Ah, January. The time of year when my Twitter feed and blog roll are filled with stories of cleanses, fasts and all types of eating experiments. There’s Paleo, Whole30, “metabolic efficiency”, low carb, no carb, no sugar, vegan, and, last but certainly not least, gluten-free.
I’ve gotten caught up in all of this before. I’ve Vitamixed, juiced, cut carbs, sugar, alcohol and eaten lots of foods only obtainable for high prices at Whole Foods. I told myself I was doing it to feel healthy. Have more energy. Train better. Sleep better. But the truth is, I never felt right about making “food rules” for myself and here’s the reason:
I used to be anorexic.
It feels like a long time ago now, but it was something I lived with daily from the ages of 19 to 24 or so. It was sort of a living hell. Honestly, I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy because it truly sucks. Those horrors have been documented many times in different places, and I think people have a good understanding of what an eating disorder entails so I won’t get into that here, except to tell you that it is extremely isolating and lonely.
When I think back to that period in my life, I think about the loneliness and how I wish I could have back all of the time I spent worried and anxious about food and my weight and compulsively exercising because I think it kept me from enjoying what is supposed to be an exciting time in life – graduating from college, transitioning to adulthood, getting married and building a life with my husband. We had a lot of good times, but many things were marred by my inability to enjoy normal things and activities. There were a lot of sad times that I don’t think too much about anymore because life is so different now.
There were really two things that changed for me and finally helped me overcome the eating disorder. The first was graduating from law school and accepting a position with one of the best firms in the city (the City of Detroit, not Denver). This firm was a prestigious, old-school firm with an interest in building collegiality between the newer and more senior attorneys. As part of that, the firm had a unique program that I have not encountered anywhere since. If an attorney went out to lunch with a first-year associate, the firm picked up the tab. At any restaurant we chose. There weren’t really any rules or limits.
When I learned about this lunch program through the hiring process, I was immediately nervous about it. I didn’t really eat a normal lunch at that point and the thought of going out to eat multiple times per week was seriously scary for me. But I really wanted to fit in at the new firm and be “normal.” I got myself back into therapy with some great doctors, therapists and a nutritionist just to prepare myself for this new life before the eating disorder derailed the career I had worked so hard for.
As it turned out, a lot of days people at the firm were too busy to go out to eat much, but we still ate out a fair amount on the firm’s nickel, and I went along and began to behave more like a normal person without food issues.
The second thing that happened around the same time is that I decided to start running marathons. I’m sure I started distance running because I learned it was a great way to burn a lot of calories. I can remember going for longer and longer runs and then feeling like it was finally o.k. to eat and what a relief that was. Even though it probably started as a behavior with less-than-healthy motives, at some point things changed and I began to want to fuel my body to run and race well. I wanted to work with my body, not hurt it. Food became fuel and that made it o.k. to eat. All of these factors helped me become largely free of anorexia by my mid-20s.
Today, I have a mostly normal relationship with food. Sure, I still begin and end most days by stepping on the scale and checking my weight and meals occassionally get missed. Aside from the occasional lapses, it is mostly a healthy life.
Triathlon is now a big part of my life and it is a sport that is consumed by talk of nutrition. There is endless discussion in the triathlon media about fueling, losing weight, race weight, and what we should eat to perform our best. A lot of the information is conflicting. Much of it is confusing. It feels like a person needs a chemistry degree to figure out how to fuel for Ironman.
Sometimes I get caught up in obsessing about food and I start to make some food rules for myself and I follow those for a while. Then, at some point, it all starts to feel too familiar, in a bad way, to what I went through with my eating disorder, so I go back to eating what I want, which can mostly be summarized as anything I want to eat, mostly healthy, in moderation. I don’t stuff myself with tons of unhealthy foods, mostly because I just don’t like them. I eat all foods and I really don’t think I am suffering much athletically because of that.
There is one last thing. I have an 8-year old daughter. I want more than anything for her to grow up having a healthy relationship with her body and food. I don’t want her to be like me (the old me). I’ve decided that the most important thing I can do to try to ensure she will grow up with healthy views about herself and food is to model normal, healthy eating habits. So I don’t skip meals in front of my kids. Ever. Even if I have eaten lunch at 4:00, I still sit down when them at 6:00 and eat something. I never talk about “bad” foods or make food rules that might send the wrong message (“mommy doesn’t eat bread”). I never talk about my body or weight in a negative way around my kids. I never tell them that if they eat too much of something, they might become fat. As much as the former anorexic in me would like to delve into a green juice fast, I wouldn’t do it because I worry it sends the wrong message to my kids, that eating is “bad.” I care too much about passing along a legacy of acceptance and health to act in ways that undermine the message.
If you are a person with food issues, it is never too late to get help. The time and energy spent worrying about what you are eating and how much you weigh can surely be spent in better ways. Trust me, I know. If you don’t have food issues but enjoy tinkering with your diet to try to lose weight, have more energy, race better, I wish you luck and success. But if you have young people in your life, know that they learn by watching what you do and you may be teaching them different lessons than you planned.
I wish all of us a healthy relationship with food and our bodies this year and beyond.