Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?
Yet, so many of us, when we are in “recovery,” continue to eat food that feels “safe.” More often than not, this is also food specifically designed for people on diets. That is, food marketed to “offer” bodyweight suppression. (It doesn’t of course. Diets don’t work.)
I would know about this one. I tried for years to gain weight on safe food. I would actually tell people I was trying my hardest to gain weight, then go eat a lite yoghurt. Of course that sounds ludicrous when I write it down. But when I was sick it seemed totally reasonable. I told myself if I ate enough of my safe foods I could gain weight. That is true enough, because a body that wants and needs to gain weight will do so on whatever it can get. But recovery from anorexia isn’t only about gaining weight. It is also neural rewiring — about switching the anorexia response off in your brain, relearning learned reactions, and, most importantly, teaching you brain (via your actions) that you don’t have to eat diet food. You cannot do this on low-fat yoghurt. Gaining weight and nutritional rehabilitation aren’t necessarily the same thing either.
I’m not saying you can’t gain weight on diet food, because you can gain weight on just about anything if you eat enough of it. I’m saying you shouldn’t. Every time you choose to eat a food with “diet” on the label you increase you negative body image problems. Every time you choose something “low-fat” you deprive your body of that it really needs. Every time you act as if you are on a diet you teach your brain to believe that you should be on a diet.
What do I mean by “diet food?”
I mean anything that is considered “healthy,” anything that has “low-fat,” or “fat-free” on the label. Anything that is a bastardized version of a “normal” food.
- Courgette spirals instead of spaghetti.
- Cauliflower rice instead of rice.
- Low-fat diary
- Reduced sugar anything
- Diet sodas
- Low-calorie hummus
- Artificial sweeteners
- etc etc — you get the drift
Why can’t I just eat more of my safe foods and gain weight that way?
- Because that means that you are not neurally rewiring as you gain weight.
- Because your famine brain is looking for abundant nutrient dense foods to convince it that the famine is over.
- Because eating a limited variation of “safe” foods just in a larger quantity doesn’t help you achieve real nutritional rehabilitation in the same way that listening to desire and eating the foods your body is really asking for does.
I believe that the most common sense and scientifically valid reasoning behind anorexia is that is it an evolved response to famine. It “turns on” in those of us with the genetic predisposition when we go into energy deficit. It is a migration response. Your brain believes that you need to move to a place where there is more food. Migrating animals have a mechanism that turns off feeding and prioritizes moving for the purpose of migration. (For a full account of anorexia as human migration you’ll have to read RRR!, as I’m not regurgitating the whole brick of a book here.)
Migrating animals cannot waste too much time feeding. The opportunity cost of feeding is high (stopping to eat means you’re not making ground.) The opportunity cost of feeding on high calorie foods is even higher, because these would have required a day spent hunting (high calorie foods would have been meat, and you would have to catch it first!). Especially in an environment where there is no guarantee that meat will be found (famine/food scarcity), the brain disincentives hunting for meat, or higher calorie foods. Lower calorie foods are food that can be grazed on when moving — fruit and vegetables — and these are preferred for migrating animals. Basically, fat would have been a nutrient mostly gained via hunting and killing animals. If you are supposed to be migrating to save your life, you can’t very well hunker down in the bushes with a spear and wait for a buffalo to come along. You have to haul arse out of there.
In modern day anorexia, this translates to your preference for diet foods and “healthy” foods as healthy foods are historically thought of as lower fat. Anorexia sits on our core beliefs and values, and hence you likely feel very strongly about eating only certain sorts of foods — your safe foods. In fact, if you think about it, you will probably realize that the value you place on eating these foods is totally out of whack. It’s akin to the sort of value that you place on being morally good or bad. It’s not normal to feel so very strongly about food. But anorexia invokes that within you. That’s because anorexia believes that eating “on the go” foods will actually be the thing that saves your life because you will migrate faster.
Why is fat so important in recovery?
Let’s look at this from a Neanderthal-brain point of view. Lack of food (famine) means you should either haul arse out and try to find a new place to settle where there is food (migrate) or hunker down and wait it out (hibernate).
If you chose migrate, what should signify that it is time to stop migrating? More available food? Yes … maybe.
But what if that more available food is just more fruits and veg? That won’t really sustain you, a meat eating mammal, for all the fighting and cold nights and survival you need to do. (Remember, there were no supermarkets with vegan sausages around then, protein and fat would not have been hugely available in plant-based forms, we got it from meat.) So, you shouldn’t stop migrating just because you found a crop of strawberry bushes, should you?
If you find a herd of buffalo on the other hand. That’s a great place to stop. That is the right time for the migration response to turn off. What is the trigger? Higher calorie food – specifically animal fat – is the trigger that migration can end.
The migrating humans who stopped migrating when they found just berries would likely have died. The ones that stopped migrating when they found meat stood more change of survival and passing on genes … which somewhere along the way found their way to you.
Additionally, the correct way to eat after you migrate your arse out of the famine would be — a fucking lot! Feast follows famine. There is a reason your brain is telling you (much to your eating disorder’s disgust) to eat copious amounts of fast food and ice cream. Your brain wants the feast, it wants fat and calories in the most readily-available forms it can get and it won’t be satisfied that the famine is over until it gets the feast. You can’t do that with diet food. Your brain knows that diet ice cream isn’t what it was looking for. It wants the fat! Diet versions of food are not delivering what your brain needs to see coming in. Diet versions of food will not convince your brain that the famine is over.
Safe foods are safe foods because they represent forage foods — which aid the migration process. Scary foods are scary because they represent the higher nutrient foods that you would have had to hunt for — hunting doesn’t aid migration. So, I believe in order to convince your Neanderthal brain that you no longer need to migrate, you have to stop eating as if you are migrating. That means eating the high calorie scary stuff and a lot of it.
That’s reason number one that you have to eat scary foods in recovery.
Reason number two is neural rewiring. After years of eating only safe foods your brain becomes wired to believing that should only eat these foods. We have to teach it differently. We do this, by going against the urge to eat safe foods and forcing ourselves to widen our diets to include high fat, high calorie items. Yum.
The key thing to remember is that it is not normal or healthy to be afraid of or feel resistant to eating any type of food (other than cottage cheese which is disgusting). Your resistance indicates that your eating disorder brain is trying to influence you not to eat it, and you have to train your brain not to listen to that. You do that by eating the food.
No, you can’t fully recover — i.e do the neural rewiring required — from an eating disorder by eating more of your safe foods. You have to teach your brain all food is safe. The only way to do that, is to eat it.