Why Eating Disorders Are About More Than Just Food

A lot of people think eating disorders are just about the food. They think it’s as simple as just not bingeing, eating more, or not restricting. But if it were really that simple, treatment centers wouldn’t exist. Eating disorders are complicated, sneaky, psychological disorders that affect not only the person’s physical well-being, but their social, mental and emotional states as well.

Food might be a part of it, but it’s typically fueled but by a deeper emotional battle.

Personally, my battle was with perfectionism. Although people would point out my perfectionist tendencies, I never realized how perfectionism controlled every aspect of my life. The way I ate, exercised, worked, and socialized revolved around my quest for perfection. Eventually, this obsession with perfection took on a new name – it became an eating disorder.

The perfectionism was present in the four key areas of my life: my diet, my job, my physical activity and my relationships. Let me explain a bit about how my eating disorder affected each area to give you the bigger picture of what an eating disorder is really like.

F O O D

I was diagnosed with Celiac disease at age 16. Immediately, I had to learn how to adjust to living a gluten-free lifestyle to ensure my long-term well-being.

When I went off to college, I no longer had my mom to help me navigate this. So, I turned to the most popular information source available: the internet.

I started following Instagram accounts, pinning recipes, testing gluten substitutes and being more conscious of where I ate out to avoid cross-contamination. Most people would probably make this transition in a healthy way, but I went off the deep end.

People began praising me for my food choices. I was told how “healthy” everything I ate looked. And I started to thrive on that praise.

What people didn’t see was the restriction was behind my food choices. I had subconsciously removed several vital food groups from my daily diet.

What should have been a just a gluten-free diet became extremely low carb and low fat, heavily vegetarian, and very restricted in terms of ingredients and methods used.

Most of the accounts I pulled recipes from advertised their recipes as “healthy,” “fit for all diets,” and “guilt free.” At the time I didn’t realize how disordered it was to try and cook with none of the vital food groups or ingredients.

I was developing a genuine fear of food. A fear my eating disorder justified through the positive comments I received from friends commenting on my food choices. My eating disorder convinced me I had a “healthy eater” reputation to maintain. What he didn’t tell me was that my perfectionism was slowly destroying my body.

E X E R C I S E

I have always loved movement. Not explicit exercise, but activities that allowed me to challenge my body and strengthen myself; rock climbing, obstacle runs, kayaking, hiking, and dancing were (and still are) some of my favorite forms of movement.

But when I got to college, these activities were harder to come by and the gym at my university was at the bottom of my dorms. So, I began strength training.

People told me I looked good. And those simple statements convinced my perfectionist inclinations (and developing eating disorder) that I had to keep going.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t enjoying the exercise as much as my prior movement. What mattered to my perfectionism was that I was getting more attention from those around me.

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I had finally fit the mold of what the media says a “fit woman” should look like. And my eating disorder wanted to convince me that I had to do everything possible to keep that unhealthily-thin frame.

“I can do it myself!”

My eating disorder truly peaked when it broke into my personal life and relationships.

Entering college, I was a very independent 18-year-old. My parents had raised me to take responsibility, push myself and learn how to thrive on my own. This independence allowed me to transition smoothly to being away from home.

However, I began using my known independence and “adulting” skills to push my inner circle away.

I feared that sharing my emotions, expressing needs and wants, or doing something for myself would be viewed as weak and less independent. Instead of letting people in who were concerned about my developing eating disorder, I pushed them away.

I remained in a toxic relationship because my eating disorder told me I didn’t need a supportive partner. ED was constantly in my face, telling me that, in order to remain a “perfect, independent young adult,” I needed to refuse help and ignore any signs from my mind or body that I was hurting. I couldn’t let people see emotion in me.

Yes, it was about more than just the food.

W O R K

Let me preface this section with saying I absolutely LOVED the job I held for the past two years. But as is the case with any job you love, my perfectionism drove me to overwork myself.

I’m not saying that arriving slightly early to get warmed up and settled or staying a little late to finish up a project is a bad thing; the damage came as a result of my fear of speaking up.

My inability to say no led to a plate full of projects outside of my job description and longer hours than I was contracted for (while also balancing school and interning). While I was coming home exhausted and beginning to dread going into work, ED only heard the compliments from my team about how I was “a super employee,” and “the MVP of the team.”

How could I speak up when I was receiving unending praise in the office?

So, I kept quiet as the hours kept getting longer and the workload got heavier. It was more than just the food.

Healing all over

I didn’t see the danger when I looked at each area individually. But reflecting on this year of perfectionism has shown me how dangerous the combination can be. So what have I done to continue shutting my eating disorder and perfectionism down?

Well, I’m making exercise more intuitive. an exercise schedule. Now, I take more mindful walks and base exercise on how I feel in that moment. I’m viewing exercise as a way to honor and move my body, not to try to change it.

I spoke up at work and reduced my workload, eventually leaving my job to make room for my true passion: teaching. While I remain involved with the organization, I’m now dedicated to putting my all into my student teaching internship. Teaching is truly my happy place.

I’m also more selective about my inner circle. And no, I don’t think this means I’m cold or shutting people out. It means I am now aware of what a healthy relationship looks like, so I am choosing to only cultivate friendships that give me energy. Everyone in my life serves a unique purpose and gives my life meaning. When I need an accountability check or help, I have people to go to.

And most importantly, I am allowing myself to explore food again.

I won’t lie, I’m still really difficult. Some days I go back to my safer foods. But I don’t see this as the eating disorder winning. I see it as me protecting myself from a full breakdown by allowing myself to sit comfortably in a meal every now and then in between challenges.

More than food

So yes, eating disorders are about more than the food. It’s not as simple as “just eating more,” but really involves so much more work and looking at how the disorder is affecting other areas of your life.

If you know someone is recovery, honor that it’s about more than the food. And if you are in recovery, make sure you’re taking a look at the other areas of your life that might need healing. But know this, warrior – you’re doing great, and recovery is worth the work!

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