My Journey: Thriving After Struggling with my Relationship with Food

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I can still picture sitting in class my senior year of college listening to my professor, Dr. Eunice Basler, display on the projector a description of “normal eating.”

 Copyright © 2018 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatterInstitute.org. You may reproduce this handout if you don’t charge for it or change it in any way and you do include the copyright statement.

Copyright © 2018 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatterInstitute.org. You may reproduce this handout if you don’t charge for it or change it in any way and you do include the copyright statement.

I will never forget that class.

I was a lean (teetering on underweight) college athlete. An anxious perfectionist who mentally tabulated every bite I took from morning until night. I analyzed and re-analyzed exactly what I had eaten and what I would eat. I was so consumed with what I ate that I didn’t have much mental space outside of that and school to think about much else.

Needless to say, I wasn’t the life of the party.

I can hear my friends snort with laughter reading this. Who am I kidding?! I rarely even went to parties (ok, fine, I like never did). I’d blame it on being an athlete, but the reality was that it was a combination of social social anxiety, perfectionism, and having some weird lack of FOMO in college. Who was I?!

My sophomore year of college I had actually changed my major from pre-business to nutrition because I found myself reading my friend’s nutrition textbooks.

I was obsessed.

I’ll be the first to admit that I came to studying nutrition out of an unhealthy relationship with food. I was the teenage girl watching morning television at home during the summers and listening to the morning talk show hosts talk about calories and weight loss and the dangers of being overweight. In my mind, they were talking to me. I was determined to never be overweight, and I knew (from their talk show lessons) that I could avoid that by counting every calorie that did, would or ever could pass my lips.

So, that’s what I did. I lowered my fat and calories as much as I could while fueling enough to get through track practice. Looking back, it is so sad, but at the time, I thought I was being healthy. Well, for every fat gram I eliminated I steadily lost the same amount of my sense of humor, my love for being active, my ability to feel feelings. I was felt completely numb.

Fast forward a few years to that classroom with Dr. Basler, staring at Ellyn Satter’s definition of “normal eating.”

I read these words on the projector and had a sense of relief. Normal eating is being overly full sometimes. It’s also feeling hungry. It’s eating something that you don’t really love or stopping when you’re satisfied.

During that class, we were assigned to read the book “Intuitive Eating” by Resch and Tribole, and that was another level of exploration. I could eat anything and that was ok. I could trust my body to tell me what it needed. I could pay attention to foods I loved and also take note of foods that I just didn’t enjoy.

You’re probably like “umm… duh! This is the life of a veggie hater!” I know. But, from the perspective of a fragile, perfectionist college nutrition student, eating something that was not “healthy” (in the classic sense, at the time) was unfathomable.

I seriously remember one of the girls in my sorority (sorry, I think it’s weird to say “sister”) casually eating a piece of cheese like it was no big deal, and I was like “how can she do that? Doesn’t she realize how much fat is in that?!”

Wow, Leigh. You’ve got problems.

Yes, I really did. And, I can honestly say that the class I took with Eunice Basler (paired with finding an amazing therapist) saved my health (mentally and physically). After taking her class, I ate what I truly wanted to eat and what I actually enjoyed. This, however strange it might be to read, was a big deal for me.

This allowed me to regain my life. I started thinking about things outside of classwork, my track training schedule (technically field, I was a high jumper), and what I was going to eat.  

Now, I can eat comfortably around others without anxiety. I don’t worry about calories, and I fully trust my body to tell me when I’m hungry or full and eat (or stop eating) accordingly. Sometimes I overeat (especially when my parents cook), and sometimes I undereat (especially when Rob and I haven’t planned). At times, I choose what to eat because it’s healthy, and other times (and now more often) I choose what to eat because it tastes good… healthy and tasty are definitely not mutually exclusive - check out my recipes. I, by no means, have a “perfect” relationship with food, and I never will. But, I know that I eat “normally,” and that’s what’s most important to me (and my mental health).

So, how did I get to this point?

Well, it’s taken a lot of time, hard work, appointments, honesty, reading, listening, and a wonderful support system of friends and family (seriously, I know how lucky I am). Here are some of my main self-help mechanisms:

  • Read the definition of “Normal Eating” by Ellyn Satter

  • Read Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

  • Sought counseling with a licensed therapist

  • Received massage therapy (it was helpful to develop a healthy relationship with my body and it continues to be an important part of my self-care)

  • Talked with friends and family I could trust about my struggle

  • Continued to read and listen to self help-type books. Some of them:

I remember one of the breakthrough moments of my progress after I had started therapy in college. It was after I finished jumping at a track meet where I jumped worse than I ever had, even in high school. My parents had come to the meet, and after changing out of my high jump shoes I went over to sit with my mom in the stands and I literally sobbed in her lap for a good 20-30 straight minutes. I remember thinking how relieved I was to actually feel feelings. That’s how numb I was. I remember when I finally laughed again, felt the feeling of being annoyed, and being grateful because I actually had feelings again.

If you can relate to an unhealthy relationship with food, the bottom line is that you’re not alone, and I want to support you to get help. It’s definitely a journey without a final destination.

I’d never wish on anyone the struggle I’ve gone through (and I also know that many others have had a much harder and riskier journey than mine), but I’ll always be grateful for it. I would never be who I am today without it, and I know that I am better able to help my clients because of what I’ve gone through.

I realize that now most of my work as an integrative and functional medicine dietitian revolves around helping clients identify foods that cause inflammation and/or dietary problems to address chronic disease. Sometimes (often) this involves elimination diets - possibly the antithesis of intuitive eating?

So, this isn’t the end of the story, because our relationship with food is complicated.  I'll share the next chapter in another post, but it involves interviews and input from experts like Ellyn Satter, Evelyn Tribole and other experts who know a lot about how people develop healthy relationships with food and eating.

I’m excited to share more.