Back when I first realised I had a problem, my goal was to lose weight. My approach to my recovery was, in many ways, part of the problem, as it had a lot to do with my shape and my size and how I felt about it. But part of the problem was also this constant preoccupation with food. Thinking about food all the time was exhausting and I just wanted my mind to work differently. I wanted to finish a meal and not think about what I was going to eat next, at least not until I was hungry. Through the process of understanding myself, my emotional triggers and underlying issues, I realised that the first step to recovery was to develop a normal, healthy relationship with food, to achieve the elusive normal eating.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. While immersed in an eating disorder, we’re very out of touch with our body and our metabolic needs. As I mentioned in my previous article, Far From the Arms of Hunger, knowing when you actually feel hungry is a battle in itself. When you have BED, you can easily convince yourself you are physically hungry when, in fact, you are emotionally so.
But once you’ve got there, once you have got in touch with your real nutritional needs, what happens then? Here are some things to know about normal eating.
Normal Eating is not Healthy Eating
Or at least not as we understand it. If you achieve normal eating, you’re not going to be naturally more attracted to the chicken and quinoa salad than to the burger and chips just because you are on your way to recovery from disordered eating. Nor will you be less likely to fancy the chocolate cake. Indeed, people who eat ‘normally’ also indulge.
Normal Eating is Having Cravings…
…and knowing they are normal. Cravings are fine. There is nothing wrong with them and you’re not a good or bad person for having them. Cravings have their own psychology too. They start quietly into the back of your mind and slowly rise and rise and rise. What happens a lot is that you give into the craving but what you don’t know is that cravings peak, and then decrease till they disappear. Giving into the craving is normal eating. Holding on till it peaks and not giving into the craving is also normal eating.
Normal Eating is Binging
Yes, don’t look at me like that. People who have a normal relationship with food also binge, and for the same reasons a BED sufferer does. Normal eating means you might want to eat when you’re sad, lonely, bored or just because it feels good and allow yourself… ‘So what’s the difference with BED then?’ you might ask wide-eyed. Well, a couple of things:
- You don’t feel overwhelmed with guilt after. There is no weight on your shoulders, no re-evaluating of your life or impending need for control.
- You don’t engage in compensatory behaviours. Compensatory behaviours are things like skipping dinner because you binged earlier in its lightest form, but also vomiting or purging in any way, as well as engaging in excessive exercising to burn the ingested calories. You might, maybe, have a much lighter dinner or even skip it, but only if you’re not hungry.
- You don’t engage in all-or-nothing behaviours continuing the binge to start again next morning/week/month/year/life. The binge is a binge, just the one, not a behaviour or a problem.
Normal Eating is going Hungry
Normal eating is also not having enough to eat sometimes, finishing your plate and wishing you had more. In normal eating, what will happen is that you will go and do your job, or go to the shops, read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, and not worry about it.
Three Meals a Day is Normal
Or two. Or four. Or six, or munching along the way. Normal eating is, yet again, being in touch with your body and your needs and feeding it accordingly.
It’s not Obsessing Over Food
Normal eating is feeling hungry, opening the fridge and getting something to eat.
It’s also Obsessing Over Food
Sometimes. Christmas, usually, or when you’re looking forward to that lasagna you’re going to make at the weekend, with the onion soup for starters and the cheesecake for dessert. Normal eating is thinking about it because you are excited about eating it and it tastes good and it feels good.
Normal is Eating when You’re Hungry
It is going to the table hungry, enjoying your meal until you feel you’ve had enough. Knowing you’ve had enough of something is yet again quite difficult to achieve when you’ve been in a disordered eating mindset for a long time, but I’ll refer you again to my previous article on hunger.
It is also eating till you’re stuffed and uncomfortable. Because the food was great. Because it tasted awesome and you wouldn’t have left it. Because although you could have the biscuits tomorrow, they taste better today. I remember a few years ago, when my son was born, my parents were over here for a while. My father has become quite a good baker and made this amazing brioche and we ate it as soon as it was cold enough to eat. It was a big brioche and it was divided in eight portions, two portions each. I ate one with the idea of leaving the other one for the next day, like everybody else did, but it tasted so good, I ate my second portion straight away knowing that it would not taste as good the next day. My mother and husband told me it did the next day as they had it with their tea, but I never regretted it. Yes it was a lot of brioche, and yes it was an excess to eat both portions that day, but I haven’t had another brioche as good as that since and it was amazing. On the spot, an excess can seem as a lot, but in the grand scheme of your lifetime, it really doesn’t matter.
Normal Eating is Using your Common Sense
This is something else that takes some times to master if you have an eating disorder, especially BED. Some time into treatment I developed this obsession with chocolate buns. I could not stop myself eating them, mostly because I knew I shouldn’t eat them. My therapist then ordered me to eat one a day and the obsession disappeared, but one thing she told me was that there is a difference between telling yourself not to eat something because you think it’s ‘bad’ and telling yourself you shouldn’t eat something because it’s not reasonable. This is something I’m only coming to grips with now. As an example, on Saturday, my daughter wanted to make chocolate cake, which we did (see the picture above). For dinner I was going to make fish and chips but I ended up making fish and salad instead. I knew there was chocolate cake for dessert so I decided to leave the chips for another day. I didn’t skip the chips because I thought it was bad for me, I skipped them because I thought it would be too much and it would be more sensible to have the salad instead, so I could enjoy the cake. It was a small thing, but it tasted like victory to me.
The Bottom Line
Normal eating is being flexible. It’s allowing yourself the small pleasures of food without punishing yourself for it later. It’s understanding your body and its needs and trusting it to guide you correctly. The only reason this is harder than it sounds is because we try to force ourselves into this mindset overnight, expecting immediate changes. Most of all, normal eating is being kind to yourself. If you are, you will recognise that you have your own pace and your own mental process and admitting that it will take you time to get to this point. If you are kind to yourself, you will allow yourself to take this time. Being kind to yourself is key to achieve your goals.