Guest post written by: Lauren Lax
Four years after posting the story of my recovery journey on Robb Wolf’s site, I never thought the day would come: To be on the other side as a nutrition therapist and occupational therapist working with individuals in recovery from eating disorders.
After a total of 14 years spent struggling with my own severe eating disorder—both anorexia and orthorexia—I had been through my fair share of trials and treatment myself.
From the age of 10 to 24, I :
- Underwent a total of four inpatient treatment centers;
- Consulted with at least two to three dozen therapists, doctors and nutrition profressionals;
- Yo-yoed in weight from one extreme to another—malnourished, on death’s doorstep multiple times, to ‘well-fed’ and ‘nourished’ through a steady diet of Egg McMuffins, Eggo waffles and Ben & Jerry’s in treatment—conflicted as to which way was the ‘healthy’ way and how to feel good in my own body;
- Fought to maintain my sense of control through what went in and out of my mouth with my parents and treatment team—(no one else was in control of my body, I was!);
- Looked in the mirror, hating what I saw (“too thin”, “too fat”, “too big of thighs”, “not enough definition”), and allowing that discontent to loom over my head—like a black cloud, day in and day out;
- Tried every diet under the sun—in search of the ‘perfect’ way to eat, and never feeling completely satisfied;
- Wasted 6-7 hours each day on my Stairmaster and following workout routines in my favorite magazines—hating doing so, but not knowing how NOT to obsess over my workouts;
- And accumulated more than two-years spent in hospital beds, hooked up to feeding tubes and confined to ‘eating disorder protocols’ under the watchful eyes of nurses named Bertha and recovery techs in graduate school for Psychology and Social Work (i.e. bedrest, monitored meals, earning my privilages to see my family and talk to friends through eating hospital food and Ensure shakes).
In short: I played the game—the “recovery game”—wanting freedom, but not really knowing or understanding what that really looked like.
Try as I might to recover from my eating disorder (going through the motions), I still struggled for 14 years to truly find freedom, comfort in my own skin and self-acceptance.
That was ALWAYS the BIG QUESTION.
And that question is exactly why, today, I choose to work with individuals in recovery themselves, as well as those with funky relationships with food, their bodies and fitness (in general), because, you know what?
It just doesn’t have to be so complicated.
Here’s what I’ve learned, now on the other side of the struggle—and perhaps a thing or two you can learn too to save yourself, or another individual, for struggling for as long (or longer) as I did.
Find what moves you.
Eating disorders are tricky little boogers—they are sneaky.
What may begin as an innocent naïve diet to drop 5 lbs. or get in shape can quickly morph into a whole ‘nutha animal—unbeknownst to the individual themselves until they are already ‘in the game.’
In addition, contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are not necessarily about the body.
While it may be triggered by one’s poor body image or a diet, as mentioned above, there are countless numbers that are triggered by other factors:
- A bad breakup
- Sexual assault
- Poor self-worth
- A need and desire to be in control
- A sport or pressure to perform
- The drive for perfection
- An unmet emotional need
- A broken family
- A nutritional deficiency (zinc, for instance)
- Digestive dysfunction
Just to name a few.
While similar signs and symptoms may present in individuals who struggle (as well as a universal language those who struggle seem to speak), it’s important to clear the air (and stereotypes) here that no two eating disorders are necessarily alike, and they both start (and end) for individuals in a variety of unique ways.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing:
No matter what ‘started’ or ‘caused’ your eating disorder, in moving forward, it’s vital to discover the purpose or ‘void’ that your eating disorder is filling…and then to do some soul-searching to find things in your life that take the place of that eating disorder—filling that void and serving that purpose that your eating disorder has been serving for you.
I call this “connecting to your passions and purpose”—finding what moves you.
Individuals discover this in a variety of ways.
For some, it’s a pregnancy or the desire to start a family—and for the first time, see their body as worthy of being taken care of (for the children they bear).
For others, it could look like:
- Tapping into a creative outlet—such as painting, photography, collaging, knitting, crafting;
- An education or career ambition—and working towards their future, rather than staying stuck in the present struggle holding them back;
- A relationship or loved one who is hurting because they themselves are hurting;
- Faith or a spiritual connection that inspires hope towards a bigger purpose outside the hamster wheel they’ve been on;
- The realization of the toll that the eating disorder has taken on their health—experiencing the repercussions of malnourishment, purging, binging, etc. ;
- Reconnecting with the joy they had in a sport or fitness endeavor for performance (rather than aesthetics)—before ED sent them on a chronic cardio binge, or mandated they exercise for hours on end to chisel their bodies
The list goes on.
For myself, a HUGE part of my recovery was finding my voice again, and reconnecting with writing something I had loved to do in my youth, but something my eating disorder robbed from me—and all my brain power and focus to do so. In my recovery, I started a blog (http://livingfortoday365.blogspot.com ) and began making my voice ‘known’—writing about the ups and downs of the journey.
Find your passion and purpose—and ED begins to take a backseat, naturally (no room for him in the Inn).
Eat real food.
It still baffles me the complete disconnect between the healing, medicinal powers of eating real food and eating disorder recovery.
Essentially: this is a philosophy that is not practiced.
Prior to discovering ‘real food’ (a la Robb Wolf’s “Paleo Solution” book was the first resource to open my own eyes), the recovery treatment model and its food philosophy looked something like this cycle for myself:
- Stage 1: Diet, diet, diet—wasting away in my restrictive eating patterns and drive for ‘perfect’ eating;
- Stage 2: Forced to enter eating disorder treatment (a hospital or treatment center) by treating professionals and family;
- Stage 3: A steady diet of ‘re-feeding’ and nourishment through three meals and three snacks per day, consisting of “healthy” foods from the Standard American Diet and food-guide pyramid’s protocols, such as:
Pop-tarts, orange juice, scrambled eggs and fruit;
Or Egg McMuffins, milk and orange juice;
Or, raisin bran, milk, toast with margarine, a Jimmy Dean sausage and juice
Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, Barbecue chips, an apple and glass of milk;
Or, a turkey and cheese wrap with mayonnaise and mustard, Baked Lays, carrots and Ranch dressing;
Or, chicken nuggets, French fries and Coca Cola
Shrimp Fettuccini Alfredo, salad with Cesar Dressing, dinner roll with butter;
Or, two slices of takeout pizza, salad with Italian dressing, glass of milk, and slice of cheesecake;
Or, a meal outing “challenge” to a chain restaurant, like TGI Fridays, Chili’s, Chic-Fil-A or Applebee’s
Graham crackers and peanut butter; Nature Valley Granola Bars; Ensure and Boost shakes; Oreo cookies and milk; ice cream and sorbet; Yoplait yogurt with nuts; Cheese and crackers; Snickers bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups
- Stage 4: Weight restoration and declaration that I was ‘better’ (as well as feeling completely disconnected with my body), followed by discharge from treatment, and a quick relapse back to my old ways of dieting and feeling more comfortable in my own skin
I had no idea what BALANCE looked like.
In treatment, it seemed that processed foods, grains and sugar—sprinkled with some fruit, salad greens and fruit juice here and there—was the ‘way to go’, only leaving me feeling bloated and gassy, as well as causing skin breakouts, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, and foggy brain.
Outside of treatment, I knew I felt more in control and ‘better’ in my body (i.e. not as bloated or constipated) when I ate ‘clean’ (which, at the time in my eating disorder, meant very little). I’d quickly go back to my old standbys of restrictive eating or extreme dieting beliefs (low-fat, no-fat, no-carb, aiming for as little food as possible to get by, etc.).
Enter: EATING REAL FOOD.
After discharging from my last and final treatment, at the age of 24, as my story describes, I was blessed to stumble upon the concept of “eating real food”—and having made up my mind that there was NO WAY that I was going to go through everything I had been through and worked for the past year (ultimately: to live), I HAD to try to do things differently.
My “doing things differently” came in the form of giving this whole ‘eat real food’ thing a try—and my world was rocked!
It’s one of those things that you ‘don’t believe it, til you see it’ (or try it), and as ‘scary’ as it was to buy that first stick of grass-fed butter, or eat an egg—yolk and all (on my own)…I was amazed at how my body responded:
- Eased digestion
- Clearer thinking
- More energy
- Better recovery from workouts
- Satisfaction from meals
- No nausea or bloating from eating tons of artificial sweeteners, or trying to get my fill on raw veggies alone
Breakfasts of homemade banana pancakes, chicken sausage and avocado, eggs with veggies and turkey bacon…Lunches and dinners of meat or fish, greens, sweet potatoes and healthy fats (the dreaded four-letter word)…lots of water…snacks of nuts and seeds, eggs and chicken, veggies and fruits—my body responded tremendously, and for the first time in my relationship with food, I began to feel nourished.
Eating real food is medicine for the individual in recovery.
While the philosophy of ‘just eat food’ or ‘get in calories’ is often applied in treatment, it is my hope and vision to empower individuals to experience the healing power of real food in recovery—the way the human body was wired to eat.
In conjunction with eating real food, learning how to LISTEN to my body and become connected with it was critical.
After 14 years of being completely disconnected with my body (I had become an expert in denying and depriving my body), I had a steep learning curve.
Individuals with eating disorders are NOT the only ones with this conundrum.
Starting as early as the time we are 5 or 6 years old, we are taught to view food as a reward, a punishment, a treat or a physical activity:
- We get cookies or ice cream for good behavior
- Trick or TREATS of candy on Halloween
- Our moms make us finish everything on our plate in order to have dessert
- Our teachers made us drink all of our milk—even though we didn’t like milk
- We bond with others through after-school sno-cones, Friday night pizza (or Kids’ Cuisines frozen dinners!), and Sonic ice cream sundaes and banana splits
- Celebrate birthdays with Chuck-E-Cheese pizza and Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes
Learning to get in touch with my body, after YEARS of ignoring anything it said, was a process. Here is an exercise I coach others around often in learning to listen to your body again:
- Prior to the meal, rate your hunger level on a scale of one to ten (one being famished, ten being Thanksgiving-stuffed).
- Acknowledge and note how are you feeling going into the meal (mood, physically, mentally, etc.). Are you shaky? Sleepy? Irritable? Worried or anxious? Emotional? A little nauseated?
- During your meal, try to enjoy it. Chew your food thoroughly. Allow for twenty to thirty minutes to enjoy at least one meal a day. Put your fork down between bites. Check in with your hunger and fullness cues throughout. Notice your hunger dissipate.
- Following the meal, rate your fullness level on that same one-to-ten scale.
Acknowledge and note how you feel now. Energetic? Sluggish? Content? Bloated? Headache-free? Can you see or feel a distinct connection between when you eat a banana and how your workout goes in the gym? What about the meal of chicken and broccoli that you paired with half an avocado? Did you notice longer-lasting energy and clearer thinking? As opposed to when you just ate the chicken and broccoli dry and alone?
Begin to practice this exercise. Like anything, the more you do it, the more second nature it becomes. Ultimately, only you can listen – and determine – what your body is saying.
Have your cake and eat it too.
All this talk about eating real food can also go to an extreme sometimes for the individual who has struggled with food in general.
It is important to note: I am not talking orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) here, and I think it is equally important for the individual in recovery to realize life (and food and exercise) is NOT about perfection.
I encourage people to stick to an 80/20 rule when it comes to nutrition. 80% of the time, try to stick to clean, real, nourishing foods; the other 20% of the time, enjoy the treats and cheats you still like on occasion. This could look something like: cooking/eating in 17-18 of your weekly meals, and eating out 3-4 meals in a week for instance; or in a given day, not viewing it as the end of the world if you happen to have a piece of dark chocolate, some peanut butter instead of almond butter one day for a snack , or if your veggies off the hot bar at Whole Foods happened to be stir fried in some canola oil instead of coconut oil.
Perhaps not a daily occurrence—but leaving room for ‘error’ and non-perfection is perfectly acceptable!
In addition, ‘exposure therapy’—doing things that are uncomfortable in order to get over a particular fear—can be highly effective, if conducted in moderation (i.e. NOT overexposure therapy).
While I look back on the days of treatment (and the food) as absurd in some senses…there was also some method to the madness.
Heck, I know that, even if I don’t choose to on a daily basis now, I SURVIVED eating some takeout pizza, and I can actually laugh at the thought now that I was forced to eat an Egg McMuffin every Friday morning for breakfast.
In other words: exposure therapy (doing an occasional random ‘challenge’ wherein you do go out to eat at a restaurant and order from the menu…or eat something you may not normally eat otherwise) can be highly effective for helping calm extreme food fears—reminding the individual about balance (NOT perfection).
(And to breathe).
What would healthy me do?
When it comes to making daily choices around food, fitness and my lifestyle, I have found one key question extremely effective in helping me ‘stay the path’ on my recovery journey—daily.
I simply ask myself:
“What would healthy me do?”
Whether it’s deciding what to eat for lunch…or how to train that day…or whether or not I really want to go out and be social—or if I just need some time for self-care and reflection (i.e. all situations), by checking in with yourself, healthy decisions begin to become easier and easier to make.
What would healthy you think? Do? What decisions would she or he make?
(Disclaimer: There was a time I used to hear that word (“healthy”) and think it was a synonym for the words: “pleasantly plump” or “robust”—and that is not what I mean).
I am talking the healthy mindset and body you—the person you envision being and becoming:
- At peace
- Able to eat a piece of chocolate—and not freak out
- In control of your sugar cravings
- And beyond…
Now it’s your turn.
WHO is healthy you?
Reflection: Make your list.
You may not feel like you are him or her yet…but the healthy YOU that you want to be.
You are going to begin thinking as she thinks, acting as he acts—embodying him or her.
So as we think, therefore we become. When we think as her, we become her .
The thoughts can go away.
One final note I will add here (and something NO professional really ever told me while I was in recovery) is that…the thoughts CAN go away.
You don’t have to just learn to ‘deal with it’ or manage your recovery…you can experience true freedom in the mind.
I found, the more I ‘went through the motions’ of practicing a healthy lifestyle (fueling my body, pursuing my passions, finding balance with exercise, etc.), the more faint that ‘voice’ began to become.
Freedom is yours for the taking—keep your eyes on that prize, and it will be won.