Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.
I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for five years now and from my experience, the first months and years are the hardest. It is difficult to learn to live again without the disordered voice in your head and become comfortable in your own skin. Recovery is a process with highs and lows. Easier days and harder days. I’ve had my share of both. My recovery has been put to the test.
My first true test came when my recovery was still young and fragile and was something that still needed to be protected. Around the time of my first anniversary of being discharged from inpatient hospitalization for anorexia, I was diagnosed with severe lactose intolerance. It was to the point that no Lactaid pills allowed me to still savor a slice of pizza or ice cream on a hot summer’s day.
Having to remove a food group from my diet could have been disastrous for my recovery. I worked hard to ensure this wasn’t the case. Little did I know in the coming years there would only be more to follow.
A diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) led to the removal of beans, fried foods and high FODMAP fruits and vegetables. Two years later, blood work showed I had celiac disease and with this, gluten went out the window. Fast forward two more years and an mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) diagnosis forced me to say goodbye to high histamine foods which run the gamut from bananas to spinach to chocolate.
I now eat a vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, low histamine diet. If it sounds highly restricted, that’s because it is. Not by choice, but by bodily limitations. And like it or not, I’ve had to learn to live with it. I’ve learned how to take care of my physical health, but also not forget about my mental health in the process. Because to ignore the echoes and the memories of the disorder from all those years ago would be to leave a gaping hole for ED to fill. And I have no doubt he wouldn’t ignore the opportunity to return to power.
For me, the disorder was in many ways, an addiction. And like any other addiction, I must be wary of temptation. It’s too easy to become a habit. Only through near constant vigilance have I remained the victor of the battle and I can’t let my guard down now.
So how have I adjusted to my body’s new “normal” without providing a new target for the disorder’s enjoyment?
Here are four ways I deal with limiting food sensitivities as someone with a history of anorexia:
1. Keep to My Schedule
One of my disordered behaviors was skipping meals. Now, even years into my recovery, I always eat every meal. No matter what. Even if I sleep late, I don’t skip meals. Engaging in this behavior just brings back bodily memories of the disorder and it is too easy to fall back into the pattern and not view it as an issue. Part of the possibility of reawakening the disorder has nothing to do with what I am able to eat, but rather when I am eating.
2. One Food Out, One Food In
Continuously removing food groups from my diet without adding anything new would eventually leave me with almost nothing. And being forced to eat the same foods day after day is not only boring, but it would fool my mind and body into becoming comfortable in a box.
This is why I make a concerted effort to continue to expand my horizons within my dietary restrictions. For each food I must remove, I find a new one to add. I browse the aisles of health food stores and am introduced to a whole host of new items like quinoa, seitan and kale. Much of my diet is made up of foods labeled “hipster,” but I enjoy them for their superfood power, not fad status.
It’s also important to note in the past decade, the food industry has come a long way in finding options for making favorite foods allergen free. My local supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to gluten free and dairy free options. Thankfully, I haven’t had to give up french toast, pizza or even mac and cheese, all of which have a modification to accommodate those with food sensitivities. Often, I don’t have to eliminate foods, just replace them.
3. Changing My Perspective
“You can’t eat that!” This was a constant refrain during the years I fought the disorder and a phrase ED would often whisper in my ear. A reminder I wasn’t good enough or skinny enough to eat any number of things. There were entire food groups “off limits” to me.
In reality, it wasn’t a matter of being unable, but rather, unwilling. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat a certain food, I simply wouldn’t.
During my recovery, it was important to change my mind’s perception when it came to food. This is even more true when it comes to the food I now exclude from my diet. It’s crucial I don’t return to the habit of categorizing foods by what I “can” and “can’t” eat. It’s important I remind myself I am not being pressured into eliminating foods. I choose not to eat a food because of my body’s physical ability to digest it and not as a result of disordered thinking.
No longer do I think, “I can’t eat that.” Instead, I remind myself since my body cannot tolerate it, “I don’t eat that.”
A category of food that caused me particular trouble and induced true fear was dessert. The disorder had caused me to become so obsessive about eating healthy and I compulsively avoided any foods that could be considered a “sweet” or “junk.” At my graduation party, I passed up a slice of cake. When we commemorated back to school, I refused the celebratory ice cream sundaes. For years, I refused to treat myself.
Through recovery, I have learned the importance of pampering myself. And so I do. Although “typical” cakes, cookies and the like contain dairy and gluten, I find the allergen-free versions just as satisfying.
Indulging and not berating myself for it later is like giving a continuous middle finger to my eating disorder. It is a reminder being healthy doesn’t mean depriving yourself and multiple food sensitivities won’t trick me into falling back into this trap.
I fought long and hard to be deeply rooted in recovery. It is not a position I would abdicate lightly. When my fight with ED and the emotional war with food were followed by my body’s physical revolt against the very substances that sustain me, I wasn’t going to give in.
Learning to live with multiple food sensitivities was a steep learning curve, but despite my history with an eating disorder, I am not fated to repeat history.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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Thinkstock photo via Ingram Publishing