By Kenzie Osborne
Food – the one thing that is supposed to keep us alive is the one thing we’re convinced to avoid… Seems a little odd, doesn’t it? Why does the media constantly encourage us to fear food, and to feel guilty when we fuel our bodies with calories? Why do big, corporate, supposedly “healthy” companies like Weight Watchers encourage us to count every darn “point” or calorie” that we consume? It’s like food has become an enemy to society – and in order to be “our best self” we must carefully monitor every little crumb we put into our body.
Even just thinking about the word “point” or “calorie” probably made a few of you cringe… For some reason, the amount of energy a food provides (a calorie) has been morphed into something so negative. To go one step further, in my opinion, this whole “point” system that has developed is completely ridiculous! Really? We’re giving “points” to food now? That’s like saying “three strikes and you’re suddenly unhealthy.” Just look around – low calorie this, low fat that, zero calorie this, negative calorie that! The messaging we hear is that the more energy a food has (or the more “points” it gets), the more reasons there are to avoid it. How does that make any sense? I guess it doesn’t matter if it makes logical sense. It only matters that society believes it.
Growing up, I was certainly no exception… Unfortunately, I believed the media and the hype, and I fell victim to an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa. It all began with this irrational fear of calories. I started by avoiding “indulgent”, high calorie treats: cheesecakes, cookies, brownies, chips, etc. Then, I eliminated fatty foods: nuts, seeds, cheese, whole milk, most meats, etc. Next, I restricted carbohydrates (when the media jumped on the “low-carb” train): bread, pasta, rice, corn, potatoes, etc. Lastly, I got rid of any food that was processed or prepared by someone else: anything in a box, anything from a restaurant, anything in packaging, etc. Pretty much all I was left with were a few leaves of lettuce… And if I was lucky, maybe a cherry tomato on top.
Of course, I can’t blame everything on the media and society. There were other factors – athletics and school. I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 16, but I had struggled with body insecurities since I was 10. Around this time, I was starting to participate in gymnastics competitions. I trained 5 days a week for at least 4 hours at a time (yup, it was a lot for a 10 year old!). I loved the sport, but I always hated being in my skin-tight gym suit. Our group of athletes would talk about how thin some of the girls were, and how big others were (yup, kids can be brutally honest, and not aware of the impact of their words). To make matters worse, our coaches always encouraged us to watch what we ate, and would scold us for having a cookie or a bag of chips – those were “bad” foods. Mind you, there was SOME truth to this… Having a bag of chips prior to a four-hour training session isn’t exactly the best fuel for your body. BUT, that isn’t to say you can never have a bag of chips or you can never indulge in an ooey gooey cookie! The problem is, no one ever really made this clear to us. Instead, coaches just scolded us for eating processed and high-calorie foods, and praised us for eating lower-calorie snacks! Little did they know, the coaches’ attitude towards high-calorie foods was making their athletes WEAKER and more insecure about their bodies.
In addition to the “food rules” from gymnastics, there were more “do’s and don’ts” coming from another source – elementary school. Each day, I’d head off to school with a lunch box filled with nutritious foods (props to mom and dad, killing it with the healthy foods!). Now, let’s just remember that kids have no filter, and they tend to say whatever is on their minds. I was always the healthy one (and there was truth to this – I was active, and my parents were amazing at feeding me with healthy, wholesome foods). The problem was that I established my identity as an athlete, and as an athlete, I was supposed to be “the healthy one”. Therefore, when I hit high school (and was packing my own lunches), I wanted to keep the same image. To be honest, I liked being a fit and athletic girl at school. It was a good identity to have, and people seemed to treat me positively for it. The problem was that everyone expected me to ALWAYS eat healthily – and if I even had a bite of a cookie, people would gasp – you’re actually eating a cookie!? I hated being singled out, and I didn’t want the attention… Bye bye cookies.
Eventually, I had to make sure that everything I ate was 100% healthy (and couldn’t be challenged as “unhealthy” by anyone). I eliminated wayyy too many foods that I enjoyed (and that were healthy) simply because someone, somewhere said they were “bad”. I thought if I was supposed to be the healthy one, I definitely couldn’t be caught dead eating something that was considered to someone as a “bad” food. So I eliminated:
- Bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, corn, bananas – too many carbs
- Cheese, milk, whole yogurt – too many saturated fats
- Red meat, eggs, any meat that wasn’t “extra lean” – too many fats, too much cholesterol
- Nuts, seeds, oil, butter, cream cheese – too many fats, too many calories
- Cookies, cheesecake, brownies, cupcakes – too many calories, too much sugar, too many fats
- Condiments – too much salt, too much sugar
Now I was left with just a few options: low-calorie vegetables, low-fat cottage cheese, 0% Greek yogurt, extra lean chicken and oats. I’d developed a full blown eating disorder. The funny thing was, I knew what I was doing was unhealthy. I knew I was hurting my body. I knew my liver was breaking down. I knew my body was losing vitamins and minerals, and I knew I was getting close to “falling off the edge”. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but my eating disorder had grabbed hold of me, and I was no longer in control…
I referred to my eating disorder as “ED”. I thought of ED like another person – because he kind of was. He had different morals – he wanted to be thin regardless of my health status, he prioritized food over family (if there was food at a family event, he didn’t care, I wasn’t going), he lied (saying I was allergic to something or telling people I’d eaten when I hadn’t), and he was a straight up (bleep) (he made fun of me, put me down, discouraged me, and always ensured I was 100% miserable). He also had a VERY different agenda – to eat less and less and less (it was his way of feeling in control, and he LOVED to be in control).
ED knew EXACTLY how to control me. He knew my weaknesses and he knew how to attack. He constantly told me I was worthless, ugly, unhealthy, and not worthy of a joyful life. Every time I took a bite of food, he reminded me I didn’t deserve it. He reminded me that others would disapprove. He reminded me that I didn’t deserve to eat unless I worked out to exhaustion. He reminded me that I wasn’t supposed to eat “bad” foods – no matter how much I wanted or how much my body suffered.
Soon enough, ED had gained so much control that I no longer had a say in my life. ED wouldn’t let me think of anything other than food… I was starving, but ED didn’t care. I couldn’t eat with friends or family – instead, I had to eat in isolation, hiding the fact that I was eating food. If someone gave me food, I had to throw it away (even if it meant going to the washroom and flushing it away). I couldn’t go to restaurants or cafes, I couldn’t eat my grandpa’s homemade lemon meringue pie (which is probably the single best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life), and I certainly couldn’t eat if I didn’t exercise before – period. Day in, day out I’d spend hours just laying in my bed. I couldn’t concentrate, my brain was cloudy, my muscles ached from the lack of nutrients, my bones banged together and bruised, my skin became dry and flaky, my eyes struggled to stay open, my butt couldn’t sit on a wooden chair because it hurt too bad, the insides of my mouth were ripped up from biting on my cheeks out of hunger, and my liver was in SERIOUS trouble. It wasn’t until my dad sat me down and told me I had a few months to live before I finally found some sort of strength to tackle ED and get him the (bleep) out of my life.
With a TON of encouragement and support from friends and family, I began reincorporating my feared foods back into my life. It started with my parents preparing my meals for me – I’d sit down with them and they’d watch as I ate my food. They’d sit there for hours as I struggled to get the food down, and they’d encourage me when I didn’t think I could take another bite. I’d cry, yell, and scream but they stuck right by my side. We all knew it was ED who was the one getting upset, and we all just had to power our way through and keep on fighting.
When I wasn’t eating, I had to complete a little “homework” that my mom and dad planned out for me. My parents covered all of the mirrors in our house in brown paper (there was NO WAY to look at my body in my whole house!). I was tasked to go to each mirror and write something I loved about myself, or something I did that day that I was proud of. I loved this task – finally it was a mirror I actually liked going to. Instead of staring back at myself and judging my body, I saw who I truly was. I read the things I liked about myself and the things I was proud of myself for achieving. I finally saw myself in the ways that my parents and friends and family saw me – and I finally LOVED what I saw. I knew that in order to continue to be myself, I had to tackle ED, and looking in those “mirrors” gave me some of the motivation to do it!
As I continued to move through recovery, my parents started slowly adding more and more flavours to my food. I had avoided salt, sugar, condiments and flavour from my diet for so long that even a sprinkle of salt tasted like the saltiest dish in the world. Nevertheless, they started adding more flavour, more colour, and more variety to my meals. For once in a longggg time, I actually found some sort of enjoyment in tasting my food. Although the thought of eating the food was terrifying, the taste was good, and I could draw my attention towards flavours and away from the specific ingredients. I began spending time day-dreaming about my own recipes – I thought of different flavours that I might enjoy, and I wanted to start experimenting in the kitchen. I spoke to my parents, and they agreed that I could start cooking for myself – the only rule was that I had to use whole ingredients (no “fat-free” crap)! My parents supervised me for the first little while to ensure I was using whole ingredients, but after a month or so, I was on my own. By this time, I was truly looking forward to making food (and I was actually excited to taste it!). Sure, I was still afraid of some ingredients, but I was excited about trying out the dishes I’d envisioned in my mind. In short, I found relaxation by working with the exact same thing that terrified me the most…. Sounds weird, but hey, it worked, so I’m not complaining!
When I was well into recovery, I spent a TON of time watching cooking shows, and discovering the WHOLE nutrition behind the food I was eating. I looked back at my experiences with my eating disorder, and I compared how I felt then to how I felt as a survivor of anorexia nervosa. After comparing, it is CLEAR to me that using full fat ingredients, eating high calorie/nutrient dense foods, and incorporating condiments into meals is the BEST way to live a healthy lifestyle! Using full fat ingredients allowed my body to hydrate its skin (that had turned brown from being deprived of nutrients), and finally protected my bones from banging together and bruising. Plus, I was finally able to sit down on a wooden chair without having to pile up a bunch of pillows to cushion my butt! Eating high calorie/nutrient dense foods allowed me to spend less time eating while still getting a ton of nutrients (instead of eating pounds and pounds of salad, I could eat one bowl of vegetarian coconut curry – a lot less food and a much wider variety of nutrients!). Finally, incorporating condiments into my meals allowed me to actually ENJOY what I was eating – I could finally look forward to my meals, and not dread having to eat them. Eating a variety of foods allowed my body to thrive! I had so much energy, I built back my muscles, my blood work was finally in normal ranges, my heart rate and blood pressure returned to a stable state, and most importantly I was AT PEACE with my body and life.
My experiences with my eating disorder makes it clear to me that the media has it ALL WRONG. It’s not about being thin: being thin doesn’t determine your self worth, beauty, or capabilities. It’s not about calories. Calories are simply a measure of energy, the more there are, the more energy the food has to offer. That’s IT. It’s not about the fat and carbs. Everyone needs different ratios of macronutrients. What works for you is what your body needs (in short, listen to your body, not to the magazine that claims it knows more about you than you do…). Instead, it IS about loving your food. Enjoy the social activities that are usually paired with food. Savour the tastes and flavours that you love, and indulge in those ooey gooey decadent treats! It IS about getting a wide variety of nutrients, and incorporating many foods into your diet: eat veggies, fruits, whole grains, whole milk products, meats, alternatives, oils, and of course, don’t forget those sweets and treats! Finally (and most importantly), it IS about living an enjoyable life. Life is too short to stress about every little thing you eat. Eat whatever makes you feel good. Eat whatever allows your body, mind, and soul to be happy. Eat whatever puts a smile on your face, and share good food with the people you love. Eat to thrive, not just survive.
Kenzie is a George Brown Culinary Nutrition student who suffered from anorexia nervosa throughout her childhood and teenage years. Since recovery, Kenzie has written her own personal blog that can be found at https://thrivingonnature.wordpress.com/. In her blog, she discusses popular nutritional fads and myths, and shares some of her favourite recipes. Throughout the summer, Kenzie spent time teaching children how to cook nutritious meals and launched her own catering business called Last Piece Sweets. Last Piece Sweets delivers pastries, hosts cooking classes, and provides personal chef services, all while donating to mental health and eating disorder charities around Toronto. For more information, visit https://lastpiecesweets.com/.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and/or contributor and do not necessarily reflect the position of Alternative Food Network Inc.