My eating journey is a familiar one. It echoes the experience of many people who have battled with society’s obsession with thinness, a sport or art form’s ideal body type, a need for control and a goal of perfection. In this post I want to take you through my relationship with food up to this point. Because of my recent shift in perspective, I’m deleting a previous post on my Eating Philosophy, and will replace it in the future with non-restrictive Nutrition Tidbit posts. I want to open up about my restrictive past and how I am beginning to make peace with food and re-discover the joy of eating. While I am choosing to leave out some details to protect family and friends and try to protect you as a reader, if you have a disordered eating past, I might advise you to have a close friend or therapist read this first and check for triggers.
Growing up, my mother loved to bake, and that love was infectious. Getting in the kitchen with her to bake large batches of her famous peanut blossom cookies is a sweet childhood memory. It was baking that really fueled my passion for cooking. I collected recipes and hoarded kids cookbooks, always watching a few shows a week on the Food Network. Being the nerd that I am, Alton Brown’s food science approach was fascinating. This is the time in my life I consider to be initially intuitive — as a kid I never was restricting myself, teased for my weight, or put on a diet. Eating was joyful, and despite my asthma, my parents kept me active in dance, swimming and playing outside.
At that young age, I know that I had to have been exposed to diet culture — it is pervasive AF. I mean, I played with Barbies…just think about how unattainable that body type is. I probably received some diet-y messaging in the way my parents and other adults around me talked about food, but I really don’t recall it.
What was striking was not the initial changes my body went through during puberty, but what others pointed out when my ballet leotard and tights were suddenly a little too snug: “Watch your love handles, dear,” “Are you sure you need that snack?”
And sure enough, I did start to watch my love handles and debate with myself about whether I really did need that snack. This was also when I’d sneak spoonfuls of cookie dough or a few pieces of candy when my parents weren’t around (probably because I was craving sweets intensely and not feeding my growing body!) I did start my period a little late, but who knows if this was genetic or a product of intense exercise and restrictive eating. I feel lucky that I have never experienced amenorrhea as a result of not feeding my body.
I grew taller, and my weight did not entirely catch up right away. I entered high school with my pediatrician making a comment about my low weight, “If you were a few pounds lower I’d be pretty concerned, but this seems ok.” That statement defined my disordered eating: restrictive, but not THAT bad, not TOO thin, eating just enough. What sickens me now is the pride I felt in being able to stay so thin at that moment.
Stereotypically, the ballet world fueled my obsession with staying thin. Dressing room talk often involved exchange of ways to curb hunger, judgment of our own bodies and those of other dancers, and moralizing of food decisions. In ballet, perfection is the ultimate unattainable goal — there is always something to improve or something to tweak, including your own body.
The one voice of reason was my high school best friend who never let me get away with throwing out half my brown-bag lunch or not eating the crust on my sandwiches. It was her encouraging voice that allowed me to begin accepting that I was a developing woman, a naturally tall woman on the thinner side, but one who was bound to have some sort of curves. This was a high point in the rollercoaster — I began to listen to my hunger and not deprive myself of calories. This was, however, in the middle of discovering nutrition and what “healthy” food looked like, so food freedom was not entirely in my vocabulary. It was tough; high school was post-recession, and my family was hit fairly hard. “Healthy” foods were not always attainable and fresh produce was expensive, making it difficult for me to fill up on the foods I thought were best for my body. My restriction took a different form, one a bit more orthorexic and focused on nutrient content (based on the very little I knew about nutrition), and since these foods were not always available, I would often become angry and refuse to eat what was available. Both a blessing and a curse was a major back injury that happened when I was 17, forcing me to cut down my dancing to recreational classes instead of pre-professional training. This injury pushed me out of the endless perfection seeking and I began to give myself grace, taking strides toward the balance of intuitive exercise.
Fast forward to freshman year of college — wow did I get lucky with Cornell Dining! While it was still dining hall food, there were plenty of tasty and healthy options. I felt much more secure in my access to healthy foods (and Cornell Dairy ice cream, oh my word). That said, I often battled with thoughts of restrictive eating. I began to identify those thoughts, and recognize them as a response to a need for control in the midst of my crazy intense and difficult college career. This first year of college as a nutrition major in the dietetics program is when I began to receive up-to-date and evidence-based nutrition information (which mind you, was still incredibly fatphobic). Making friends with other dietetics majors was quite interesting — nerding out about food was so much fun, but there was always the hint of a restrictive past. These relationships are the ones with so much opportunity for growth, but also ample possibility for fueling restrictive eating and perpetuating diet culture.
I digress, sophomore year living in my sorority house was a blast. I was the kitchen manager, and was incredibly grateful for our chef’s efforts to serve us healthy and delicious food. That second semester was one full of drama back home on top of taking anatomy, organic chemistry, and the lab classes for each (ugh why). That stress left me looking for an excuse to restrict, and I found that in going vegan “for Lent.” Horrible idea. I was unprepared for such a drastic change with my crazy busy schedule and misplaced motives. I lost weight and dropped to the lowest I’ve been in my adult life. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically, and craved intensely the foods I normally used to fuel my body like yogurt and eggs. Thank God Lent is only 40 days; I will never give up a food for Lent again given my history of abusing it for restrictive eating purposes.
The next few years of undergrad involved truly learning how to cook for myself on a budget, starting this blog 😀 and continuing to seek balance. My eating was still restrictive in that I would eat chocolate and fries and drink wine, but I still worried about what I “should” eat, and frequently stepped on the scale just to keep myself in check. I saw fluctuations that correlated with times of extreme stress, and those low points scared me, but so did the high points when I knew there was much more balance in the rest of my life. Let’s be honest, the scale has never been my friend.
My final semester at Cornell is when I was finally introduced to Health at Every Size during a brief lecture in my medical nutrition therapy class. This seemed ridiculous — how could it possibly be true that someone in a large body might be just as healthy as I was in my smaller body? I pretty much discarded the movement as an excuse for those living in larger bodies to feel OK with that fact, and an excuse to eat whatever you want because it didn’t matter. Boy have my thoughts changed!
This past year in the MPH/RD program at UNC has been incredible in finding balance, discovering Intuitive Eating, and making wonderful friends passionate about body positivity. Discovering new forms of joyful movement and making peace with food has played a huge role in getting to this point, but I did not even have words for these ideas until around April when I began reading the book Intuitive Eating (HIGHLY recommend you pick up a copy for yourself from Amazon!) and diving into the blogs/podcasts of fabulous body-positive RDs and RDs-to-be like Alexis Joseph of Hummusapien, Rachel Hartley of The Joy of Eating, Christy Harrison of Food Psych Podcast, Kylie Mitchell of Immaeatthat, Connie of Constancelyeating, Megan of Run Whole Nutrition and my colleague/friend Lindsay Koonce of Soon to be RD.
It turns out that there are so many factors involved in the relationship between body size and chronic disease that I never considered. Weight stigma/fat bias, yo-yo dieting, genetics, stress, childhood trauma… these are some of many different causes of chronic disease, and many of them just so happen to be more common in people classified as “overweight” or “obese.” Couple this with the fact that around 95% of people who go on a weight loss diet gain all or more of the weight back… how is it that we are still prescribing weight loss? Why do we insist on fitting everyone into one body size?
But let’s back up a second; the biggest reason I believe I’ve found myself in a place where I can eat intuitively is because I am at a much less stressful point in life (sans family drama, relatively stable finances, grad school grades are much more flexible, and I actually see the sun in North Carolina at least twice a week). Finding balance in the rest of life is a huge step towards being able to begin eating intuitively. I also want to point out that access to good, safe food is key to Intuitive Eating. With poverty and food insecurity in the picture, Intuitive Eating is virtually impossible. I feel privileged to be in a position where I can listen to my body, eating what I want/need whenever I want/need it. With the skills I’m gaining in the MPH/RD program at UNC, I’m excited to tackle food access and size diversity in the public health context, and use the non-diet approach to facilitate intuitive eating and positive nutritional outcomes with individual clients.
My most recent changes have been ditching the scale (so tough, but so worth it!), learning to love every part of my body, and listen to my cravings. Making peace with food has been so liberating. I’m able to feel OK with overeating some days and undereating others, having massive salads that make me feel like I have micronutrients pumping through my veins and also having four chocolate chip cookies and a glass of wine because I WANT them! Don’t get me wrong, this is a process. I of course struggle with anxiety about eating too much of the wrong thing and have days where I really do not like the way my body looks. But guys, I think this is it.