A version of this post originally appeared on Verilymag.com.
Juice cleanses. Detox diets. Meatless Mondays. All these food trends seem to be ushering in not only pithy magazine cover lines about carbs and abs but also an age when food consciousness has become the focal point of many of our lives. "Clean eating" has become an industry all its own. We cling to paleo and gluten-free lifestyles almost like religions.
If that meant we were all adapting healthier, happier lifestyles, maybe these eating fads would be great. And maybe for some people it is a helpful way to eat healthfully. But for many others, and particularly for young women, good health isn't the result. In fact, 50 percent of teenage girls use unhealthy weight control measures, such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, and taking laxatives. And on into young adulthood, 25 percent of college women engage in bingeing and purging, and 91 percent of women surveyed on college campuses try to control their weight through dieting. For many women, an acute food focus becomes downright dangerous.
I should know. It happened to me.
I've written about this before, but I really don't think eating disorders and our obsession with food can be talked about enough. For me, the desire to eat healthier was the beginning of what led me to develop a life-threatening eating disorder. As a high school varsity tennis player, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was strong and healthy. I was able to clearly listen to my body’s hunger and fullness signals. I ate everything from broccoli to burgers, and my body knew exactly what I needed. I was what you would call an intuitive eater. Taking care of myself was simple.
But things got complicated. Or I should say, I overcomplicated them.
By the end of my senior year of high school, I was no longer playing tennis for three hours a day. I was busy finishing my studies, working part-time, and preparing for college. My friends started talking about the dreaded “Freshman 15” weight gain that was sure to hit all of us come fall, and it seemed like every girl around me was dieting in order to look fabulous in her prom dress that spring.
I decided to drink more water and to cut out the two or three Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies from my lunch every day. I figured I wasn’t an athlete anymore and now I needed to watch what I ate.
As an aspiring magazine journalist, I was very tuned in to the media, often reading headlines and articles about health and wellness. Twelve hundred calories a day to get a bikini body? No dairy or gluten to ensure flat abs? Sixty minutes of cardio a day to stay in shape? I soaked up the information like a sponge, absorbing diet tips, “healthy eating” strategies, and fitness advice.
All my life, I was praised for my body. Genetically tall and thin, I was often told I should be a model and affirmed for the way I looked. “You’re so skinny! I wish I looked like you," people would say. “What’s your secret?”
Subconsciously, I fed on that affirmation. What would happen if I couldn’t maintain this figure? What would I think of myself?
I had developed a sense of pride in my appearance. I had also developed a deep fear of losing it. The fears grew stronger and then the voice in my head changed from me wanting to be “healthy,” to me wanting approval, to me wanting control.
I was incredibly stressed about starting college at a school where I knew no one and where I would be enrolled in a rigorous program. I was scared I wouldn’t measure up. My long-term friendships were changing—we were drifting apart as the prospect of college loomed closer and closer. I had recently broken things off with a guy I liked, and I was feeling extra-lonely as a result. My life was going through a natural transition. But for me, an 18-year-old perfectionist not used to change or failure, life felt out of control. Nothing felt normal.
But food? Food I could control. If I could manage my food intake, then I could feel better, I thought.
It was the perfect storm of factors: a desire to eat healthy, fear of failure, stress about my body, longing for affirmation, isolation from my friends, and a great memory for calories/nutritional information/diet tips. Before I knew it, “healthy eating” became restriction and then full-blown anorexia nervosa.
The eating disorder took root and grew during that summer. Calorie counting became my way of life. My thoughts were consumed by food. I pulled away from my friends so that they wouldn't really know what was going on. My parents took me to see my pediatrician who had known me since I was a toddler. He said that while I had lost weight, it was perfectly normal to do so under stress and that they shouldn't worry. Later my parents drove me to an eating disorder treatment center. The psychiatrist there wanted to admit me immediately. I continued to deny having a problem. And my restricting rapidly worsened.
I still went off to college―but three weeks into my first semester, I had to withdraw for medical reasons. I was no longer stable enough to stay in school. Anorexia was destroying my life, and if I didn’t do something serious (and soon), I was going to die. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. And 5 to 20 percent of those who suffer from anorexia will die. That's upward of one in five.
Thank God this is not where my story ends. Let me be clear: I did not save myself. I could not have escaped this devastating downward spiral of sin and destruction on my own. I was saved by The Lord, whose hand of protection was on me through it all. He saved me physically and spiritually. I got help from doctors and psychologists, and slowly but surely, I regained my health and my strength. My family carried me through it all, and I was given a second chance at life. I went back to school, graduated on time, and took a full-time job within a few months after graduation.
Today, seven years later, I am fully in recovery. I am happy and healthy. I meet with a counselor and nutritionist on a regular basis. I have an amazing community around me that watches out for me and that I can talk to when things get hard. Because, I have to be honest, sometimes life does get hard.
I think of anorexia (or any eating disorder) like alcoholism. Both are diseases; both stem from nature and nurture. Genetics, upbringing, and choices. Alcoholics usually call themselves alcoholics for the rest of their lives, even when they have not touched a drink in ten years. Similarly, I will always say I am “in recovery” from my eating disorder, even though my life looks drastically different than it used to. I am grateful for every single day, and I live life to the fullest.
I am also now highly aware of the world of “healthy eating,” diet, and fitness. We are tempted every day by magazines and websites promising happiness if we can just fix ourselves. If we can eat clean, if we can do more strength training, if we can work a bit harder to get those flat abs/strong arms/skinny waist/perky butt, we can achieve fulfillment. We can be happy.
Except those things will never fulfill us. Food, control, affirmation from others―those things will never fulfill us because only Christ can. It’s taken me years and plenty of struggle to realize that.
Everyone’s body, everyone’s health, is completely individual. What might be healthy for one person is totally different for someone else. I know that, for me, I could not survive on 1,500 calories a day like an unnamed women’s wellness magazine prescribes as necessary for weight maintenance and optimal health. If I did that with 60 minutes of cardio exercise a day, I would not be healthy. I would be sick and run down. And, for me, desserts and other sweet treats are a necessary part of my life. They equal food freedom! I’d like lots of freedom, please.
As my friend, fellow blogger, and dietician and nurse Robyn says so wisely:
Food is for health, for pleasure, for experience—and all of those things together.
Think of how food shows up in the Bible: It brings people together. God uses it to bless us and reveal Himself to us. God gives us the gift of food to experience in community. We break bread and drink wine. Food is a gift, a way we can connect with one another.
God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, to humble and test them so that it would do them good (Deuteronomy 8:16). He gives us bread from heaven to show us that He is God (Exodus 16:12).
Food is not meant to be overly complicated. My nutritionist often reminds me: Your body is the best indicator of what you need and when you need it. If you’re hungry and your stomach is growling, it’s because your body needs food―regardless of whether you ate two slices of pizza an hour ago or just drank a green juice. The latest diet trends are always changing, but your body is with you for the long haul. Listen to it.
Hyper-analyzing and focusing on food―or anything for that matter―turns it into an idol. It becomes the thing we glorify. It replaces God in our hearts, and ultimately, destroys our lives.
If we’re obsessed with eating perfectly, eating better than the person next to us, or looking good, we are the ones who end up losing. Being so concerned with what’s “healthy” and what’s not means we miss out on the simple joy of food. We miss out on the amazing gift our bodies are. We miss out on the whole life God has given us. He wants us to enjoy these things to glorify Him!
So eat the kale. Eat the cupcake. Listen to your body, not your fears. Let Jesus ―not food―reign in your heart. And enjoy the full life He has set out for you.
If you want to talk more about Jesus Christ and faith and what-the-heck-is-all-this-stuff, shoot me a message. I love meeting new people, whether virtually or in person, and gabbing about life.
And if you'd like to know more of my story, you can read my testimony here.
Truly, He makes beautiful things.