eating disorder recovery: anxiety of eating out, why meal plans don’t really work for me and what helped

This is for my brothers and sisters who are currently experiencing an eating disorder, recovering from one, have recovered from an eating disorder, or in between being in recovery and recovered. I understand what you go through, or have gone through. Please continue fighting. To anyone else reading this, I hope this gives some insight into the challenges we face on an ongoing basis and even understand such struggles if you know someone experiencing an ED. Individuals suffering from EDs choose not to eat out, not because they’re selfish

Its because they are frightened.

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One of challenges we face in eating disorders, and even recovering from eating disorders themselves, is the fear of eating out. We fear eating out, because we:

(1) don’t know what foods are available to us and therefore we are no longer in control of what we eat and this freaks the bejesus out of us                                                                                                                               (2) can’t calculate the number of calories in the food and this freaks the bejesus out of us,                  (3) are torn between wanting to eat that juicy cheesy beefy burger but since we’ve “banned” it, we’d rather save ourselves the anguish of knowing we can’t eat it and rather remain at home eating according to our meal plan.

Have any of you ever been through that? I know I have.

This is one of the ways that eating disorders consume your life. It traps you in a cage. You become focused on eating only certain foods in certain meals with no exceptions. We create meal plans to try and lose that weight. Rigid and inflexible and scarily specific down to the very last detail – military or even OCD style, if I can put it. For the purpose of this post, I dug out one of my many notebooks I had used to record my meal plans and track my caloric intake. I have long since destroyed many due but I kept one as a reminder of the dark days I went through. Here was what my meal plan was like during the height of my ED days back in my freshman year in university:

Good days in my life were defined by  the number of calories I had consumed per day and whether or not I had kept to my meal plan.

Good days in my life were defined by the number of calories I had consumed per day and whether or not I had kept to my meal plan.

Of course I didn’t stick to the exact same food all day. Sometimes, circumstances meant I had to accommodate – albeit unwillingly – to new situations. Such as when my parents had pizza ordered it or when I had to eat on campus instead of at home and had to find substitutes. In any case, other rules still applied and very rigidly. No second helpings, avoid white rice if possible, baked, boiled or steam and not fried and no more than a certain amount of calories per day and no dressing on the side. In fact, you know just don’t even take the damn dressing. Leave it there. 

Eating eventually become an algorithm. It comes with rules and regulations and calorie limits and anxiety and we change our lifestyle to accommodate our distorted eating habits and meal plans. This puts us in control. I control what I eat though unfortunately the things we eat aren’t healthy and enough for us. When this happen, eating out can be a death sentence for us. We dare not venture into the unknown because we have grown comfortable with our rules. And why not? Those rules are awesome. Kind of. Its what kept us from putting on weight so why would I want to risk it?

Hence, throw us into a new situation where we can no longer predict what’s going to happen, plan what to eat or be informed of what’s in our meal, and watch us panic and become lost sheep running loose on the streets. Not that there’d ever be sheep running amok on the street. But still. This is what happens in the minds of us who panic about eating out:

regret

How big is the portion? What’s 1 serving of a burger? How many fries can I eat? How many calories are there in this thing? Does this come with any sauce? Is this wholemeal bread? Is the ice lemon tea homemade and comes with sugar on the side? Do they have wholemeal pasta? Will there be more protein than carbs in this one? How many calories can I afford in this meal? OH MY GOD I CANNOT DO THIS I’M NOT GOING OUT. 

When we perceive a lack of control over our lives, its like World War III in our heads, and to save us the trouble of having to plan for a whole new situation, we opt to remain on the safe side and simply stay home and eat the foods that we know work best for us. We turn down friends’ invitations to eat out and each time we do go along with it, we experience high anxiety. When we do order something, we experience mental anguish, we pick at our foods or simply choose the options that we believe to be the safest of the lot: the salads.

salad

I admit even today I still do go through such anxieties and experience some concerns once in a while. I become a little nervous because as I mentioned, I’m still on Recovery Street and I do my lapses. But I do know this not the way to live life. I don’t want to constantly eat the same food and I don’t want to always turn down the chance to spend time with my amigos bonding over food, and wishing I had a super high metabolism so that whatever I eat burns away in a snap. Life becomes like a doldrum of sorts. Eating become a chore and not something meant to be enjoyed. This is one of the things that we’ll need to overcome when recovering from eating disorders: fear of the unknown.

Plan A: Meal Plans

mealp

In the beginning of my treatment, I was given a meal plan by my dietician. It was somewhat similar to my restricted meal plan that I made for myself, but this one allowed for more flexibility. More food options and yes Serene you can eat ice cream, and yes, do increase your food portions, but no it will note make you fat. I tried going on this meal plan for 2 weeks and I am sorry to say that this meal plan did not work. Why? Because in my mind, I had to stick to a plan. I needed to follow a plan. If I deviated from this plan, something bad would happen and this bad thing would be weight gain. I was still thinking in black and white. Yes I was allowed to eat more foods, but there was a limit still. I shouldn’t eat more than 2 portions because its too much for my size or I should eat less of this because its got too much sugar. Suddenly, there were more new rules to follow. There was too much new factors to incorporate. Suddenly, my old meal plan seemed much simpler. Less options, less rules to follow, less anxiety. My dietician’s meal plan was way out of control.

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One of the important aspects of learning how to eat out without the social anxiety is to overcome our dichotomous thinking. You give someone with black-and-white thinking a meal plan to change his/her eating patterns and you’re not really going to solve the problem. Why? Because a meal plan, is a plan. Many of us struggling with an eating disorder not only have dichotomous think, but we also have perfectionistic thinking. Its what we’ve trained ourselves to do. We follow things according to a plan. Things must be set and written in paper. Point A to Point B in this direction and nothing else. Our tolerate for ambiguities is low and we need rules to follow. Rules keep us safe. Eating out means stepping away from our comfort zone and we’re entering a gray area where our rules no longer apply as much as before.. To eat out means we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with gray areas. This is why meal plans didn’t work for me. I hadn’t learnt how to deal with uncertainty and a meal plan only served to reinforce my dichotomous thinking.

Plan B: Intuitive Eating

intuitie

After 2 weeks of lapses, depressive thinking and agonizing crying, I finally brought this up to my online support group, and the founder of the support group suggested something called intuitive eating. Essentially, its an approach to nutrition that believes in eating according to our body’s natural hunger cues. We allow our bodies to experience natural hunger and we eat a healthy meal in response. When we eat, we take note of our satiety signals – how satisfied or full we are feeling and we stop when we feel satisfied and full. To recover from an eating disorder, we need to start regulating our eating habits again which has been disrupted by unhealthy eating patterns, be it binging or starving or skipping certain meals in a day. As a result, our body is unable to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Our body doesn’t know what physical hunger is because for a long time we’ve binged or starved and ate at unpredictable periods. We can’t tell whether we want to eat because we’re really hungry or because we’re upset, or because we just want to. Intuitive eating helps regulate our hunger signals and help us be able to experience physical hunger.

I admit – its not an easy route. Like everything else that we start off in treatment, it was tough. Remember I was still obsessed about sticking with a diet plan. This one really wasn’t a plan at all, but it seemed simpler. The rule here to follow was: eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Its sounds like common sense, but to a chronic dieter who’s never known how to eat regularly his/her whole life with rigid rules about eating, this can prove to be a challenge.

And that’s what I tried. Before, during and after each meal, I would monitor my hunger cues and determine how much I should eat and when I should eat. I would ask myself, am I feeling hunger? Am i feeling full? Can I eat another bite? I made sure to choose foods that were nourishing instead of foods with “empty calories” such as junk food that would’t help my body. It took a few months, but eventually, it became easier. I learnt to read the signals my body sent and I slowly started figuring out whether I wanted a sweet treat or something protein to fill me up. When I ate too much carbohydrates in one meal, my body understood that it needed more protein and so I chose more meat over rice. Some days I needed pasta. Some days I needed more meat and salad. With help and support, I slowly began to try new foods, or rather, foods I had “banned”: fries, ice-cream, even burgers (I ate burgers for the first time this year after a 6-year burger fast!) and gradually began to feel a little more confident about eating out with company.

I know what you’re wondering: will you lose weight? It depends. If you’ve been starving and restricting for far too long, then regular eating may make you put on a few (needed) pounds. If you’ve been yo-yo  dieting and bingeing, then maybe some weight might drop off because you’re no longer eating excessively. However, weight loss is not, and should not be the focus of intuitive eating. The focus of this practice to regulate your body’s natural hunger signals and get your body’s rhythm in its pre-ED mode. This is one of the key components of recovering from an eating disorder. Restricting, bingeing, chewing and spitting, cutting out food groups etc are all unhealthy and distorted eating habits. A regulated eating cycle is one of the key components to breaking down those unhealthy walls.

Life is too short to spend it on counting calories and keeping detailed notebooks and following ungodly diet plans. Crave fries? Then just get the damn fries, but remember not to overeat them. Listen to your body’s signals and follow them. That way, you’ll get your fix and you won’t feel deprived.

Here are some principles that I learnt and stuck while practicing intuitive eating:

princ

1. Learn to listen to your body. Intuitive eating forces you to practice mindfulness. This means you are aware and stay present in the moment which allows you to listen to both your hunger and satisfaction cues. Respect your body and feed it when it is hungry, and stop when you feel satisfied and full.

2. Be patient, be consistent We all want quick fixes. That’s why we embarked on those diet fads. We want the weight to drop off in a snap. However, nothing good comes easy and recovery takes time, effort and patience. Fads don’t lead to long term results. Consistency and patience, along with a dose of persistence. It took me months to start feeling comfortable with intuitive eating and learn to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Intuitive eating takes time to develop and give yourself the opportunity to let it happen.

3. You need to want this. Intuitive eating won’t help you if you’re not determined to recover. You need to make the conscious decision to want to eat better and healthier and lead a normal life again. You need to acknowledge that your current eating patterns are driving you whacko and its messing with your life.

4. Yes, you will experience failures from time to time. Like anything else, nothing comes without some mistakes or lapses. In the beginning, we might slip up. Its understandable because its such a new concept. We might do fantastic for a few days, but binge on one day. Don’t let that stop you. Don’t restrict the day or continue bingeing. Return to practicing intuitive eating the next day because you will train yourself to eat normally after a binge instead of going back to old habits like you always have. This allows you to create a new habit.

5. Don’t give up. Just. Don’t.

Diets are complicated and there is no one simple, magical “fix-all” diet. You may keep a physical diary or have your own methods, but the method that works is the one that your body keeps to.

Google for more information on intuitive eating! If you’ve been struggling with yo-yo dieting and other disordered eating patterns for so long and trying to regulate your eating without success, give intuitive eating a try. See a certified counselor and dietician for advice and support to help you start this journey, and you may find yourself learning to trust yourself more often. Its quite liberating really.

Listen to your body. Its smarter than you think.

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