The Importance Of Seeing Food As Fuel When You Are In Recovery From An Eating Disorder

When I first thought about writing this post, as you can see from the title, I was intending to talk about why people with eating disorders need to see food as something to fuel them and keep them alive, yet now I have changed my mind (not that I am indecisive or anything…or am I…I’ll have to get back to you on that…). Ok this post is still going to be about the importance of seeing food as fuel, but actually I feel I should address why EVERYONE needs to start doing this, as it seems that in our society, whether you are mentally ill or not, food is primarily thought of in terms of what it will do to your weight.

For example, a few years ago during an inpatient admission, I was on bed rest which meant that, as you have probably guessed, I “rested” in a garage (only joking, it was in a bed. Just keeping you on your toes). Anyway, I was lying there and I was confused as to why I had to eat my meal plan when I wasn’t “doing anything” to burn it off. In my eyes, if I ate even a pea whilst lying down all day, I would gain weight because I wouldn’t have exercised enough to burn it off. I talked to one of the therapists about this and I remember her telling me that even if I wasn’t “doing anything”, I still needed to eat and still needed to have energy just for my body to work. Ok I may not be running around anywhere, but my body still needed the food so that all the bits inside could do their jobs and she drew out this chart as to how much food is actually needed just to sustain life without all the wandering in-between. I, by jumping from “eat X” to “gain weight from X”, had skipped a massive step and had imagined that whatever I ate would make me gain weight. Nevertheless, every time I was given a meal plan increase, my first thought was “that is going to make me gain weight”, without thinking of all the reasons and uses for food that come before the body even gets around to considering weight gain. Hearing that from someone with an eating disorder probably isn’t surprising, but at the same time the idea of food as a dictator of weight and nothing more is something that I see throughout society.

These days what you eat seems to be less about giving you energy to actually help keep your liver livering so that you can live your life and more about making choices based on what size jeans you want to fit into.
It is like those articles online or segments on daytime television, where they tell you what exercises you would have to do to burn off a certain food. I am pretty sure that a few years ago they were even considering adding that information to the wealth of nutritional guidelines scrawled across any packet of Hobnobs just so that people would know that if they ate one of the biscuits, they could easily burn it off with fourteen and a half press ups and a quick run through of the Macarena.
It just makes me wonder what on earth we think food is for if all we are doing is thinking about how it needs to be “burnt off”, skipping the state where we allow the body to actually use it, like I did all those years ago. Why do we need to be so obsessed with burning our food off? Know what happens if you “burn off” and “use up” every calorie by running on a treadmill? You win a prize? No. YOU DIE.

Think about the times when there is a cake in an office or people order desserts at a meal. Usually if someone turns down a piece, you can bet a good chunk of cheddar that their refusal will be something along the lines of “Oh no I can’t join in with that because it will go straight to my love handles”. It is rarely, if ever, someone will turn down food because they “don’t want it”, and is unfortunately usually down to this idea that whatever they eat will affect their weight which of course it won’t and that immediate connection is incredibly disordered.
The truth is, the primary purpose of food and indeed the necessity of food is to keep you alive and any other consequence is only a secondary consideration, yet it is the secondary consideration that people focus on all too much. Like I said when I began this post I intended to encourage people in recovery from their eating disorders to see meal plans as things that are there to keep them alive rather than seeing them as things that are going to cause them to gain weight. Ok weight gain may result if enough calories are consumed to allow that (weight gain that if you are on a re-feeding diet I highly expect is necessary), but that is not the first thing to happen. Indeed people with eating disorders, myself included, seem to focus so much on the effect of food on weight that they forget that it has any other purpose.
Years ago during another admission, I remember following my meal plan for months and eventually I did manage to gain enough weight to get me back in the healthy range and my first thought was “oh well I clearly don’t need to eat anymore because I don’t need to gain any more weight”. When the doctor told me to keep my meal plan the same I was confused as I had imagined he would say that I could stop eating now I had gained to the point where my body was healthy, what use did I have for food? What use did you have for food past Katie? Hmm let me think…TO KEEP YOU ALIVE BECAUSE THAT IS PRIMARILY WHAT FOOD IS FOR.

Food did not originate with the sole purpose of changing our bodies like those “eat me” cakes in Alice in Wonderland or that mushroom where if she eats from one side she gets tall and from the other side she gets small (I actually have a theory that all mushrooms have that power but because we tend to eat mushrooms whole aka we eat both sides, the magic of each side cancels the other out, thus we remain the same size…maybe don’t shout about that in public though…in my experience whenever I talk about magic mushrooms someone tends to call the police and I end up with a lot of explaining to do.)
No, unlike Alice’s wonderful mushrooms (or, if I am right, normal mushrooms), food is primarily there to keep the heart beating and that is it, yet like past Katie this seems to be something we have all forgotten.

Take the hellish old saying of “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips”. This makes it sound like the second you take a bite of a tasty salted french fry (after it has been dipped in ketchup of course), that french fry immediately sets off through your digestive system until it reaches the hip, at which point it will decide to set up camp and stay there as an extra piece of flesh. No. In reality, the first thing that french fry will do is go down your digestive system and start looking for things to do. Looks like the heart could use a little energy? Awesome, then the fry will head over there and give a few beats to keep the old ticker going. Kidney need a bit of help (or kidneys if you are one of those lucky devils who still has two), fine, that fry will head off to those kidneys and do a bit of filtering or whatever kidneys do. Without food those things don’t just keep happening! What do people think is keeping us alive if food is only there to dictate the width of our thighs? Do we think livers and kidneys run on fairy dust and pixie magic? HAS THE WORLD GONE MAD?

I just think that we all need to back up out of this disordered attitude of “things you would have to do to burn off a carrot stick” thing and be reminded that food is actually fuel that keeps you alive. If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, don’t get me wrong, I understand, and with every bite my head is focusing not on what that piece of food is going to do for my kidneys but what it is going to do to the number on the scales, but when those thoughts crop up remember that the whole weight gain aspect is a secondary thing and not the primary purpose of food as is made out in society. You do not need to be underweight to earn the right to eat cake on your birthday and you don’t suddenly stop requiring food the moment you are weight restored. No matter who you are or what your weight, you NEED fuel to survive like a car needs petrol. It doesn’t matter what colour the car is or what size the wheels, no matter what the physical composition of that car, it needs petrol to move just as you need food to breathe. YOU ARE THAT CAR. It doesn’t matter if you have small tyres, a huge engine, dodgy limp wing mirrors or a sizeable windscreen wiper, you need fuel to go, end of discussion.

Whether people have eating disorders or not though, collectively if I could do anything in this post it would be to urge people to see food less in the disordered “a moment on the lips forever on the hips” sense and in a way more akin to “a moment on the lips and then down to the aortic pump for a good few beats to keep me alive so that I can actually get on with my day and have a life”. Admittedly it isn’t as catchy, but trust me, it is far more scientifically accurate.

FoodIsFuel

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11 thoughts on “The Importance Of Seeing Food As Fuel When You Are In Recovery From An Eating Disorder

  1. Good way of looking at it. Definitely. I had an ED doctor tell me how the body needs (in general) 1200 calories a day just to lay in bed and do NOTHING. I always had a hard time seeing it that way but your organs and body do require so much. Oh, and don’t forget that it requires calories to DIGEST food. Sorry to use numbers and the word “calories” but if we put on our science hats, “calories” literally just mean a unit of energy. Which goes back to your post, that food is fuel!

    And we can choose to hate it, or love it, fight it or embrace it… it just is what it is. (That seems to be my motto lately!) Twisting things to try to match what we “think” doesn’t change what is actually TRUE.

    I know food’s a challenge for you but yes, you’re always gonna have to eat (you know, if you wanna like, LIVE)… and MORE than the minimum amounts that your body needs just to keep your heart beating, your organs working… oh, and your brain working! My ED doc once told me how much glucose my brain was gonna need when I started grad school. I mean you could literally do NOTHING and still need food, calories, nutrients, yum-yums (whichever words you like!).

    Hate to bring this into it as well but when underweight, you need even more because of all the rebuilding that needs to go on inside.

    I just try to ignore diet talk. It’s the biggest crock of crap. We’re definitely in different situations, but food will ALWAYS = FUEL. For *EVERY* *BODY*… 🙂

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    • OMG SO MUCH YES TO ALL OF THIS I AM APPLAUDING. It is so refreshing to hear from someone who gets that yum yums (totally stealing that btw), are FUNDAMENTAL to life and not just this optional extra to add in if you feel like it. I see all these crazy diets advocating ridiculously low intakes especially if you have a “desk job” as if simply sitting up with your eyes open at a computer just happens by magic…NO. Thank you for reaffirming my belief in this and for giving me the reassurance I think I needed even though I was able to write this post. It is all too easy to be a mental health hypocrite but damn it give me the yum yums :p xxx

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  2. “oh well I clearly don’t need to eat anymore because I don’t need to gain any more weight” omg, this is literally me. When I was in the hospital, I ate all the food they gave me just to get to the goal weight and go home. But when I reached the goal weight I was like “ok, now I have to watch what I’m eating, I don’t have to gain anymore”. I got home and lost a few kgs just to be in the phase of gaining weight again. Now I’m gaining weight but I don’t wanna know my weight (my therapist knows it, so she can control me), because the number would lead me to restrict again :(. This is actually the hardest thing about recovery, reaching the goal weight 😦

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    • I can relate to what you say here COMPLETELY! I am actually thinking of writing a few more posts about eating when at your “goal weight” because I think it is something that is often harder than the gaining side yet people don’t understand that. They think with an eating disorder that when you get healthy you must be fine when learning to live with it is the most important part! Really proud of you for fighting on and gaining weight because I promise it is the right thing to do and the alternative to doing so is much worse and something I would never want to happen in a million years! If I had to give one little boost of support to help in any way though I just wanted to reinforce the message that your goal weight is not a limit. I know that when I get given a goal weight I see that as “the highest possible that I need to get to with anything else being overweight” when really goal weights are a range. When you are able to see the numbers please imagine me on your shoulder saying that even if you are your “goal”, it is not a “limit” and you continue to be healthy and beautiful over it as “goal weights” are often at the low end of healthy anyway! Sending you lots of love and support ❤ xxxx

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  3. This post is just so great. And so so true! I’m lucky enough to now just about have a ‘normal’ relationship with food (if such a thing even exists in our crazy society), and this is something I tell myself (and others) approximately once every half an hour. So often in the office people stay stuff like “Oh I just couldn’t have a sandwich at lunchtime, I’ve not done anything today” while I’m eating my lunch, and I have to stop myself standing on a chair and yelling “YES YOU HAVE EXISTED AND YOUR BODY HAS SPENT 5 HOURS BEING ALIVE AND DOING STUFF AND YOU BURNT THROUGH ALL OF LAST NIGHT’S DINNER JUST SLEEPING YOU IMBECILES” – I actually say it much more kindly and calmly of course, but this idea that we need to justify every calorie in with one out is so worrying – that I hear most of that from people who have no experience or history of ED and are perfectly “healthy” and “normal” – this is the attitude we are sold in ads/magazines/on TV.

    And I tell you what, when you’re well enough to eat enough to properly and fully fuel your body, and your body is fuelled and ready and strong all the time, it’s pretty awesome.

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    • GAH THANK YOU! It is so nice to hear from someone with some common sense for once and I am thrilled to hear that you are spreading this sense to fools at the office (the fact you can remain calm whilst doing so is also incredibly impressive). I think people say that kind of “I haven’t done anything” even more when it comes to desk jobs but where do they think the energy comes from to use their eyes to see the damn office! Food! Give everyone a sandwich! THANK YOU FOR BEING A LEGEND. Hope you are having a good day pal xx❤️

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  4. Brilliant post Katie! This was amazing, not just for people with eating disorders but for everyone!! I will definitely send this to some of my friends!
    Kisses from Portugal ❤
    P.S: “oh well I clearly don’t need to eat anymore because I don’t need to gain any more weight” this is my life! 100% relatable.

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    • Hehe yay! Thank you! I want all the people in Portugal to be eating food and staying alive please! ESPECIALLY YOU! Love how much we can always relate to each other too, it is nice to have a special person to make me feel less alone. Lots of love and kisses from England xxxx😘❤️ xxxxx

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  5. Great post, Katie! I have been round the eating-to-gain-weight-then-stopping-eating-once-I-got-to-a-healthy-weight merrygoround more times than I would like to admit and it is that mindset that resulted in all my previous relapses because as soon as I started thinking ‘oh I’ll just not have my afternoon snack’, anorexia saw a way in and that thinking quickly snowballed into ‘I won’t have my afternoon snack, or my evening snack, and I don’t need to have my morning snack and I can cut out my toast at breakfast…etc’. I remember when on my weight gain diet for my most recent (and last!) recovery, asking my dietician what I could cut out once I reached a healthy weight. She answered ‘nothing’ and I didn’t believe her and was suspicious of her for the duration of my treatment (she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, she just wants to make me fat etc) until low and behold I reached a healthy weight and didn’t cut out anything on my plan and I DIDN’T CONTINUE TO GAIN! This is something I think that is really important for everyone in recovery to understand: there is no need to cut down on any of your intake once you reach a healthy weight.

    Calories are also important for brain function, which is why concentration is so poor when we are underweight. And food in general nourishes our whole bodies. I am currently helping a girl I met who lives near me who began her recovery journey at the beginning of the year. I see her every couple of weeks or so and what has really struck me recently is that she looks different. Not ‘fatter’, but nicer – there is light in her eyes, her skin is smooth, she has a certain glow about her that she didn’t have before. This is what food does for us.

    The media loves to push diets and stupid sayings about food and hips because it generates money for the multi million pound diet industry, not because any of them are true!

    This blog post is most timely for me as I am ill with a virus at the moment and didn’t even get out of bed until 4pm today, let alone actively burn any calories. Whilst I know all the above and have been telling it to myself all day, this has been a good reminder that I have done the right thing to continue to eat as normal. Thank you.

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    • Gosh you are a lovely person. Not only are you always helping me in my journey but now you are helping other people living near to you too?! Are you a saint? I sincerely hope you have a fairy godmother watching over you because good lord! It is also really lovely to hear how you can see her looking healthier without that meaning bigger because as you know it is always a trigger when someone tells you you look “well”. It is easy to assume that means bigger when really your body is busy repairing skin and things which is definitely something I want to write a post about soon!

      Glad to hear you are still fighting on despite illness and though you already know I will give you an extra reminder that your body is especially grateful for food when unwell because not only does it have to do all the normal things but it has to fight disease as well! Hope your body defeats disease soon and that you are healthy again in no time. Get well soon my dear! Much love xxxx

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