I’m going a little crazy at the moment…
The cafe I’m sitting in is baking something, and the air is full of the enticing aroma of toasted coconut. I go through coconut phases, as in I’ll have three or four days of being like, “I MUST HAVE EVERYTHING WITH COCONUT IN MY VICINITY, MAKE A PLETHORA OF ALMOND JOY MACAROONS/COOKIES, AND ADD IN SOME COCONUT MILK INTO SAVOURY ENTREES”, and then I won’t touch it for a month or more. But there’s still that serious love. I don’t get it.
Anyways, I actually can’t remember the last time I had a coconut rush… probably at least two months ago… but the smell of this coconut is awakening the almond joy aficionado inside of me. I suddenly have the desire to run home and break out my jumbo Costco sized kilo bag of shredded coconut.
The power of suggestion.
Just like how the elderly couple at the table next to me are drinking steaming cups of tea and two slices of freshly baked carrot cake, slathered in the thickest layer of cream cheese frosting… and now I want carrot cake.
Actually I just want the icing. Cream cheese frosting… yes. Ooh, coconut carrot loaf, with a cream cheese frosting centre! Picture it: You see a loaf, nice and golden brown on the outside, with flecks of orange- just enough to tell you it’s either carrot-y or orange-y. It’s all normal, but then, THEN, you take a knife and slice in….
All is right in the world…. because there’s cream cheese frosting.
And coconut… just enough to give a hint of coconut flavour and that awesome texture that’s kind of crunchy, kind of creamy. Because the texture is the best part of coconut. I mean, what other fat out there has that luxury of being both crispy crunchy, and creamy AT THE SAME TIME?
I think that loaf would be killer. Although I wonder if you were to bake a loaf with cream cheese frosting inside, whether the heat would melt the frosting and you’d be left with a gaping hole in the centre, and a really dense bottom half of a loaf? Has someone tried this?
I like those surprise foods… those things with a little unexpected twist that sends it into an art nouveau category. Kind of like the pie I made when my sister was here a few weeks ago:
It’s banana cream… with an oreo crust, chocolate shell and peanuts. PEANUTS! Mind blown. And it was delicious. You can find the recipe here (I did add sliced bananas to mine too, but you know the banana paradox: if you add them too early they turn brown, so it was later that evening when lighting for photos sucks but we were on schedule to devour. The struggle of a food photographer’s life.)
Or inside out apple pie a la mode. Yeah, that sounds delicious too.
Food is great.
Yes, I did just say that. Is your mind blown?
I like to be a walking dialectic, and a walking oxymoron. Like, I adore food and I’m terrified of it at the same time. Or an anorexic chef. See, dialectic oxymoron.
Actually, in the world of eating disorders it’s really not all that uncommon. It is, and it isn’t. Particularly, you find a lot of anorexics that actually love food… they just can’t eat it. Hence, you got one of the key warning signs, or characteristics that are often noted in diagnostics. Shows food obsession, and has a tendency to bake or cook a lot of things- extravagant things- for other people, but will not eat what they make.
For me, this was very much the case when I first was descending into my eating disorder. I always made two dinners: one for my parents, and one for me. And the further I got into it, the more extreme the differences were between them, and the more extravagant the meals that I made for others became. I remember two weeks before I was hospitalized one of the last meals I cooked for my parents. It was mid August, and roasting hot outside for everyone else. For me, with my extremely low body fat percentage and horrible body temperature regulation, I was still clad in a sweatshirt. Thanks to that extreme heat, I was comfortable.
Anyways, the meals:
Parents: Grilled corn on the cob with cilantro lime butter, bacon salt, and bacon crumbles, a harvest green bean and tomato salad with tarragon and a dijon vinaigrette… and I can’t totally remember the protein. I want to say it was a grilled chicken with a shwarama style marinade, but I’m not 100% sure.
Me: An egg white, three plain beans, and a slice of a plum. No seasoning because “I like things plain” (AKA: I’m terrified of the potential calories in salt or herbs or seasoning, not to mention potential water retention and weight gain from the sodium. I mean come on, I couldn’t even take the vitamins that the doctor at least wanted me to have to try and keep my organs functioning because I was convinced there had to be calories in them). Trust me, I don’t actually like things plain… and chances are, if you’re with someone that you believe could have an eating disorder, they probably don’t like things plain either, regardless of what they say.
Relapse? Not as much. I was educated enough in nutrition and through working with dietitians that I at least ate the food that I made… I just only really made one or two meals a day. No snacks, that’s it. So my meal (if it was particularly gourmet it was meal singular) was delicious, and not plain. But still, the foodie mentality was there, as well as the obsession.
Often times “food love” is considered synonymous with “food obsession” in the eating disorder spectrum. And it’s regarded as a symptom, and by extension a phase. For many people this is true. You’ll find a lot of people that vow, while completely entrenched in their disorder, that they’re going to become a chef. They seek out jobs working with food, go to school to become a pastry chef, or a baker, or, dare I say it, a dietitian. It really does make sense: you’re starving, and all your body wants, and needs, is nourishment. So what is your brain going to make you focus on, in an attempt to get what it needs? Food.
So, by extension, when this process is reversed, when the patient or sufferer begins to eat normally again, recover, and get closer to their set point weight, the obsession lessens. Food thoughts move more to the side the further you get in the process, and room is made for you to focus on the things that bring you joy. Relationships, true passions, hobbies, friends, family, animals, school, whatever it may be.
I’ve definitely seen this, particularly in inpatient hospital settings, and residential treatment. It’s interesting to see the change in people, as well as the differences between people.
Inpatient hospital setting (aka, medically unstable, we’re forcing this food in you and confining you to bare minimal movement to keep you alive): 95% of patients sit down at the table, a tray of food in front of them, and lament their existence and the food on their plate. This isn’t to say that they hate food, or didn’t fall into the food loving category, but rather that they’re being forced to eat the food they love yet need to avoid. So they’re terrified and it’s easier to focus on that and by extension spread the hate instead of the jelly.
“I can’t stand cream sauces!”
“This chicken isn’t cooked, I can’t eat that when I can see a vein!”
“Butter makes me want to gag!”
“This is hell!”
“Why is my plate so much bigger?! We’re supposed to be on the same meal plan!”
“The dietitian hates me! She’s got a plan to make me fat for her own twisted pleasure because she hates me! This food is disgusting!”
“Muffins are fat food!”
“I purposely pick carrot sticks for my snack instead of the animal crackers because they’re healthy! Plus I hate cookies…”
You get the picture.
And then there was me… the other patients didn’t get me. Once again the walking dialectic oxymoron:
“The veggie burger is the tastiest thing on this menu, and if you have a burger you need mayo! Ooh they’re having apple crumble as a dessert option on Tuesday! If you have to gain weight, wouldn’t you rather do it by eating delicious things rather than BOOST or ENSURE?! I hate celery, why would I have it for snack (not to mention I’d eaten enough of it, and rice cakes, before hospitalization to last me a lifetime)? GIVE ME ALL THE BANANAS! (No one voluntarily ate bananas due to their high calorie content compared to other fruits…. I had 3 or 4 a day. I couldn’t get enough!)”
And then you move on to residential. People here are medically stable, so it’s working more on weight gain if necessary, but more so the mental side, and the behaviours surrounding the food. Here is where you start to see the differences between people. Sure you see a lot of the above, particularly if the patient is new to treatment in general, or just beginning recovery and living in total fear. But with those who have gotten past the initial terror and indignation, you start to see the symptomatology emerge, and two distinct groups of people. AKA, my body is being nourished enough so that I realize that food is not actually my passion, versus… the me’s. The conversation is different. Cue the check in after every meal:
“Ugh. I’m tired of eating! I’m full. I’m fat. I don’t want this at all!”
“Why was her plate so much smaller than mine?! Why doesn’t the dietitian listen to me?! I don’t need this much food!”
“Can we just get this over with already?”
“I don’t care. I hate grilled cheese. I hate that we have to eat food we don’t like. But I guess I can’t do anything about it, so whatever.”
“My Crazy Obsession is on tonight!”
“I want a cigarette…”
And then there’s me:
“Well, I really liked that meal! I love couscous day! There’s something about the texture that’s just awesome! I’m nervous, but that was sooooooo good! I secretly love cheese and cheese surprise (a mac and cheese creamy dish that terrifies everyone and everyone loves to hate)! Oooh it’s Sunday/Wednesday/Friday, and that means dessert tonight, I hope it’s peanut chocolate clusters, PB&J tart, ice cream sandwiches, carrot cake cupcakes, or fudgey brownies! If there’s energy balls for snack, Imma be so excited!”
Don’t get me wrong: I was still terrified. I was still needing to run to justify eating all the things I love. It was still easier to skip a meal or snack than to eat it. I still freaked out after eating the dessert. I still spent time in front of the mirror, pinching the flab I could see. BUT, my excitement for the food, the joy, the satisfaction and fun I had when I got to experience it all… textures, tastes, smells, consistencies, everything… it was GREATER. It was so much better than the fear. It was worth the fear. It was worth the turmoil. Because for that half hour while I was experiencing the food, I was truly experiencing it. I was comparing it, contrasting it, savouring it. Imagining what spices I could add to it to make it better, and what flavours I’d like to take away.
I remember this one night at residential… oh man, I’d say 95% of the patients hated that night! And I had so much fun, I wished they would have made it a recurring weekly thing. Have you ever heard of O.NOIR restaurant in Montreal? A complete sensory eating experience, you literally eat your meal in the pitch black dark, allowing the smell and taste to be heightened when you can no longer see.
Totally on my bucket list!
Anyways, the dietitian at residential decided to recreate the experience of O.NOIR for us in the hopes of encouraging us to be more mindful with our food and really experience it when we didn’t know what it was. We were totally blindfolded, and had no idea what they were setting in front of us for dinner, or for dessert that followed. It was the one meal where we were permitted to talk about the food whilst we were eating it. And there were MAXIMUM freak outs going on! I mean, you can’t count the calories or lament the fats and oils when you have no idea what you’re having. You can’t purposely eat less, when you don’t know how much they put on your plate to begin with. You just have to trust. You have to put all your faith in the dietitian and the cooking staff that everything will be okay.
I was in heaven.
I was finally allowed to talk about the food while I was eating it! I was allowed to guess out loud whether I was tasting cilantro or parsley, dill or fennel, panko or regular bread crumbs. AND, I couldn’t control it at all, so there was no point in feeling guilty, or stressing out because I had absolutely NO IDEA what or how much I was having. It was my free pass to be a foodie in treatment for an eating disorder, and to not stifle the creative juices.
And I remember the debriefing later, the tears, the screams, the attempted running in bedrooms at all hours of the night that followed. The claims of cruel injustice and vows that they will NEVER do this again, from my fellow patients.
A couple of days later I had a session with the dietitian and she asked me how the experience was for me. I remember raving and telling her how freeing it was, how much I wish I could do that regularly, and how great it was to experience the flavours, the smells, the textures, the consistencies of everything. And I remember the look on her face, happy and pleased that I had a positive experience, but with a shadow behind it all.
“Well, it’s important to enjoy what you eat, and I’m glad you could. I’m glad you could let it all go. But don’t forget, there’s more to life. And don’t forget, the fascination will fade. And it’s important you let it. Don’t hang on to it. Fill your life with other things, not food. Satisfy your mind, not just your palate. Food isn’t your purpose, it’s simply your fuel.”
I’ve heard this type of thing numerous times. I’ve heard the generalizations, the worry, and the fear.
“Enjoy your food, but don’t enjoy it TOO much.”
“Food is fuel, not fun.”
“Eat dessert, but only eat it once a week.”
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants…”
“Be careful, you don’t want to go from one extreme to another.”
See, when you’re dying, when you’re literally skin and bones, people can’t stuff you fast enough. But when you’re a normal weight, or close to it, the fat phobia kicks in and the food they once glorified suddenly becomes something that you must monitor, must eat with restraint, and something that you must be wary of. Where they once tried so hard to get us to find a minuscule amount of pleasure, they now flip the theory and say it’s no longer normal to enjoy.
And for those recovering from an eating disorder, it is EXPECTED that you actually don’t enjoy food as much as you do in the initial stages of recovery. The symptomatology dictates that you’re no longer supposed to think about it, to read recipes, to pour over food blogs, to make extravagant or fancy dishes. And while this might be true for a large percentage of sufferers, this overgeneralization puts those who actually get enjoyment from food regardless of their affliction in an awkward and potentially shameful situation.
I remember the conversations with various dieticians, doctors, therapists:
“I think I really do belong in food. I mean, I’m the happiest when I’m creating something in the kitchen. I’m the calmest when I’m combining flavours and textures, and watching art come together in edible form on a plate. I love putting it all together on a plate, and making it look beautiful. And then tasting, trying, sampling, and seeing others enjoy what I make too… it’s the best!”
“That will pass. It always does. You don’t belong in food, you should be far from it. Your life has been consumed by it enough, and it’s not healthy. You only think that you enjoy it to that extent. Give it time. You’re not meant to be there, and you’ll be happier when you let it go.”
But what happens when it doesn’t lessen? I mean, just like I mentioned in my last post, I spent a chunk of my life believing that there was something wrong with me, for one reason or another. I believed that I wasn’t okay just being me, liking what I liked, having the personality and the body that I was born with. So now, coming out of treatment, pursuing outpatient, and loving food as much as I do, once again I am bombarded by the same message. If you’re an eating disorder survivor, and you love food, or think about food a lot, or actually enjoy cooking, eating, and/or reading recipes, then you’re not letting go. You’re not actually recovering, because if you were, you wouldn’t love it any more.
And it gets old. It makes therapy and dietitian appointments depressing. It makes it tedious and a drag, especially when something that is supposed to make you feel better and less anxious only worsens the problem. When you’re encouraged to find your passions and discuss them, but if you’re truly passionate about food, you’re discouraged and told that you’re not trying hard enough.
And as much as it sucks for those who suffer, this generalization is not limited to eating disorder sufferers. We live in one big contradiction. Mindfulness and the yoga movement is all the rage right now, and that concept is seeping into food as well. This is not a bad thing. Mindfulness and intuitive eating are things that we all should strive for: listening to our bodies rather than a calorie count or diet plan to tell us what and how much we need.
However, the current trend seems to be more along the lines of:
“Be intuitive, within limits”.
Or rather, “Eat what you want, up to a certain amount.”
“Enjoy your food, but only if it’s certain types of food.”
“Don’t control your food, but control your calories.”
“Enjoy your food, but not TOO much.”
It’s kind of like when I was in residential, and I was supposedly on “mindful/intuitive” eating, but I still had to fill out a meal plan with specific amounts of carbs, proteins, veggies, dairy, etc.
HINT: this is not intuitive, or mindful.
And along those lines, we’re kind of boxed into a corner. Shame be on you if you say, “I love donuts.”, without adding in “once a month” or “after a 5 k run”.
Are we not allowed to simply enjoy a donut? Is there something wrong with finding pleasure and fulfillment in an alfredo sauce?
Is it always, “Eat to live, not live to eat.”?
You’re not a failure if you love food. You’re not broken if you get more than just vitamins and energy from a plate. Food is meant to be enjoyed, regardless of your shape, size, weight, or whether its a salad or a burger. And guess what? That’s normal. Why bother eating if you don’t enjoy eating, or rather, if you’re eating something you don’t enjoy? If no one was passionate about food, we wouldn’t have restaurants, recipe books, blogs, or culinary schools.
And to all the me’s out there: If you’ve survived a restrictive or other eating disorder, and still feel like you come alive when you’re in your kitchen, THAT’S OKAY. If you enjoy reading recipe blogs and cookbooks long after you’ve reached your set point weight, go ahead and read them! If it’s more than the calories, if there’s more to it than the feeling of need due to deprivation and food rules, then allow yourself to gain pleasure and satisfaction from food. I truly believe you can have a life that allows you to enjoy food without limitation, restraint, and still be healthy and happy, and in recovery. And I’m tired of being scared that loving food will push me towards the other end of the spectrum, like if I allow myself to unleash my passions, build the best cookie, and devour a burger, I’ll suddenly be a binge eater. It’s not that simple or that extreme. Passion doesn’t create disorder, but resistance and denial does. Remember:
Be a walking dialectic, and an oxymoron. It fits better with your unicorn horn anyways.