As this week approached, I asked folks on Instagram what recovery topics they’d like to hear about. One of the questions I got was how to eat around others.
The question didn’t specify a stage of recovery, but I think it’s an important conversation for any stage! At the start of recovery, learning to eat socially again can be a hugely healing and meaningful, as well as a challenging, step. Years into recovery, staying tuned into one’s own food hungers and needs while also enjoying the spontaneity and “flow” of social gatherings can be a fine balance. It can be a fine balance even for those who haven’t had eating disorders or disordered eating: separating social pressure from actual cravings is one of the topics I discuss most often in my counseling work.
I’ve gone through phases with social eating in accordance with my own place in the recovery process. At the beginning, I committed to greeting restaurant meals as an opportunity to practice flexibility first and foremost. This meant being open-minded about where I ate, challenging myself not to analyze menus endlessly beforehand, and not freaking out if a meal wasn’t exactly what I wanted.
It was hard work. I’m glad I gave myself a sort of training in going with the flow, but looking back, I wonder if I wasn’t a little too pushy with myself. I was so determined to prove my recovery, to myself and to others, that I sort of forgot that dining out is supposed to be a source of pleasure. I ate meals that I felt lukewarm about in order to prove my non-attachment to food. It may well have been what I needed at the time, but if enjoying restaurant meals was the goal, it didn’t really get me there.
Now that I’m more grounded in my recovery, I have less of a need to use social gatherings as an opportunity to prove my flexibility. I’m more vocal about my likes and dislikes, more confident in voicing preferences. I’m more tuned into what makes me feel good. This, I think, is an important part of having a food thing of my own. What matters is being able to recognize when having preferences will enhance my enjoyment of a meal, versus when it’ll burden me or get in the way of my living in the moment.
The food preferences that matter to me in social settings nowadays are very unlike the ones that used to matter most. I used to worry a lot about how healthful food preparation in restaurants was, which led me to stick to a small spectrum of menu options that felt “safe” (usually salads). It was difficult for me to branch out, try new things, or even to take advantage of cool vegan dining options when they presented themselves.
Today–perhaps ironically, given that history–one of my main priorities when I eat with others is to be honest and real about wanting to feel satisfied. I don’t relish “small plate” dining, which never seems to fill me up. Likewise for vegan dining that’s overtly vegetable-centric, which is trendy right now: I crave grains, beans, and vegan proteins. I’m happy to eat at omnivore spots, but if I have the choice not to eat someplace where I’ll have to cobble together a few salads for a meal, I will. Of course these preferences fluctuate with what’s available, practical, and fair to others. But I’ve become comfortable with acknowledging that satiety matters to me.
Of course “eating with others” isn’t only about eating out. It can apply to family gatherings or meals with friends, or even to one-on-one, intimate dinners. For the most part, I love eating with my loved ones, especially cooking for friends or partners. Eating with strangers can be a mixed bag. I’m sensitive–maybe too sensitive–to how much the people around me take pleasure in food. It’s tough for me to enjoy a meal with those who seem ambivalent about eating, which I know is my issue, not theirs; a craving for validation or permission, maybe. And years out of recovery, I still sometimes bristle when attention is called to my appetite. This happens fairly often, probably because I’m a volume eater (lots of plant-based eaters are). When it happens, it strikes a nerve that runs directly back to my childhood, when my big appetite was often a subject of teasing.
What has guided and helped me the most in finding a pleasurable experience of sharing food has been to “check in” from time to time with my body. When I was at the start of recovery, I treated social meals as a mental/psychological challenge. Sometimes the challenge was so all-consuming that it was all I could focus on, and I spent shared meals in a state of distance from my body and its cues.
Today, I try to be as attuned to my body when I eat in company as I am when I’m on my own. It can be work: social gatherings are distracting, often in a fun way, and it’s not always easy for me to scan my body for hunger cues or take a moment to really consider what would satisfy me. When I do, though, it almost always deepens and enhances the pleasure I take in eating.
As I was writing this post I had the intention to share a few tips about eating together for the sake of those who’ve had eating disorders and are in the long process of recovery. It occurred to me that sharing food can be difficult for many other reasons: for example, if one lives with a health condition that requires management through eating a certain way. A person might also have anxieties around shared meals that have less to do with food than with the circumstances (feeling ill at ease in groups or having group meals evoke difficult past experiences). Being vegan, plant-based, or having food allergies/intolerances can be a social challenge in its own right.
No matter what makes dining with others tricky for you, here are some of the practices that have allowed me to truly savor shared meals while staying tuned into my body and needs.
1. Scan your body before you join others for a meal. Before you enter a social gathering, it can be hugely beneficial to take a quick inventory of how you’re feeling. For me, tuning into how I feel–tired? vulnerable? energized?–always leads me to better understand what I’m craving and what I’d like to eat. I can approach my meal as an opportunity to get grounded, to recharge, or to celebrate, among other possible experiences.
2. Stay tuned into what you want and need. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve showed up to a meal with a clear sense of what I craved, only to have ordered something else because it’s what worked in a group setting. Sometimes this is unavoidable: if I’m eating at someone’s home, for example, I’m happy to enjoy what’s being offered and shared. Likewise for work-related meals and some family gatherings.
Sometimes, though, there’s space to have a meal that’s more in line with what I want, even if it involves speaking up. I’ve often ended up sharing dishes at restaurants because other folks I was eating with wanted them; it hasn’t always been easy for me to verbalize the fact that I’d like something different, but I’m getting better at doing it. Part of my comfort resides in realizing that it’s OK to want what I want and crave what I crave.
3. Contribute. This only applies to homemade gatherings and meals, but one of my favorite ways to bring some of my own food tastes and personality to a shared meal is to contribute a dish! This is an opportunity not only to enjoy something desirable, but also to share it with others. And if I’m eating with omnivores, it’s sometimes an opportunity to encourage a new perception of vegan food.
4. Check in. A body scan before dining is great, but it can be equally important to stay tuned in as a meal goes on. When I’m dining with others I sometimes forget to practice the mindful eating I’m accustomed to doing on my own, which involves eating more slowly than I’m inclined to (left to my own devices, I inhale) and taking moments to check in on my fullness. I’ve learned with time to do this around other people. Even if it feels a bit strange to pause and take a breath in someone else’s presence, a single moment of inward focus can go a long way in helping me to experience a meal more presently.
5. Practice being unashamed. I say “practice” because shame is an experience that tends to cling and linger. Releasing it takes time, patience, and endless self-compassion.
For me, it has taken years and years to become prouder and more self-assured about my food needs, my cravings, and my appetite. I’ve always taken this intention seriously, but it’s been humbling to realize how ongoing and complex the work around it is. Each shared meal is an opportunity for me to let another person bear witness to my commitment to self-nourishment. Some of them are easier than others, and some company is easier than others. Regardless, I do my best to satisfy my hunger and to experience pleasure along the way.
Final thing worth saying? Not every shared meal gives me as much space to check in as I’d like. Sometimes I become sensitive to interpersonal dynamics, and I lose sight of my physical experience. Sometimes I don’t have opportunity to eat something I’m excited about. When this happens, it’s OK. One of the early recovery lessons I learned was to not treat each meal as though it was my last, and this has remained an important truth to me over time. It’s important for me to acknowledge my love of food and do my best to create dining experiences that I’ll enjoy. It’s equally important for me to maintain a sense of perspective and roll with the punches when that’s what the situation calls for.
Hope these tips are useful, and of course I welcome you all to share whatever approaches have allowed you to share food pleasurably.
This is my last NEDA week post of the year, but as always, the conversation doesn’t end here. I’ll still be celebrating recovery through the weekend on Instagram, and as always, I’m here to support and encourage you however I can–even if that means simply sending love from behind my keyboard. You are loved, and you are enough.
NEDA Week 2019: Having My Own Thing
There’s always an official NEDA week theme, but most of the time the posts I write for this week end up finding a theme of their own. The National Eating Disorder Association’s theme for 2019 is “Come as You Are,” which emphasizes diversity and inclusivity in our community of those living with EDs, those recovering from them, those who have recovered, and all of the people in the places in between.
I realized as I was drafting this post that my own thought process around “come as you are” centers on the idea of individuality and self-expression in recovery.
Through talking to other men and women who have had eating disorders, I know that certain parts of the recovery process are nearly universal. A lot of the experiences that felt the most isolating for me—weight gain, the loss of a sense of “specialness,” the horror of feeling out-of-control—are actually completely “normal” stages of anorexia recovery. They felt uniquely threatening, but the more I spoke to others, the more I realized that they were part of a shared process.
At the same time, recovery is a deeply personal experience, and we come to understand it on our own terms.
At many times during recovery, I looked frantically around me for an archetype or role model to follow. I had so many questions: how long will this take? Will the weight gain ever stop? Will I ever feel comfortable in my body again? Will I ever truly enjoy eating out, being intimate, or socializing around food? How do you know when you’re “fully recovered”? My hope was that some incredible recovered person, some shining example of the process, would have the answers.
It never worked like that. In fact, my quest to find a recovery guru only took me to problematic places. It made me prescribe to eating styles that weren’t right for me long-term, one of which was raw foodism. It kept me from owning my own cravings and food likes/dislikes (for example: my abiding love of carbs). It muffled the voice of my intuition and kept me from doing the work of tuning into my body and discovering my own hungers.
Over time, I did learn how to do this—to tune in—and it’s what has allowed me to sustain my recovery over time. The answer was never in a book or on a blog; it was within me.
When you’ve been alienated from your body and your appetites for a long time, and especially when you believe that there is a rapacious monster within you that will eat everything in sight if you give it so much as a centimeter of freedom, it’s awful to be told to “listen to your body.” I regarded my body as freakish and insatiable, a delusion that felt all the more real because I’d been starving for years, and my body was insatiable. Recovery revealed the greatness of my appetite to me—an appetite that had been stoked by deprivation—and it was terrifying.
Getting in touch with hunger cues and listening to one’s body could easily be the work of a lifetime. For the record, I’m still learning how to listen and respond! At this point, though, the process is more curious and fun than it is daunting or scary. I’m not always great at being in my body—like many people, I experience anxiety as a kind of dissociation from my physical self. But I’ve spent a lot of time working on this in therapy and in yoga, and the dissociation happens less and less often. The rest of the time, my body is an incredible source of information.
I was reminded of this in the fall, when my body gave me all sorts of helpful signals that a relationship I’d been exploring wasn’t right. It often lets me know—through a pattering heart rate or GI distress—when my actions aren’t aligned with my truth. And it has become very, very good at telling me what food I crave, because I’ve finally invited it to have a voice.
Most importantly, my body has guided me to a place I never thought I’d be: the land of “not having a thing.”
For years and years, I always had a food thing. By “thing,” I mean a self-selected nutritional modification that dictated what I could and couldn’t eat. When I say “thing,” I don’t mean the ethical choice to avoid animals, and importantly, I don’t mean something that I chose freely with my body’s guidance. I mean nutrition parameters that I picked up from experts, gurus, popular diets or eating styles, and so on. In choosing a thing, I always had one of two motivations: becoming or remaining a certain shape, or trying to maintain a sense of control.
I loved having food things, just as I’d loved having food rules and routines when I was anorexic. They were so safe and so bracing. When life was daunting and impossible to understand, there was always one thing I could do that made sense, which to cling to a dietary modification. No matter how much pain I was in, I could avoid something that had been deemed inappropriate for my body by somebody else. It always felt good, even when it meant not eating things I liked and spent a whole lot of time thinking about.
Nowadays, and for the past few years, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a thing. Or rather, I no longer have somebody else’s thing. As it turns out, nobody knows better how I ought to be eating than I do.
I strive to eat mostly whole foods, plant-based diet, but I eat sugar, salt, oil, and vegan meats, too. I still eat a lot of cashew cheese, nut pate, and salad, but I can’t remember the last time I had any sense of how much of my day’s intake of food had been uncooked. I find a lot of intuitive eating principles to be helpful, but I’m not a completely intuitive eater. If any principle guides me, it’s the focus on macronutrient balance that I wrote about in Power Plates, which is flexible as far as eating prescriptions go, and which I modify plenty.
For a while, it felt strange not to have something I could point to as proof of my own willpower around food. It was odd to have permission to eat everything. Nowadays, it feels pretty great. Avoiding pleasurable foods is a lot of work, and letting go of the need to do that all the time feels like laying a burden down. My work in dietetics and interest in nutrition keep me focused on wholesome foods, but my appetites and tastes guide my choices within that. And for the first extended stretch of time that I can remember, there’s no (vegan) food that’s off limits. Only foods I eat more of or less of.
My experience with anorexia began right before I turned twelve, and my appetites had been critiqued at home or years before that. I don’t have childhood memories of food freedom or permission to eat what I wanted. What a gift it’s been to find these things for the first time in my thirties. And how proud I am—really and truly—to have figured out how I like and need to eat, granting myself the permission I so feared along the way.
In addition to being freed of the need to scour books and the internet for rules, I no longer get worked up about the way other people eat. For so many years—as long as I was fixated on seeking food prescriptions from others—I was judgy and defensive about food. I resented those who ate more restrictively than I did and was discomfited by those who gave themselves more permission. Any exposure to other eating styles was a minefield.
It’s not like that anymore. I don’t have my hackles up all the time when I observe other people eat. I don’t scrutinize other men or women’s eating patterns and choices. Instead of judging, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt; I assume that they’re nourishing themselves as only they can know how to do.
This week, I wish you the courage and support that it takes to create your own eating style, whatever that may be. I don’t mean that you should avoid smart nutrition guidance or research: by all means, dive in! But incorporate what you learn into your life with your body’s guidance.
For the record, I also don’t mean to suggest that eating all foods, within a vegan paradigm or any other, is necessarily the measure of a healed relationship with food. I’ve work with many clients who have discovered, through listening to their own bodies, that certain foods don’t work for them. In that case, choosing not to eat something is the act of self-awareness and freedom that I was just talking about. Elimination and restriction aren’t one-in-the-same, and we’re all different. Inclusion has been my own work in finding a healthful relationship with food; more selectivity might be another person’s work.
It’s also worth saying that this business of eating in alignment with one’s body and soul is fluid. What works for a person today might not work in ten years, or twenty, or thirty. I’m in a deliciously expansive place with food in this decade of my life, but if I got a certain type of diagnosis or was facing a particular health challenge, I might need to make different choices. My cravings and tastes might shift over time, which would change the landscape of my favorite foods and things to eat. That’s fine: if it happens, it’ll be another chapter in having my own thing.
Finally, I want to mention that this process of tuning in—just like the rest of recovery—is a process. It doesn’t happen quickly or overnight, as those of us who have spent decades working on it can attest 🙂 And it doesn’t always, nor should it, happen in isolation. I can’t imagine getting to where I am with food and body awareness without two different therapists, who supported me in different, but equally helpful ways.
If you’re at a point in recovery when the time has come to craft your own relationship with food, but you don’t know where to start, it’s wise and self-loving to solicit some support. Your support system might be a therapist, a dietitian, or another kind of healer; it may be a friend or family member who can listen attentively and help to nurture your intuition. Asking for support and validation isn’t the same as searching for rules; it’s often the added dose of courage it takes to get in touch with one’s own hungers.
I’ll be back on Friday to talk about a reader requested topic, which is eating with others. Till then, I send you ongoing love and ongoing wishes of being in your body. Happy Wednesday, friends.
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