This is a story I’d like to call: eating is hard sometimes. A while back, I noticed that I was getting really hungry in the morning. Hanger levels tended to reach an all-time high around 11am, far before I generally take a break for lunch and Youtube videos (#LivingMyBestLife). I Googled around for answers, as any good millennial would, and found information about increasing protein and fibre at breakfast, putting butter in coffee, etc. The problem was, I was eating plenty at breakfast, and experiencing pleasant fullness after. I knew this wasn’t the problem. I started to wonder about cortisol, about stress, about lacking certain vitamins, about a tapeworm… and so on.
Because I work in the spaces I do, I know people who know things about nutrition. So I consulted a trusted nutritionist friend about what might be going on, sharing my theories. She messaged me back, and kindly inquired: could you just be hungry? Do you maybe just need to eat more?
I realized that she was right, and I went on to start making a solid effort to eat more. This has been very effective, and I feel a lot better in general and in the morning in particular. But you know what? This has not been easy. And I think the reasons why this has not been easy warrant a bit of a deeper exploration about how we frame health, ideal ways of eating, eating disorder treatment, and recovery.
One reason why eating more has not been easy for me relates to my dietary intake in relation to social norms around eating. I do not count calories, track macros, or do any of those kinds of practices that have gotten me into trouble in the past. The vast majority of the time, I have a peaceful and happy relationship with all foods. However, the fact of the matter is, I did not magically forget the general nutritional content of pretty much every food when I recovered. Sure, I don’t have this down to a science, and there’s a very large margin of error that I am very at peace with. But when you spend years obsessing over this, and then engage in treatment systems that replicate this tracking, through the counting up of “exchanges,” you’re unlikely to be unaware of what you’re eating. I cannot relate to the concept of not being sure what you ate earlier in a day any more easily that I can relate to the idea of forgetting to eat.
Because of this, I am aware that I often eat “more” than “the ideal” as described in many spaces “for health” (side note: these guidelines are generally ridiculous and do not take into account the wide variety of bodily needs). In fact, I once shared my food diaries from treatment (because, you know, it’s supposed to be helpful, somehow, to track down to the number of almonds what you eat while in treatment…) in a presentation, to make clear to those who’ve not experienced treatment the paradox of asking people to track intake in treatment. I had blocked out my name, so it was not clear they were my records. A classmate said “this looks like a lot of food!” when she looked at a diary of what was, in fact, my “maintenance plan.”
Sometimes this is seen as “cute,” given how my body fits the norm. It mostly amuses people to see me eat cupcakes, because I am on the smaller side of the weight scale. But I can’t forget comments that place me on the higher side of the equation when it comes to dietary intake. Increasing food intake, then, becomes a matter of “but shouldn’t what I am having be enough?” particularly when my body is not changing size. But then, my body has always been extraordinarily defensive of its set point. It’s pretty good at taking care of me.
The second, and arguably more important, reason why it was hard for me to increase my dietary intake is related to the first. One of my ways of being at peace with the “more than normal” intake was that in general, the amount that I eat is fairly similar to the amount I ate when I left treatment. Again, I do not follow a meal plan in any kind of written-in-stone kind of way. I would call my approach to food “pragmatically intuitive.” I am very, very aware of what makes my body feel good. The amounts are not dissimilar to what I was “told to eat” in treatment. So, those amounts have been clinically legitimized for me. I have been told they are “ok” for me.
I feel incredibly vulnerable writing this, but it also feels important. Ten years into recovery, I’m still recovering from treatment. I’m still uncovering the ways in which the inscribed timing and quantification of treatment eating play out in my life, shrouding my body’s calls for more.
It feels vulnerable to write this because I fear losing face in eating disorder recovery circles, and in HAES® and intuitive eating circles. Admitting that eating more is really hard even ten years into recovery feels tantamount to openly performing recovery “incorrectly.” I worry that it will make people currently struggling feel a loss of hope. I worry that it will make my work on recovery less legitimate in the eyes of other “experts” (oh that we could stop using that word…). I worry that amongst those who practice intuitive eating, this will be seen as an admission that I don’t. The reality of all of this is that I am constantly working on my relationship with food and my body. I employ coping mechanisms that allow me to continue to eat enough during stressful times that rob me of a sense of bodily connection, and sometimes that doesn’t look super “intuitive.” Then again, maybe that is the most intuitive thing I could possibly do.
Because it is vulnerable, it feels important. Why do we expect that people will recover perfectly? In a world that is profoundly messed up around food, and in a world that treats eating disorders by inscribing rigidity, how can we expect people to liberate themselves from the shackles of diet culture and truly honour their hunger? Why do we expect that awareness of diet culture will equal immunity to it? More information alone does not fundamentally shift the way we are taught to act in and around bodies. All of this will be a dynamic and ongoing process.
So, what is my point? Is it to out myself as being imperfectly recovered? Maybe it is. Many of my research participants spoke to this idea that recovery is often represented as this utopic space of complete and total body love and abandon around food. I think that is unrealistic; but, I do believe that recovery is possible. I believe that even being able to talk about its imperfections and struggles is key to its enactment. Am I only a worthwhile source of authority when I “do recovery well”? What are the stakes of my struggles, being a relatively visible “recovered person”? All of these questions are key, in my opinion, if we really want to get real about eating disorders and recovery. We need to think about power and performance and legitimacy and judgement as they flow in and around the recovery assemblage.