The other day, I came across a few great posts about eating disorder recovery.
The first was about the fear of eating early. This one affected me deeply, because I often wake up early, and I wake up hungry. If I eat very early in the morning, I become very fearful of the long day ahead of me and how it's going to be hard to not eat more throughout the day.
The second was about how recovery can look a lot like an eating disorder: how the constant food thoughts still seep in, even though you've taken steps toward recovery and are eating more healthfully now. Even if you don't give in, they are still there.
Both of these posts were very different, but they got me thinking about the same thing: the food issues (fears and rules) that still remain prevalent in my semi-recovered life.
I decided to come up with a list of some of my still-present food "rules" (as dictated by my ED) and fears.
I was surprised and kind of shocked to see how quickly and effortlessly I was able to come up with a whopping 50 food rules and fears that remain present in my everyday life. And I'm "mostly recovered"!
Now, to clarify, I don't give in to these rules and fears at all times. For instance, many of my fears revolve around calorie counts; I don't regularly count calories anymore, but I go through phases where I do go back to that behavior, particularly when I'm stressed out. So it's very possible that you might at some point see me acting in direct contrast to what I list as a fear or food rule here. If so, that's a great thing. More and more, I am able to break away from these behaviors.
I decided to write this post for a few reasons. Firstly, to show that even at a point where I am well down the road of recovery, I am still plagued by a lot of fearful thoughts and anxiety around food. Secondly, to show others in recovery (or approaching it) that they are not alone. I haven't talked with a lot of people directly about these fears, but I'm sure that many others have some of them, or their own equivalents. So...you're not alone, if you're one of those people.
Finally, I wrote the post to identify these thoughts and behaviors for myself. Often they are subconscious, but I'm laying them out plain here. Maybe this will be the start of my being able to take even more proactive steps toward banishing these fears and the behaviors that they inspire.
Note: This does describe specific food behaviors and references to calories. If this is triggering to you, this may not be the post for you. OK?
- They're trying to slip me high-fat food. A long time ago, I stopped ordering Diet Coke at restaurants or establishments which serve it from the fountain. Why? Because I'm paranoid that some mean spirited or just careless employee is going to secretly slip me the full fat stuff. Even when I could see the Diet coke being poured from the appropriate tap, it would still taste suspect to me.
This fear extends beyond just Diet Coke, though. I'm constantly fearful when eating out that I'm secretly being slipped extra cheese, oil, or otherwise fattening ingredients. At times, this can make it unbearable to eat out because I can't get the fearful thoughts out of my head.
- Nuts and cheese must remain segregated. A salad featuring blue cheese crumbles and toasted almonds? Sounds good...for you. But not for me. In my world, I really feel most comfortable when nuts and cheese are segregated. I am fine with nuts, because while high calorie, they are nutrient-dense. I am fine with cheese, because while high calorie, it has lots of calcium and good stuff in it. But I cannot be totally OK with them together. When I do eat both of them together, I am simultaneously proud of myself, and also slightly on edge/panicky for the rest of the day.
- Bread for breakfast = no bread for lunch. If I have bread (toast, a roll, etc) for breakfast, there's no way in hell I will be eating bread of any sort at lunch time. Maybe for dinner, but then again, there's a rule about that too. Which leads into...
- No doubling up on carbs on the same day. I'm OK with having toast for breakfast and then another bread product with dinner. However, it cannot be the same one. So if I have sourdough bread in the morning, I would have to have whole wheat bread, or pasta, or another sort of carb entirely, in the evening. To have a slice from the same loaf of bread...something about that really freaks me out.
- Bagels are the only carb allowed for the day. Bagels are entirely unique among breads in my world. If the bread I enjoy in the morning is a bagel, then this is the only bread / carb that I'm allowed for the day. I read somewhere once that a bagel is the equivalent of eating 4 slices of bread. Instead of looking at that statement rationally and asking good questions, like "well, isn't that going to be a huge bagel?" or "what size are those slices of bread?" I took it to heart as "BAGELS ARE A TERRIBLE CARB MONSTER" and I treat them as such. I will eat them every now and again, but I "compensate" by avoiding carbohydrates for the rest of the day.
- Pizza is an all day affair. Bagels aren't the only food that can eff my shit up for the whole day. Pizza is a big day-shaper/ruiner as well. I really have to think about eating pizza from the moment I wake up. If I intend on eating pizza mid-day, I will only eat an apple for breakfast and plan on a light dinner. If I know I will eat pizza for dinner, then I avoid carbohydrates and cheese all day in preparation. That's a lot of mental energy spent around a simple slice, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for a spontaneous "hey, let's order a pizza!".
- The nutrition label is a lie. In general these days I try to avoid looking at nutrition labels. But it probably wouldn't even matter if I did look, because I don't trust them one bit. I am sure that they are lying, and that the allegedly 150-calorie cup of yogurt really contains far more calories.
- Round up every calorie count. This goes hand in hand with the last fear. Since every nutrition label is obviously lying to me and every food manufacturer is conspiring to make me fat, then clearly I have to outsmart them, right? I do this by rounding up every single calorie count, when I'm in a calorie counting phase. So if I consume aforementioned 150 calorie cup of yogurt, on my mental tally of calories consumed, I'm going to log that baby as 200 calories.
- Add 50 "etc" calories per day. Aaaaaand just to be safe, when I'm counting calories, I add an extra 50 "etc" calories to my tally "just to be safe". This is to account for all of those terrible everyday things that could make me fat, like licking stamps and toothpaste and stuff.
- No errant tastes of food throughout the day. There are few things that strike pure, cold fear into my heart as a friendly voice saying "here, taste this!". I don't want to have a bite of that, because then I'm going to have to add it to my mental list of Things I Have Eaten Today. It stresses me out, and it's just not ok. As you can imagine, it makes me very fun to go to restaurants with.
- No sharing dishes. Speaking of me being a fun dining companion? I will never, ever share a dish with you. Or if I do, you've got to know that I really and truly love and trust you. But in general, I like to have total control of my dish. Sharing doesn't really work for me.
- Divide the dish into an acceptable portion immediately. This is part of why I don't like sharing dishes at restaurants.
- Grocery store samples. You know how grocery stores put out little samples of cheese or fruit or other things to entice shoppers? Well, it scares me away. How do I account for that little block of cheese in my day? Do I now need to tear off a shred of cheese from the pizza I may consume for dinner? Too much work and mental effort, so I just avoid grocery store samples entirely.
- Only one treat per day. I've often said that I eat something sweet every day. This is absolutely true. I can't even think of the last day in my personal history where I didn't eat something sweet. However, every day I choose something sweet and COMMIT to it. If it's a cookie, I enjoy that cookie. If the opportunity for another sweet comes up in my life, I have a lot of trouble with it. Even if it's tasting the batter of something I'm making or a mint that someone offers me. It's very difficult to go past my one "allotted" sweet.
- Multiples are scary. The idea of an egg roll doesn't scare me. See how recovered I am, I can eat something fried? However, if I order an egg roll and instead of one egg roll it's three mini rolls, something breaks inside of my head. Even if the actual volume of food is exactly the same, something about eating multiple units makes me feel very stressed out.
- No second round; no alcohol 2 days in a row. I've always enjoyed going out for happy hour or treating myself a glass of wine or a beer at the end of a long day. However, you'll never see me going for a second round. This isn't necessarily because I am a lightweight, although I am, probably due to my relatively low body weight and restrictive diet. It's mainly because the calories in alcohol scare me, as does the sheer volume of liquid. For instance, if I have a beer, I can handle the range of ounces (usually 12-16 ounces, depending on the type of beer and the place). But if I were to have two, I simply don't think I could deal with the idea of imbibing 24-32 ounces. My head might just explode. I might be forgetting some wild night, but I am fairly certain that I have never had more than one beer in an evening. I have had more than one glass of wine / more than one cocktail on 3 or 4 occasions in my life, but it's really an exception for me. My "rule of 2" also dictates that I can't have alcohol two days in a row. So even if I was going to a wedding where there was a rehearsal dinner and then the wedding the next day, I would probably choose one of the days to enjoy alcohol rather than indulging on both, or I would abstain for a few days in a row after to "make up" for it.
- Two eggs is the limit. I absolutely cannot eat more than two eggs per day. If I go out to breakfast at an establishment that proudly touts their "three egg omelettes", I know that if I order that item, I will immediately have to cut it in half so that I don't eat too much. I've tried cutting 2/3 of the omelette but that makes me nervous, like "what if they actually used 4 eggs and I'm secretly eating more than I think?". The two egg thing extends throughout the day, though. Say I eat two fried eggs in the morning (fried eggs are good because I can clearly see that it's two eggs, not a scramble where someone could have sneaked in extra egg). I wouldn't eat something with egg in it later on in the day. Even if someone presented the most beautiful quiche in the world to me for dinner, I simply couldn't do it. It used to be that I couldn't even eat foods containing egg (custard, for instance) on the same day that I had eaten 2 eggs, but I have gotten a bit better about that.
- Beer = no bread. I noted earlier that I enjoy having a beer. But there are concessions that must be made. If I am having a beer, then I am not allowed to have bread with dinner. Too many carbs. Happily, this is a rule that I have had success breaking lately.
- Peanut butter toast = no pizza. I have no idea where this rule came from, but I would say it's related to #2 (nuts and cheese must remain segregated). If I have peanut butter on toast, which is a common breakfast for me, eating pizza that day is absolutely out of the question. Even now, it just remains a big fat NO in my mind. I have challenged this rule, but it makes me feel so uncomfortable that I have decided it's generally just not worth the bad feelings, so I still stick to this one.
- Coffee with milk only in the morning. One of the big luxuries I allow myself in everyday life is a coffee with frothed milk in the morning...which I don't include when I count calories. That makes it a true pleasure in more than one way; it feels like a treat in terms of flavor, but it also feels like something so free and normal. However, it doesn't mean I'm totally easygoing. Coffee with milk is ONLY in the morning. If I meet someone for coffee in the afternoon, I will get tea, or an espresso. But no milk in coffee after that morning treat. I don't know why it's not OK, but it's not OK.
- No big glasses, dishware, or cutlery. I despise the large, oversized glasses, dishware, and cutlery favored by restaurants. Large drinking glasses, even if they're filled with water, but particularly if they're filled with a beverage that has calories, be it iced tea or lemonade or beer or a cocktail. I avoid them. They make me uncomfortable. Big forks or spoons make me feel like I will eat too much too fast. But the worst by far is big plates or bowls. They make my brain want to crack in half, like "cannot compute my ideal portion size". So I will always ask for a smaller plate, "so we can share". And then I portion out the amount that I am comfortable with.
- Beverages before food. Coffee with breakfast? No. Wine with dinner? No. I prefer to enjoy beverages on their own, independent of food. I think there are two reasons: first, it makes the meal experience last longer. If I complete a beverage and then eat, then it takes more time than if I had them together, right? Second, I like to complete the beverage because then I will feel slightly full, which helps if I slightly under-eat, which is common for me.
- Choose one fat and stick to it. A salad with oil and vinegar is nice with a slice of buttered bread on the side for some people. Not for me. I prefer to choose one fat per meal and stick to it, thank you very much. So for instance, if I have a salad that has an olive oil based dressing, I want my bread to have olive oil on it too, or I want my stir-fry to be cooked in olive oil as well. I get very uncomfortable with multiple fats in the same meal, regardless of the actual amount used.
- SANDWICHES ARE THE DEVIL. I've actually blogged on this very subject. Bread, meat, mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato...none of these things scare me. I will eat all of these things. But you combine them all into a sandwich, and I turn into a quivering mess. I have a view of sandwiches as some evil calorie bomb, even if I have prepared them myself. The very presence, or suggestion, of a sandwich makes my face twitch with anxiety.
- Dressing always on the side. I feel that this is a common preference even for people who don't have eating disorders. But I feel that for most people, if the salad was delivered dressed, they might suck it up and deal with it. Me, I canNOT. I feel like I'm instantly consuming about 400 calories of salad dressing because, well, refer back to #1 on this list.
- Don't look at the food being prepared. Once again, related to #1. You know how part of the fun of going to certain sandwich / bagel places or burrito joints is that you can pick your ingredients and the item is made right in front of you? That causes me immense stress. Seeing the careless (and huge!) smear of cream cheese that an employee who clearly wants to get me fat will apply to my bagel (the consumption of which is already a big deal to begin with!) can put me on edge all day. So it's better to just not look while the food is being prepared, which of course makes me look like I'm mental.
- Only eat half of the bun with a burger. When I order a burger, I immediately take off the top bun and discard it to the side of my plate. For some reason eating one side of the bun is OK, but if I eat the second side, I feel like I have failed at eating for the day.
- No chips. No fries. A while ago, I convinced myself that I didn't like chips or french fries. Right now, I no longer know if that is actually true. But I still don't eat them, partially out of fear and partially because I think "well, if I'm going to eat something, I don't want to waste the calories on something I don't even like that much".
- Meat in only one meal. Say I have a breakfast sandwich that contains diced bacon scrambled with an egg. This is going to be the sole piece of meat I eat on that day. If you try to present me with a salad that has a chicken breast on it, I will not eat it. Meat can only be once per day, no matter how small the serving.
- If you eat lunch, you can only have an apple and a spoonful of peanut butter for breakfast. Breakfast and dinner are typically my larger meals; for lunch (which you'll see in the succeeding fear/rule) I basically just have a snack on most days. The very offer of lunch makes me break out in a cold sweat. If someone invites me to lunch, I immediately think of an excuse, because to go out to lunch would mean that I would have to wake up and NOT eat until noon or even after. If I know I'm going out to lunch, I will only allow myself to eat an apple and a spoonful of peanut butter in the morning. I don't know why this is the rule in my head but it is.
- Spoonful of peanut butter + an apple = lunch. That leads nicely into the next two rules. I'm going to be honest, I don't really eat lunch. Most days, my lunch is either a spoonful of peanut butter and an apple. On the days that it's not that, it's a cookie or I will have my sweet treat of the day, plus an apple. But the idea of eating normal people food for lunch, like a sandwich or a salad, really isn't in my repertoire. Yet.
- Three things on my plate. I'm most comfortable when there are three components on my meal plate. One is too few. Two is OK. Three feels perfect; four is too much. So, for instance, I would feel great about having a plate that included brussels sprouts, vegetarian sausage, and cheese. But I would not feel quite so OK if the dish included a slice of bread as well. To make the bread OK, I would have to remove the sausage or the cheese to make it feel "right".
- AVOID CEREAL. Back when I began my career of disordered eating, cereal was a huge trigger food. I would pour a big bowl of cereal, and eat it. The leftover milk always begged for more cereal, so I always added more. On bad days, this could lead to adding more milk, then more cereal, and before I knew it, half the box was gone and I felt like shit. Now, I avoid cereal. I can't remember the last time I ate it.
- No snacks. As I noted above in #31, what I eat for lunch looks a lot like what the world would view as a snack. For me, that is a meal. Therefore, I don't really have room in my diet for snacks, because it would feel like adding an entire meal to my day. I'm embarrassed to say that a "snack" for me would be 4 pecans, or half of a carrot. My nutritionist wants me to start considering an apple and peanut butter a snack, but to me it still feels like a meal.
- AVOID CHAINS WITH CALORIES LISTED. I don't eat at chain restaurants a lot, but I'm even far less likely to now that many of them have added calorie counts to their printed menus. I remember having a gift card for Panera bread, going in, and seeing all of the calorie counts listed. Fairly innocuous-looking things like a scone packed in 400+ calories! Just looking around made me second guess things I'd eaten in the past and made me fearful that over the years I've secretly been eating more calories than I thought. As a result, if I know a chain has calories listed, I either avoid it, or keep my eyes averted when I go in.
- AVOID MILKSHAKES. I love ice cream. I can get down with ice cream. But milkshakes are hard for me to handle. Thing is, those cups are HUGE and they put so many scoops of ice cream in. Even if I don't look at them making it, I can only imagine them stuffing more than a pint's worth of ice cream into that beverage, and that really freaks me out. So unless there's an 8 ounce size available (and what fun is that, seriously) I avoid milkshakes.
- AVOID COFFEE DRINKS. As I noted earlier, I treat myself to a coffee with frothed milk (which I make at home) every day. However, when I go out to a coffee shop, I have a deep distrust of what they're going to add to my drink--did they secretly slip me heavy whipping cream? Why does this taste so rich?--and so I stick with basics: americano or drip coffee, to which I can choose the amount of milk or cream I add. I'm extremely paranoid about sugar or extra milk being snuck into a latte, were I to ever order one, which has happened approximately twice in the past year.
- No rice. Rice, in my mind, is calorie dense and flavor-poor. So in my mind, it's a calorie trap of a food, and best to be avoided. If I order a dish which comes with rice on the side, I typically won't even touch it.
- AVOID DIM SUM AND TAPAS. I feel most comfortable when I am in control over my own plate and can clearly see the serving I have decided to eat. I am absolutely not comfortable with shared plates or eating in a way wherein I cannot monitor what I am eating visually as I go. Eating a bite of something from this plate and a bite of something from that plate is very, deeply scary to me.
- Everything on one plate. I'm not opposed to the idea of side dishes or appetizers or a side salad. But it has to be on the same plate as my main meal. For instance, if I am having Chinese food, I'm totally OK with having shrimp with broccoli and an egg roll. But the egg roll has to physically be on the same plate as the main dish for me to feel ok about it.
- Breakfast must be after 7am. Even if I wake up starving at 5:20 am, I must wait until 7am to eat. Even better if it's 7:01 or 7:04 or, if my will is very strong, 7:15. But if I "cave in" and consume a single morsel before 7am, my day is usually off to a bad start.
- Lunch must be after 12. I must wait until after the clock clicks over from AM to PM to eat anything for lunch. Now, as you might imagine, on a restrictive diet where I don't snack and may have eaten breakfast at 7am, this can be a long slog. Often, in the morning around 10am, I feel mournful about the fact that I have so long to go til I can eat again.
- Dinner must be after 6 but before 8. I have difficulty "waiting" until dinner time at 6pm, but I make myself wait. 6pm is the ideal time for dinner for me, because it leaves not too many hours to be starving in the evening, but allows enough time to digest a bit so I don't feel like a food-logged person when I go to bed. I really dislike eating after 8pm.
- Fear of eating with people who restrict. I don't have very good luck eating with people who restrict their diet. And by this I don't just mean that I don't like eating with people who have eating disorders or who are in recovery. I mean that if someone is on a diet, or is avoiding dairy, or is vegan, I have a tough time eating with them. Even if the thing they are avoiding is on my list of "safe" foods, something about the idea that there's a food that is off limits makes me uncomfortable and drags me back into a disordered mindset. I will eat with people who restrict their diet in some way (most people do, I have learned), but I am not totally comfortable with it.
- AVOID TASTING MENUS. For a lot of foodies, the idea of a tasting menu is the bee's knees. Multiple tiny courses so that you can taste the full variety of what the chef has to offer! Awesome! But for me, the idea of a tasting menu is simply terrible. Food coming and going, on all of those multiple plates? The idea of multiple plates scares me. The idea of multiple courses scares me. The idea of not being able to track every morsel scares me.
- It has to have the right heft. I love places like Whole Foods because you can go to their bakery or deli case and choose the serving size that you want. This means that I can grab a sheet of parchment and lift and feel the weight of every cookie in the case before I settle on the "right" one (sorry if that grosses anyone out, but I do handle them with a protective sheet!). For me, foods have to have the right "heft"--substantial, but not too heavy. It's not like I have a specific ounce limit, but I know the moment I hold something up if the weight feels OK to me.
- It has to have the right size. Weight isn't the only factor that helps me choose a food. It also has to have a size that I find pleasing and acceptable. For instance, I have a lot of trouble with breads like challah. The slices are huge, but they are light and fluffy. So the size scares me, and yet the "heft" does not please me. So I would probably avoid that type of bread in favor of a roll that has a pleasing density but that is much smaller.
- AVOID MARGARITAS. If you read enough "eat this not that" types of articles, chances are you've come across the concept that margaritas are awful, sugar-filled calorie bombs. I subscribe to it. I'm scared of margaritas, and if I have one I immediately log it on my mental calorie count as 600 calories, regardless of the size or quality. So, let's just say I'm not running to have margaritas, ever.
- AVOID "FLIGHTS". Flights are all the rage these days. And I hate them. I think it relates to my fear of multiples: it makes me feel like I am consuming so much, even if I'm not. For instance, say I go to a bar where I have the option of ordering a pint of beer (approximately 16 ounces) or a "flight" of 4 beers, 4 ounces each. You'd think I could wrap my mind around the fact that it's the same amount of liquid, but I can't. I can't deal with having consumed four units. So even if I really wanted to try multiples, I've come to realize that it's just not worth the trouble for me.
You have to eat slightly less than everyone else at all times. When I'm in mixed company, I'm really most comfortable when it's clear that I have eaten less than them. This could be over the course of a day, or in a single meal. Since I typically eat breakfast early, the mornings are difficult for me in this regard, because I might go to yoga class at 8am and I've eaten breakfast already, and then I'll hear people talking about how they are going to eat breakfast after, and I will feel as if I have failed in some way.