Re-learning to Love Food
Sounds a bit strange huh? I mean, who doesn’t like food?
At least, that’s the response I often get, or what I’ve observed over the last few years, is that for a lot of people – their lives, and in particular, their days, can revolve around food. From one meal to the next, thinking about when they can next eat – there appears to be such a culture of food in our everyday lives. It’s either that – or there’s the latest craze that is filling all the food blogs, cookery books, and making news articles – and people just can’t wait to jump on the bandwagon.
Whatever your thoughts on food are, it is impossible to deny that it is incredibly influential.
For me, it’s somewhat of a different story. While I was never diagnosed with a named eating disorder, I think I can safely say that my eating was disordered – as was my relationship with food. For at least the last five or six years, food has been something I care very little about – but at the same time, causes such anxiety. In trying to explain what was going on to various doctors, counsellors and dieticians – there was no easy way to describe it. Needless to say – it’s not been the most fun – and definitely not what most people associate with food.
Food became solely a necessity, something I had to eat for sustenance, rather than for enjoyment. I was too busy, and for me, eating was a waste of time. I would often eat the smallest of portions, and not feel like I was hungry – when in actual fact, I was probably very hungry – but choosing instead to ignore it. Going out and eating would strike such a cord of fear to run right through me, the anxiety would get going, and I’d be unable to eat even more. A vicious cycle if ever there was one. Being with people I didn’t know, only made it worse.
One Step Forward…
And so, with new challenges on the horizon, for example a trip to Israel with all new people; and university lurking round the corner in September – I knew I needed to address this, but didn’t know where to start. Israel was a success – my first sort of “maybe I can actually beat this thing” moment. It gave me the confidence and the courage to face university, where not only did I know no-one, but I’d also be eating in catered halls every day.
On the whole – I was staggered by the way I was able to cope with the changes – and continue eating. It was nowhere near as much as an issue as I thought it would be – and I managed to deal with eating almost every meal in the company of lots of people, and having so little control over what, and how much, I was given to eat. Without a doubt, I know that it was only through God’s help that I was able to make it through with so much ease, and start finding myself in a healthier state.
…two steps back
But – as always, it didn’t last. I could go through periods of eating well, and then something would crop up – and it would be back to the old ways. I didn’t want to eat, ate little, and just didn’t care if I ended up missing a meal. Yet all the while – I knew that what I was doing wasn’t healthy, or helpful. Around February time I forced myself to acknowledge that eating had reared its head again – and I needed to do something about it. So often, it’s the hardest to tell people about – because I don’t want it to become an “issue”. When I feel forced to eat, I want to eat even less. When I’m stressed, food is definitely the last thing on the to-do list (which can often be pages long…)
As a child, I loved food. I enjoyed eating – and particularly enjoyed racing my Dad to finish our dinner plates (a strange game, I do admit). For a while now, I’ve been desperate for just a fleeting feeling of eating, and approaching food without any of the baggage that I’ve been carrying – to once again enjoy eating in a care-free manner.
Despite this, I’ve continued to enjoy a weird fascination with cooking and baking programmes, and have been an avid watcher of GBBO (despite the move to Channel 4), and Masterchef – and in particular, the Australian version of the competition. Over the last few months, I’ve been re-watching, and watching the latest two series of the competition – and something has begun to spark within me.
I’ve a desire to learn how to cook properly – to be an instinctive cook and baker. To have the ability to know what works well together, or to see what’s left in the fridge and make it into a meal, and find enjoyment in the whole process. And while yes, I’ve been baking more, cooking more – and just generally improving my confidence in the actions of doing so – I’m not yet at the point where I bake because I want to eat what I’ve created. I far prefer the making, to the eating after – but there’s definitely been progress.
Learning from Laura (and literature)
One final thing I wanted to touch on about this subject stems from a book I’ve just finished, that was recommended to me by my Aunt. Laura Freeman’s memoir, ‘The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite’ appealed on a number of levels. First, it combines a whirlwind tour of classic literature – so much of which I haven’t read, yet am now inspired to – while also giving voice to some of the more internal thoughts that I’ve had over the years.
Laura’s battle with anorexia is different to what I’ve dealt with – but throughout the book there were glimpses that stood out – that connected with me on a level that I wasn’t expecting to find.
As she walked through Dickens; the war poets of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Jones; Hardy; Elizabeth David and Mary Frances Fisher; various travel writers; Virginia Woolf; and the classic works of children’s literature; from JK Rowling, to CS Lewis, Louisa May Alcott and Roald Dahl, one thread ran throughout. Laura found confidence, and was inspired to break out of the restricted, illness-controlled mindsets bit by bit, and re-introduce different food types back into her diet.
As she summed up, this line stood out:
“The emotion, the looking forward to, the relish in eating is what has stayed in my mind. What I have found in reading isn’t a dictionary of foodstuffs – A is for Apple amber, B is for beautiful soup, C is for cheese on toast – but a whole library of reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well.”
Because – where she found confidence in the emotions of those who also tried and explored new foods, who were armed by the sustenance found in a good, hearty supper – is also, for me the heart of food. It’s not so much about what you’re eating – but about why. The meeting together, and sharing a meal over a table top filled with rich discussion, or cooling down on a hot summer’s day with a ball of fruity sorbet that makes your mouth tense with the crisp flavours.
Laura said something similar – and I feel this is important to heed when we can so often be surrounded by the media praising diets, weight-loss, and substitution.
“Instead of agonising about what we eat, stretching ourselves on racks of calories, sugar and fats, we might think about why we eat, when we eat, where we eat and who we eat with.”
For me, talk of minimal eating, or weight-loss diets, are far from helpful. I need to be careful what I surround myself with, and instead find encouragement – those who are willing to walk alongside me in this journey of re-discovering food for myself, but in a healthy way.
Next September I’ll be back at uni for my second year, but this time, will be cooking for myself (and my flatmates). A few years ago, this would have filled me with dread, but now – I’m looking forward to it. I’m seeing it as an adventure into trying more, experiencing different things, and being prepared to push myself out of my comfort zone.
But – I’m also aware, that this isn’t a quick fix. It’s a journey – but so much of it is about mindset. My attitude to food, and eating, is so much healthier than it used to be – and I want to see that improve. This book, that I picked up a week or so ago, has given me new ways of thinking that I didn’t expect.
What comes next?
There are a few reasons why I’ve written this, and decided to share it today. When struggling with the anxiety, the confusion, and the mental stress about food, it was so much easier to stay silent, than to try and explain it. But, it is also our human tendency to avoid acknowledging what we’re going through, and hide behind masks.
“We like to keep up appearances as far as we can, to smile, to make ourselves useful, to put on a brave face.”
Increasingly, I’m becoming more and more aware of the detrimental impact that poor mental health can have, both personally and in those around me. It’s all too easy to pretend that we’re fine – because being vulnerable is scary. But while it’s important to acknowledge the situation, I also know that I cannot treat diagnosis as a “death sentence”, or a permanent status. Instead – looking to break chains, and rewire my brain.
By sharing this – I’m taking a step in removing those masks, and asking for accountability.
But also, I want to invite you in on this food journey with me. If you’ve got favourite recipes, then send them my way. If you want to come help me taste the latest thing I’ve tried baking, then let me know. But most of all – I’m asking for a cheeky favour. If you’re around me when food is about, whether that be a meal time or anything else random – I just ask for a spirit of encouragement. Stepping out today is hard – but I’m wanting to see change, and looking to see new life in food and cooking.
All quotes from Laura Freeman’s book, ‘The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite’