The 5 Stages of My Relationship With Food After Becoming Ill
I’ve always had a great love affair with food: reading recipes, cooking up a storm in the kitchen and then (my favorite part) eating the outcome! My approach to food is generally healthy and I try to stick to a balanced diet, recognizing that there’s no harm in having the occasional treat.
However, once I joined the chronically ill community in 2016, my relationship with food changed overnight. I want to share the five stages I’ve passed through since becoming ill; perhaps you recognize some of your own behaviors in there.
1. Eat what you can.
We’ve all been there. Those hideous days when you feel so ill that getting anything bar water past your lips is pretty much mission: impossible. For me, the “eat what you can” stage came at the start of my descent into chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) when I was fighting off pneumonia. For three days I survived on pots of jelly (Jell-O) and fruit, something I wouldn’t normally eat but for some reason craved during these pain-filled times. When you’re feeling this bad, any food is better than no food, so I don’t think there’s any harm in moving away from the ideally balanced “healthy plate,” as long as it’s for a very limited time period.
2. Eat what is easy.
When my husband returned to work, I found myself home alone, feeling awful and having no energy to prepare even the simplest of meals. The solution? High-quality ready meals. I found that if I psyched myself up enough I could just about struggle through to the kitchen, transfer the meal from fridge to oven (or — even better — microwave) before collapsing on the sofa from the exertion. There is a huge range of ready meals available nowadays and, while some are evidently calorie-laden, some are relatively healthy and a Godsend at times such as this. I was also fortunate enough to have family members who sent home-cooked food parcels for me to stash in the freezer, to see me through this period in my recovery. When you’re convalescing, even putting together a sandwich can use up precious energy, so cutting corners wherever you can makes perfect sense.
3. Eat what you want.
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that my energy levels (which were very low due to the fatigue-causing part of my illness) could be improved ever so slightly by eating. In hindsight, I recognize that this is hardly a scientific breakthrough, but at the time it was thrilling to find that there was a tiny part of my recovery that I could have some element of control over. And so, I started eating whatever and whenever I wanted. Unfortunately, what I wanted was hugely unhealthy: plates of fries, battered onion rings, jam and cream scones, chocolate… Again, this goes completely against the types of food I would normally feel like eating and so I took it as a sign that my body was craving these high calorie, high fat foods for a reason. Our bodies are amazing things and can often be relied upon to let us know what they need. As long as we don’t structure our long-term diet around unhealthy cravings, I don’t think there’s any harm in having a little of what you fancy.
4. Eat what you should.
Unsurprisingly, I put on weight. A visit to the doctor confirmed that I had put on approximately a stone in weight — something I’d only done previously while pregnant — so I decided it was time to take action. I researched and tried several diets: plant-based eating, the 5:2 approach and SiRT foods, to name a few. I discovered that I liked quinoa but couldn’t stomach celery-based green juices. For the first time in my life, I took notice of how many calories were in different foods, shuddered when I calculated my usual daily intake and started taking a much more mindful approach to mealtimes.
5. Eat what you need.
Spurred on by a forthcoming wedding, I lost some weight, not through following a specific diet but by taking my new learning and rediscovering my pre-illness approach to eating. While I’m still not fully recovered (and recognize this might never happen), my ‘new normal’ has — thankfully — allowed me to return to the kitchen, armed with new recipes, ingredients and enthusiasm. I regularly cook vegan recipes because I enjoy the taste but also cook meat, fish and poultry several times a week, ensuring that I add in a wide range of vegetables, grains and pulses. I’ve discovered healthier snacks such as date and pecan brownies and courgette crisps (zucchini chips) but still enjoy the occasional unhealthy treat.
My energy levels continue to increase, albeit very gradually, and I’ve no doubt that this is, in part, due to my improved approach to eating. There’s still a long way for me to go, but I’ve got plenty of cookbooks to work through in the meantime!
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