“It’s About The Food,” Part One: Struggling with Negative Feelings about Food in the Face of Physical/Digestive Illness

Dear readers, welcome to a two-part series of articles about food. As many of my friends and family know, I am personally and professional interested a lot of topics that surround food, from my great love for the Food Network and my deep hatred of “fitspiration.” I thought that I’d take some time to articulate some thoughts about food that I’ve been mulling over recently. In this blog post, Part 1, I’ll be debunking one of the pervasive myths that “it’s not about the food,” namely that physical illnesses and aversions to food cannot lead to having distorted thoughts about eating or body image. Disclaimer: I am not a health professional, or a therapist. I am simply speaking from my own personal experience, and am not attempting to make broad claims about others’ experiences.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling with a number of physical health issues, all of which center around my old nemesis: food. In addition to struggling with increased food sensitivities, which means that I can no longer process ANY alcohol, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, or artificial flavourings, I also struggle with reactive hypoglycemia, and a flare-up of the digestive issues that plagued my mid-teens after I was diagnosed with H. pylori.

In theory, this isn’t the worst situation in the world. I don’t drink anyway, so not being able to consume alcohol doesn’t change my life in any significant way, and since artificial substances aren’t necessarily wonderful for our bodies anyway, it’s very easy to give those things up. I haven’t had a Diet Coke for nearly 5 years, and don’t miss it at all. Dealing with reactive hypoglycemia, too, is also relatively simple: it can be controlled with a regular intake of small meals, with an emphasis on good proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Rehabilitating one’s digestive system is also not easy, but it IS manageable, especially with the right medications for temporary relief, and the right foods for long-term relief. These are common conditions, and certainly not acutely life-threatening ones. Some days are good ones, but the bad ones can certainly be awful ones. I’m hoping that within a few months, I’ll be feeling back to my old, irritatingly-chipper, active self.

In practice, however, having to once again be hyper-conscious about food (and knowing the severe discomfort and illness that can result when I am lax about it) is a painful reminder of the times in my life when food consumed my every waking moment: my years of anorexia. I’ve started to worry recently: would my increased attention to and scrutiny of food send me spiraling back into a relapse? Why was I starting to have negative body image again? Was I just imagining that food was starting to make me sick again, or was I dreaming it up as a way to lose a few pounds? Why, after coming to terms with the fact that I actually prefer my body as it is now (35 pounds heavier than when I was at my sickest) was I starting to worry about “feeling” fat?

But when I stopped to really reflect on my relationship to food, I realized that many of my thoughts now, and even parts of my prior eating disorder, were actually a reaction to physical illness. In complete opposition to everything that I had been told in my experiences of eating disorder treatment, some of it was and is about the food. It’s about the fact that when food feels unsafe to eat, it’s hard to trust our bodies to treat us well. It’s about the fact that when I am feeling physically well, when I’m having a good day, that my body-image is perfectly healthy. Anyone who’s even struggled with a case of food poisoning, the flu, or a hangover will know how intrinsically connected our physical well-being is connected to a healthy self-image and sense of our bodies: it’s completely logical. I began fearing food after developing severe stomach problems at the age of 15, and needing to control my food was a reaction to the fact that I felt that food was controlling (and hurting) me. It did eventually spiral into a whole host of other issues, including my strange preoccupation with modelling and fashion, but was most certainly triggered by, in my case, fearing food for quite rational reasons.

What I’m frustrated with now, as much as I was when I was in treatment, is dealing with the common presumption that aversions to or negative experiences of food are necessarily derived from a psychological problem, rather than the possibility of it being able to be the other way around. It’s the stigma I face when I say that I don’t drink, and I get accused of being morally opposed to alcohol or not wanting to “drink my calories,” or the pressure that I encounter when I am asked to “just try” something that I know will not sit well with my stomach. It’s the attitudes I get from doctors who assume, especially because I am a young woman, that I’m just concerned with how I look, not with how I feel. It’s the flush of embarrassment and the feeling of being forced to explain why I’m not ordering certain items at a restaurant, and the misconception that I must be constantly dieting or trying to lose weight. I’m tired of worrying that people will still think I’m screwed up about food because I want to look like a supermodel, or trying to make people understand that I’m feeling unattractive or uncomfortable with my body because of how it feels on the inside.

To be perfectly honest, I would find it easier to say that I wasn’t eating certain foods because I wanted to lose weight or because I thought they’d make me fat, rather than the truth, which is that I’d rather not be doubled up in pain in the bathroom or feeling unbearably nauseous. Many people do not want to hear about or talk about digestive issues, even though they are incredibly common, and even though colorectal cancer “is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men and women combined” (Colon Cancer Canada).

I think that societally and medically speaking, we have been making significant progress in realizing that we have to take a holistic approach to health. We are slowly dispensing with the old Cartesian approach that it’s “all in the mind,” and realizing that issues such as Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, diabetes, and hypersensitivities to food can not only cause physical discomfort, but can lead to depression, brain fog, fatigue, and a strained relationship with one’s body. We are starting to recognize that paying attention to physiological causes of distress, and not making the assumption of psychosomatic illness, can lead to earlier diagnoses of a number of debilitating conditions, including cancer. With regards to eating disorder treatment proper, we’re also starting to learn that alongside emotional and psychological skills, we can teach ways to have a healthy relationship with food, to appreciate the power of nutrition, and that we can’t recover from an eating disorder without coming to terms with what and why we eat.

I’ll be very, very clear: I do not believe that eating disorders or a disordered relationship to food are completely disconnected from psychological issues, such as responses to trauma, as a symptom of anxiety, depression, or stress, or as part of the increasing and pervasive sociocultural pressure to look healthy, fit, and thin. Nor am I suggesting that everyone who has digestive issues or physical illnesses will have screwed up relationships to food or body image. People can certainly experience both at the same time, or experience them as distinct processes. It’s all extremely individual.

In my case, there definitely was an overlap between food sensitivities and an unhealthy psychological relationship to food. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt that I deserved to be punished because I’d not done well on an assignment, and thus have deliberately eaten foods that made me feel desperately ill. Like many women, I struggled with – and continue to fight against – the media messages which equate the size of my waist with my worth as a person. It’s complex. The line between body and mind is a very blurry one. Are there people with eating disorders who also who use their physical illnesses or digestive issues as excuses to eliminate more foods than are necessary? Of course: I’ve been there, and done that, and am certainly not proud of once having exploited my physical illness to serve my desire to be thin. The knowledge that I’ve done that in my past shames me to this day, and this is one of the major reasons that I often force myself to push through discomfort and illness, because I never, ever want to be accused of using this as an excuse to get out of anything, especially eating.

What I am aiming for, by being open and honest about these issues, is a way for those who struggle with physical illness and strained feelings about food that they aren’t alone, that they’re not crazy, and that it’s not just all in their head. It’s also okay if they struggle with the psychological elements of body image and food issues, too. Many of us do. It’s also okay to have had/have an eating disorder and still struggle with food for other reasons.

Most importantly, what I want people to hear, especially who have been told that it’s all in their head and not in their bodies, or that it’s a remnant of their past/current history of eating disorders: I believe you, and I support you in your efforts to be heard as you keep advocating for your own treatment and health. You’re not alone.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of “It’s About the Food,” in which I’ll take a look at how the pressures to eat healthily and exercise to achieve a certain body shape are perceived as mere matters of individual choice and willpower, rather than as part of a larger discussion of the economics and politics of food and fitness.

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3 comments

  1. Lucia, this is powerful and very, very important. I think we all need to think far more about what we eat, and how it makes us feel, even on the most superficial level: how do I feel physically, and how do I feel about myself, having just eaten that… Being my age, and having a mother with multiple allergies and sensitivities as well, my first reaction to “I can’t drink alcohol” or “I can have that” (what ever it might be) is that there is some sort of physiological reason. I understand, though, that for the younger members of our society, this is absolutely not the case. That is a great shame: being young and beautiful should not deny you a true understanding of your reality.

    Keep at it. Eventually everything will (I hope) settle out, and you will know the boundaries of what your physical body allows. I know you have a greater understanding than most of us about these issues: I learn so much from your posts….

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