Last semester, I took a Human Nutrition course that had a big effect on me. It was taught by Professor Zach Cordell, a young, no-nonsense professor who wears his hair long and a bow tie every day. The class opened my eyes to a lot of the lies that the food industry tries to sell people. For instance: is there a difference between fruit snacks and gummy bears? No, not really. But parents give their kids fruit snacks a lot more often than gummy bears because fruit snacks are next to the granola bars and dried cherries in the grocery store, and gummy bears are on aisle four next to the M&M’s.
I was not in a good place with my eating disorder when I took the class. It was actually the second time I’d taken the class because I’d failed it previously due to some severe slacking and one of my signature mental breakdowns, so I knew a lot of the information, and I was familiar with Professor Cordell’s teaching style. However, for someone in eating disorder relapse, a class that heavily emphasizes weight management isn’t necessarily the best idea.
Now, before I go any further, let me tell you a little something about my feelings on dietitians. I hate them. They think they know everything about food; they think they know what I should eat better than I do, and they have the AUDACITY to tell me how and what I should eat. As someone with SERIOUS control issues, this has never sat well with me. When I was in IOP during my senior year of high school, the program required that I see one of their in-house dietitians. I cycled through pretty much all of them before I found myself in the program director’s office, being told that I needed to avoid caloric beverages (???), and finally, I proved myself so ornery that she made an exception for me and said I could continue the program without any dietary instruction.
Luckily for me, this all changed last semester. I was doing the work in therapy, but I needed more support with food and meal planning. I switched to a new therapist about six months ago, and while she has a much more compatible therapy style for me, and a better understanding of the trauma I’ve been through, she doesn’t take my eating disorder as seriously as my old therapist (who specializes in eating disorders) because she is less educated about them, and I don’t “look sick.” I was doing a lot of important healing from trauma with the new therapist, but I was also getting away with a lot of disordered eating.
I asked Professor Cordell if he offered private nutritional counseling, and he said that while he does, he wouldn’t have been a good fit for me, and he passed me along to a wonderful woman named Trish Kellogg.
I was a little leery of Trish at first. She’s overly smiley, extremely positive, kindhearted as can be, and very pretty. Clearly there was a catch. I figured she probably ate puppies for breakfast.
Fortunately for me, puppies are not part of a meal plan, and are only for petting. Working with Trish has helped me so much, and I anticipate rocketing even further into recovery as I continue to work with her. At first, we worked out a basic eating plan that included three meals and one snack. Because I hate the exchange system (a common system of meal planning used among people with eating disorders that avoids measuring food and counting calories), Trish outlined the macronutrients I need to be eating and said I could plug them into any meal and snack I wanted, so long as I got all of them in by the end of the day and didn’t eat all protein at breakfast, all carbs at lunch, etc.
This plan was a little to vague for me, so Trish broke it down further. She said I needed to have a certain number of proteins, grains, fats, dairy, and fruits/vegetables at every meal and snack. Initially, it seemed like a lot of food. It was a struggle to fit it all in during the day, and I wasn’t hungry for most of it. Trish challenged me to push through it, to eat within an hour of waking up, and consistently reminded me that coffee is not a meal–no matter how much cream I put in it.
Once we got past the basics of meal planning, we started working on some of the more difficult aspects of my eating disorder. Trish challenged me to start eating “fear foods,” foods I’m irrationally afraid of eating, either because I’ve had bad experiences with them, or because I’m afraid they’ll cause extreme weight gain. One of these foods is peanut butter. The first time I was in treatment, I was fifteen years old. Since the center was for school-age children and teenagers, the dietitians there had us eat a lot of sandwiches and wraps for lunch–similar to what we would have brought with us to school to eat during the lunch period. One day, the entire room got peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t know a whole lot about nutrition at the time; I was afraid of food, I wanted to be skinny, and that was that. But as I watched all of the other patients cry and have meltdowns over having to eat peanut butter on white bread, I felt a wave of panic wash over me, and I felt there was no way I was ever going to eat peanut butter again.
Looking back, I see now that a few people’s anxieties fueled a huge meltdown, but the irrational fear of peanut butter and other similar spreads (cream cheese, other nut butters, jelly, apple butter, regular butter, Nutella… don’t get me started on Nutella…) stayed with me. When I related this to Trish, she said something had to be done.
I didn’t think these fear foods were really such a big deal. It’s not like I was afraid of all bread, all meat, or all caloric beverages. I could live without ever eating a nut butter again. But Trish told me that no food should have power over me. It’s safe to eat all foods in moderation, and it’s okay to enjoy them. Pretty soon, I was eating peanut butter, Nutella, and even cream cheese on bagels and sandwiches.
Another huge victory I’ve had is with cooking. I moved out of my parents’ house in December, and have since been learning how to cook by trial and error, the advice of my coworker Barbie who is in charge of cooking the free samples at the grocery store where we work, and of course, my mom who has received many a phone call asking, “Mom, how do I defrost chicken in the microwave?” or “Mom, what do we do when the stove catches fire?” My mom is an excellent, self-taught cook, and if I can be half the cook she is, I’ll be in good shape.
Last night, my girlfriend Rebecca was over, so I cooked dinner for her, my roommate Colette, and myself. One of my favorite things to cook is Asian food, and I’ve been tweaking a recipe for traditional Japanese ramen noodle soup I found on Pinterest. The recipe calls for bok choy, which is not something I’d even recognize in the grocery store, so I substituted some leftover kale I’d cooked the night before in an attempt to bulk Colette and myself up in the vegetables department (an area in which we are both severely lacking), and substituted sweet chili sauce for soy sauce because the soy sauce was on vacation and nowhere to be found in our fridge which looks like an archaeological dig site (minus the actual dirt, of course. Hi, Mom!) It came out delicious, if I do say so myself.
Rebecca, Colette, and I all have very different eating styles. I can only imagine what Colette is going through with her eating, and I don’t have much insight into it, so I won’t guess. I do know that she eats very little, and says she doesn’t like to eat. It’s hard to watch. I don’t want to see my best friend suffer in eating disorder hell–if that IS what’s going on, and I don’t know how to help beyond my Jewish grandmotherly role of “Eat, bubbelah, eat,” which I know from experience is NOT helpful. Rebecca, on the other hand, is an avid dessert eater. She eats what she’s hungry for, and with enthusiasm, which I really admire. It’s very inspiring to me to see someone who wholeheartedly loves food, loves too cook, and loves to eat. When I eat with her, I’m not as conscious of my internal ED voice, and I’m able to enjoy food more. By eating with both of them, I’m learning to focus on my own hunger/fullness cues and enjoying my own food rather than obsessing.
It was this newfound focus that allowed me to break three major eating disorder rules last night. Because the recipe doesn’t yield very much, I’d only taken a small portion to make sure there was enough for everyone. After we were done eating, I was still hungry, and I saw that there was some ramen left, so I decided to have seconds, something my eating disorder NEVER used to allow me to do. After that, Rebecca decided she wanted ice cream and a bagel (her two favorite foods), and I was okay eating the ice cream, even though dessert is typically against the rules.
Every week, Trish gives me a challenge, and this week’s challenge was to get food on my hands. I touch food all the time when I’m eating finger food or cooking, but I hate it. I have an irrational fear that I’m going to absorb calories through my hands, which I KNOW is not possible, but it still freaks me out. It makes me feel gross and messy; it’s overwhelming, and I just! Don’t! Like! It! But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so Rebecca and I split the bagel, and I spread Nutella on it with my finger. It was a little unnerving, and I felt stupid for being freaked out over something that seems so trivial to a non-eating disordered person, but I’m also learning not to judge my emotions, so I sat with the discomfort, licked the tasty Nutella off my finger, and moved on.
Just recently, I was speaking to another woman in recovery from an eating disorder about why it’s vital to see a dietitian. She was just beginning her recovery journey, and wanted to be her own dietitian. We were speaking in the context of a therapist-led support group, and the other women shared their resoundingly positive experiences of working with dietitians on their paths to recovery. The biggest reason to work with a dietitian is so that you’ll have someone with more experience and knowledge about food than you do. A dietitian knows exactly what your body needs and how to supply it. Trying to be your own dietitian is a tricky path, even if you don’t have an eating disorder. There is so much misinformation about food and nutrition out there, and EVERYONE is trying to sell you something. Dietitians are unbiased, and on your side–not your eating disorder’s.
I am so grateful to have crossed paths with Trish. I’ve made so much progress in conquering my eating disorder, and gotten a better understanding of the things I still need to work on. I’ve come incredibly far in just a few short months, and I’m learning to value my accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem to an outsider. Today I stand tall. Today I am proud of myself.