February is often a complicated month for me. It marks Eating Disorder Awareness Month, and in my Christian denomination, it also marks the beginning of Lent. Many Christian denominations that observe Lent encourage the practice of fasting on certain days, or restricting food as a matter of self-discipline and learning to focus on the spiritual rather than the physical. I’ve never been able to fast as an adult because I have a history of an eating disorder, and the act of restricting food is too triggering for me. In fact, during the throes of my eating disorder, I recall telling people that the reason I wasn’t eating any food was because I was fasting for religious reasons. Really, I was trying to lose weight in an unhealthy manner, and I just didn’t want people asking questions. Even though I am primarily recovered from my eating disorder, I still struggle with my relationship with food and have to avoid certain practices to make sure I don’t lapse back into eating disordered behavior and thinking patterns.
An eating disorder is a complex mental health condition that is often compared to substance abuse and addiction issues; however, it is actually a process disorder and does not have the same physical effect on the brain’s chemistry as an alcohol or drug addiction does. Despite this, today’s medical treatment system often categorizes an eating disorder with the “disease model” and treats it similarly to a substance addiction, sometimes recommending twelve-step programs and encouraging “recovery”. There tends to be a divide within the body image and body health activist community as to whether or not this is helpful. I think that the reason for this is that comparing a behavioral, or process disorder, with a physical addiction or physical disorder is rather like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both fruit, or some type of disorder, but they’re different enough that assuming healing or “recovery” from an eating disorder is the same as recovering from a physical addiction is actually quite incorrect. For some people, it may be more helpful to say “I used to have an eating disorder but I have a healthy relationship with food now” rather than say something akin to “I have a history of an eating disorder and I need to be careful around food so I don’t relapse”. For some people, “recovery” has a “D” at the end; for others, it does not. Part of eating disorder recovery/being recovered from an eating disorder is examining your thought patterns regarding food and physical well-being. It can be difficult to judge what is and isn’t a healthy view on eating and body image, and it’s important to examine what your motivations are for monitoring your food intake or losing weight.
After putting weight back on while in recovery from my eating disorder, it took me a long time before I considered attempting to alter my weight through diet or exercise rather than letting it fluctuate according to the changes in my appetite that my medications caused. Recently I decided to try and lose weight by cutting back on my calorie intake, making sure to eat healthy, whole foods, and exercising more often. I was at the higher end of the healthy weight range for my height, and my goal was to get to a more balanced, mid-range weight. About halfway through the process, however, I found myself incredibly triggered. Health and taking control of my weight fluctuations were no longer my goal. Instead, I was hyper-focusing on counting calories and obsessing over the number on the scale. It became less about health and more about control. I would look at pictures of myself when I was larger and see an ugly, distorted figure. I would look and pictures of myself when I was thinner and think, “I looked so good then. If I could get to that weight, and then maybe lose another ten pounds…” The thought process was vicious. What I failed to do was focus on how I felt in my body.
Basing my health solely on my weight and counting exactly how many calories I took in during the day was not the right way to go about things. Focusing on making sure I was consistently active and could do certain things without getting too tired or feeling strained would have been a better start. Making sure I was eating less processed foods and getting enough protein and vegetables would have been another good thing to focus on. Not all numbers are bad – making sure that your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels are in a healthy range are important indicators of health that one’s weight doesn’t always reflect. When you are monitoring your food intake or trying to lose weight, awareness and better health should be your goals. If you are hyper-focusing or become obsessed with control (whether you want to be in complete control or want to lose control altogether), these can be red flags that signal that you may need to re-evaluate how you are going about keeping track of your health. It is also important to remember that you could be at what is considered an “ideal” weight and still not be healthy. Health and good eating habits are comprehensive, and do not hinge on one aspect of measuring good physical well-being. Food is for nourishment, and keeping track of what you eat should help you get the nutrients you need and be one part of how you care for yourself. It should not be the sole focus of monitoring your health or the only thing you think about day in and day out.
If you think that your motivations for keeping track of what you eat or your motivations for losing weight are in any way unhealthy, you can get help. Whether you wish to be in recovery, recovered with a “D”, or begin on a journey to bettering your view of food and your body image, know that wellness is possible and begins with a little bit of insight and self-awareness.