Long before I was a registered dietitian I was on vacation in Florida when I reached into the cookie tin and took out three cookies. I’ll just have three, that will be it, I told myself. Everyone else was at the beach, and I had stayed back to sneak a treat.
Not even 10 minutes later, I had eaten 12 cookies. Guilt-ridden and angry at my “weakness,” I berated myself for once again losing control. It was me versus food, and food was almost always winning.
At this point in my life, I was trying incredibly hard to stick to “healthy” food in order to stay thin. It never worked for long, though, before I broke and binged on everything in sight. At the time, I was living with roommates who seemingly ate without a second thought, and I’d watch them jealously. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t be carefree about eating and they could? Why were they able to look at food seemingly neutrally while every day, for me, was a battle between me and what I wanted to eat but wouldn’t let myself? How was it that I was so caught up in diet culture—which at this time in the 90s hadn’t been fully outed as such in mainstream culture—and they had emerged unscathed? I spent so much time “fighting my cravings,” while they just…well…ate. Sure, they may have had their own issues, but I never saw them struggle around food the way I did.
“Just eat and don’t think so hard about it,” my boyfriend at the time told me. I looked at him like he had three heads. Impossible, I thought.
Two decades later, as a registered dietitian (and as someone who’s worked a ton on her own stuff), I can clearly see what was going on: By trying so hard to control what I ate, by thinking of food as an enemy I had to defeat day after day, I was trapped in a never-ending war with myself and with food. All it did was make me frustrated, angry, and deprived, not only of food, but also of the social experiences that come with eating. For me, the need for control came from fear—fear that I’d overeat, fear that I’d gain weight. But the tighter I held on, the more I felt the need to let go. And that just started another cycle of bingeing followed by restricting followed by bingeing. Really, food had become my enemy.
I wish I could tell you that reframing my relationship to eating was easy, but it wasn’t. It was a process that lasted for a few years, but I eventually did it.
I sought help from my medical doctor, and from a dietitian. I also confided in friends, who shared their struggles around food with me, and all of these things helped a lot. There are so many more mental health resources today than there were back then. It was more of a secret thing that people didn’t like to talk about openly, and my awareness of professional support for these sorts of issues was really minimal.
That said, I know I was still privileged to access all of the services and professionals that helped me. Many people can’t afford to consult with a dietitian. Some don’t have a doctor, or can’t afford one who will help with their eating issues. I was lucky to have friends who actually spoke up and told me that they were concerned about me, and were willing to stand by me through all of this.
Little by little, I experimented with ceding control by first exposing myself to the foods I wanted but felt I shouldn’t eat. I slowly saw that giving up a bit of control and eating more at times made my urges to binge start to subside. I felt less miserable. And I started to feel much more in tune with my hunger and fullness cues, since I was eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was full. Little by little, food wasn’t an enemy I had to conquer or control, it was just, well, food.
Once I shifted my mindset to stop seeing food as inherently risky and dangerous, I let myself have what I wanted when I wanted. When I did this, I noticed that I no longer felt the urge to eat everything all at once. It was no longer “feast or famine” in my mind. I felt a whole lot better physically, and for the first time in years, I felt emotionally free. I can’t deny that I was afraid of making these changes at first, and I did backtrack a bunch of times. But eventually, my new habits stuck.
Do I still eat past the point of fullness sometimes? Of course! And when I do I am able to see it as it is: a perfectly normal way of eating and relating to food—but also not my only way of eating and relating to food. For me, the reframing of food as my arch nemesis into something totally neutral was an essential shift toward having a healthier relationship with eating and my body.
If you’re interested in examining and dismantling your hangups around food, know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help from a professional. Talking to a licensed therapist or registered dietitian (or both!) who has experience helping people sort out their relationship with food can make a huge difference. It did for me, and it does for my patients. In fact, I doubt that these revelations would have just randomly occurred to me without the help of professionals. As I said, this took time and introspection and work. If you can’t afford or don’t have access to any of those professionals, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a 24/7 helpline and information about free and low-cost support options in the U.S.
Sure, we’d all like to be able to just eat and not think so hard about it, but it’s not that simple. Changing your relationship with food takes time, and is, for many people, a lifelong commitment. You’re not alone, trust me.