An eating disorder can come along in times of life when we face struggles, and unintentionally turn to food or dieting for control. This starts as subconscious action that quickly turns to something that is conscious and overpowering. Eating disorders come with serious consequences, both emotionally and physically, despite the initial control it provides. Through the recovery process, there are many things I’ve learned about my health from my eating disorder. As terrible as an eating disorder is, I have had the opportunity to learn much more about health and eating than the everyday person. I have been able to work with a dietitian to learn what balance really means so that I can take care of my body in this life. Here are some great things I’ve learned about health in recovery.
1. Calories are a good thing.
I used to fear high calorie foods (or calories in general), but one thing I learned about my health in regards to my eating disorder, was that my body likes and needs a lot of calories. Not only did my brain health improve, but also my skin, hair, nails, and metabolism. When I was very sick, my brain couldn’t function properly which made everything I did difficult. Calories are given to us as a simple way to measure how much ENERGY is obtained from foods. Start looking at calories that way, and choose good sources of calories so they can give you the best energy possible. In the end, calories are fuel – they are what makes us “go”. One shocking thing I learned in recovery and through meal plans is that a person needs a minimum of 1200 calories a day if they are ONLY staying in bed! That is the number of calories your body needs to just keep your body functioning! When you add in work, walking, exercise and other energy-filled daily tasks (shoveling snow), that number continues to climb!! When we drop too low, our body doesn’t have the proper fuel to function properly. What happens when your car doesn’t have enough gas? The same result applies to our bodies.
2. Your physical appearance mirrors your nutrition.
Another thing I learned from my eating disorder was just how much our health can affect our physical appearance. At the worst, my skin was pale, dry and lifeless. My hair was thinning, and shedding. My nails constantly broke and my entire body just looked lifeless. As someone who never dealt with these issues, it was physical proof for me that my eating disorder was ruining my physical health. Sure, I was “skinny” but I looked like hell. There is no getting around it. I didn’t see it until after I was in treatment and on a meal plan balancing out my health, but when I did look back and see it, I was saddened. I was sure I looked amazing and was in control, but I was fooled.
3. It wrecks your metabolism.
Eating disorders wreck your metabolism, whether you lose weight or not. They teach your body to run off starvation level, so they eat everything from muscles, to bones and organs. Your body is smart, and it will find something to fuel it. Sounds gross, right? Your body will literally turn to cannibalism to survive – your body will eat your insides to produce fuel to keep your heart beating. My body turned to muscle and organs to stay alive. Gross! When you are unhealthy for too long, your body has to learn to trust you again when you start eating healthy. My body takes the “scenic route” when it comes to healing. It takes forever to find balance. In fact, I’ve been eating balanced for over a year and my metabolism is still revving up at random times (oh the night sweats…). Dieting too long can cause irreversible effects on your metabolism, making it harder to manage weight the rest of your life. Truthfully, I can’t lose a pound if you paid me. My body knows what I did and still hasn’t learned to trust me… one day it will.
4. Digestion is extremely important.
I learned so many lessons about my digestive health from my eating disorder. Unfortunately, none of them are things I wish I had to learn at all. Before my eating disorder, I tended to tolerate many foods. Now, I have to re-teach my body to tolerate many things due to the damage I caused my body over 20 years. That’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the truth. Chronic dieting, eating the wrong foods, taking dieting supplements, laxatives, and depriving your body of nutrition can greatly hurt your digestion. It can also make you intolerable to certain foods when you start to heal. I dealt with awful paralyzed digestion in treatment and now I came out on the other side with a gluten intolerance. Nobody wants diarrhea, constipation and everything in between…but the more we mess around with food, the more our digestion is disrupted. I have found that the more you practice incorporating foods, the better your digestion gets. When your body isn’t digesting and absorbing the nutrients, it can leave you lacking nutrition and cause many other issues. Eating balanced and often is something that I have found to keep digestion working properly.
5. Health is more than food.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my eating disorder was that health is about so much more than food. It’s about your emotional health, spiritual health, and yes, physical health. During the worst times of my eating disorder I neglected both my emotional and spiritual health. This made me stressed, anxious, and irritable. I also felt lost and out of touch with life and myself. The change and this process happen slowly, but it does happen for the better.
I learned that everything heals at different rates. My body, although not fully healed, seemed to go faster than my emotional healing. My emotional healing did not keep up to speed with my weight restoration. I thought I was being put into treatment to gain weight and come back – I had no idea it was more (oh those feelings….). Once I had a strong grasp on my physical and emotional healing, my spiritual healing was one of the most important pieces (it made all the difference). For so many, “health” is about getting to a healthy weight and moving on. True recovery is looking at everything that is missing or fractured in your life, and then working to repair and cultivate it. Health is about all circles of your life, not just what’s on your plate. It’s essential to take care of them all in order to be the best you possible.
6. Stress can wreak havoc on your body.
I didn’t realize how much stress can affect your body. Stress affects you on every level, and it can be tough to deal with. We don’t always take into consideration that the cause of some of our ailments could be stress, because it’s not something that is “tangible”. It’s not something we can pick up and throw away to fix the problem… but it an definitely create issues with our bodies that are harder to deal with than the stress. Think about it… stomach ulcers… IBS etc.
One thing I have learned is that stress is difficult (surprise, surprise). In efforts to minimize the stress in my life, I have learned to look at my stress and try to divide it into parts – what I can’t control, what I have partial control of, and what I can control… from there, I decide appropriate ways to react. Stress relieving activities such as running and yoga don’t hurt either!
7. Our bodies are complex and amazing things.
As I have gone through recovery, I have found that our bodies are very complex, but amazing things! In going through weight restoration, I have learned so much about my body by learning to listen to it. When I was sick and organs were not functioning properly, I learned what my body can really do. Our bodies will go to amazing lengths to survive – they will slow our metabolism to preserve energy, and send that energy to the most important organs needed to survive. Your body will do everything in its power to keep your heart beating. My body allowed certain organs to function improperly to keep my heart as strong as possible – first the kidneys (because we have 2) and then my liver started (because it can reverse the damage). Our bodies really know how to keep us alive! Truthfully, I couldn’t lose a pound to save my life right now because after a few missed meals, my body will store everything to fat assuming that I am back to restricting again. It remembers everything I put it through, and it will do everything to keep me from getting back to where I was. I only have one choice and that is to give it what it needs (adequate calories and nutrition) and let it balance out so it can keep me healthy. Now, I can’t wait for my body to balance out and be healthy because I am excited to see what I can really do in athletics when I am strong and healthy.
8. Fat is important.
Yikes – I said it! Fat is important on your body and in your diet. We hear so much about how people are eating low fat foods and on their low fat diets – this is awful and detrimental. Now that I understand the importance of lipids (yes, I drank the dietitian’s kool-aid). Lipids not only helps us with satiation, but the foods also have so many health benefits that we may not be able to accomplish elsewhere.
Fat on your body is also important. Let’s be honest… in real life, we all have some level of fat on our bodies – it’s there to support our organs and to keep our bodies regulated. There is a purpose to it. An unhealthy low BMI can cause thyroid, metabolism and body regulation issues. Society portrays that the “stick-thin” model is beautiful… but if we saw an emaciated dog looking the same we would cry. A healthy amount of fat is beautiful.
9. My health is my sole responsibility.
Lastly, I learned most importantly that my health is completely up to me. That’s a huge responsibility, and privilege at the same time. I have the ability to give my body everything it needs, and nurture every part of it, but it’s up to me to do so. Depriving it, or relying on medicine, others, or the future to provide me with the perfect health are taking the easy way out. Give your body what it needs, put in the work, and the benefits and results will amaze you!