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Eat The Thing!
Skip the replacement foods and honour your true cravings.
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I’ve always had a huge sweet tooth. I’ve never said no to dessert, I eat chocolate almost daily, prefer my fruit ripe, drench my pancakes in honey and I like my coffee sweet and creamy. I just think sweet is the superior flavour! We all have different taste preferences. Some are more into savoury foods, whilst others (like me) gravitate towards sweet. That is completely normal, yet my eating disorder loved to pathologise this. Growing up in a home where the rest of my family was more on the savoury-train further fuelled my eating disorder’s idea that recovery was not possible for me, because I was ‘addicted to sweet stuff’. Additionally, I’ve always had a hearty appetite - I was never the picky eater, full-by-a-few-bites kind of kid (or teenager, or adult).
Neither my appetite nor my sweet tooth was ever a problem pre-ED (nor post-ED), nor was I bingeing uncontrollably. Instead, I’d simply go more for the chocolate over the crisps at a movie night, and had a body and metabolism that naturally seemed to need (and thrive on) quite a bit of energy, especially carbohydrates. It was all normal behaviour within human variance of preferences and needs that my eating disorder would use against me to build the ultimate conspiracy theory as to why I needed my eating disorder to stay ‘in control’.
As a result of this conspiracy, I would restrict myself from the foods I really craved, and focus on ‘healthified’ replacement foods. Chocolate became protein bars, sweet creamy milk became sugar-free almond milk, sweets became candy flavoured gum, pancakes became egg-white omelettes with protein powder (I refuse to call this abdomination ‘pancakes’) and honey became 0 calorie syrup. Despite being seriously unwell with an eating disorder, I somehow convinced myself that this behaviour was about ‘health’, because ‘sugar is the devil’ and ‘I must abstain from sin and gluttony’!
Needless to say, these replacement foods did not satisfy me, and during my binges I would end up eating ten times the amount of chocolate that would have normally satisfied me pre-ED. In other words, my ‘strategy’ backfired. Scarcity creates and illusion of value, and the more I avoided a food, the higher up on the food-pedestal it was put. An all-or-nothing, last-supper mindset was reinforced, meaning that whenever the food was available, I’d eat until I felt sick because this was my ‘last chance’ (and wanting the food out of the house), not to mention I was undernourished and underweight with a body screaming for food.
(ED logic 101.)
Contrary to popular belief, I do not believe that the antidote to all-or-nothing thinking around food is mindful eating, more restraint, avoidance of ‘trigger foods’ or to ‘watch out’ for binges. This is where I and some eating disorder practitioners’ approaches clash. Although I do understand and respect that different things work for different people, I’ve never personally worked with someone who’s reported that they ‘beat the binges’ with restraint or avoidance - and over half of my clients at any time have binge-compensate type eating disorders. I have worked with people who’ve reported moving from a binge-restrict/compensate type eating disorder to a more solely restrictive type (often Orthorexia), but I would not classify this as recovery.
Instead, what I have seen over and over to actually work (and coincidentally done my Psychology Master thesis on) is to Eat The Thing™️. What is “The Thing”? Well, it is the thing you are avoiding, fearing, and attempting to use replacement foods to fullfill your cravings for!
If you crave pancakes, have actual pancakes. Yes, in the beginning you may eat so many pancakes you feel physically unwell, but that is not you failing at recovery or ‘going from one ED to another’ (as long as you do not engage in restrictive, compensatory behaviours in response). Instead, this is a normal part of recovery. It takes some time for your body and brain to get out of the scarcity mindset and realise that food - all foods - are readily available. Once that happens, you’ll notice shifts in your eating. But the only way is through it, not around it!
When working with clients, I often encourage them to implement the foods they are avoiding as much as they can throughout the day. Take chocolate, for example. How about adding in some chocolate with your morning coffee, sprinkling some on your cereal, having a chocolate bar (or three) as a snack at school or work, and some chocolate cake for dessert after dinner? The reason why implementing throughout the day is important is that it prevents the ‘saving up’ calories for later-mindset. It also helps with the abundance aspects of recovery, not to mention challenging food perfectionism. This is to avoid sneaky behaviours such as:
- Saving up calories for a night feast on chocolate (nothing wrong with a night feast, but if it is driven by restriction it could be worth investigating)
- Only eating chocolate when the time, surroundings etc. is perfect, and having the mindset that certain foods are only ‘worth’ eating when you really enjoy it (food- and eating does not have to be perfect or enjoyable to be necessary!)
- Limiting amounts or time frame when you can eat certain foods
All of the above are typical sneaky behaviours that go undetected by many practitioners, yet can uphold all-or-nothing mindsets- and behaviours around certain foods. I always encourage eating that food you forbid yourself from not just in abundance, but also in a way that is flexible and imperfect. The chocolate is a bit melted? Who cares! Can’t sit down and enjoy your waffle? You still need to eat it! Not really hungry in the morning? Breakfast is still important! I believe that when it comes to recovery, the devil is in the details. The above examples might seem like small things to focus on, but I’ve seen over and over that this kind of day-to-day flexibility is what really ‘makes’ recovery.
(Scandinavia has the best sweets in the world and I will die on this hill!)
Now back to my sweet tooth journey for a bit. When I started recovery, I was initially very hung up in eating (how I perceived to be) ‘right’. For example, I would eat chocolate - but only a certain type and amount. (In retrospect, I wish this had been challenged and targeted more by my treatment team, but as I was eating 3000 calories, resting and restoring weight, they did not focus too much on it). It was something I had to truly tackle on my own once I was discharged from outpatient. Surprisingly it went quite well. My extreme hunger had already died down quite a bit from a consistently high intake and weight restoration, and I had a sense of awareness of what I needed to do to reach that final step of full food freedom.
So, I ate The Thing.
In my case, The Thing was very much oriented around chocolate and sweets. I would buy 200 gram Freia chocolate bars and eat them myself in no time - not in a ‘binge’ way or an extreme hunger way (although that is OK and normal, too!), but more in a ‘goddamn, I’ve missed this!’ way. Trying a new chocolate flavour was so, so exciting. Pick and mix sweets were my best friend, and I had a period of being obsessed with fudge caramels. I remember sharing some of my snacks on Instagram during this time, and responses would range from ‘you go girl’ (thanks!) to ‘you are promoting diabetes’ (that’s not how diabetes work) to ‘you’re not really eating all that’ (I am). It was a fun time (and no, I did not ‘become unhealthy’ nor developed a ‘sugar addiction’).
And then, eventually, food - even those goddamn fudge caramels - became just… food.
Don’t get me wrong, my sweet tooth is alive and kicking. I don’t go a day without a sweet snack or three! But compared to that post-recovery phase described above, foods just aren’t that exciting anymore. If someone brings me a chocolate bar I’ll eat it - enjoy it, even - but it is no longer the highlight of my week. As much as I like everything sweet, I’ll crave a variety of foods. I enjoy food, but in a different way - I enjoy food more like I did before my eating disorder.
(Heck, it may even be slightly less exciting now compared to pre-ED, especially compared to childhood, because in childhood my parents would restrict access to sweets and chocolate in weekdays, which made it far more exciting! Hide a toy from a kid, and that’s the exact toy they’ll obsess about. Forbidden fruits taste the sweetest!)
Recovery should not be seen as a ‘hack’ to reduce one’s chocolate intake (or intake of *insert other food*). I’ve noticed this sometimes working with clients - the eating disordered part of them is willing to go ‘all in’ on the chocolate, but only so that they can long-term reduce or restrict it, and get ‘back on track’ with their diet. This is counterproductive. Overall, the point of recovery is to make peace with food; to enjoy food yet also find meaning and purpose outside it (nobody is as food-obsessed as a food-restricted person!). The secret? Food. Lots of it. Including The Thing. So go have it. The real deal!
Let’s face it: your body and brain knows the difference between a brownie-flavoured protein bar and a real brownie cake. If not, you’d not be spending so much time consuming ‘food porn’ online. Zucchini ‘pasta’ might physically fill your stomach, but it wont really satiate you - fullness is more than a physical sensation in the tummy! (It is also an insult to pasta). Quit with the ‘hacks’ - they are counterproductive and only fuels the eating disorder. Why fuel what’s essentially trying to kill you?! With this in mind, are these ‘healthifications’ really ‘healthy’?
(A collection of fudge from my fudge-phase. Fun fact: after that phase ended, I barely touched fudge for years after, I was so fed up.)
A few days ago, I had a wisdom tooth taken out. The days after wisdom tooth removal, you are instructed to eat a soft food diet. To me, this has been the closest thing to ‘restriction’ I’ve experienced in many years - not restriction in terms of energy intake, but restriction in terms of types of food. I have really been craving some nice, crunchy chocolate (or anything crunchy, really - heck, even a raw carrot seems so appealing right now), but instead I’ve had to rely on chocolate mousse, ice cream and a ridiculous amount of Nesquick Petit (seriously, I go through 6-12 pots per day). And guess what? I’ve been eating these silly solid foods in large amounts, yet I am not satisfied because it is not really what I crave.
This is all fine for a short period after wisdom tooth removal (although for people with eating disorders, this can be a trigger, which is a whole other article). It is not fine as a permanent state of being (and eating). Feeling deprived is uncomfortable - like an itch that does not go away, preventing you from being fully present and focused. You are not weak or greedy for feeling that way - you are human.
I love chocolate mousse, but I know that as soon as I can implement more solid foods, it will be the last thing I’d want. Instead, I’d go for the crunchy chocolate and the raw carrot. Then, after some time, my cravings will normalise, and I’ll crave a bit of everything, at different times. Imagine if I decided that I must eat soft foods forever, and raw carrots and crunchy chocolate is forbidden? I’d be driving myself nuts, and probably have dreams about carrots and Maltesers chocolates dancing around me. Does this mean that I am ‘addicted’ to raw carrots or crunchy chocolates, and should therefore only eat soft foods to stay in control - despite the fact that even 12 pots of Nesquick pudding does not satisfy me like one carrot or chocolate bar would? Of course not!
Your cravings are telling you something, and the more you try to fight them, the louder they scream. Don’t get me wrong, it is OK not to always know what you crave - food perfectionism is not productive for recovery, and you still need to eat! What is important is that when your body and brain tells you it wants something - not your eating disorder - you go have it. The antidote to food scarcity has to be food abundance. And once you have that, life abundance can flow in, too.