Redefining What Healthy Means In Eating Disorder Recovery: One Woman's Story

Kathryn Dillon

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“When you starve yourself, you feed your demons.” — Anonymous

Colors of the rainbow in the skillet — onion, red bell pepper, asparagus turning bright green when it hits the pan. Sensuous aromas of olive oil and vegetables. I have this down to a science, making breakfasts for the week on a Sunday afternoon.

While the onions and peppers cook, I chop the asparagus, breaking off the woody stalks and saving them for soup. While the asparagus heats, I quickly mash the tofu and organize my spices — garlic, cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, coarse salt, and red pepper flakes. Meanwhile, creamy orange sweet potatoes roast in the oven, filling the kitchen with a tantalizing scent.

This breakfast is the epitome of balance to me — delicious but nutritious, plenty filling but not gluttonous. It’s the culmination of my eating disorder recovery — something I love, something that’s enough but not too much, something that’s so tasty I look forward to it every morning. I feel the vitamins from the veggies coursing through my veins when I eat it. This breakfast is the epitome of my new healthy.

My eating disorder, simmering under the surface for decades before coming to a full-on deadly boil in mid-life, took the form of restriction and excessive exercise punctuated by secret binges that, combined with an aging metabolism, caused me to become overweight. The older I got, the more difficult (and ultimately impossible) it became to exercise and purge away my binges.

I don’t think I can adequately describe the mounting desperation I felt, watching in what felt like slow motion as my body betrayed me. I counted calories, tracked every step, entered everything I ate into an app, tried every new diet, and yet the number on the scale just kept rising.

Food has always been important to me. I learned to cook at an early age. My mom ultimately prepared meals because it was her household role, but my dad cooked because he wanted to. He left piles of dishes in his wake to demonstrate that genius should not have to worry about cleaning up after itself.

Years later, I am both parents — cooking meals for my husband because otherwise we probably wouldn’t eat, but painstakingly planning our menus for the week because it’s a task I truly enjoy. (Close to a decade in the restaurant industry taught me to keep up with dishes as I cook, though, something my husband appreciates greatly!)

Eating disorders are different from other types of addictions because we cannot simply stop eating! Recovery, instead, becomes a tightrope walk of moderation between extremes. Part of my recovery has involved eschewing all the tools I had used my entire life.

Goodbye diets. Goodbye scale, calorie-counting app, tape measure, and fitness tracker. Goodbye hours on the treadmill. I’ve never experienced anything so terrifying and so liberating at the same time. Here I am, walking that tightrope with what feels like no safety net.

So what DOES healthy look like for this middle-aged office worker who’s recovering from an eating disorder and loves to cook?

There are no “bad” foods

This is huge. I’ve been labeling foods for decades. We all do it. It’s easy, right? Vegetables and lean protein = good. Fats and sugar = bad. Carbs? Who knows. It depends. Except it’s never that straightforward.

Just when we think we understand the science of nutrition, new diets spring up like toadstools after a rain. So, with the help of my therapist, I’ve decided to simplify. In my new version of healthy, there’s no such thing as a bad food. There are, however, foods that make my body feel better, and foods that make my body feel worse.

I love cheese. Warm, melty, stretchy cheese. And fried food — crispy chicken tenders, fish and chips with tartar sauce and malt vinegar. Don’t even get me started on the ultimate union of the two, the mozzarella stick.

In the past, I would avoid those foods like the plague, and then eventually succumb, eating many times the appropriate serving amount as fast as I possibly could. Now, I’m allowed to have those foods. I no longer label them “bad”. But by giving myself permission to eat them, I’ve realized they don’t make me feel all that great, even in more reasonable amounts. What I really want is just a taste.

Fortunately, my husband also loves fish and chips and is more than willing to give me a bite or two when he orders it in a restaurant.

Vegetables, on the other hand? Can’t get enough of them. Fortunately, I love them too — just not with the same desperate cravings I used to have for cheese and fried food. I know my body feels amazing when I eat them, so I don’t have to label them “good” foods — I simply have to give my body what it really wants.

This type of thinking is becoming more common. Even Bon Appetit made a solid move in this direction in early 2017 when they introduced their “Healthyish” concept, defined in the introductory article as

“…we like knowing where our food comes from, what’s in it and who made it. We care about how food makes us feel. But, also, we’re not losing sleep over it. We’re not nutritionists. We don’t count calories or fret about our cholesterol levels (the good kind or the bad kind).”

I’ve been searching for that lack of obsession my entire life.

I don’t follow any sort of drastic diet

My new healthy is a lot more Mediterranean than Keto. While I fully understand there are reasons some people may require more drastic measures, my particular version of recovery is all about balance and not restricting specific food groups or types of foods.

Using only the rule of “eat what makes my body feel the best”, I’ve settled on a basic food plan that looks a lot like the Mediterranean diet — but I’m not even dogmatic about that.

I rarely eat red meat (for many reasons) and never cook it at home. I eat chicken and fish occasionally. I thrive on legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I like bread dipped in olive oil, though butter is not forbidden. I eat a fair amount of eggs, tofu, and dairy. I eat sweets from time to time and sometimes partake in a bit too much holiday cheer.

No one told me this is how I should eat. This is how my body told me I should eat.

I don’t allow myself to get too hungry

I eat frequently. Before COVID-19, when I worked in an office, my coworkers would sometimes comment — “Eating again? What is that, lunch number two?”

They have no idea that my therapist has recommended not allowing myself to get too hungry, because when I get too hungry, that feeling of desperation returns. That feeling of not having enough food, either because I forced myself to restrict, or because I had to, due to some really lean times during my college years and early twenties.

They have no idea that, even though I don’t track formally anymore, even though I try not to think about it, I am keenly aware of how many calories I consume during a normal day.

They have no idea that my tofu scramble breakfast, which looks like a substantial amount of food on the plate, has fewer calories than the buttered toast, scrambled eggs, and bacon that seem so normal to them.

They have no idea that their comments bother me, because of my weight. Because I feel like they’re judging me. “Look, the chubby girl eats all the time.” (And never mind the fact that I usually hit the gym over lunch while they're checking their social media at their desks.)

Let’s look at what “all the time” actually means. Here’s a pretty normal weekday for me, nutritionally.

Breakfast: tofu scramble with veggies and roasted sweet potatoes.

Morning snack: rice cake with peanut butter; string cheese

Lunch: usually leftovers (today it's homemade hummus and vegetables, leftover from our New Year's Eve celebration), plus some plain Greek yogurt with frozen raspberries.

Afternoon snack: cherry tomatoes, turkey lunchmeat with spreadable cheese

Dinner: Typically something homemade and hearty. It could be lentil soup, or pan-seared salmon, or quesadillas. Most of the time, we’ll have a salad or steamed vegetables on the side. There’s bread if we want it.

Mmmm, my mouth is watering! Which brings me to my final point…

I enjoy food!

My eating disorder had sapped the joy from cooking and eating, and ultimately from living in general.

Instead of actually experiencing my food, I could only taste the poison of shame. Instead of taking pleasure from a hike in the woods, I was eying my Fitbit nervously, making sure I got enough steps, burned enough calories. My recovery is about reclaiming my life. It’s about savoring delicious foods without guilt.

Part of that has involved identifying foods that make my body feel good AND make my mouth happy. My favorite treats. Foods like shrimp cocktail, hummus with veggies, a schmear of good blue cheese on a cracker. Like a square of dark chocolate, melting on my tongue. Like the first tomato of summer.

Food represents not only nutrition and fuel but nourishment, of the body and of the mind. I will no longer let my eating disorder cloud my experiences!

“Sexy is not a size, every calorie is not a war, your body is not a battleground. Your value is not measured in pounds.” — Anonymous

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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