‘fear foods’ was one of the worst steps of recovery, I wont sugar coat it. Working through this process put my entire family through hell. My poor parents became my punching bag during all the meals that I had to face my fear foods. They were the ones who had to ‘inflict the pain’ on me, however, inflicting this pain was necessary for me to heal. I specifically remember one night where they decided that dinner would be pizza. I had a COMPLETE meltdown not wanting to eat the pizza. I tried to bargain with them that I would rather eat some Oreos than eat the pizza. “I hate pizza, it’s absolutely disgusting, please don’t make me eat this.” I would beg with them to let me eat anything else. But thankfully they stood their ground and told me I had to eat the dang pizza. I screamed and cried, pretty sure I told them that I hated them multiple times, but after all was said and done, I ate the slice. I went into my room after and cried myself to sleep that night while holding my stomach and imagining that the grease from the pizza was going to immediately turn to fat.
But guess what happened? I woke up the next day looking the exact same. The pizza was digested and the nutrients (yes, there are nutrients our body needs even in pizza!!!!!!) were used. The pizza didn’t turn straight into a layer of fat over my stomach. I didn’t die from a heart attack because the grease from the pizza clogged my arteries. I ate the pizza, and I was fine.
When people say, “just eat” to someone with an eating disorder, it’s usually frowned upon. I know that there were multiple occasions where I would bite of someone’s head because they told me to “just eat”. “It’s not JUST about the food, it’s not that simple.” I would reply. And no, eating disorders aren’t JUST about the food. But I’ve come to realize that really, the only way to get over the fear of food is to take it head on… and… just eat it. 😱😰😲
No, that’s not fun advice. Like I said, I’m not going to sugar coat it. If you are facing a fear of food, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true. You have to eat the food that scares you so it can no longer have power over you. It’s like exposure therapy, ever heard of it? Let’s use the fear of spiders for example. In exposure therapy, they would start out slow by showing pictures and videos of spiders to the afflicted person. Slowly they would work into things like being in the same room as a spider and looking at a real spider up close in a cage. Next thing ya know the afflicted person is letting a tarantula crawl all over their face and it doesn’t even phase them. The key to this process is repetition. The more you are doing something, the more you get used to it. The more that a step is repeated, the more that the person also realizes that, “oh, what I thought was going to happen is actually NOT happening”. For example, the person who is looking at a spider in a cage is going to be freaked out the first time, but the more times they have to look at the spider in the cage, the more they will start to learn that the spider is not going to do anything to them from the cage. Now they can view the spider up close, and maybe even realize that spiders are pretty cool creatures. Next when they move to letting the spider crawl on them… they are probably going to be pooping their pants the first time that spider touches them (I just tried to think about what I would do in that situation and I even pooped my pants a little.) But over time, as they let the spider crawl on them, they realize that the spider is just gonna chill and do its own thing. The spider is not there to try to attack the person, it’s just trying to crawl from point A to point B, maybe looking for some flies or somethin. SO the person learns that “Oh, spiders are just trying to crawl around and live their lives, they aren’t here to attack people and kill them with their poison.” By the end of this experience, the person may even find a new favorite animal. (Jk. That may be a slight stretch, I don’t know how anyone could find a spider to be their favorite 😉)
It’s important to note that this process definitely takes time. A person is not going to move through all of those steps with the spiders in a day… it’s going to take weeks, months, maybe even years. But to rid yourself of an all consuming fear is worth it every second. Going back to my example with the pizza: I ate the pizza the first time in recovery, kicking and screaming, and wallowing in guilt and shame afterwords, I hated the experience more than anything. The next time I had to eat pizza… it was probably quite similar, kicking and screaming, yelling at my parents, unwillingly swallowing each bite and feeling guilt afterwards… but I remembered that first time that I had the pizza and no real changes happened to my body after and I realize that nothing happened to my body the next day after eating this piece of pizza as well. So slowly over time I learn that if I eat some pizza, my body will digest it and use it up for what is needed, and my body is not going to have a dramatic change from eating a slice or two. I realize that my health is still going to be strong and that I will be able to live happily even after eating the pizza. The more times that I eat the pizza, the fear of pizza slowly withers away. Now I’m at the point where I’m at today, where I love me a good slice or two (sometimes… even three if I’m hungry enough!) of Domino’s pizza. I now understand that eating the pizza is literally going to have no effect on what my body looks like after eating it. Sure, I might get a little bloated from the sodium for a couple hours after eating it, but the next day, my body will look the exact same as it did the day before.
Maybe by now you might be thinking, obviously people’s bodies can change and they can gain weight, especially when they are in eating disorder recovery. So no, their body will not look the exact same as it did the day before. But hear me out, I’ve been through it, and like I said in a post before, I’m planning on writing about how I handled weight gain during recovery. But this post is something different. You have to realize that ONE SPECIFIC FOOD is NOT THE REASON YOU GAIN WEIGHT. The reason that people gain weight, either from eating disorder recovery, or just life in general, is because of the amount of calories that a person eats. 100 calories of carrots is the same as 100 calories of cookies. 100 calories = 100 calories. So yeah, if you are going from eating 1000 calories up to 2000 calories, you are going to gain weight… and in eating disorder recovery, gaining weight to a more stable and healthy weight for your body is necessary. And like I said before, you have to realize that one specific food is not the reason you gain weight. You are not gaining weight BECAUSE of the pizza or the ice cream that you are now eating. You would gain weight if you ate the same caloric equivalent of broccoli or carrots. Taking the ‘halo’ and ‘devil horns’ off of food is very hard, but also necessary and very possible. In my opinion, the best way to learn this for oneself is to… just eat it.
I know this isn’t easy… it definitely feels like one of the hardest things you could do and there are probably a million other things you would rather do than eat that fear food (like letting a tarantula crawl all over your face). Here are some things that helped me –
1. Address what you are afraid will happen if you eat the food.
Are you afraid that eating the food will make you gain weight? Are you afraid eating the food will make your health plummet? Are you afraid if you eat the food once, you won’t stop eating it? Whatever you are afraid of, it’s ok to validate your fears. Instead of just feeling those feelings of distress and chaos when faced with the food, look into why you feel afraid.
2. Ask yourself where that fear came from.
Did you read some persons blog post about why this food is shouldn’t be touched in the name of heatlh? Did you overhear someone talking about how this food is sooooooo unhealthy? Did your parent deprive you of this food while growing up, and you’ve just always been afraid of it? Address these questions. And think about how rational these questions really are. Who are the people that are giving you this “food advice”? Do they really have accurate knowledge to be giving out advice on nutrition? For me, at least, I found that most the information that I was getting about food and nutrition were from people who didn’t know much themselves, or even worse, they were people who had eating disorders and were sharing their own disordered thoughts and beliefs to others.
3. Face your fear head on, and just eat the food.
It seems so simple, but it’s the hardest part. Try to think back on the times that you liked this food. What did you love about it? Was it the taste? Was it the memories associated with it? Try to make it as positive as an experience as you can, but if it’s not very positive in the beginning, don’t worry. It will get better with time and practice as you work on it.
4. After finishing, DO NOT WALLOW IN GUILT AND SHAME.
This takes lots of work, definitely one of those things that is easier said than done. Once you finish the food, try to find something to take your mind off of it. For me, my nutritionist suggested *light* stretching after I ate. So after stressful meal times, I would take a couple minutes to do a little bit of light yoga to regroup. It wasn’t like hardcore, being one-with-the-earth kind of yoga, just a few stretches that I would do until I felt calm again. If not stretching, try to find something that will distract you from the self-shaming thoughts that can follow. Read a book, journal, paint, go for a walk, talk to a loved one, anything to take your immediate thoughts away. But the thing is… distractions aren’t going to solve the problem. They are just giving you time to recoup enough to address those thoughts afterwards because those thoughts will still be there. Sit with them for a while, and just listen to them. Are they thoughts that you would tell another person? Things like, This is going to make you fat. You are disgusting for eating this. You have no self control. Eating this is ruining your health. You are going to be fat now. Would you really say those out loud to another person? If not, why would you tell them to yourself? Those thoughts are coming from a place of self hatred, and, like everything else, you need to practice re-framing. Instead try to tell yourself, Yeah, that food had a lot of sugar in it, but honestly, it tasted great and it was freeing to have a treat again after so long of depriving myself. Or, Yes, that food is labeled “unhealthy” in the world, and no, it doesn’t have many nutrients, but I get many other nutrients from all the other foods I eat, having this meal in the scheme of my entire life of meals is not going to change a thing. Now… move on. That’s all you really can do in life – keep going. Wallowing and beating yourself up is not going to change a d**n thing.
5. Re-address your fear the next day.
Did you gain that layer of fat over your stomach you were afraid of? Do you feel sluggish and slowed down like you thought that food would do to everyone? Did your muscles wither away and become replaced with fat like that blogger said would happen after eating that food? Whatever the fear that you had with that food, did your fears come true after eating it? My guess is going to be no. I’m gonna guess that your life did not have a dramatic change from eating that food. You still woke up, you still were able to go about what you normally do, your heart is still beating and your lungs are still pumping air. Your muscles can still carry you and your brain can still think in the way that only you do. You are alive and you are ok. Take notice of this, and remember it for the next time you have to face a fear food. Remember that you are going to be ok.
These steps wont always be fool proof, and they may not work for everyone, or anyone at all. These are just some of the things that I did that helped me work through my fear foods. Facing a fear of any kind is exhausting… so being forced to face that fear every single day kinda sucks, I wont lie. But I’m here on the other side to tell you that even though it sucks, its possible and it is oh so worth it. It is worth every battle. It is worth every night crying yourself to sleep. It is worth every day that you feel like you cannot do it anymore… because you can. The best thing about having a fear with an inanimate object is that you get to choose who wins every time. That’s right, when you face your fear foods, you get to choose if you or the food wins. You get to choose if you pick up the food and take a bite. And after, you get to choose how you handle the thoughts that follow. Are you going to sit there and listen to those thoughts, and give in to their shaming and destructive ways? Or are you going to fight back and take away their power over you and your life? My hope is that you choose the later. I know you wont choose it every time, I can’t say that I did, but the more you choose it, the easier it gets… and soon it wont even have to be a choice, it will just become natural.
So go out there… and just eat.