One of the biggest problems with eating disorders is that they rob us of our intuitive and natural relationship with food. Parents who are helping a child recover from an eating disorder can be incredibly helpful as we gradually go from disordered eating to having a normal relationship with food.
In this article we identify the steps your child may take to become a normal vs. disordered eater. It is important to define what it means to be a normal eater since most people in our diet-obsessed culture have at least slightly disordered eating, which includes a range of behaviors from a generalized fear of gaining weight, utilizing caloric restriction and even the elimination of entire categories of food such as animal products, carbohydrates, sugar, fats, etc.
A normal eater is someone who does not experience either intense fear when eating food nor intense cravings and a sense of insatiable hunger. A normal eater doesn’t obsess about food and typically eats when they are hungry and stops when they are full. A normal eater has food preferences, but recognizes that sometimes they just need to eat what is available. Sometimes they need to eat when they don’t feel hungry because their body requires fuel or because they know that they will be hungry soon. Normal is fluid and responsive, and is not rigid and uniform.
Becoming a normal eater after an eating disorder
Following are five things that we think someone who has an eating disorder can work towards in order to become a normal eater. We borrow from some of the concepts of Intuitive Eating as well as parenting advice from Ellyn Satter on feeding children. However, it’s important to note that the pursuit of becoming a normal eater after an eating disorder must be free from any sense of perfection.
Normal eating doesn’t feel natural or right when we first enter recovery, but with time, practice, and patience, normal eating can replace our disordered relationship with food and our bodies.
Each of us recovers from an eating disorder in our own way, and in no way are we suggesting that the following are requirements of recovery for every person.
1. Be free from diet culture
Diet culture promotes the idea that weight loss is a good and healthy pursuit in life. When we recover from an eating disorder, we must work to eradicate the belief that our health and self-worth are based on our weight. This is hard, because diet culture is absolutely everywhere.
Most of us who have an eating disorder have a deep fear of weight gain. Even if we can see other people at higher weights and think they look fine, we do not accept that our bodies should do anything other than get smaller. These feelings are complex and go beyond weight, but they are also rooted in our culture, which has told us in millions of ways that we can and should control our bodies.
To recover from an eating disorder, we must discard our fear of getting fat and face diet culture head-on. To free ourselves, we must repeatedly assure ourselves that diet culture is a liar based on completely faulty evidence. We must remind ourselves that our bodies can be healthy at any size. Slowly, we will establish a truce with our bodies. We may never achieve full love for our bodies, but we can definitely achieve acceptance.
2. Stop tracking, measuring and weighing food to restrict
Some of us who are in recovery may need to track, measure and weigh our food to make sure we get enough to eat. In many cases, our eating disorder-trained nutritionist will put together a meal plan that we must follow in order to reach certain recovery goals. We should continue with these programs until our dietician tells us we can transition to a more intuitive way of eating.
Once we have the go-ahead from our recovery team, we can get rid of our calorie counting apps, measuring devices and scales that we have previously used to control and restrict our food intake. Normal eaters do not weigh their food. They eat what they want (or what is available), when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
This feels impossible when we have been counting and measuring our way to weight loss in our eating disorder, but we simply must free ourselves from restrictive food measurement in order to recover. We must relearn our intuition around hunger and fullness and practice listening to our bodies, not measuring devices.
If we experience increased binge eating or restriction in response to this freedom from tracking, measuring and scales, then we need to continue to work with a therapist to unpack our underlying psychology. For most of us, after an initial awkward period, we will begin to receive our body’s feedback and trust that we can eat the amount of food we need, neither under-eating nor over-eating most of the time.
3. Stop judging food as “good” or “bad”
It’s going to take a lot of time to recover our natural instincts for what we actually enjoy eating. This is because we have trained ourselves with our eating disorders to believe that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad.” Training ourselves to eat normally and in accordance with our appetite instead of a weight-loss plan, anxiety, and fear, will be a long-term process, but it must begin with slowly releasing foods from the prison of our judgement.
If our eating disorder fear foods include ice cream and butter, it’s going to be hard to eat those things. We may even say that we don’t like them. But we can try them and practice incorporating them into our diet. After trying them, we may decide that we really don’t like the way they taste, and that’s fine. But we need to make sure that we truly don’t like the taste of our fear foods and that it’s not just our disorder trying to hold onto our fear. This takes time, practice and, above all, patience.
We have to start by never again calling food “good” and “clean,” or “bad” and “cheating.” Food is just food. It has no moral qualities. Unless we haven’t washed it, all food is clean. The food we eat is not a reflection of our righteousness as individuals. Eventually, we will see that any food can fit into our lives. We will learn that we have preferences and we have cravings, but we never feel out of control around food again because we’re allowed to eat anything we want to eat.
4. Feed hunger
When we need to pee, we don’t wonder whether we really need to pee. We just go. When we are thirsty, we don’t question our thirst. We just drink. When we need to blink, we don’t second-guess our eyes. We just blink. Hunger is a natural and healthy urge that our bodies use to tell us it’s time to eat. Our culture and billion-dollar companies tell us that we need to “overcome” hunger with tricks, but that’s absurd. When we are hungry, we should eat.
Sure, people who have a tendency to binge eat may need to learn to check in on hunger to make sure that it’s coming from the body and not the mind, but this has been over-emphasized. Emotional eating has been turned into a condition to be overcome, when it’s actually not. Once we have gone through the first three steps, over-eating, mindless eating and emotional eating will all happen rarely, and when they do, it’s not a big deal.
Hunger cues are a little different for everyone. Most of us who have eating disorders have numbed our normal hunger cues and only notice our STARVING cues (which we can also train ourselves to ignore). Recognizing hunger is actually an advanced skill in recovery, which is why many of us start off with meal plans or at least eating on a schedule to help us in the early stages of rebuilding our mind-body connection when it comes to food.
Once we start to learn our hunger cues, we may be surprised or even frightened by how often we are hungry and how many times per day we need to eat. We need to keep snacks available so that we can respond to our hunger cues every time (or at least as often and as soon as possible) we feel it. This is how we rebuild body trust and relearn intuition. When we are in recovery we must feed our hunger reliably and completely as if it were a tiny puppy in our care. We wouldn’t restrict a puppy, and we must not restrict our body’s hunger.
Over time, we will gradually begin to pick up on hunger cues earlier and more reliably. We will begin to trust our body when it tells us it’s hungry. Sometimes we’ll get too hungry, and sometimes we’ll get uncomfortably full, but we try not to get starving, and we can reliably count on the fact that we can eat whenever we get hungry.
5. Be flexible
Someone who has had an eating disorder has been dealing with disordered eating thinking and behaviors for a long time. We have been actively and forcefully ignoring our body’s intuition, striking it down every time it tries to communicate with us. We have been rigid in our thinking and behavior.
To heal, we have to find a new pattern, a new way of eating that works for us. This becomes our own personal “normal.” Some of us may stick to a regular schedule and feed ourselves fairly set portions and meals. Others of us may be very flexible and “follow our hunger” every day, eating more some days, less on other days.
Exactly when and what we eat is less important than how we feel about eating. Our goal in recovery is to achieve a peaceful co-existence with food and be neither obsessed or afraid of what we are eating and how much we are eating.
It is natural and normal to experience recovery as a winding road, not a straight line. Sometimes we will under-eat. Sometimes we will over-eat. Some of us may purge. Some of us may hit fear in the face and need to retreat for a while. What matters is that we observe what’s going on, reach out for help, gather our resources, and begin again.