Overcoming Food And Body Image Struggles
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so it seems like as good a time as any to talk about this scary, uncomfortable, but important, topic. Overcoming food and body image struggles isn’t easy, but it is worth it.
In addition, there is a spectrum. Maybe you are struggling with the beginnings of dieting and disordered eating behaviors, or have a diagnosed eating disorder and are currently seeking treatment. Either way, this is a safe place for you.
*Trigger warning: this post does include some sensitive discussion regarding eating disorder behaviors. If you are easily triggered by these things, please do not read at this time.
before i found intuitive eating, i struggled, too
If you have been following me for a while, you know that I practice and promote a non-diet, intuitive eating approach to food, health and happiness.
It took me years of struggling with my own food and body image issues to get to where I am today. Many different things contributed to my personal struggles with confidence. Most of all, my type A, perfectionist personality and my environment.
Watching my mom diet and try to lose weight growing up likely had an impact as well, even though I wasn’t super aware of it at the time. She always told me that I was beautiful, smart and strong, and never intentionally said or did anything to negatively affect my body image. Dieting and pursuing weight loss has always been the norm in our society, so I don’t blame her whatsoever.
Rejecting diet culture and learning to love & respect your body regardless of your weight and/or outward appearance does not happen overnight. And don’t get me wrong; I still struggle, too. It’s an ongoing journey that you have to continue working at.
You may or may not know that there was a time in my life when I binged and purged. I did this in college, usually after a night out and a few too many alcoholic beverages. That’s how I justified it.
I would wake up the next day, go to the gym, be my “productive” type A self, and pretend like nothing happened. If anyone found out, I told them I made myself do it because I drank too much and throwing up made me feel better.
And it did, but for different reasons.
you don’t have to be “sick enough” to ask for help with an eating disorder or disordered eating
This isn’t something I did all the time, but even once is enough to be concerning. You don’t have to engage in these dangerous behaviors a certain number of times to be qualified as “sick enough” to seek help.
You are worthy of help if these thoughts even cross your mind and you’ve never acted on them. It’s never too late to change your path.
When you’re trapped in diet culture & having toxic thoughts about your body, it’s easy to justify your behaviors and tell yourself that what you’re doing is normal and for the sake of “health & wellness”. When you look back with a different lens, you can usually see how unhealthy your actions were.
what is orthorexia?
“Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, awareness about orthorexia is on the rise. The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.”
Unfortunately, social media is likely contributing to the rise we are seeing in orthorexia today. It’s so easy to compare your daily food intake to that random Instagram wellness influencer and think that what you’re doing isn’t good enough, or that you’re eating too much, or exercising too little, etc., etc.
Please keep in mind that what we see on social media is just a small fraction of reality.
Click here to read more about the warning signs of orthorexia.
passion vs. obsession with nutrition
There is a big difference between wanting to eat nutritious foods for your health and well-being, and being so fixated on nutrition that it starts to negatively impact your physical, mental and/or emotional health or your relationships.
I understand that a lot of people are interested in nutrition these days and enjoy learning about it, and that tracking calories, macros and/or your body weight every day seems helpful.
For some people, these behaviors are harmless. But for most, they are not.
It is all too easy to get caught up in it; the satisfaction of the number on the scale getting smaller, seeing your body shrinking, the validation you get when people notice, etc.
The high you get from those things can overshadow the fact that you physically feel awful and exhausted for weeks, months, or even years. Don’t ignore the signals that your body is sending you.
i am not an anti-weight loss dietitian
PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT anti-weight loss or anti-YOU if you want to lose weight.
I know that many people could benefit from changing their eating, exercise and/or other habits and may be able to lose weight in a healthy, realistic and gradual way by doing so. HOWEVER, I don’t think that weight loss should be the primary goal of any behavior change.
I also think it’s important to note that not everyone needs to or can lose weight. If you feel like you’re doing “everything” and your weight isn’t budging, you might be either: 1) restricting calories too much, 2) exercising too much, 3) too stressed out, 4) have thyroid and/or other underlying health issues, 5) any or all of the above, or 6) already be at your body’s “set point weight”, AKA the weight where it feels comfortable and wants to stay.
make lifestyle changes to feel better in your body
I want you to make changes to your lifestyle in order to feel better and to respect your body more. I want you to be proud of yourself whether those lifestyle changes result in weight loss or not. If you take an intuitive eating approach, we cannot predict what your body will do in regards to your weight — it depends on where you’re starting.
What I am against is the harmful methods that most people use to pursue weight loss today, and I am very much against the diet industry that preys on innocent people’s biggest vulnerabilities.
I’m against people assuming that those in larger bodies are lazy. Most of them are not.
I’m against all of the fear mongering & the lies that you aren’t good enough or don’t deserve to be treated like a normal human being by medical professionals (or anyone, really) until you hit “x” number on the BMI chart.
DID YOU KNOW: it is possible to exist at a higher weight and still be metabolically healthy? And that you can see improvements in your health by changing your behaviors, even in the absence of weight loss?
eating disorders do not discriminate
As a Registered Dietitian, I’ve seen thin people who are quite unhealthy, people in larger bodies that are extremely healthy, and vice versa. Weight is not the only factor that determines your health status. Not even close.
We cannot make assumptions about people based on their body size. We cannot assume that because someone is “thin” that they don’t struggle with body image, or that someone in a larger body is actively pursuing weight loss. For all we know, they could be perfectly at peace with their body size. And that is nobody’s business but their own.
“Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.”
The majority of the time, you can’t see that someone is struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders don’t have one specific “look”.
are you tired of being at war with your body?
If you are tired of dieting and having a poor relationship with food and/or your body, please know that 1) you are not alone, and 2) you don’t have to be at war with your body forever.
overcoming food and body image struggles: how to get started
Start by unfollowing accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or may be triggering for you in any way as you try to shift your mindset. Even if that person didn’t do anything “wrong” — this about protecting your mental health; it’s not about them. Seeing and hearing triggering messages and images daily is unhelpful.
Follow accounts that make you feel good about yourself, food/health-related or not. Shit, follow some puppy accounts!!!! Or enneagram-related accounts and learn more about who you are! *Random side note: I’m late to the enneagram game but it is all fascinating to me. I’m a 6 — could you have guessed? : )
Follow IE accounts I’ve listed here.
work with a professional to heal your relationship with food
Please consider working with a Registered Dietitian if you want to learn about nutrition, but don’t necessarily want to track every bite of food you eat for the rest of forever, or restrict the foods that you love.
If you are struggling with an active eating disorder, please seek help. It is best to work with a team as you work toward recovery, i.e. an RD, therapist, physician, etc.
do the internal work away from social media
Next, look up and do the work away from your phone.
I get that dieting and following a “plan” seems like the easy choice. Seeking food freedom is a lot harder, because there isn’t a set path. It looks different for everyone.
There aren’t specific guidelines to follow, and I know that can be scary for those who thrive on structure. Trust the process.
I promise that you can get to a place where your body and your next meal don’t occupy your thoughts 24/7. When you are well-fed, you have energy to put toward the things and the people you love. You can thrive at work or at school or in relationships because you have the mental capacity to do so. And you can allow yourself to take rest days. You can eat a cookie and move on without stressing or compensating in some way.
This might seem impossible to some of you, but it isn’t. I promise. It just takes time.
You can care for your body in so many ways — drinking enough water, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, spending time with loved ones, laughing, engaging in some form of self-care daily, even if that’s spending 5 minutes meditating or listening to your favorite song or podcast.
One of my favorite quotes: you can’t live a full life on an empty stomach.
If there are any accounts that you follow that have helped you with body image, positive thoughts about food/body/life in general, please leave them in the comments!
Head to this blog post and scroll to the bottom to find tons of intuitive eating and body positive dietitians and other resources (i.e. books, podcasts) to help you get started on your journey of health and self-love.
why i’m so thankful to have found intuitive eating and a supportive community
I can honestly say that quitting calorie counting and embracing intuitive eating has forever changed my life, and the lives of my future children, for the better.
No longer do I obsess over what I did or didn’t eat. I rarely question my hunger and I allow myself to take days off from the gym without guilt. I don’t love what I see in the mirror every morning, but I choose to respect my body regardless. I’m not perfect, but I’m actively working on my relationship with myself every day.
I have an incredible community and support network both on and offline. I surround myself with people who motivate and inspire me to live my best life and care for my body.
And most of all, I love myself. I WANT to treat my body well. I feel better than I ever have because I’ve learned how to honor this body I’ve been blessed with through food, movement and self-care. That includes wine and Oreo balls.
seek help if you or a loved one is struggling with an ed
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, disordered eating, exercise addiction and/or body dysmorphia, please seek help.
Be careful about how you approach the situation if you suspect that someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder. If you feel comfortable, voice your concerns about some of the behaviors you’ve witnessed and gently let them know that you want to help. They might be defensive and deny that anything is wrong.
You might also talk to a mutual friend or family member of that person if you are worried they may be struggling with an ED.
Call the NEDA Helpline at (800)-931-2237 or click here for other support options.
Overcoming food and body image struggles is not easy, and like I mentioned, it does not happen overnight. But I promise, the hard work is worth it, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. You got this.
Thank you so much for reading.