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.


The Mystery Of Hunger When You Have An Eating Disorder

Whenever I play Cluedo, (or Clue to any American readers out there), I am confused as to why anyone would ever choose to commit a murder in a library with a candlestick. You are supposed to be quiet in a library, not create a racket bashing someone’s head in, and how are people expected to read if they are being plunged into darkness because someone was foolish enough to break all the candles?
Whenever I play Monopoly, I am also confused. I do not understand why I am repeatedly being thrown into jail when I have done NOTHING wrong, especially when, ten minutes prior to my unfortunate detainment, I was allowed to roam freely around the planet with no consequences, even after the discovery that I had beaten Professor Plum over the head with a piece of lead piping in the Billiard room (where I was courteous enough not to disturb anyone. Nobody was playing Billiards. They were all trying to read in the library and I allowed them to continue in peace because I am a good person).
When it comes to games however, there are none I find more confusing than that classic joy of “Hungry hippos.” Are these hippos actually hungry, and if they are hungry, what exactly does that mean?

Multiple times during my life with an Eating Disorder, I have had people offer me bits of advice that they think will be the key to my recovery. One of the more common pieces of advice is that I should just “stop listening to the anorexia and eat when I am hungry”.
On paper, I suppose this is fairly sound advice. Eating disorders want to kill you whereas your natural body impulses are there to keep you alive, so it makes sense to listen to them. The problem is, when you have had an eating disorder you spend your life trying not to listen to them, and eventually the mutual understanding and connection you had with your body is diminished. Indeed, your disorder actually spends every day purposely trying to suppress all natural instincts that were built up during the cave man days so that it can be in charge of what food is consumed, how much and when. You don’t “eat when you’re hungry” as you are supposed to, rather you eat when, or if, you are allowed.

Obviously I know what it is like for the body to go without food. I am familiar with the light headed tingliness, head aches, dizziness, chills, fainting spells and the pains in ones’ abdomen that occur when your stomach hasn’t seen any tasty morsels for a while, but I am unsure as to at what point all of these feelings constitute “hunger”. Does hunger start from the moment your tummy utters its first inquisitive growl or is that just being “peckish?” Is hunger what you feel when you see a chocolate doughnut with rainbow sprinkles or is that just curiosity…or being peckish? What even is peckish? When does hunger become starving? Is ravenous worse than starving? WHAT DO ALL OF THESE WORDS MEAN?

I know some people will probably say that you can’t think of hunger in such rigid terms and it is more of a sliding scale, but I am just so confused as to how people know when to eat if it is a sliding scale and not a case of two opposites. If we all had little signs on our heads that flipped from “not hungry” to “hungry” when it was time to eat it wouldn’t be a problem, yet people seem to just understand their bodies in a way that is completely baffling to me. All of my meal times are rigidly planned out, I know it is time to eat by my eating disorder giving me a time and then I simply watch the clock. Is it time to eat? I don’t know, lets see if the little hand is on the right number and if it isn’t we will give it a few more hours.

My parents, aka people without eating disorders, do not have strict rules on dinner time and they are two of those mysterious people who I often observe knowing when to eat by knowing when they are hungry. It makes no sense. Sometimes my mum’s stomach will growl and she will say something like “I don’t know why it’s making that noise, I am not even hungry.” What? I thought a growling abdomen was the universal sign for hungry? Does it only mean that sometimes? At other times does it growl to test its abilities in lion impersonations? How do you know which is which? Some evenings my mum will ask my Dad if she should put on the dinner and he will say something like “in a bit, I’m not hungry yet”. I will then spend the next however many minutes watching him, and at some point, with no signal from any outside force and no noise from his stomach he will announce, “Ok, might as well put the tea on, I’m hungry now”. HOW DID HE KNOW THAT? When did the switch flip? When did “not quite hungry” become full on hungry in a way that needs to be satisfied? I was watching him closely the whole time and I saw nothing! Not a single rhino burst into the room wearing a sign declaring “Now is the time for food”, there were no fog horns, smoke signals and no morse code (I was watching him and listening very very closely).

Even in hospital settings, it is an alien concept to listen to your body and adhere to hunger cues. In every hospital I have ever been in, you know it is breakfast or lunch time because the clock tells you it is so. The nurses don’t rally up the patients, ask who is and who isn’t hungry and stagger the meal accordingly, it is just time to eat so you do. More than that, the clock tells you when to stop eating rather than you deciding that you are “no longer hungry”, and portions are equally dictated by how many ladles of pasta bake is on the nutrition guidelines rather than “how much you fancy”. You can’t even forget the “eat when you are hungry” bit and skip to the “stop when you are full”, because again in hospital, what your body feels has nothing to do with what you eat. When at home you may stop mid meal because you are no longer hungry, but in hospital your allocated portion has to be eaten, so you often have to keep eating rather than stop when you are full because the dietician and meal plan has stated that is so. Full of cottage pie and not “hungry” for apple crumble? Tough, nutritionists have stated that your body needs apple crumble for medical medicinal reasons so you are going to eat it anyway, and you simply listen to their hunger cues and portion sizes instead of your Eating Disorder’s or your body’s. Natural impulses and intuition have nothing to do with it.
I honestly cannot remember a time when I just ate a meal because I knew I was hungry or stopped because I was full, for years I have simply followed the instructions prescribed much as someone else might follow the instructions on the back of a packet of custard (sidenote: Isn’t custard awesome?!)

It is even the same for me when it comes to using the bathroom. Not to overwhelm you with “too much information”, but as much as I do not understand people knowing when to eat, I do not comprehend how they know when they need the bathroom. They say “when you need to go you go”, but when is need? Is it at the first sign that your bladder is a little on the full side or do you wait until you are so desperate that you are hopping from foot to foot like Michael Flatly performing the River Dance? Somewhere in between these two points? Cool…BUT WHERE? WHEN? Again my natural impulses haven’t been in control of that kind of thing for over a decade as it is my OCD/eating disorder that tells me when I am allowed to pee even if I may not feel the need. When it comes to following my body’s impulses then, I find it impossible not just because I have an eating disorder or OCD screaming in my head, but because I have lost sight of what those impulses are by forcing myself to ignore them for so long.

Perhaps I have just waffled on in an incomprehensible meandering mess in this blog and once again none of you have any idea what I am on about. In writing it I have definitely learnt how hard it is to explain something you cannot get your head round, much like it is trying to ask someone to explain something invisible like air or untouchable like a rainbow.
Still I hope I have at least explained in some sense yet another reason as to why recovery or living with an eating disorder is so hard, and not something you can get over by “just eating” like everyone else. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions you can want to “just eat” as other people do, deciding it is lunch time based on an intuitive flicker of the gut or portioning your roast potatoes out based on how many you think you can manage rather than how many are on your meal plan. Nevertheless, intentions or not, to me it still remains an unfathomable mystery of just how in the hell all these people do it.

Take care everyone x