Recently I got a small glimmer into the minds of my clients when they have disordered food thoughts, feelings, and obsessions of food. I haven’t had thoughts like these in many years since I recovered from my eating disorder because I have fought hard to eliminate them. I also eat very well and often, so the obsessive thoughts that accompany hunger won’t penetrate my mind.
I had to go shopping for presents and party supplies for my daughter’s birthday. I knew I would be out all day and probably would need to have lunch “on the go”. I ate a typical breakfast before I left the house. A few hours later, deep into my shopping day, I was ready for lunch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t near any place where I could go and sit inside and relax. I didn’t want to eat lunch in my car so I had to wait. I went to another store. I sensed my frustration level rising. I wasn’t getting anything accomplished and I was hungry. I was cranky, impatient, and foggy-headed.
I left the store I was in and started mildly obsessing about what I was going to have to eat. “Should I have pizza or a wrap? The pizza place is closer, but it’s always crowded. The wrap place is farther away, but I can sit down quietly and enjoy my meal. The store I need to go to next is on the way to the store where I can get the wrap but then I won’t get to have lunch for another 30 minutes, and I’m hungry now. But I really want a wrap and I might end up having pizza for dinner. Ok, I can wait another 30 minutes to get to the wrap store.” I then proceeded to the store that was on the way to get my wrap. I spent at least 45 minutes in the store, due to lines and the indecision brought on by my ever-growing hunger and foggy headedness. I was angry at everyone, agitated, and couldn’t get food off my mind. I was way too hungry and felt like I wanted to eat anything I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, there was no food in the store. I almost bought snacks that were at the register, but I wanted a “real” lunch, not a snack. My stomach was in pain and I began to feel faint. Meantime, it had been about 6 hours since breakfast. I don’t like to go longer than 3 or 4 hours without food. I was 2 hours overdue. Yikes!!
I left the store, got into my car, and couldn’t think of anything but food. I had originally toyed with the idea of having a salad with all kinds of good toppings, but now my mind was searching for very dense filling foods. I didn’t even want a wrap anymore. I was currently obsessing about cupcakes and donuts. I knew my mind was obsessing because my brain was desperate to be fed, but I couldn’t stop it from happening. I couldn’t “will” the thoughts away, because my brain and body were desperately asking to be nourished. My mind was conjuring up images of all types of foods that I love. At that moment, I conjured up an image of a delicious burrito from “Chipotle” restaurant. It was right on my route, right after the wrap store. I drove down the highway, past the sandwich/wrap store, on my way to “Chipotle”. I pulled into the shopping plaza, and nearly freaked out. It was no longer a “Chipotle” restaurant. It was a “Five Guys” burger restaurant. As you can probably imagine, I felt significantly disappointed. No… I was literally “devastated”. All this negative emotion poured out of me. All this negative emotion, and endless obsessing, was a result of going too long without food. I sat in my car in defeat. I almost cried, but then said to myself “this is what your clients feel every day, multiple times a day. This is so sad. Hunger is no laughing matter. Obsessing about food is excruciating. Trying to defy your body’s basic needs always leads to endless misery, on a physical and emotional level.”
This epiphany didn’t eradicate my hunger though. I still needed to eat. I was now 10 minutes from home, so I decided to just wait the extra ten minutes and fix myself something there.
The problems weren’t over though. As many of you know, when you are overly hungry, you have a hard time being satisfied with what would normally be “enough”. This is the situation I found myself in. I had let my hunger get too strong, and my blood sugar was too low. The hunger and urgency (all caused by low blood sugar, hunger hormones and stress hormones) I felt by the time I got home caused me to eat twice as much as I would have normally eaten. I couldn’t stop after a normal sized lunch. I felt insatiable. The good news was that I knew this was going to happen and I accepted it. Those of you with eating disorders who struggle with these issues unfortunately often feel guilty and beat yourselves up for these types of urgency-driven eating behaviors.
The message I want to impart through this story is that when you don’t trust and listen to your body’s needs, and you try too hard to follow your eating disorder’s ARBITRARY “restrictive” rules such as:
· Time-driven rules (ie: “I have to eat at 12 o’clock exactly, no sooner and no later.”),
· Number-driven rules (ie: “I have to eat this exact amount of calories now.” “I can’t eat more than XXX amount of grams of fat.”),
· “Types of food” rules (ie: I can’t eat bread now because I’m eating a potato later.” I can’t eat a dessert food more than XX times per week.” “I can’t eat pizza because I haven’t eaten it in years.”)
· Weight rules (ie: I can’t eat this type of food because it will make me gain weight.”)
You will set yourself up for relentless food thoughts, obsessions, physical symptoms and stress, extremes in emotions and/or numbing out from emotions, risk of overeating and binge eating, subsequent feelings of worry and guilt, “deal making”, constant checks and balances, excessive production of “hunger and stress hormones” that may remain elevated, and on and on and on. You can’t “will” these issues away. Your body and brain won’t let you. When your brain is in need of nutrients (glucose is its source of fuel/energy), it will alert you to attend to its needs…one way or another. All the rules that your eating disorder voice concocts to prevent you from eating naturally and intuitively will cause some or all of these symptoms.
I highly recommend that you work on trying to break some of these unfair rules, a little at a time, and try to eat at a frequency that your brain will like. I make sure I eat every 3-4 hours (not obsessively though) to ward off all deprivation-driven physical and psychological stress. Ultimately, the more you can try to trust your brain and your body (I know many of you don’t trust your body), the closer to recovery you will become. It will definitely take time and a huge leap of faith, but your brain and your body have the answers. You just need to begin listening a bit more to them and a bit less to your eating disorder.
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