I am, in every respect, a creature of habit. As much as I love to try new things and go new places, it’s easy to have habits that keep my day simple. One of the components of my “habits that keep me healthy” is eating the same foods several times a week or eating at a specific time. But I have to wonder…are my eating habits just habits or are they just a part of a larger, more disordered regime? Do I truly have the freedom to not only eat what I want, but when I want?
When I was struggling to eat a sufficient amount of food for my body, one of the biggest parts of my disordered thinking was eating rules. For me, “eating rules” are rules that I set for myself surrounding not only what I eat, but sometimes more importantly when I eat.
First, I’m going to list a couple of my old “time” food rules below so you can get a better idea of what I mean.
- Waiting at least 3.5-4 hours between meals (no snacks)
- Eating a night snack at exactly 9:00pm
- Don’t finish a meal in less than ten minutes
- Make food last AS LONG AS POSSIBLE (this was a big one for me)
So, what strikes you about these rules? They completely ignore my hunger cues. I established these rules so eating would be less stressful, and I could justify the food when in reality, I wasn’t at all prepared to eat it. In my mind, these rules gave me permission to eat lunch with my friends, to eat at “socially unsanctioned times,” and to eat in the morning without having first worked out. In this way, it helped me because on the surface I felt safe. However, what happened on days when I ate a late or early breakfast, or got home at ten o’ clock? Well, it caused massive anxiety. I ended up eating when I wasn’t hungry, which was a binge cue for me. I also let my body become extremely hungry and refused to eat until the “time” came.
I distinctly remember being at a party with my family that was going to cause us to get home late. My stomach was roaring for food, and I forced myself to browse the appetizer table and just stare at all the fruit, cheese, crackers, cookies, and cakes. The hunger was overwhelming, but I just stood there. I insisted that my “rules” were far more important than listening to by body, begging for food. Looking back on it now, it seems to ridiculous, but in the moment, it felt real and unbreakable.
I would also try to make food last as long as possible; if i wasn’t the last of my friends to be eating, I was fat or I had failed in some way. I recognize that there are certainly benefits to eating slowly: mindful eating, being attune to “full” signals, and pleasurable eating. Although these benefits are true in my experience, there is a very real line between healthy eating habits and obsessive eating habits. When I took 30 minutes to eat a meal, I was doing so to savor it to make it last longer, because I was hungry and deprived, and I wanted to experience to last as long as possible. If eating took longer, I could trick my body into thinking I was eating MORE. On top of that, I wasn’t eating enough anyway, so when I finally did eat, it was euphoric and stressful at the same time (yes – it is possible). I ate certain foods exceptionally slowly and so those foods became comforting to me because I knew I could take pleasure in them for a long time; foods like protein bars, bread, pretzels, and cereal.
These time-based rules taught me to ignore the very thing I should have been intimately n tune with, my body and hunger cues. It was a double-edged sword: when I ate according to these guidelines, I felt safe and in control, but when I didn’t, I became anxious and afraid.
The way I approached it was this: I took a pen and notepad, sat down on my bed, and started making a list of all the foods I thought I ate in a week. Considering I eat three meals a day plus snacks, I thought my list would be long and varied; unfortunately, this was not the case. Once I was done, I noticed how small my list was, and how there was a lack of certain food groups, like vegetables and non-grain starches.
This was not what I wanted at all, and I felt guilty for having such a small list of food. I decided I needed to make the conscious choice to eat different foods, which meant cooking less at my apartment and eating more at the dining center with my friends. In theory, this was very simple, as the dining center (while most of the options are not to my liking) does have an array of simple foods that I can combine for a healthy, flavorful meal. I started going to lunch with my roommates and the very first thing I noticed was how scared I felt. Deviating from my “normal” routine was, at times, incredibly uncomfortable. I kept thinking: “this is too much” or “I won’t digest this in time for my workout” or even “this will make my stomach upset.” I was giving myself excuses to either go back to my comfortable routines or to try and mimic them as best I could in the dining center. Ironically, the food I was eating in the dining center was MUCH healthier than the food I would eat alone, in my apartment; by healthier, I mean involving vegetables, simple and complex carbohydrates, varied sources of fat, and even the occasional toasted cookie. It was better for my mind and my body, although it didn’t initially feel like it.
I knew that taking this step was important, so over the course of a couple weeks, I continued to attend more and more meals at the dining center. My comfort level increased, and I began eating different foods every day at lunch. One of my “shining moments” of finding the balance was, at lunch one day, eating a bowl of turkey rice soup, grilled cheese, and a cookie. The grilled cheese was your classic “slice of american between two pieces of highly processed bread, and with a healthy sheen of oil on both sides.” My main fear was volume, that it would sit heavy in my stomach and make me sick. Amazingly enough, once I decided to let it go and not worry, the food digested easily and I was ready and raring to go on the bike. The point here is that by letting go of the sometimes overwhelming fear of eating different foods, those foods became easier to eat, physically. Remember, we are body-mind creatures, not just one or the other.
My default is, and has been for so long, to control me eating when stress levels are high; this control manifests as regimented types of food and times for eating. Even now, as I type this, I can think of things I could change to challenge my anxiety around food.
And there we have it…the beauty and the beast of any recovery journey: you learn so much and you learn so deeply the more you screw up. You have to be willing reflect on your decisions all the time and continually make the judgement as to whether it the “you” you want to be.