When I first started down the road toward recovery from my eating disorder, I began working with a dietitian who really understood the disease. She told me early on in our sessions that her philosophy was “everything in moderation, including moderation.” That was a pretty powerful concept.
For anyone with an eating disorder, life is lived in a world where everything is black or white, all or nothing. Food, for instance, was an entrenched concept of “this is good” and “this is bad.” I lived by books that prescribed those notions in clear and definitive ways. Out with Frosted Flakes and in with gluten-free Mineral Bran Berry Crunch fortified with extra light rice milk. That’s an exaggeration of course. But it’s true that I went from reduced calorie diets to reduced joy diets, cycling back to binge behaviors followed by compulsive exercise and restriction to undo the binge. It was a vicious cycle that is all too common for millions of American.
I had to get off the roller coaster. That was clear. But it took the calm, rational, non-judgmental voice of my dietitian to help me see that the way forward included allowing myself all kinds of food, from frozen to fresh, boxed to canned, pre-packaged to fresh, carb and fat and protein alike.
There were obstacles of course. I wanted to binge on foods I really loved, such as at the local Indian buffet, but I had to learn to tolerate my binge drive and eat only to satiety. There were times I felt guilty for having eaten food I still thought of as “bad” or “off limits” due to my ingrained diet mentality, and had to say skipping my next meal was not an option. There were times I got really sucky food, and had to be okay with eating enough to satisfy myself and not go into a pitty party and binge on pleasure foods later. After all, I’d already had enough for my body.
And then there’s the second part of her philosophy that even moderation needs to be done in moderation. Sometimes, you have to let yourself say “what the hell!” and go enjoy that second piece of cake because it was just that superlative. That’s real life, and I didn’t have to apologize for it. It just wasn’t something I was going to do all the time. How often would I allow myself to do this? That’s the real kicker. It had to be based on my developing awareness of my needs and desire.
If I was suffering some emotional hurt, feeling neglected, lonely, or sick and tired, that was not the time. Those moments of using food to numb out or self-sooth were gone. Listening to my body and mind discuss the opportunity to have a second serving was like learning a new language. I became faster and more fluent in the discussion and became more intuitive of when was a good time for me to eat a bit more. Eventually the calculation became clear – would this extra bit of yummy goodness make me feel good or bad. The food itself was neither good nor bad, it was how I would physically feel that mattered now!
This is how most people, especially young kids, feed themselves. My son, God bless him, can have a small ice cream cup after a meal at our little Italian neighborhood restaurant, come home and see a box of his favorite chocolate chip cookies, and walk right past them. He had his sweet craving sated, and had no shame or guilt or compulsion. We raised him to listen to his body cues from the earliest age. Food was never discussed as fattening or bad. It was never forced. It was never withheld. Bodies of all shapes and sizes were never assessed for beauty or fitness. We enjoy food. We cherish people for who they are. That’s so key. And sometimes, he goes to town on those cookies.
He is living “everything in moderation, including moderation.” We have to teach ourselves that this is actually the way we are meant to behave too, and then do it.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call (877-674-2843) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.