For a long time now I've struggled to define my unique story with food and the role it has played in my past. I've been telling myself that my health story isn't "good enough" because it has never revolved around weight loss--not in the conventional sense, anyway. Weight loss is certainly involved, but I have never been overweight. Most of my life I have actually been pretty trim. And I don't have a classic "I overcame this chronic disease" type story, either. That chapter is still being written. But boy, do this body and I have a story to tell all the same. And it's relevant because it's mine.
I'd like to start by saying that skinny does not equate healthy. That was a tough assumption for me to overcome, and has a deeply woven role in my journey with food.
Before we get to the meat and potatoes of my food journey, let me lay the foundation. Growing up, we ate the standard American diet in my home: pseudo-homemade meals by way of Hamburger Helper, canned veggies, boxed snacks and treats; dessert-for-breakfast in the form of cinnamon rolls, cereal, pancakes, pop tarts, toaster strudels; sandwiches, chips, Lunchables, Hot Pockets, Spaghettios. With a working single mom and a rise in the availability of easy meals and packaged snacks, many of us grew up with these food products in our kitchens and in our bellies.
I never had any concern with how my body looked until sometime around the sixth grade. That tends to be the beginning of the "awkward years" for many: our bodies begin to change and it's just plain weird. We all go through it. I was a little softer around the edges as I transitioned out of those "baby fat" years into the preteen physique. My body changes weren't uncommon, and I was never fat or overweight. But I remember comments from fellow classmates that caused me to pause and view myself differently. Comparison soon took the place of an unaware innocence. "Why am I SO fat?" became the overarching voice in my head. I began picking myself apart in the mirror, always fixating on my thighs as the brunt of hatred for my transitioning body. Without realizing it, I made a correlation in that malleable preteen brain of mine that I could restrict my food to force my body to look how I wanted, to look more "acceptable."
To be completely honest, there's a lot that I don't remember about this time in my life. There are highlights that stick out, but I couldn't tell you what my mind was thinking or going through day to day. By the end of sixth grade, I was a whopping 75 pounds and diagnosed as anorexic. I don't recall exactly when this diagnosis happened, or when those around me began to notice. But I remember awkward doctor visits, going to a nutritionist every other week that always made me feel uncomfortable, and unending comments from concerned family members about how I was too skinny and needed to eat.
I remember being so hungry that my stomach hurt. I was chronically constipated. I remember having to "take the bench" in P.E. class for an entire year, as I wasn't allowed to work out. Oh the awkward questions this led to every single class. I remember almost missing Space Camp that summer--something I had dreamed of for years. The concern was that I wouldn't eat. One day after lunch, one of the male camp counselors asked if I had finished all of my lunch, because a concerned family member called the camp to have them check. It was awkward for both of us, to say the least, and in my mind, I just couldn't fathom why someone would do that. I didn't understand the concern. It's important to mention here that with an eating disorder, it's not usually about the food, especially for me. Case in point: I would starve myself, then eat oatmeal cream pies and Star Crunch cookies. It was a disordered diet at best, and a sad cycle of starvation, deprivation, and a toxic mindset at worst. It's disordered thinking more than it is disordered eating. Food was just the scapegoat for control in an out of control world.
At the height of my anorexia, I was on a meal plan that required the consumption of instant breakfast powder mixed with whole milk alongside a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and another glass before bed (to this day, the sight of those things still brings their awful taste to my mouth!) I was to eat plenty of my favorite treats in abundance, which at the time were things like Reeses peanut butter cups, Cheetos, and the aforementioned oatmeal cream pies and Star Crunch, and be closely monitored to make sure I was eating. The general protocol was a forced "eat more" paradigm. I remember even then, this approach didn't really make sense from a health standpoint. But I clearly wasn't concerned about my health. Eat anything and everything, just eat a lot of it, and don't NOT eat. I understand that the goal in situations like these is to encourage rapid weight gain, but the mindset piece was missing entirely, as well as an understanding of how to eat to truly nourish and fuel your body. Threats to gain weight meant nothing, they just made me uncomfortable. I would flush remnants of forced after-meal desserts down the toilet. I would stand obsessively looking in the mirror, my thighs always being my demise, and I would see if I could encircle my entire thigh with both thumbs and middle fingers touching. Even better if there was overlap. And if not, it was more restricted eating for me. This goal was never realistic, but it was my skewed reality.
The only threat that ever really mattered happened in my nutritionist's office one day. I went through the standard weigh-in protocol, and she threatened "If you do not gain weight by the next time I see you, I'm going to have you hospitalized." I just remember thinking "First of all, who are you? You can't make me do anything. You're not my mom!" But also "I hate hospitals. Pretty sure I don't want to hang out in one." It was scary to me all the same, and that threat was enough for me to start taking weight gain seriously.
And then I got better, or at least, I started gaining weight. I can't tell you at what point I was "in the clear" and no longer considered anorexic. It was into junior high. I don't recall no longer thinking or obsessing about food--because again, it was never really about food for me. I remember in 7th grade a classmate once put her thumb and middle finger completely around my upper arm and said "Your arms are SO tiny!" Where that might have once been exhilarating to hear, it felt insulting. That wasn't what I wanted! I didn't want to be some freak side show with the tiny arms. What kind of notoriety is that?!
High school progressed relatively normally (or as "normal" as high school is for most of us!) At any rate, I don't recall obsessing over food or my body any more. There were still little twinges here and there, but nothing even markedly the same as my prior disordered thinking. I ate what I wanted when I wanted (oh yeah, Taco Bell's fourth meal became a thing then) without fear of weight gain. Once I got to college and was more or less "independent" and in charge of my own meals, I took an interest in reading my labels and aiming to make healthier choices for my body. For me it was never a thing of weighing/measuring or counting calories. I was mainly interested in ingredient lists and whatever was claiming to be "healthy." With primary dining options relegated to the on-campus food court and shopettes my freshman year, I often opted for giant salads vs Quiznos and Chinese food. Unwittingly, I was not consuming enough calories, and would easily take down an entire bag of bbq flavored frito twists in one sitting. Rather than pack on the stereotypical "freshman fifteen," I lost weight. But this time it wasn't on purpose. I was eating when, what, and how I wanted and not caring about how I looked.
As my independence grew and I moved off campus, I focused on buying things like whole grain bread, whole wheat pop tarts, "healthier" cereals, turkey lunch meat, cottage cheese, low-fat whatever, and generally anything making a healthy claim. The desire was there, even if the education on real food was lacking. I was following a "healthy" way of eating based on labels and clever marketing, not necessarily based on real foods or how I felt.
This back burner interest led to taking one Intro to Nutrition college class. I remember being surrounded by athletes and dietetics majors who "belonged" there while I was just the random girl intrigued by the foods we eat and how they impact our bodies. The class centered on mapping our MyPlate (replaced the Food Pyramid) recommendations, counting calories, and tracking foods. Even then, this way of "eating healthy" just didn't make sense to me and I remember feeling like these methods were a total waste of time. They didn't teach me anything about real food or proper nourishment.
This skepticism was further fueled by observing a roommate who was a dietetics major. I would see her daily eat things like refried beans and green beans from a can and measure out all her meals, yet I was shocked at how random and less than fresh her food choices were, compounded by how unhealthy she looked (underweight, dry, brittle hair, chronic skin issues). These experiences and observations planted a seed of skepticism for what was corporately deemed "nutrition" and "healthy." Even though I didn't know any better, and I certainly wasn't eating a stellar whole food diet, these would be the experiences that would, unbeknownst to me, begin to shape my food future.
Thank you so much for reading Part 1 of my personal food journey. There's so much left to fill in on how I got to where I am today, so I hope you'll tune in for Part 2, where I'll address more of the mindset piece for me, how I continue to struggle, and how real food and a healthier understanding of my body have helped shape who I am.
In loving health,
Ps If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, please seek help. Eating disorders are a very real threat to health and overall vitality, and seeking the right kind of treatment is so important. I highly encourage a huge piece of that to be mindset work with a well-trained psychologist or similar practitioner.