Warning: I talk about specific foods and my personal eating habits here. If this will be triggering to you, please skip this one!
I had a little food incident a while back. I had a setback. Basically, after eating a meal which consisted of a bowl of brussels sprouts roasted with olive oil and spices, I felt more satiated than usual, which resulted in over-googling calorie contents of brussels sprouts. I began googling how brussels sprouts make you feel fuller than anything else. Because I had eaten what I thought was a virtuous dinner of brussels sprouts but somehow found myself feeling bloated and over-full, as if I had eaten three slices of pizza.
I still have trouble with that "full" feeling. And I couldn't stand it, and I wanted science to tell me why I was feeling the way I was rather than give in to the little voice in my head that was whispering "Jessie, don't you miss throwing up?".
Well, I didn't throw up. I haven't made myself throw up for a very long time. But I still hear that voice sometimes.
This exercise ultimately proved fruitful, though: not because I found scientific evidence that proved that brussels sprouts are some crazy food that tricks your body into feeling full, but because I found this article, which I thought had a lot of wisdom to impart. My favorite part?
"You have to stop eating the same things every day.
You have to be brave and try meats, veggies, fruits, fats, and even spices with different nutritional and chemical makeups.
I know that giving up the safety of consistent foods or meals or timings can be overwhelming, if not downright scary as hell. But I guarantee that by compulsively eating (and eating and eating), you’re already in one kind of hell. What if it turns out the devil you know is worse than the devil you don’t?"
It was in reading this that I had to admit something to myself: I still really only eat "safe" foods.
What the heck is a safe food, you ask? Well, for me, it's a food (or a food combination, or a particular way of eating a food) that doesn't trigger my eating disorder. While on the one hand it's good to stick with foods that won't cause you mental distress, it also kind of makes you no fun. It doesn't leave room for a lot of spontaneity, or variation in your diet. It makes going out to eat, or having someone else cook for you, etc, a very stressful thing.
My safe foods are sneaky.
You might think that "safe" foods for someone in ED recovery would be things like lettuce, watermelon, and kale--low calorie foods. But for me, some of my safe foods are sneaky, because they are high calorie and give the impression that I am totally fine with foods of all sorts. For instance, I have no fear of peanut butter or cheese (common fear foods). But I am very specific about the amounts and the way in which I eat them, which kind of negates the whole point of variety in your diet.
That is to say, I have a healthy variety of foods that I will eat, but I can be OCD about how I combine them. For instance, you'll never see me eating a peanut butter sandwich on the same day I eat pizza. You'll never see me eat oatmeal on the same day I eat macaroni and cheese. As for bagels? Sure, I'll eat one, but I have difficulty deciding what else is safe after that for the day.
It's like living in a food purgatory: foods can transform from safe to unsafe at a moment's notice. It's a scary place to be while in recovery.
With that in mind, I would try another experiment: working on fear foods, and on food variety. I would try to include more fear foods as "normal" options, and would eat something different at least one time a day. I wasn't going to worry too much about the timing of my meals (another issue) because it was already a lot, but maybe that can be the next thing I play with.
Here, to keep it from being boring, I'm just going to focus on three days of the experiment (I did it for 10) and then round up my feelings at the end.
Day 1: Carb-o-loading
Breakfast 6:30 am:
- Sweet biscuit (sort of like a scone) with raisins.
Thoughts: I was scared of this biscuit. I broke it in half and that looked like a manageable size. I ate it and still wanted more. I was driving and just grabbed it and ate it to spite my eating disorder, vowing not to cut calories the rest of the day to "make up".
- A pear; 1/4 avocado; 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- diet coke
Thoughts: I usually have an apple around this time, but I felt like I had to mix it up and a pear felt OK to me. I felt hungrier than just a pear and some peanut butter so I added the avocado, and it wasn't too scary.
- 12 ounce beer
Happy hour with a friend. I was hungry by this time so I feel like I drank it quickly. I didn't feel intoxicated (a little "happy" around the edges) but I was too scared to share an appetizer too.
- dinner roll
- small block of cheddar cheese
- 1/4 avocado
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup peas
Usually, my dinners are composed of fewer "elements". It felt like there was a lot going on, on my plate. I felt very full after this and felt like I needed to count calories twice.
Day 2: Cake and other scary things
- 1 egg with vegetables and cheese
- 4 baked plantain slices
Thoughts: I've never eaten a combo like this for breakfast, so I was proud of myself. It felt good.
- fairly large slice of cake (1/8 a standard layer cake) and milk
Thoughts: I often have cake for lunch on Friday, and the rule is that the slice can be however larger or small I want (it's like my thing). It was indeed friday, so this was not a variation from my habit, but I think it's kind of a fear food busting habit on its own, so I stuck with it.
- pomegranate arils
- slice of cheese
- glass of wine
Thoughts: It's not unusual for me to have a glass of wine, but to have it the DAY AFTER I had another alcoholic beverage, and to pair it with a snack, was odd (I don't like combining food and drinks, yes, even though wine is supposed to pair with food). It felt like something so normal to do though, so I was proud of myself.
- 1/2 hamburger, 1 cup brussels sprouts, piece cheese, 3 radishes, 1 thick slice homemade bread with butter
Thoughts: This was a very unusual meal for me. I felt full after my dinner because usually I would only have a small slice of bread or forgo the cheese or had fewer elements to the meal. I felt like I had been fairly indulgent. But I forced myself to NOT count calories. I was proud of myself!
Day 3: Still trying
- Slice of bread with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
Thoughts: this is a standard breakfast for me. I kind of felt like I needed to stick with something safe because I felt like I had taken a lot of risks, food wise, the day before.
- 1 medium pear
- 3-4 pineapple chunks
- handful of pomegranate arils
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
Thoughts: Once again, usually around this time I would have an apple and peanut butter. I substituted the pear to have something different at least. I was hungrier than that though, so I added the pineapple and pomegranate, which helped.
- 2 pretzel nuggets
Thoughts: I know it's small, but I never snack, so this felt like a real victory.
- other half of the hamburger from yesterday
- piece of cheese
- 3/4 cup brussels sprouts
- 2 radishes
- 1/6 avocado
- 5 pretzel nuggets
Thoughts: I basically had the same dinner as last night. It was less scary this time, but the portion was overall smaller. I ate dinner really early (like 5:30) because that is when I wanted it. Part of me felt awful for that though.
Day 4: Back to the comfort zone
- Bread with peanut butter
Thoughts: Even though I felt better about my dinner last night, I still felt scared after trying so many new things. This was a safe food that I needed at the time.
- 1/2 veggie sausage
Thoughts: Once again, this is a "safe" meal for me. I was annoyed that I hadn't challenged myself but I really felt like I wanted it. I didn't argue too much.
- one carrot
Thoughts: once again, proud of myself for snacking! Even if it was small.
- 1/2 slice bread
- cabbage salad
- rest of veggie sausage
Thoughts: Once again, while the foods were little different, this was a very "safe" meal for me. Overall I was a little disappointed in my unwillingness to branch out today.
OK, so I will spare you eating more of my daily diet and just tell you how things went.
Throughout the course of this 10 day experiment, I observed several things. Here are some of them:
I went very much in cycles. Basically, I would try a few new things, then get braver and try a few more. Then, inevitably, I'd have a "crash"--like on Day 4, listed above, where I basically went right back to my old ways of eating only safe foods. After a day of safe foods, however, I felt OK about trying new things again.
Lunch was challenging for me. Usually, my go-to lunch is either a cookie or small treat and an apple. Most days, I enjoy something sweet at mid-day; I'd say 5 out of 7 days a week. I really crave something sweet every day. On the rare day when I don't, I eat a spoonful of peanut butter and an apple. I tried a number of different things for lunch instead this week. I ate less sweets overall through this project, but it wasn't about avoiding sugar, it was about getting out of the rut of always eating it at mid-day instead of a meal.
I don't think I eat enough, in general. In looking over the tally of what I had eaten on each day, it sounds more like two meals' worth than three. Some people have apples and peanut butter as snacks; for me, I insist that it's a meal for some reason.
I eat very much by the clock, and even if I am starving, if it's not an acceptable time to eat, I won't. This results in me feeling foggy and unproductive because I am not eating when my body is asking for it. The fear of breaking routine is very strong; I am proud of myself for trying out snacking, even if my attempts were very small.
So, what did this do for me?
So...was it a worthwhile experiment?
Overall, yes. But it also made me see that I still have a lot of work to do in terms of recovery and mixing up my diet.
For instance, I said above that I observed myself going through cycles: trying new things, then getting scared, and reigning it back in to a smaller sort of comfort zone. I think that is not such a terrible thing, especially if the cycle of trying new things expands each time, and the need for going back to the comfort of safe foods becomes less and less. Time will tell in that regard, though!
It also made me realize that the actual variety of "safe" and "fear" foods isn't the only issue here. It's not just that I am eating the same things; it's that I have the same behaviors toward food. Like, I have to eat at certain times, with things in a certain array on my plate. Maybe as I advance in this challenging of fear foods, I will be better able to allow for flexibility in these regions, challenging my fear food behaviors.
I think it's good to challenge yourself like this every now and again, if only so that you don't become to stuck in a rut and complacent in your ways. Challenging yourself is a way to stay on track with recovery and not just settle for "recovered enough".
What food behaviors would you like to challenge?