Back when I was training to become a figure competitor (aka during my last and worse relapse with ED), I thought I had it all figured out:
The carefully researched broscience in my muscle magazines told me that I was supposed to be eating small meals six times per day, and that they should include lots of lean proteins, veggies, and complex carbohydrates.
Beyond the crutch of the leaning out meal plans included in many issues of said magazines, I found myself fairly comfortable in the knowledge that, as long as I was eating some combination of the same types of foods every day in small quantities, I would be able to achieve my dream of making my fat* disappear.
But when I finally came to my senses–when the body building dream came crashing down around me due to injury, sickness, and amenorrhea–and I had to return to eating real food, I was at a complete loss.
The problem was that I had been conditioned to believe certain things about how and when it was “right” to eat, and anything that conflicted with that belief was unimaginable as an option.
Needless to say, when I realized that protein powder pudding and chicken breast with broccoli in 250 calorie portions at 6 am, 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm, and 9 pm were not really options anymore, I was in trouble:
I realized that not only had I forgotten how to eat, but I was also afraid to eat.
Afraid to miss a meal, even if I wasn’t hungry. Afraid to eat outside of the three or four “go-to” meals I had gotten used to, even if I wanted something different. Afraid that life lived outside of the lines of my rigid meal plan would lead me down the path to uncontrollable hunger–to a never-ending binge.
Have you been there? Are you there right now?
Letting go of food rules can be overwhelming. Learning how to listen to your hunger can be frustrating. Making “mistakes” can seem inevitable–and frightening.
So how can you learn how to eat again without falling victim to bingeing, uncontrollable hunger, or restriction again?
- Make small changes
Maybe you’re not ready to give up the meal plan. Maybe knowing what time you are eating or what foods you’re going to eat is helping you cope with uncertainty in other areas of your life.
There’s no need to simply stop what you’re doing and jump into the void if you’re not ready. Take baby steps.
Perhaps you change just one meal–or even start by changing one vegetable or side. Perhaps you seek out a different, pre-made meal plan (one that includes lots of healthy fats, meats, and veggies)**. The idea is not to simply jump from one rigid meal plan to another, but to start building up a repertoire of other options. You can even mix and match meals from different plans once you’re ready to start getting creative but feel like you need some ideas.
2. Change your environment
Habits are often tied to certain cues in your environment. If, for example, using a certain type of utensil or eating in a certain spot triggers compulsive behavior around food, whether it be a binge or simply feeling the need to eat a certain food at a certain time, then the best thing you can do is change where and how you eat.
This one may not be easy. It involves getting out of your comfort zone. It means eating in a different spot at the dinner table or using a large fork instead of a small fork. Just like with the first step, make small changes slowly. Do it once a week for one meal until you’re ready to progress and make changes on another day or at another meal. Changing one behavior can open the door to changing others.
3. Experiment with foods
Instead of looking at new foods as something to fear, try finding something about them that excites you.
It can be difficult to add foods in that previously triggered you or that you’ve spent too long adding into your calorie counters. If you can, find a vegetable, meat, or fat that you’ve never used before.
Look at new foods as an adventure. How can you use that bittermelon you found at the farmer’s market? What does a duck egg taste like? What’s the best way to use coconut butter in a savory meal?
Move so far outside of your comfort zone that food becomes an adventure instead of a punishment.
4. Eat with Others
Eating with other people can be one of the hardest things to do when you’re recovering from an ED. Because ED flourishes in isolation–whether it’s bingeing or restricting–eating with other people can be painful.
That’s why it’s important to go out and eat with other people. The trick is not to put yourself into an overwhelming situation at the outset.
Find yourself a person or group of people with whom you feel comfortable. Whether it’s your best friend(s) or even your mom and dad, find meal companions who will understand and support you through any sort of meal anxiety.
If you’re not ready to go to a restaurant, even in the company of people around whom you can relax, try cooking dinner for the family or inviting your friend over to try a new recipe.
5. Forgive “Mistakes”
Here’s the thing: there are no mistakes in eating. Let me repeat this: there are no mistakes in eating. There are only choices.
Sometimes, those choices are less ideal than others. But you’re not on an eating plan anymore. So if you eat more than you planned, less than you planned, or differently from how you planned….good!
If you binged because you felt out of control, if you restricted because you were afraid to finish a food you weren’t familiar with, if you felt anxiety, if you fell back into your old habits…okay! Good! Acknowledge it and MOVE ON.
You have nothing to prove to anyone, and every meal is just another chance to relax, breathe, and enjoy yourself. Forgive yourself, because at the end of the day, it’s just food. There are bigger things to worry about in life than too much chocolate or too few brussels sprouts.
Which of these tips do you think it will be the easiest to implement in your own life? Which will be the hardest? How have you started changing your food habits to break free from meal plan thinking?
**a great resource that I personally recommend is Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo, but you can find plenty of free meal plans just by Googling!
PS If you’re interested in helping an independent farmer save his pig farm–or in winning tickets to the Polyface Farm Meatup event with Robb Wolf, go sign up for this amazing giveaway by the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.