After 13 years of anorexia and a lifetime of disordered eating habits, I have spent this last year in intensive recovery, peeling back the layers of my life to discover what contributed to my disease. One of those layers uncovered a multitude of “healthy choices” that were anchored in cultural rules and founded upon dangerous half-truths. The following are four habits that were the most deadly for me–and the truths I have learned in my rehabilitation, which have saved my life.
- Avoiding “bad” foods.
The good-food/bad-food mentality is dangerous because it set my mind on auto-pilot for constant shame and guilt. If I ate a food that was classified as “bad for me” then I spent the rest of the day, and sometimes the week, calling myself names, chastising myself for my lack of self-control, and working it off in the gym to both punish myself and burn off the calories. Avoiding so-called “bad food” also caused me to ignore my body cues it was asking for particular nutrients. If my body was asking for bacon, potato chips, or a chocolate chip cookie, then rather than honoring my body’s need for carbs, sugar, fat or protein, I figured there was something wrong with me for wanting those “bad foods.” I restricted them in the practice of self discipline.
The truth: There is no such thing as “good food” and “bad food.” Every food has nutrients the body will use. While we as a culture order foods in a hierarchy, placing good-for-you foods at the top and outcasting bad-for-you foods as either “special treats” or “evil,” the human body places all foods on an equal playing field. The body considers ice cream for fat and sugar just as important as broccoli for vitamin A and fiber.
Instead of “good food” and “bad food” in our house, we have play food and serious food. All of them go on the table at meal times; they all share shelf space in the pantry and fridge. There is no hierarchy of food in our family; we do not use food as reward and punishment; there is no talk of “good-for-you” and “bad-for-you”; and we eat what sounds good. All food is nutrition for our bodies; there is no shame or guilt for nourishing our bodies.
2. Restricting sugar
I was on culture’s side believing sugar is evil and nothing good can come of it except for a great big crash onto a large belly. I had strict no-sugar-low-sugar rules. If I had a flavored non-fat latte at break, then no pastry. If I knew there was yummy dessert to be had after dinner, then I restricted sugar the whole day. My kids were allowed only one treat per day, and the portion was strictly controlled.
The truth: Did you know, with the exception of protein and fat, the body converts everything you eat into sugar? Sugar is the body’s main energy source. It doesn’t care whether you consume refined sugar, coconut sugar, honey, Stevia, pear juice, cane sugar–pick a sugar, any sugar. The body will use it, whether it breaks it down (as with complex sugars) or sends it straight to your blood stream. Sugar is sugar to the body, and it is a necessary nutrient.
The other day I ate two BBQ chicken drumsticks and half of a sweet potato for lunch. As the afternoon progressed I felt exhausted. I had a
slight hankering for a soda, which I ignored because I thought what I needed was a nap. But my body wouldn’t let me sleep. As I yawned and dragged my butt toward 3:00, I tuned in with my body. What was it telling me? Boom! I hadn’t had any sugar which is why it was asking for a coke. Yes, I had eaten a sweet potato which is a complex sugar, but that takes time for the body to process. I poured myself a glass of Hansen’s cola because that’s what sounded good, and within minutes I felt revived. I felt great the rest of the day. I had no sugar crash because my body was also working with the fats and proteins I had already fed it.
3. Avoiding carbs
This was my most deadly habit. Carbohydrates are the body’s number one preferred source of fuel, and I fed my body little to none. If I ate a small amount of anything “carby”– rice, potatoes, pasta, bread, etc.–I hit the gym immediately to burn it off. My body was lacking its number one source of energy, yet I pushed my body in the gym and daily life to perform, think, and operate at optimal levels. It was like forcing a race car to win a race with no gas in the tank.
The truth. Carbohydrates are the most important nutrient you can feed your body. Simple carbs (found in things like fruit, yogurt, desserts, and juice) are the most efficient form of carbs because the body doesn’t have to break them down. It sends the sugar straight to your blood stream for an immediate energy boost. This is normal and okay! Simple sugars are best paired with proteins and fats if you need to sustain your energy for longer periods of time. Complex carbs (found in serious foods like whole grain bread, pastas, and potatoes) are slower carbohydrates, meaning the body has to break them into simpler sugars before sending them to your blood for energy.
Protein doesn’t do the same thing as a carbohydrates. Protein builds and strengthens the body’s structure; carbs fuel the body so the structure can go.
Physical, mental, and emotional exertion burns energy. For me as an active mom of two kids, a Taekwondo student, and a generally anxious person, my body burns through energy constantly, which is why my body constantly asks for carbohydrates. I oblige and my body thanks me!
I lived desperately by the calories-in/calories-out formula, reading labels like the Bible. I counted and tracked calories the way a greedy man counts his money. As long as I burned more calories than I was eating, then I’d stay skinny. I became so obsessed with calories that I eventually whittled my diet down to calories in equaling calories out so I netted zero. Unfortunately, I broke my metabolism, which shut down critical body processes.
The truth: The calories-in/calories-out mentality doesn’t take into consideration your hard-working metabolism, which is always (even when we’re sleeping) burning energy as it lends fuel to internal processes such as digestion, muscle restoration, and hormonal functions. Counting and controlling calories is restricting calories, which deprives our body of energy and causes malfunctions to the metabolism. As the body shuts down, it goes into survival mode, storing any nutrients it can get and sending what little energy it has to the heart and brain. The body’s main goal… to keep you alive.
The bottom line is the body doesn’t need to be controlled; it needs to be heard. Your body doesn’t care about food trends and media mis-truths. Your body cares about you. Don’t worry about weight gain and weight loss; your body will keep you healthy if you listen to its cues. You can trust your body! Media doesn’t teach this truth.
After a year of learning how to listen to and trust my body, it has found its homeostasis again, restoring all that was broken and settling into a weight, shape, and happiness that is perfectly right for me.
For more information about my experience (because really, I’d need to write a book) feel free to contact me.
Also, for the science behind what I’m talking about here, head over to intuitiveeating.com and be introduced to Evelyn Tribole, Elyse Resch who have the fancy degrees in this stuff.