The Lord uses His children and His creation to accomplish His purposes. Whether that’s the little pebble in David’s sling or the Jordan river that God used to cleanse Naaman of leprosy, He uses the natural! So it makes sense that in the midst of eating disorder recovery, He used His children and His creation to bring me healing and teach me how to have a normal relationship with food. I thought I could share some of the tried and true practical advice I got from my nutritionist, therapist, and cadre of professional supporters.
Body image. You’ve gotta start here. This was a HUGE turning point for me! My incredible therapist told me once: “It’s a lot harder to change your body than it is to change the way you think about your body.” I literally remember standing in front of the mirror as a junior in college, not fitting in most of my clothes, and realizing: she’s right (which makes sense, considering she does this whole counseling thing for a living :)).
Freaking out about my size made me, well, freaked out. It made me obsessive and anxious and angry. I’d CLUNG to comments from people like “wow you look so good!” before the weight gain began, but turns out compliments like these and a dollar will get you a crappy cup of coffee. Is it worth it? Is fleeting attention worth my slavery to food? Is the knowledge that I lost a full half pound (probably a half pound of pee or something, let’s be honest) worth letting my social life, grades, emotions and body become a tragic mess?
In writing my senior thesis (coming soon to a dusty shelf in the Plan II office near you) on weight loss and dieting I learned the importance creating intrinsic value for the lifestyle changes you want to make. Why would changing your view of your body be valuable? Maybe it would help to write down reasons to change your attitude about your body and tape it somewhere you’ll see it – like your mirror! Write down why you want to be free from slavery to food and fat and include these on your list. Then every morning, every time you look at yourself in the mirror and are tempted to analyze your body composition, you can see the compelling reasons to instead accept the way your body looks now and appreciate all that it can do. A body of any size can glorify God, can engage in fun exercise, can play sports with friends. Recovery starts moving when we FINALLY let go of our obsession with self and size!
Also THROW AWAY YOUR SCALE. This is huge! The scale perpetuates our ability to reduce our worth to a silly number that can somehow ruin or make our day in a matter of seconds. This number means between nothing and absolutely nothing. I’ve never been on a date with a guy who asked me how much I weighed. I’ve never listed my weight on any sort of application. No one has ever asked. The only one who cares is me – and I can choose whether or not I care 🙂 Throw that thing in the garbage and live in freedom!
Celebrate the little victories! My Godly brother struggled with an addiction to pornography, about which he was very open and rapped about in his song “Eyeblight” that you can find on Spotify by Broitry 🙂 Subtle plug – the song is really good! I remember calling him and crying, angry that I couldn’t go a few days without succumbing to a bout of bingeing. And he told me something that helped him recover: Callie, rejoice in the victories. Don’t focus on how many days you can go without engaging in harmful eating behavior, but rather praise God for the days when you can have a somewhat normal relationship with food. Praise Him for the normal meals you eat with enough carbohydrates to fuel your body! Praise the Lord when you feel the urge to binge, or the urge to not eat, but instead of engaging with that desire you practice food behaviors that lead to a life of freedom and not of slavery!
Share these victories too! I would call my mom or my brother or my best friend when I had a normal eating day! Call those true friends who will be genuinely excited for you! Or literally call me – I’m not kidding. Callie Harakal – I’m the only one with my name in Texas 🙂 You can message me and I will totally give you my number and freak out with you if you call!
Do the next right thing. I STILL use this truism! My therapist told me this as a way to handle days when I made unhealthy food decisions. I would be so mad and just feel like the rest of my day was a waste. But that’s not true! I could choose to put whatever happened behind me. I could choose to draw a line in the sand, accept what had happened and then do the next right thing! Maybe the next right thing was eating a normal meal! Maybe the next right thing was to eat that cookie I was afraid to eat and enjoy that fact that God gave us taste buds and sugar to enjoy in sweet moderation 🙂 Maybe the next right thing was to get out of my bed, stop wallowing in depression and simply take a shower 🙂
Find a psychiatrist. Once I found a medication regimen that worked for me, it was so helpful. I was hesitant to use medicine, because I didn’t want a “cop out” – I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But sometimes we need help. My nutritionist described medicine as a pillow for my brain. She said my brain was whirling a million miles an hour freaking out and doing weird things about food and that medicine would allow my brain to rest and let me make decisions. When unhealthy food desires came into my head, they stayed there and wouldn’t leave – a part of what I later learned to be OCD thought tendencies. This made it REALLY hard to fend off urges to binge. But medicine allowed me to think like me – it allowed the unnatural thought processes to let up just enough to let me make my own decisions. For me it was Fluoxetine that finally worked – be consistent with it! It won’t work overnight, so give it about six weeks! And if it’s not working, talk to your psychiatrist and try something else! So many people prayed so fervently for my recovery and God answered those prayers, in part, by providing me with a manmade substance called Fluoxetine!
Thoughts are clouds – let ‘em go. We learned this in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – the group therapy class I went to once a week that actually produced some helpful stuff! Turns out emotions happen and some of us are “highly sensitive” – this may shock you, but yours truly, who cries all the time over pretty much nothing, is highly sensitive (my boyfriend can confirm). So we ride this roller coaster of emotion all the time and then sometimes the roller coaster takes us right into crazy eating land where we’re stressed or anxious or angry or just plain bored and then suddenly we need to eat everything in sight or nothing in sight. But those thoughts – those food thoughts that tell us we HAVE to engage in unhealthy food behaviors – they have about as much power as if a potted plant said that. Our thoughts can’t make us do anything.
So imagine those thoughts are like clouds. We recognize that they’re there, and then watch them float by. This sounds silly, but was really helpful for me. Every time I was plagued by food thoughts, I would latch on to them and then freak out trying to figure out what I would do about them. But turns out I didn’t have to latch on. I could just acknowledge that they were there, smile and wave, and then let them keep floating. I know this is easier said than done, but there will be moments of victory! Moments where you see the desire to binge or restrict and you recognize that for what it is – just a thought! Let it keep floating 🙂
Biblical counseling. My therapist loves Jesus and has a deep understanding of the psychological underpinnings behind disordered eating. I cried a lot in her office. She told me that my brain was creating neurological pathways that led from anxiety and emotion directly to food and that I needed to repave those pathways. She told me to imagine that my brain was operating in secret and didn’t want me to see what it was doing for fear that I would make it change. But with therapy, I was able to learn what it was doing, to crack open the door and peer into the crazy mechanisms it was using to protect itself. This was so helpful in understanding what was going wrong so I could start to make it go right 🙂
Go to a nutritionist at least once 🙂 A healthy relationship with food is one of the most important pieces of recovery. Talking with someone who has an advanced degree in food and metabolism helped me understand my body’s dietary needs. I need carbohydrates! And fat! And by depriving my body of these, I’m suppressing my metabolism and making myself food-obsessed! She directed me to something called the Ancel Keys starvation experiment that I ended up using in my thesis. He wanted to discover the impact of prolonged starvation in an effort to create effective treatment for POWs who had undergone starvation. Interestingly, how much do you think he fed the experiment participants each day? Between 1200 and 1400 calories. That was what I was trying to eat! However, in these men, after a few weeks, they were obsessed with food, with cigarettes, with gum, anything to keep their mouths occupied. They were irritable and, well, hungry. You can find a brief description of it here in one of my favorite and most credible sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment. Okay credible is a stretch but this article is legit 🙂 Our bodies were not designed to operate with that little food! My nutritionist taught me about serving sizes and how breakfast should have a protein, a carbohydrate, a fat and a fruit or vegetable. She taught me to eat snacks in between meals if I was hungry – to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. She taught me to listen to my body! She taught me to have two protein servings, two carb servings, two fat servings and a fruit or vegetable for lunch. Different bodies have different caloric needs, so meeting with a nutritionist is super helpful to determine what your body needs!
She taught me that food is food. That the sugar in an apple is the same as the sugar in M&Ms, but the apple is way bigger because it has more water in it and will fuel my body a little better because it has some fiber and vitamins and minerals in it. Now that I’ve just completed my metabolism module in medical school, I can confirm that she’s right! Glucose is glucose – and guess what? Our body NEEDS it. If our body were supposed to be in constant ketogenesis, then we could be in constant ketogenesis. But it’s not! This is not normal! Our brain needs sugar and our red blood cells can ONLY metabolize glucose! And when we don’t eat enough, our body goes into starvation mode and our brain does whatever it can to make us eat!
Walk in freedom. This is maybe the health principle I am most passionate about. Galatians 5:1 tells us that it is for FREEDOM we have been set FREE! So do not submit again to a yolk of slavery! As a Mama Ruth at Pine Cove, I had a group of eight girls for five weeks. They kept asking me if they could go to the bathroom and I kept telling them they didn’t have to ask! But we’ve all been raised with this kind of implicit idea that in class, we have to ask to go potty. Therefore, it would make sense to ask an authority before journeying to tinkle time palace. So one day I made a potty pass out of a big red tray and insisted that they take this massive plastic thing that said to the world “I’M GOING TO THE BATHROOM” with them if they had to go. Eventually, I sat them down and read to them Galatians 5:1. I then threw away the potty pass J I told them that I’d given them freedom to go potty, but they weren’t walking in it! Isn’t that silly? To keep asking to go to the bathroom, even when you don’t have to! Because they kept asking, they brought the ridiculous potty pass on themselves!
Do we not do the same thing? We have been given freedom – a freedom that inspired the writers of Hebrews and Galatians to harp on the fact that we have been set FREE from legalism. It is through the grace of God that He allows us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called (Ephesians 4:1). As a RESULT of this grace, we get to follow the moral principles set out for us in the scriptures.
So why do we fall back into the yolk of slavery in regards to food? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 that whether we eat or drink, we should do so for the glory of God. He tells us in 1 Timothy 4 to be wary of religious dogma that requires abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.
For me, it was hugely valuable to take a few weeks to intentionally eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I realize this is terrifying to someone who for years has had a rule-infused food relationship – someone like who I used to be. My therapist told me she had a client with disordered eating who was OBSESSED with M&Ms and so she told the client to carry M&Ms everywhere. To eat them all the time. Eventually, she was sick of them. The M&Ms lost that magical appeal, that “forbidden fruit” quality that made her crave them all the time.
So I tried it! I ate ice cream whenever I wanted. I had cookies and cake whenever I wanted – I just ate anything and everything all the time, whenever I wanted! And guess what? After a couple weeks, these foods I obsessed over for so long lost their power over me. They were no longer an off-limits thing I craved, but rather something that I could eat whenever I wanted.
I am free to eat and free not to eat. During this phase of uninhibited eating, I realized that to walk in my freedom, I didn’t have to eat junk food. My nutritionist used to tell me to eat for how I wanted to feel. Sure, an oatmeal cream pie and a pint of ice cream might sound delicious, and I could totally eat them for lunch! But how would I feel after? Not so great L It was this freedom and way of thinking that taught me to exercise my freedom by freely eating a sandwich and carrots for lunch, because I knew I would feel better! But I had to maintain the mindset of freedom – that I could have had the ice cream if I wanted, no big deal! I just was choosing to eat something that might fuel my body a little better! And sometimes, I can choose to eat ice cream and it’s totally fine!
And now, as a first year medical student who by the grace of God has seen disordered eating become a part of a testimony of the victory of Jesus Christ, I have ice cream in my freezer at all times. I love it! But I know if I eat a ton of it, I will probably get a tummy ache! I know that I am in a high-stress environment and in order to keep myself sane, it’s important to make healthy decisions about food and exercise. I try to follow the 80/20 rule – the idea that 80% of the time it would probably be wise to eat healthier foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and protein. And about 20% of the time I eat foods that might not be quite as healthy – like the ice cream I eat almost every day! However, I use a mug to put my ice cream in! That way, I make sure I’m not eating an exorbitant amount of ice cream for a serving! And if I eat my ice cream and want more, I get more ice cream! Because I walk in freedom! But usually the second serving makes my tummy hurt, so I tend to stick to just one 🙂
I carry a baggie of almonds and chocolate chips in my back pack for when I get hungry and have a bag of hershey’s kisses in my pantry for when I want chocolate! The Lord taught me to walk in freedom, and allow myself the joy He intended food to be! To eat ice cream and cookies with my friends! To look forward to a piece of cake leftover from my birthday party! Start by letting yourself walk in freedom and then eventually you can start to discover what it looks like to express that freedom in choosing to eat foods that will make your body feel better! And for the record, once the Lord taught me to be free from food and body image slavery, a few years later I fit in all my clothes again 🙂 I am a normal, healthy size! I didn’t diet, I didn’t weigh myself, I just walked in freedom. I’m not supermodel skinny, because I know God didn’t create me to look that way! I just let go of my obsession with body image and ate in freedom and tried to eat in moderation and let the Lord take my body where He wanted it to go.
It wasn’t a perfectly upward trajectory to recovery. Some days were terrible and some days were better and my therapist assured me this was normal. So don’t expect to get better right away 😦 But do expect that there will be moments of victory, no matter how small! And know that healing IS possible, no matter how impossible it seems! And if God is for us, who can be against? Not even food is greater than the Lord our God 🙂