This is a question that came up in a recent conversation with a colleague. And if you are someone who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder or feel like your relationship with food and your body is not in a great place, you might be thinking the same.
How do you know that you are in eating disorder recovery or how do you know that your relationship with food has improved?
This is one of those questions that don’t really have a definitive answer. Because unlike dieting and intentional weight loss pursuits where the scales clearly defines success or failure, our relationship with food, eating and our bodies are not as clear cut as that.
Alongside this, when we’re in the throes of feeling obsessed and out of control around food, reimagining something else, is unthinkable.
This journey and the outcomes in not about a specific number at all. It is about a reduction in certain behaviours, yes, and it is about the spaciousness that comes with you and your body being on the same team. Respectfully caring for one another.
When I think about my own journey, I notice how many shifts have occurred over time, sometimes a very long time. Often it wasn’t until a big new life stressor hit that I realised that stuffing my feelings down with food was no longer my main coping tool.
Or like when I discovered that I still body check from time to time (because it is such an unconscious ingrained habit) but that the harsh inner critical voice has soften significantly. The old familiar feeling of dread, panic and self-loathing towards my body when noticing some recent weight gain, was not there. Instead, an open and kind newfound acceptance is there, in its place.
Our journey towards peace and freedom around food and eating looks different for everyone one. Your journey might not look like mine, and that is ok. I see this with my clients all the time, each person’s journey is unique to them, and there are many elements and steps on the way that overlap and are same or similar.
The Journey towards healing our relationship with food might include any and all of these:
- Letting go of dieting
- Eating regular and adequate meals
- Letting go of food rules
- Giving oneself unconditional permission to eat all foods
- Wearing clothes that fit and are comfortable for the hear and now body
- Learning about Diet Culture / weight stigma / anti-fat bias both culturally and internalised ones
- Practicing body acceptance
- Practicing self-compassion (over and over and over)
are just some of the parts that make up disordered eating recovery.
These are not just ideas but practices and explorations that often requires time, curiosity, patience and self-kindness.
Getting curious about what got us into a disordered relationship with food, eating and our body and connecting some of the dots often provides not just a deeper understanding of it all, but often we can hold our past self with greater kindness and compassion, knowing that we did the best we could with what we had. From here it becomes easier to explore what a different less chaotic or rigid (or both) relationship with food can be like.
What do you expect a more peaceful relationship with food will look and feel like?
Often the goal or intention is something like, stop bingeing / purging or restricting. But the benefits of recovery extend far beyond that.
It is important to mention here too, that perfectionism is NOT a goal of disordered eating recovery. It is unlikely that you will never ever binge or purge or restrict ever again. But instead of this being one of your major coping skills you will have built a full toolbox of skills to choose from, many that offer relief in the moment but also beyond.
One of the things you will find is that you have more tools, practice and skills for dealing with life.
Another one is that you have more capacity and resourcing to deal with life in general. I hear this again and again from my clients when their bodies and brains are better nourished. A fully nourished body and brain simply have more capacity to deal with everyday living, than one that is continuously underfed or starved. (Looking at you 800-1200kcal diets!)
You will find that you are not thinking about food all the time. This is also a physiological consequence from eating regularly and adequate meals. When your body is getting enough, typically the only times we think about food is when we are getting hungry and when we need to shop / plan / prepare meals.
Typically, improved sleep, more energy and a reduction of headaches (if that is something that you suffer with) is other things I hear my clients often talk about when their bodies are feeling fully nourished again.
Having more energy and more executive functioning means that the gap that the preoccupation with food and weight has left can be filled with things you really enjoy that feels nourishing beyond the physical. Like friendships, hobbies, creativity, fun!
I have often witnessed that the further people get in their recovery journey, the less food and weight takes up space in their lives. Even when the desire to lose weight was there (and sometimes dominant) in beginning of the journey, the further you get in recovery the less this feels like a meaningful goal to pursue, because the cost of it has become too high.
That’s not to say that we will never desire a smaller body again (and this might even be truer if you are at the receiving end of weight stigma and anti-fat bias), and that’s ok. As long as the world around us is fixated on thinness as the most important thing to be, do, have, it is likely that this thought and desire will pop up at times. Thinking something is not the same as acting on that thought. And remember recovery is not about perfection!
All of these things are great and important but I think the most powerful shifts that come from working through any disordered eating behaviours and healing your relationship with food, eating and your body is the peace that comes with acceptance and the nourishment that comes from the practice of self compassion.
Being able to hold space for the challenges that comes with being human in a body, with acceptance and kindness changes things at the root. Any sharp self-critical edges can soften and we can meet ourselves where we are at, at any time, with gentleness and care.
This is what having a peaceful, supportive and caring relationship with food and with yourself.
It is possible for you too and you are so worthy of having it.
And it is not a linear journey at all.
You might also like these further resources to support you if you are just starting out: