To Eat or Not To Eat

A bagel, a simple and delicious piece of food, and yet to me it is poison. I am afraid to eat many foods due to years of believing I was allergic or sensitive to food. Now, I know that it is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and an eating disorder, but I cannot magically undo years of fear and avoiding certain foods. Diet culture reinforces my rigid eating, and I fight every day to free myself from the perception society has of food and “healthy” eating. This is my constant fight with food that remained under the surface for so long.

My eating first started to go downhill in 6th grade, when I went from a small private school to a large public school. I kept seeing stuff on the internet about how meat is bad for your body and how vegetarians live longer. Naturally, I want to prolong my life, so I became a vegetarian (an added bonus is that I no longer had to eat my dad’s overcooked meat). I told myself that it was because I love animals and don’t want to eat them, but in reality I now saw meat as a “bad” and “unhealthy” food. Additionally in 6th grade, I saw a movie in health about how awful and horrible sugar is for us, and it scared me half to death (this will be really important later). Most kids barely paid attention but I was fixated, now convinced that the sugar I was eating was poisoning me. Around this time I started having stomach pains, so I tried a cleanse. While difficult, I had no pain while on the cleanse, so my mom and I figured a certain food was causing me pain.

I went to the doctor, and they tried the elimination diet. After cutting out gluten, I was in less pain. So, I immediately cut out all gluten from my diet and I avoided it like the plague (I wouldn’t eat anything that even just touched something with gluten in it). I started getting comments about how healthy I was now that I wasn’t eating gluten, and how dedicated and willful I was for maintaining such a hard and healthy diet. Slowly, my stomach pains came back, so I went back to the doctor and after another elimination diet we came to the conclusion that I was also allergic to dairy, so I immediately cut it out and felt better.

The comments about my diet kept rolling in, and were very positive. Everyone seemed to be kind of jealous of how healthy I was eating, but not willing to give up the food themselves. It made me feel like a better person, because I was not eating the “bad” foods. I became nervous whenever I was close to a “bad” food, and wouldn’t touch it. This made lunch at school an interesting time for me, since I couldn’t openly say anything about the food my friends were eating without seeming really mean. I kept my mouth shut but would be cringing in disgust at the food they ate.

Naturally, the stomach pains came back, so I went to the doctor and got a blood test for allergies (I still have no clue how the test works). It came back that I was sensitive to a whole bunch of food, and they are: shrimp, lemon, pineapple, malt, safflower oil, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, asparagus, green beans, squash, and egg whites (I might be missing one). Like before, I immediately cut them out. It helped for a little bit, but the pain came back. I tried numerous different diets (paleo, low carbs a.k.a. not eating as much fruit) but none of those really helped. I kept cutting out more and more food, now without a doctor telling me to.

Somewhere after the dairy allergy but before the other stuff I saw another sugar movie, probably in health class. I had been having lots of headaches as well, and while watching the movie my mind made the connection between my headaches and sugar (instead of the probable culprit which is dehydration). So I cut out sugar, which is very challenging because added sugars are in like everything. The only sugar I would have is naturally occurring (which to me was fruit and maple syrup).

In addition, an anxiety medication I was on in 9th grade made me super hungry so I gained weight really fast. I felt like my diet wasn’t “healthy” enough, and that was my issue that kept me from going back to the weight I was before after I got off the medication. I knew that starving myself wasn’t acceptable, so I became more and more fixated on the type of food.

My diet kept spiraling out of control. Every day it seemed that a new food became “bad” and I could no longer eat it. At its worse, during the summer between 9th and 10th grade, all I would eat was some fruit, some vegetables, rice, oats, maple syrup, quinoa, and protein smoothies. Because my food choices were so limited, I was eating 500-600 calories a day. At this time my therapist recommended me to a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders because she was really worried about my eating. She helped some, and got me to eat a little more types of foods. I started eating meat against my will because I couldn’t realistically get enough protein, but the only reason I was going along was because I wanted enough energy to get through the school year and I had to eat more.

Despite my brief work with the dietitian (who was amazing, she really did a great job), I still viewed food in a very rigid manner. My dad didn’t help, he kept reinforcing my rigid food beliefs and saying that the dietician doesn’t know what she’s doing. At one point he told me that my healthy weight was 10ish pounds below what I weigh. In addition the comments about my diet keep coming, and my “healthy” diet becomes part of my identity. To some people I have become known as salad girl because all I would eat is salad.

A few weeks ago I went to an OCD conference (best thing that has ever happened to me!) and I met a therapist who specializes in OCD and eating disorders. After talking to her in a support group about my eating for maybe 30 seconds she told me that I don’t have allergies. I was really confused, I mean how else would I explain the stomach pain? She told me that my OCD latched on to the idea that some foods were causing me pain, and an eating disorder developed. I had no clue all this was happening because the OCD and eating disorder are working together (co-morbid). She told me about diet culture and how other people were reinforcing my eating habits, and that if I want to get better I will have to break free and slowly build up to eating all foods.

After the conference I have started slowly adding food back into my diet. It is absolutely terrifying and I feel like I’m eating poison, but I continue to persevere, clinging to the hope of freedom from all of my rules around food. I have to be careful to not do too much. I learned from experience that if I push myself too hard my body kind of freaks out and I will have horrible headaches and stomach aches (it was not a fun experience). Despite setbacks, I am continuing to add foods and challenge myself. I have eaten many foods that scare me in the past few weeks: bagels, pancakes, sesame chicken, granola bars, crackers, muffins, cookies, yogurt, etc.

I continue to struggle to separate my eating habits from my identity. Food has defined me for so long, and I cannot let it control me like that any longer. I will not stay in situations where people are talking about diets or bad/unhealthy food. No one has the right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t eat. So, I am no longer salad girl, I am the girl who eats whatever she wants.