Image: iStock. Trigger warning: This post may be triggering for some readers.
When people picture an eating disorder, they often imagine shocking behaviors that deviate wildly from normal eating. But our society’s definition of “normal,” especially for women, can look so similar to an eating disorder that it’s hard to tell when you’ve crossed the line between healthy and disordered eating.
That’s why, by following popular health advice, I became anorexic without even knowing it. (Watch: Could anorexia be genetic? Watch MamamiaTV’s discussion. Post continues after video.)
At age 15, I read an advice book for girls with a chapter on cultivating a healthy diet. It warned readers about the prevalence of obesity and gave tips to avoid it: Quell the urge to eat with gum, set down your fork between bites, don’t eat between meals, stop before you’re full.
At 5’6″, I was thin already and had no eating problems. But based on what I saw on TV, the thinner a woman could be, the better.
On top of that, my serial-dieter dad made disapproving comments when I reached for seconds or desserts: “You should start watching your weight as you get older.” I began breaking my reflection into body parts: My stomach wasn’t flat enough, my arms were too flabby, and my face was too wide.
The dieting tips in my self-help book and women’s magazines promised me the fitness and beauty I feared I lacked. As a perfectionist, I followed them religiously, eating yogurt and oatmeal for breakfast and salad for lunch. And I always left at least a bite of dinner on my plate to practice self-control. (Post continues after gallery.)
I panicked at pizza parties and other events where only “bad” foods were available, sometimes skipping meals altogether. Since I also stopped consuming artificial sugar and other substances considered “unhealthy,” I convinced myself my routine was about health, not weight. But I couldn’t deny that the scale’s steady drop was addictive.
Bolstering my conviction that I was just eating smartly, people applauded my diet. However, before long, I met the criteria for anorexia. I had lost a fifth of my original body weight, stopped getting my period, and constantly went to bed hungry. I viewed the pangs as signs of progress.
My parents took me to a therapist and nutritionist and pushed me to eat more. By that point, though, starvation was a compulsion. So, I just cut back on food when my family wasn’t around and lied about what I ate.
For two more years, my habits hovered on the border between obsessively health conscious and medically risky. The summer after high school, my parents realised I needed a more aggressive approach and sent me to a residential centre with therapy and supervised meals, hoping I could start college with a healthy body and mind.
I was shocked that the program’s pre-planned meals and snacks, even those fed to clinically overweight binge eating disorder patients, looked unhealthy according to the tips I’d read.
They didn’t let us eat only salad for lunch. We also needed carbohydrates, protein, dairy, and (the horror!) fat, sometimes transmitted in the form of dessert. And we were supposed to eat snacks!
Other patients shared my perception that we were eating a ton of unhealthy food, yet it didn’t make anyone overweight.
I no longer believe you can eat "healthfully" without developing an unhealthy mindset.
So, I ditched my old diet bible and learned about intuitive eating — consumption based solely on your stomach’s signals. My nutritionist explained that our bodies know what we need; we don’t get hungry or crave certain foods for no reason.
She also informed me that daily desserts can be part of a perfectly healthy diet. Who knew?
I stopped stepping on the scale because I learned weight is not a good indicator of health or beauty and don't want to obsess over it. My doctor reassures that I am healthy, and I've maintained my current weight without any of the dietary restrictions I was taught were "necessary" to stay slim. (Post continues after gallery.)
More importantly, my mind is healthy. When I was malnourished and fixated on what I could and couldn’t eat, I was unable to devote my full attention to work or other people. Now, I wake up thinking about what I'll do each day, not what I'll eat.
I no longer believe you can eat "healthfully" without developing an unhealthy mindset. Following rules rather than intuition distances us from our bodies. When we ignore cravings, we deny ourselves the nutrients we need — and yes, fat is a nutrient — and learn to distrust the mechanisms biology already has in place to keep us healthy.
I used to believe model Kate Moss’s claim that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." Now, I'm more inclined to think nothing feels as good as cookie dough tastes. It sounds too good to be true, but health for me means not prohibiting cookie dough — or anything.
That may defy popular wisdom, but I’ve chosen to trust my body’s wisdom instead. Unlike dieting, it hasn’t failed me.