It’s January, which means suddenly everyone and their mother is already on a diet. I got a leaflet for Slimming World stuck through my door on the 2nd for Christ’s sake. I’ve spent most of my life living with a variety of eating disorders, so I feel this is a good time to reflect on the most important things I’ve learned.
- There is no such thing as *bad* food (unless you have an allergy, obvs.) Carbs are not the devil, and sugar isn’t a sin.
- If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you regularly eat at a calorie deficit, you will lose weight.
- Food is fuel and your body needs it. Stop judging yourself for what you eat. Living on salad doesn’t make you better than everyone else, and eating 12 donuts in one sitting is only a problem if you do it a lot and it doesn’t support your goals.
- You’re allowed to be happy at the size you are, whatever you think you *ought* to be.
- Your worth is not connected in any way to your weight or your size.
Ultimately, if you want to lose weight in the New Year, or to build a new fitness routine, good for you. Psychologically, it’s easier to start things at times we think of as beginnings. That’s why we often decide to ‘start on Monday’ or ‘start next month”, whether it’s quitting smoking, giving up drinking or eating healthy. Beginnings seem like the natural place to start, and January is the biggest beginning of the year.
But diets don’t work. And a 30 day challenge will only get you fitter for 30 days. Long-term change requires long-term effort, so a small change every day will add up to a bigger reward in the end. It’s not a ‘diet’, it’s a lifestyle change. It has to be. And you don’t *have* to do it if you don’t want to. It’s the only healthy way to look at it. Believe me, I’ve tried everything else.
I’m craving something sweet, and something savoury. I don’t have any snacks in the house, because I can’t be trusted. Cut to me, eating alternating spoonfuls of peanut butter and jam straight from from the jar. I could have a sandwich of course, but I don’t want to allow myself the bread. Don’t worry, I’ll throw most of it back up within the hour. If asked, I tell people that I used to have an eating disorder.
Have you ever really craved a snack, but you didn’t want carbs ( / didn’t feel you were allowed carbs because CaRbS ArE BaD) so you just took a bite of cheese straight from the block in the fridge. No? Just me then. If I feel like masquerading as an adult I’ll use a knife to cut slices off first.
This isn’t just useful when you’re dealing with food anxiety about food groups (or calories, or ‘good’ food vs. ‘bad’ food, or macros, or how much food you’ve “earned” or can “justify”). It’s also useful when you’re too depressed to feed yourself. If making a sandwich feels like too much effort, it is absolutely permissible to just eat sandwich fillings from the fridge. Whatever means that you eat something that your body needs is fine.
I absolutely still struggle with unhelpful and toxic ideas about food. But if snacking on cheese straight from the fridge means I’m less likely to throw it up later because I feel guilty about the bread in the sandwich then so be it. If eating cheese straight from the fridge means that I eat something when I feel too apathetic to even microwave soup, then so be it.
The best advice i was ever given is that there are no rules when it comes to living with an eating disorder, or any mental health disorder. We all know that we should have five pieces of fruit or veg a day, that our meals should include proteins and carbs and fats, but getting that right every day can be a challenge and at the end of the day, perfect is the enemy of good. It’s easy to feel that if we can’t do something “right” then we won’t bother at all, but one piece of veg a day is better than none. Eating cold ham straight from the fridge is fine if it means you’re getting your protein portion instead of just eating chips.
We’re cooking dinner together. I love it when we cook together; we make delicious food and spend quality time with each other.
I’m busy chopping vegetables, so I ask him to grab something from the fridge.
He goes to the fridge. Door opens. Rummage. Door closes. He walks back towards me. Stops. Freezes, in fact, face blank. Turns. Goes back to the fridge. Door opens. Pause.
Him: I’m not judging you… but… are these teeth marks in the cheese?
By the time he makes his way back to the kitchen I am crying with laughter. I maintain that a mouse ate the cheese. It becomes a running joke in our house whenever snacks go missing. A mouse ate them.
He never makes me feel judged, or guilty. We both know it just means I had a bad day. He buys me sugar free hard candy so I have options the next time I have a sweet tooth. Important distinction: not that I *must* avoid snacks, just that I have the option, if I want to. He knows I’m coping as best I can.
I put on weight over Christmas. I knew I would, so it’s ok. Between lockdown and seasonal depression, I made the choice to allow myself more treats than I usually would.
Once upon a time, this would have led to a spiral of self hatred, and drastic attempts to shift the weight as quickly as possible. Inevitably, depriving myself of things just makes me crave them more. So I’d inevitably cave, binge, purge, and hate myself the whole way through. This isn’t just bad for my mental health, but for my physical health too. Back at my worst, I was being sick 8-12 times a day. My teeth started to rot from the acid, and I damaged my stomach and oesophagus to the point where I had almost constant acid reflux. It doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that means being a little bit sick in your mouth half a dozen times for an hour or more every time you eat something. ((I know this is gross, and TMI, but it happened.))
Recovery is the process of a lifetime, and my only goal this year is for my relationship with my body to be better than last year. I’m taking the right steps; 2020 was the year I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t in control of my drinking, and 2021 is the year that I begin to get real help with that. I have resources to read, and groups to join, and people in my life who really, genuinely have my back and want me to succeed. I will still have bad days, and there will still be days when I make bad choices. But every day, every single day, I have the wonderful opportunity to try again. I don’t need to carry the guilt of my “failures”, I have (with much difficulty) learned to move beyond an “all or nothing” mindset.
He’s offering to pop to the corner shop. “Can I get you anything?” he asks.
“Oh, I’d love a bottle of wine please!” I answer.
He pauses a moment, looking thoughtful. “OK,” he says, “but on one condition. I want you to promise that you wont drink the whole thing tonight like you did with the bottle I got you two days ago.”
My initial reaction is shock, then outrage, then tears. All of a sudden I feel terribly ashamed, and judged, and awful. My reaction has a lot more to do with my own feelings about my drinking than with what he’s actually said.
He hugs me, and apologises. I tell him it’s ok. He hasn’t said anything wrong, he genuinely hasn’t, and he’s only trying to support me in goals that I told him I wanted to set.
“I worry about you.” He tells me. I tell him I know, and I apologise for crying. Now he looks confused.
“Why are you apologising for that?” He’s genuinely puzzled. “It’s ok to be upset. I don’t know exactly what it’s like, but I know it’s hard.”
I couldn’t love him more. He buys the wine, and I drink two glasses. I stop at two and don’t crave more. It’s a good day.
If you have a “bad” day (read: a day that doesn’t align with your goals), it’s easy to say “Oh, I had an unhealthy lunch so I might as well have an unhealthy dinner and try again tomorrow.” Or, “I’ve already had 2 beers, so I might as well have as many as I want.” Or, “I drank on Saturday, so Dry January is ruined and I won’t bother with the rest”. But you are constantly presented with opportunities to return to your goals. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and sometimes perfect is the enemy of good.
That’s the energy that I plan to take into this new year. If I can have one less drink every time I drink, if I can keep a couple of sober nights in the week, if I can let go of the moral judgements that I have ingrained into my brain around food, then I’ve going to be much more likely to succeed and end up in a healthier, happier place.
The road is difficult enough without holding on to ideas that no longer serve us.
 There was a time in my life when crying was the ultimate sin. First with my dad, then with my ex. It was the worst thing a woman could do and always, always meant that you were trying to be manipulative. I learned to cry in private at a young age, pressing a cold flannel to my eyes to reduce the puffiness before I’d show my face again. It took me a long time to learn that the appropriate response to tears was comfort, not anger.
Of course, tears *can* be weaponised, but that doesn’t mean they *always* are, and it doesn’t make sense to respond with hostility every time someone cries. In fact, it’s a tactic often used by abusers to shame their victims for responding to their abuse.