Posts in Disordered Eating
Understanding Disordered Eating and What It Means to Heal

Few people understand treatment and best practices when it comes to eating disorders — including health professionals. I know this as someone who works with eating disorders first-hand. But the same can also be said about disordered eating. 

In a culture that glamorizes eating disorder symptomatology (restriction, weight loss), it can be difficult, if not impossible, to separate which pieces belong to an eating disorder and which belong to diet culture. Fat-positive Ragen Chastain has previously said that we prescribe to fat people what we diagnose in thin people. And though fat people are also diagnosed with eating disorders including Anorexia Nervosa, this is pretty true. 

We may look aghast at an emaciated woman whose circulation is so poor her feet have turned purple and her face as sunken in, yet we feel it’s perfectly acceptable to encourage the same habits and behaviours in someone occupying a fat body, including semi-starvation and restriction, over-exercising, calorie counting, and the use of Bulimia-like medical devices. You know, the types of tactics used to entertain people on The Biggest Loser

Intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, holistic nutrition. What is disordered eating and what does it mean to heal from diet culture?

I’ll reserve the fact that we view the suffering, shame, and embarrassment of other people as an entertainment for another blog post. 

Here is my reality as I know it, which is the only lens I feel I can speak through: eating disorders are mental illnesses and disordered eating is not currently considered a mental illness. 

But we must also acknowledge the ways our culture is influenced by beauty sickness, poisoned by patriarchy, and deficient in self-care. 

We aren’t taught how to cope with uncomfortable feelings and difficult situations in healthy ways.

And we need to acknowledge the ways trauma, shame, poor self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, stress, depression, anxiety, and fear translate to or manifest in our relationship (or lack thereof) with food. 

No, we cannot “cure” poor body image with a diet or weight loss. No, we cannot improve our lives, as the underlying subtext of our culture suggests, by changing, “updating”, “transforming”, “fixing”, and “toning” our bodies. No, we are not better people if we drink green smoothies and kale salads, and no, we are not worse if we enjoy ice cream, like cheeseburgers, and possess a penchant for Oreos. 

For those who don’t understand disordered eating, here’s the Cole’s Notes:

Disordered eating involves obsessing and fixating on food above all other things. It means spending so much time dwelling on or attempting to be thin that your life shrinks in tandem with the restriction. It may mean cutting out certain foods, counting calories, weighing foods, weighing yourself, denying dinners out with friends and coffee dates for fear of eating something “off limits”, of trying to “be good” and crying in shame when you can’t sustain your “perfect diet.” 

Disordered eaters may not adequately nourish their bodies; they may choose low-calorie options to “save points”. They may not eat enough to fuel their bodies and weight cycle, which places them at a higher risk for various diseases and premature death. 

And in my experience, restriction with food often means restriction in life: waiting for the weight to come off before going on a trip, waiting to lose weight before getting married, not having children for fear of weight gain or what the experience will do to the body, being so self-conscious that you deny yourself a chance to swim in the ocean or in the pool with your kid, and generally not fully showing up fully or participating in your one wild, amazing life. 

No, health is not about weight loss. Health is about eating adequately, regularly, and consistently. Health is about balance. Health is about self-care, sleep, joyful movement when appropriate, and an easy relationship with food. Health is positive, empowering, and fully yours to discover. 

The correlations between health and weight are only seen at the very highest of highest weights; in fact, the data as know it reveals that being “overweight” may have a preventative effect, while being underweight is actually correlated with the poorest health outcomes. This is consistent with my work in eating disorders. 

Above all, disordered eating is a problem because it is inherently dehumanizing. 

Weight stigma, weight bias, and weight discrimination are problems, above all, because they are dehumanizing.

My background is in writing; I majored in English literature in university, and went on to complete graduate studies in creative writing. Though nutrition and writing may seem very disparate from one another, I regularly use the analytical and critical thinking skills I acquired from that period of my life. 

I am always working to help people to re-write their stories, alter their narratives. I challenge their beliefs about self and life, which often begin more like “facts” than convictions. Mostly, I work to help them to come home to themselves, to occupy the bodies they’ve vacated, to enjoy the foods they’ve distanced themselves from, to feel the fullness, the weight, of their bodies. To feel comfortable with wholeness. 

What if you were diagnosed with a kind of cancer no one could see? Not a microscope. Not a single medical device. What if it was invisible to everyone but you, and maybe one other person? What if it spread across your body, across your life? What if it infected your relationships — with your significant other, your friends, your family, your co-workers — and ruined your work day? What if it was the first thing you thought of when you woke up in the morning and the thing on your mind when you fell fast asleep? What if it left your anxious and depressed about the future? What if it kept you from dating, from finding the kind of love you craved deep down? What if it made you feel so sad you could barely stand it?

I want you to consider it. I want you to consider all of it. 

Healing is often a slow, painful process. It involves reflecting critically on a culture that has encouraged loyalty to its socially constructed beauty ideals while promoting disloyalty to ourselves. It involves considering the messages we received about food, body, and worth growing up and afterwards. It involves developing a different kind of relationship with food. It involves being afraid, and doing it anyway. It involves the courage and strength to stand up to diet culture and all of its trappings; to well-meaning but often triggering family, friends, and co-workers who talk about their latest diet, “needing to lose weight”, “wanting to lose weight”, or who insist we should follow suit. 

Intuitive eating (the model) is the blueprint for this process — a map that helps you to navigate the waters. It teaches you how to extract yourself from diet culture; from rules that do not serve you; from media and “experts” who often lead with opinion, sensationalism, and bad science; from companies who are so quick to profit from your insecurities; from the finger-pointers and the “truth-tellers”; from a self-punishing relationship with exercise to one that is liberating and enjoyable; from using food to cope to finding alternative means. Intuitive eating equips you with training wheels for the bike you’ve never been on, with the hope and the intention of removing them one day and letting you ride free into the sunset. 

Healing is the process of coming home to ourselves. And of helping others to come home, too.

How to Stop Restricting in Intuitive Eating

Whether you’re new to intuitive eating or have been at it for a while, I think you’re going to benefit from today’s discussion about (unconscious or unrealized) restriction. I’ve received many questions and comments lately that all revolve around restriction and today I'm digging deep into it to shed some light on where you're limiting yourself. 

For example:

…You want to eat a plate of vegetables, but doing so makes you feel “virtuous” — and triggers you to eat something you deem “bad”, “unhealthy,” or “indulgent.” 

…You don’t want to deprive yourself of sweets, but you don’t feel satisfied by the amount of sugar you’re eating until you feel you’ve overdone it. 

…You’re trying to create new health habits and behaviours, but your mind is always rebelling or resisting these changes. 

Intuitive eating, body positive, health at every size, non diet approach, nutrition. How to stop restricting in intuitive eating.

There’s all kinds of ways to restrict that impact our ability to eat in ways that feel good to us. 

Let’s take the first one. If you believe you’re being “good” by eating a plate of vegetables, you’re still working through your diet culture hangover. If eating a plate of vegetables triggers you to eat sweets, it’s possible that meal was not satisfying to you. 

But my biggest question here is: when you’re eating all the vegetables and rebelling, who are you eating the vegetables for? Why are you eating the vegetables? And be really honest here. If the answer is “with the hopes of weight loss,” it’s not actually the vegetables that are triggering the desire for sweets. It’s the perception of restriction and scarcity symbolized by the plate of vegetables. It's that you associate the plate of vegetables with dieting and weight loss. 

Put another way:

What you think is happening:

I eat vegetables —> I want and eat all the sweets 

What is actually happening:

I’m going to eat vegetables —> a plate of vegetables makes me think I’m dieting —> I want and eat all the sweets. 

The problem has nothing to do with the sweets or the vegetables, but your relationship with sweets and vegetables. Here’s a few ways you can tackle this issue:

  1. Get crystal clear on why you eat vegetables. What words come to mind?

  2. What’s your goal? Why do you want to eat nutritious foods? How will your life change?

  3. Why do you associate vegetables with dieting and weight loss?

  4. Do you enjoy vegetables? How could you enjoy them more?

  5. Are you truly giving yourself permission to eat sweets?

Try asking yourself the above questions and unpacking this a bit further so you can really get at the bottom of what’s triggering you. 

Now let’s say you eat sugar, but you never feel satisfied by what you’re eating until you’ve overdone it and feel sick to your stomach. Let’s explore this. 

Maybe part of you knows if you eat too much sugar (for your body), you’ll get a stomach ache. 

Maybe part of you knows if you eat too much sugar (for your body), you’ll experience low energy.

And maybe these narratives are also competing with the following narratives:

I’ve always overdone sugar and I always will. I don’t know how to control myself around sugar. 

I’m addicted to sugar, but I guess I’ll *try* this intuitive eating thing…

Which further compound the issue. 

Here’s the thing: by placing expectations and limits on these foods before you’ve even started eating them you are engaging in a restrictive mindset. 

Here’s how I would solve this split, restrictive situation. 

  1. Sit down to eat without any distractions.

  2. Instead of going in with a set limit, try to exploring. E.g.: “I’m just going to see how many it takes to satisfies me.” Go in without any preconceived notions or judgment.

  3. Try eating your favourite foods slowly. This can take time and practice, especially if this food still carries a significant charge. This will also give you time to register when you’ve had enough sugar to satisfy. Take note of your pace.

Now, what about when you’re trying to create new health habits and behaviours, but your mind is always rebelling? 

Unpack this. Do your new goals feel like too much to you? Oppressive? Restrictive? I want you to think really hard about what you actually want and why you want it. What will it give you? Get crystal clear on the meaning behind your goals so that they really are internally- vs. externally-driven. 

How to Move Away From Wanting Weight Loss in Intuitive Eating

Okay, I want to become an intuitive eater, but how do I shelve the weight loss goals? And why should I?

I’ve given a lot of thought about this both personally and professionally. On one hand, moving away from weight loss goals, the oh-so-degrading “body goals”, and so on can feel impossibly hard. 

I want you to take a moment to acknowledge that, and to know that I acknowledge it, too. It is tough, especially when it seems like everybody and your neighbour is on a diet, a new eating plan, trying to “eat clean”, or some variant of the above. 

Just because you’ve committed to intuitive eating doesn’t mean you automatically stop wanting the things you’ve always wanted. It doesn’t mean you will automatically love your body. It doesn’t equate to an automatic, amazing relationship with food. 

These things take time to build, to curate, to refine. 

Intuitive eating, Health at Every Size, body positivity. How to move away from wanting weight loss in intuitive eating.

 

But how do you move away from the weight loss goals and toward intuitive eating when you still want to lose weight? 

I always ask my new clients to shelve their weight loss goals and give themselves permission to show up fully in the intuitive eating process. But there’s a few things I’ve done myself to move away from weight loss and to silence my inner body bashing critic. 

  1. Acknowledge that you are split. Part of you wants to look a certain way and part of you wants to feel a certain way. These desires are incongruent. If you focus on how you look, you may compromise how you feel; if you focus on how you feel, the way you look may not please you.

  2. Work on strengthening the healthy self. Therapist and eating disorder specialist Carolyn Costin talks about how we must strengthen the healthy self to heal the eating disorder self. That’s how I feel about healing the relationship with food and body. Ditching the weight loss goal is preferable, but isn't easy. To get there, you need to place it on the back burner so you can focus on repairing your healthy self.

  3. Develop hobbies and interests outside of weight loss. When people stop dieting, there can be a loss of identity. Also: suddenly there’s so much time. What I recommend is brainstorming. Make a list of things you love to do as well as things you’re interested in trying out. For example, I knew I loved cooking, watching movies, pilates, yoga, reading in the park, walking, listening to podcasts, and spending time with friends. I thought it might be cool to take tarot classes, art classes, learn how to make delicious cocktails, travel, and try acroyoga. Suddenly you have a list of things to do when you feel stressed out.

  4. Consider what your experience with weight loss and dieting has taught you. Has it made you happy? Has it improved your life? I think getting real about how miserable it has made you (or is currently making you) may be really helpful.

  5. Consider what intuitive eating might look like in your life. Are you eating ice cream at the beach with your kids? Are you going for bike rides with your partner? Are you enjoying pizza and wine with friends? How will not dieting improve your life?