I’ve been practising intuitive eating for a good two or three years now. I’ve discovered I’m not particularly a biscuit person, I’m not addicted to chocolate, stale crisps are not nice, mature cheeses are too strong, and I feel better in myself when I add in gentle nutrition.
So why was I still struggling with ice-cream?
I couldn’t figure it out. I’d made peace with so many of my former binge foods, but I still struggled to recognise when I’d eaten enough ice-cream, and before I knew it, the whole tub was gone. I knew it was THE most significant one for me, the first I used to reach for, the most comforting, the one tied up in childhood memories. But I’d made peace with pretty much every other food I used to abuse myself all those decades. What was it about this particular one?
I began to despair that I would never be free. I would never feel safe. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make peace with that amazing sweet, frozen, comforting tub of dairy?
Then, one day I realised.
I was still restricting it.
Not in the same way as all those other foods, but restriction all the same.
My freezer was always full. There was very little space. So I could only ever buy one small tub of ice-cream at a time. That would get eaten quickly, then there would be no ice-cream available until my next food shop a week or so later. The lack of space meant ice-cream was always a scarcity, and that scarcity meant a scarcity mindset, more cravings, and the potential for more binges.
And there was such an easy fix: make space. And that’s what I’ve done. I decluttered my freezer and ice-cream now has a permanent space in my freezer. And now I can finally start to make peace with it.
Making space. Making peace. They’re both so essential to recovery. Making space to grow, to feel, for everything other than constant thoughts about food. Making peace with yourself, the you who was entwined with the eating disorder, the one who lied. Making peace with the loss the eating disorder caused, the wasted time, energy, brainpower. Making peace with the physical damage caused, too.
And so I face this final frontier. Yet again, I find myself making space, and making peace, to recover from this illness which has taken so much.
On 24th July, 2021, I wrote the post “I binged today. Here’s what I learned.”
At the time, it didn’t cross my mind that I’d go a whole year without a full-on, painful, BED-style binge.
Yet here we are, in August 2022, and I haven’t binged like that since. There were so many points where it could have, and previously would have happened, and yet somehow it hasn’t. And I’m not even sure why.
I’ve certainly come very close. I’ve planned binges, bought binge foods, then put them away. I’ve had days when I just wanted not to feel, to numb myself, but used other ways to cope. And I’ve had days when I’ve eaten past fullness, just to take the edge off.
I’ve had plenty of days when I’ve hated my body, wanted to shrink it, trade it in for one that works properly and doesn’t hurt. When I’ve blamed it when something went wrong. I spent every day at my parents’ home in oversized and black clothes because when I packed, I was taking my anxiety about travelling out on myself.
I’ve delayed eating until lunchtime, even dinnertime some days. I’ve eaten nothing but binge foods every meal for days at a time until my body has screamed for something green.
I’ve eaten mindlessly. I’ve gone for weeks at a time without moving my body. I’ve had days when I’ve eaten nothing at all thanks to migraine induced nausea, and days where I’ve done nothing but graze.
But what I haven’t done is fall into such a pit of self-loathing that my only response is to binge until my stomach is so bloated and painful I could cry.
Why am I telling you all this? Because recovery isn’t about being perfect. Aiming for perfection can contribute to an eating disorder in itself. No, recovery is messy. It’s one step at a time, then sometimes three back. It’s learning as you go along: learning from mistakes, as well as successes. And it can look different every single day.
You take each challenge, each new experience as it comes. Leaping into the unknown, sometimes curious, sometimes terrified, holding onto the knowledge that whatever you face it won’t be as bad as before, when you were in the depths of the disorder, unable to see a way out.
Then little by little, the good days start to outnumber the bad. You face challenges, and change, and upset, and disappointment, and don’t automatically default to those old eating disorder coping strategies: bingeing, purging or restriction.
And one day, seemingly from nowhere, you realise that the eating disorder is no longer in control. It’s not screaming anymore. It’s a whisper, sometimes so quiet you can barely hear it. Sometimes it’s not even there at all.
It’s been a year since I last binged. My eating disorder is no longer in control. I’m in recovery. And I couldn’t be more proud.
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It wasn’t as simple as being a chubby kid who’d been put on a diet. There was more to it than that. There always is. There were times when money was tight, and food had to be stretched to the next pay day. I was apparently a terror and wouldn’t sleep if I’d had too much sugar when I was little, so my parents restricted it. But the impact was pretty much the same. I didn’t feel like I had enough to eat. I felt deprived. I felt hungry. I craved the things I wasn’t allowed.
The control extended to the school day. I was sent to school with a packed lunch instead of having school dinners. So all choice was removed.
Then there were the words used. Second helpings or snacks meant being called a pig. When I said I was hungry, I was told I wasn’t. The concept of good and bad foods was ever-present.
And so I suppose food became synonymous with control for me. Taking control of what I ate was a form of rebellion. Eating in secret was a form of rebellion. Eating forbidden foods was a form of rebellion. Throwing away my lunchtime sandwiches was a form of rebellion. I was choosing what and when I ate.
Except I wasn’t, was I?
I was a child, already stuck in a binge / restriction cycle. Skipping lunch then using my pocket money to buy chocolate on the way home. Hiding food in my room to eat when I needed comfort, when I needed not to feel. A child whose waking thoughts were dominated by food.
I wasn’t rebelling. I was ill. And I was a product of the society I grew up in.
And I grew up into an adult whose waking thoughts were still dominated by food. All those years, all those decades spent restricting, bingeing, purging, obsessing, hating myself, hating my body, wanting to be thinner, which I equated with more attractive, but unable to stop myself from stuffing my face. Ashamed, so deeply ashamed of my lack of control, disgusted that I had no willpower, distraught at my failure to be what society expected me to be.
Fast forward to June 2022, and this story starts to take on a new meaning. It becomes a cautionary tale. A parable of the patriarchy’s attempts to control females and marginalised groups, and their bodies. To keep them in their place. To re-assert and affirm its power. To shut us all up, because we are starting to shout too loudly and threaten the status quo.
In my fifty years on this planet I have never known a time when there have been such extreme attempts to control people’s bodies. Fatness has been categorised as a disease in its own right. Unprecedented numbers of people are having parts of their stomachs removed to meet society’s expectation of thinness. Others are going under the knife to appear younger or change their body shape to this year’s ideal. People are having their fat literally sucked out. People are taking pills with horrific side effects in an attempt to lose a couple of pounds.
Diet talk, and diet culture, are everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid. Calorie counting is now sanctioned and encouraged by the UK government in every environment where food is present. The mainstream and social media bombard us daily with advice on what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, when not to eat, all to meet the ideal of a thin and healthy body.
But whose ideal are we trying to attain? Who benefits from all the money spent on the surgeries, pills, protein powders, supplements, and superfoods? And is all that time, effort and money actually making us any thinner and healthier?
Whose ideal? The ideal of those who hold the power, of course. Who benefits? Again, those who hold the power. The people who benefit are the diet companies, the drug companies, the beauty companies, and the rich, mostly white cis men who own them. And then in turn, the politicians and lawmakers they fund using their profits.
And is it making us any thinner and heathier? Study after study says no. We’re being sold lies. There is no effective long-term method of weight loss for 95-98% of the population. These methods are all much more likely to make people fatter in the long term. The most common result, weight cycling, increases the risk of a number of health issues, including the diabetes we’re all so desperate to avoid. And the impact isn’t just physical: psychological impacts include a massive rise in the number of eating disorders like mine.
But the benefits for the patriarchy aren’t just financial. People’s obsession with weight loss (and by people I mostly mean those identifying as female) is helping to ensure that those in power stay in power.
My eating disorder, my constant pre-occupation with food, took away my voice. I had nothing to say. I didn’t have space in my head to even figure out what I wanted to say. I didn’t believe in myself, didn’t have enough self worth to think that anyone would want to listen even if I did speak up. I was fat, useless, a failure, because I couldn’t control my eating. Even at the times when those around me considered me a success.
I know dieting isn’t an eating disorder. There are clear differences. But I’ve dieted and restricted, and I’ve learned about its impacts in recovery, and our bodies and brains fight back with hunger and preoccupation with food. We are hard-wired to seek out food in times of famine, and dieting is essentially a time of famine. Non-essential systems in our bodies shut down. We lose muscle mass. All of these things hold us back, keep us down. They rob us of strength and brainpower to think for ourselves and fight for our rights.
If our values are based entirely around the way we look; if our self worth is based on achieving an ideal body, yet the ideal is constantly changing and unachievable for the vast majority; if our brains and bodies are being starved of nourishment as we attempt to become that ideal; if our self-worth is purposely stripped away because we are failing our life’s purpose; how can we find the strength and capacity to examine and unpick what is going on in the world, to look for alternatives, and to fight back?
It’s time to fight back. Fundamental human rights are being eroded right now. The right to autonomy over our bodies, the right to refuge, to freedom of speech, to protest, to live and love according to our own values and beliefs.
And in order to fight back, we need to eat. Regularly and unapologetically. We need to accept that it is OK to take up space, as much space as our fed bodies need. We need to redefine success so it’s no longer about shrinking, and becomes about growing. About finding new values and aims, about finding our voices, about figuring out who we want to be, regardless of what we weigh.
These were the principles of my eating disorder recovery. They have served me well, and helped me learn. They have given me self worth, a voice, and the courage to use it.
Those principles taught me that eating is an act of rebellion, not in the way I thought it was as a child. No, it’s much broader and more powerful than that. Because you can’t smash the patriarchy on an empty stomach. And that’s why the patriarchy wants to you stay hungry.
This week, Richard Osman opened up about what he referred to as food addiction, and it got me thinking: am I a sugar addict?
There have been times is my life when I’ve wondered if I’m addicted to sugar. Pretty much every binge I’ve ever had contained at least a sweet component, anything from cereal or bread and jam to cakes, chocolate and ice cream. And there are so many “experts” who claim that sugar addiction is real.
The thing is, I followed the conventional advice and tried to “detox” time and time again, and yet I still craved, still binged, still hated and punished myself for my inability to control myself around sweet foods. Even after diagnosis and treatment for Binge Eating Disorder, I still didn’t feel safe around sugar. I continued to binge on sweet foods.
By this point I had finally managed to give up smoking, and I had been a heavy and committed smoker for a very long time. The addictive properties of nicotine are well documented. Yet in a matter of weeks, the cigarette cravings paled into insignificance compared to the all-consuming need to binge on sweet foods.
I went online looking for a solution, and this is where I first saw the term intuitive eating. I learned more about the concept of restriction causing cravings, and finally things started to make sense.
I had been inadvertently taught that sugar was bad from an early age. I remembered my mother telling me how she’d been annoyed at my Nan for putting sugar in my tea. And at my granddad for sending me home with bags of treats.
Don’t get me wrong, we had sweet food at home. But there were comments if I tried to eat too much. And then there was the pre-Christmas diet. Of course, I didn’t really know back then that money was tight and my mother was trying to stretch it further. So I internalised a different message.
And yet some of my fondest memories of childhood involved sweet food. Baking with my mother on weekends. Her teaching me to make pastry and cakes. Going to the sweet shop with my granddad and being allowed an ice-cream cone to eat on the way back. My great aunt’s home baked cherry cakes when she looked after us in the school holidays.
Sugar became a source of comfort, yet forbidden. It made me feel good, yet bad. And it became wrapped up in those emotions and more as my bingeing took hold.
But was I addicted? I haven’t been able to find anything conclusive to indicate that sugar is physically addictive in the same way that nicotine and opiates are. And when I look at the physical impact of bingeing, it wasn’t about a “sugar high” for me. I didn’t want to feel anything. I was trying to stuff down my emotions. And usually after a binge I felt awful, in physical pain and full of self-loathing.
But there is a seductive power in the forbidden. Human beings have always wanted what they are told they can’t have. Countless legends have been built around it. Wars have been waged over it. And society is very clear that sugar is bad for you and should be restricted, if not avoided altogether. So it makes sense that’s what I wanted. Savoury food never held that same power over me because that was “allowed”.
And this is why I think that intuitive eating is the key to full recovery for me. It is the only thing I have ever tried that has loosened sugar’s grip on me. It is a long and very gradual process, but I am reaching the point where snacks are left in the cupboard, where I can open a packet of biscuits without finishing them, where I am discovering that there are some sweet foods I don’t even like very much.
It is by removing its power that I am healing, not through detox. By allowing sugar unconditionally, not through abstinence. And there is an increasing body of research in support of this.
So am I addicted to sugar? No, I don’t think so. But I have definitely felt like I was at times. And so I am not discounting food addiction as a concept entirely. And I am all for everyone expressing themselves and their difficulties in the way that they feel best describes them.
Richard Osman has done a brave and wonderful thing in sharing a little of his story this week, and I am sure there are many who feel less alone as a result.
I should explain. Ice-cream is my ultimate binge food. Not in the way that movies portray it, that cliche where the skinny actress turns to it after a breakup. No, for me it was much more than that. It was capable of consuming my every waking thought. On a bad day, I would plan my trip to the shop to buy it on my way home from work before I even left the house. It was my friend, my enemy, my very best way of numbing the emotions I didn’t want to feel.
Therapy didn’t change this, though it helped me massively to understand why I binged, and to learn to sit with emotions rather than being scared of them. And nearly two years into my intuitive eating journey, ice-cream is one of the few foods I still struggle with. I crave it less often, but when I want and buy it, I will eat at least half within a couple of hours.
But today, I realised I bought a tub of ice-cream two days ago and hadn’t thought about it since. It’s sitting in the freezer unopened. Words cannot express how momentous that is. I’m thinking about ice-cream now because I want to eat some, not because I’m upset, or angry, or bored, or overwhelmed. So I will eat some, and enjoy the experience without guilt.
But I couldn’t let this moment pass without marking it in some way, because it shows just how far I’ve come. It’s a sign that full recovery is truly possible, and that I am getting there.
And now I’m off to enjoy that ice-cream.
Have a wonderful day, whatever you are doing, and don’t forget to enjoy those small victories along the way x