How to Love Food (Again)
Loving food again when recovering from an eating disorder
After many years of struggling and endless sessions of therapy; let’s say that you finally achieved your own definition of recovery. Does everything related to food go back to ‘‘normal’’? Do you suddenly have the same relationship with food you had before your eating disorder? Do you love food again, just like that?
When I was a kid, food was such a neutral concept to me. I wouldn’t think about my next meal, it was just about the one I was eating at that moment. I was in touch with my hunger signals. I wouldn’t eat more even if I knew there wasn’t gonna be food for a long time. I would simply have cravings, no guilt attached to them. There were certain foods that I just could eat every day. I could easily indulge in sweets and fatty foods without thinking twice about it. After my recovery, however, this wasn’t the case. I did not go back to having this loving relationship with food again.
A large part of recovery is about managing your negative cognitions of food. Ideally, recovery would neutralize food. But neutralizing food and loving it are two separate things. When struggling with an eating disorder, food is a negatively charged concept. You don’t want anything to do with food, not even go near it. You become so fearful of it, you shudder even at the thought of it. This fear is so intense, so extreme, that it may be something comparable to a phobia.
Now imagine someone with arachnophobia (being extremely scared of spiders), they cannot even stand the thought of spiders. When you treat their phobia with therapy, do they suddenly start loving spiders? Nope. That is a whole other situation. It is the same with treating eating disorders: therapy can help you become desensitized to food but it doesn’t make you love food. When I say loving food; I mean being able to enjoy food again, associating it with more positive things, looking forward to eating.
Remember that one dish you just loved so much as a kid. Saying you were obsessedwith it would be an understatement, if possible, you would eat it every single day. You would beg your mom to cook it for you. You would get so excited to eat it, every bite would feel as good as the first bite. You just couldn’t wait to eat it.
That is how excited you can be about your meals. Yes, that is possible. Here is how:
1. Get in the kitchen!
The first time I got into fitness to be healthier (!), I was obsessed with cooking and baking healthy versions of desserts. I would try to replicate the desserts I loved as a kid, with ‘healthier’ ingredients. Sadly, looking up ‘healthier’ swaps for original recipes just left me hyperaware of all the calories, carbs, sugar, and fat that were in traditional versions of desserts (which is how it should be, it’s dessert!). This started the negative chain of thoughts that lead to my fear of calories, especially things that came with no nutritional information. I couldn’t help myself but think:
I was consuming so many calories without even knowing, so I should be careful with everysmall thing I am consuming from now on…
Just like that, all the childhood recipes from my mother and grandmother that I enjoyed without guilt were ruined and I was heartbroken. My enthusiasm for being in the kitchen was taken away from me. I could not even stand the sight of flour, sugar, and butter. It was killing me to think that I should eat my favorite desserts ever again. Because I think inside, I was still that little kid who loved her mother’s hazelnut cookies. So when I considered myself to be ‘recovered’, the first thing I challenged myself to do was to bake original versions of desserts, with no swaps. I knew that exposing myself to all the ingredients and original recipes would normalize eating them. It was like touching a spider to feel that you are finally not scared of it. That feeling and seeing how much progress I’ve made kept me going. Now I love baking again, and I regularly bake brownies, carrot cakes, and cookies.
2. Satisfy your hunger and cravings.
There are no rules on how you should be eating. So allow yourself to eat different meals every day or eat something repeatedly until you are bored. It is all about making eating a pleasant experience!
There might be meals that you have missed many years because of your eating disorder and no matter how much you eat them, you might find it hard to satisfy your cravings. This meal was pasta for me. After many failed attempts at going low-carb, I was very scared and deprived of pasta. Because of my ‘‘Carbs are bad for you’’ mentality, I was never able to eat pasta with a completely clear conscience, even after my therapy sessions were no longer about my eating disorder. Since the beginning of Covid-19, I think I ate pasta for dinner almost every day. There were only a few days I did not have pasta. Not even kidding. My dinners alternated between different types of pasta dishes: Bolognese, lasagna, and carbonara. It was still a ‘fear food’ until I started eating it every day, then it became just food and I could enjoy it with no guilt.
3. Try out new recipes.
After many years of going on and off on diets, my repertoire of tasty food recipes has become very narrow. As I was scared of the basic ingredients like sugar, flour, and butter; I steered clear of any new recipes. Why? One, I could consume unwanted calories because of it. Two, I might like them so much and that would add another thing onto my list of things I shouldn’t eat. This is how my list of ‘safe foods’ was created. Usually, safe foods are extremely boring and unpleasant to eat (e.g., eggs and smoked turkey). Therefore safe foods make it very difficult to love food, as getting no pleasure from eating sucks the life out of you, perpetuating the negative association with food. To love food again, you need to make the experience of eating really pleasant. One way to do that may be trying out new recipes that you might like and breaking free from eating boring safe foods.
4. Make food appealing to your senses.
The smallest step you can take towards this is sitting down to eat. Prepare a nice table and take your time to enjoy your food. If you have the time, prepare a nice plate for yourself. If your food appeals to all five senses, you will want to eat it more, you will find yourself drawn to it. When you get a plate of food in front of you and you catch yourself thinking:
'Smells amazing! Tastes delicious! Looks colorful and yummy! Just at the right consistency! I can’t wait to eat it!!
Then you are on the right path. Think of a nice big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, it looks beautiful with all the different colors: red, yellowish, brown, some green here and there. It smells like a bowl of perfection, with mixed scents of cooked onions, tomatoes, and beef. Imagine twirling your fork in it, from the sound it makes and its smoothness, you just know you are in for a treat. Then you take the first bite and it is like heaven in your mouth.
5. Do not meal prep, if possible.
Personally, I am not fond of the whole concept of meal prepping. I have failed every single time I tried meal prepping. While preparing my food, it looks yummy. But a few days later, when it is the actual time to eat it, I find myself craving something else. At that moment I know I should eat it otherwise I would be wasting food, so I push myself to eat whatever I’ve prepared without actually enjoying it. This goes against my principle of ‘Make every meal a pleasurable experience’. Eating a certain meal when you are craving another makes the experience boring, like something you just have to get over with. There are a lot of people who find meal prepping helpful, especially with a busy schedule. If that works for you, perfect! Go on doing what feels best. But if you are just like me, I’d recommend avoiding meal prep at the beginning of your journey to loving food, if your schedule allows. Let your cravings guide your menu of the day. This way you can decide when it’s time to eat and also slowly reconnect with your hunger cues.
I know all of these require time and energy. It is also not realistic to expect to enjoy every single meal or have the time to prepare a meal you love every day. I have those days too, where I am very much lazy so I just eat whatever I can find. But again, just like in recovery, this is a journey with grey areas. The goal is not to achieve perfection, but to get yourself to do the happy food dance for at least some of your meals :)