Vittles 6.17 - Eating Disorders
By Georgia Bronte, Marie-Henriette Desmoures and Dan Gibbon-Walsh
Content note: Anorexia and eating disorders
Eating disorders have severely affected several people close to me over the last decade ─ I’m sure this is the case for most people given how prevalent they are. From talking to them, it’s clear that the closure of restaurants, the incessant focus on food and eating, and the disruption of usual routines have all affected their disorder in significant ways.
These three pieces by Georgia Bronte, Marie-Henriette Desmoures and Dan Gibbon-Walsh were all written at various stages of lockdown, from the first month to the last couple weeks when normality slowly returned, and they wrestle with some of these issues - perhaps some you have never considered. If you find talk of eating disorders triggering, or if you need someone to speak to, then the authors of this newsletter have suggested the following:
Beat Helpline https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services
As well as donating to
The fee for today’s newsletter was matched and donated between Maudsley and Beat.
How south London’s restaurants taught me to eat again, by Georgia Bronte
When recovering from an eating disorder, you are forced to change what ‘food’ means to you. In recovery, the simple thing you need to nourish you starts off as the enemy. It incites panic, anger and guilt. Next, it becomes solely medicine, something you routinely swallow down at set times. Finally, if you’re lucky, you learn how to enjoy it again.
Before I became ill, which was just under three years ago, I was a restaurant journalist. I worked for a trade restaurant magazine, so I was out most nights of the week eating meals. My social group was comprised of chefs, food writers and suppliers. Restaurants were a big part of my life, and they were snatched away when anorexia pulled up a seat at the table.
More than a year later, I was taking baby steps back into the ‘enjoying food’ phase. It felt like a form of therapy to be able to go back to my old haunts after a year in a hospital, being welcomed as if nothing had changed. It also helped to have the responsibility of preparing and portioning food handed over to someone whose sole aim was to serve a delicious meal, not to fret over calories and weight targets.
It was during this transition from the ‘medicine’ phase, to the ‘enjoying food again’ phase that lockdown was introduced. My safe havens of self-indulgence were suddenly removed, alongside my hospital-based therapy. My progress stalled immediately.
Without the option of pre-prepared meals,my therapist recommended that I revert to my old meal plan. Anyone who has ever been prescribed a meal plan for eating disorder recovery will attest to the fact that it is rigid, regimented and a snapshot depiction of the ‘medicine’ stage of recovery. Breakfast at 8am (on the dot) would be bran flakes with either two tangerines or one handful of berries; lunch would be soup, bread and salad or a tuna sandwich and salad, followed by a yoghurt and a digestive; dinner would be a carb (normally rice, occasionally pasta), with a protein (normally tofu) and a vegetable (always a green leafy salad). With anorexia there is little room for creativity.
Barren supermarket shelves meant that in the midst of an already stressful situation I had to force myself to become flexible. Suddenly I couldn’t find the building blocks of my diet: cans of tuna; pre-portioned salads; cans of sweet corn; pasta, oats, cereal. I slipped further into my illness and ended up on a drip in A&E. With little else to do except introspection I decided that I was using lockdown as an excuse to relapse into my illness. I was moving further and further from the end goal: to love food again. I had been so close, and with the virus showing no sign of letting up, I had to take my diet into my own hands.
I used the yawning expanse of time to both discover new and remember old favourite foods. Experimenting with all the unlabelled sauce bases in Brixton’s Wing Tai; fashioning a take on a tuna bake that reminds me of my mum in Australia; cooking homemade fish fingers, a childhood favourite that invokes safety; spending an afternoon making jarred treats, like kimchi, pickles and Marmite nuts.
As I was climbing out of the hole I’d got myself into, restaurants started delivery options. Right on time. I’ve been in lockdown with a boyfriend I had met just a few weeks before everything got shut down, and we soon realised that we still hadn’t actually been on a dinner date, despite having spent the past 73 days within the same four walls.
I ordered a vegetarian feast from Brunswick House and we ate it outside in the dusk with candles, making our own pretend restaurant. It was as close to a dinner date as we could get, and it was a glimpse of the enjoyment stage I was working towards.
As more takeaway options became available I became more adventurous, with daytime lunch ‘dates’ becoming a regular occurrence for us. We picked up fish and chips from local favourite Fladda and ate them in the park; we had takeaway focaccia (miles better than the ones I’d been trying to bake), burrata and wine from the Camberwell Arms; at Cameroonian crêperie Moloko the chef even let us wait inside the restaurant while he cooked the crêpes for us to take away to the park.
Before the pandemic, I knew that food was central to my life. I hoped I would recover and that enjoyment and experimentation would follow. However, I’ve realised that these are not the end points, but part of the recovery itself. The restaurants and local shops that have been helping me venture out of my rigidity during the past few months have all thanked me for ‘supporting’ them. I don’t mention it to them but I hope to one day let them know how much in turn they have been supporting me.
Georgia Bronte is a freelance writer and mental health campaigner based in London. Her interest in food comes from a range of jobs across hospitality and restaurant journalism. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter. Georgia was paid for this article.
Keeping a healthy relationship with food during lockdown, by Dan Gibbon-Walsh
I’ll be honest, my relationship with food has rarely been easy.
Beat, a UK charity that aims to help people cope with eating disorders, estimates there are some 1.25 million people in the UK who have some form of eating disorder. As an adult, I can’t blame a lack of knowledge and awareness of how food impacts the body in the same way I did as a teenager, when I gained weight and lost confidence. I eventually learned better ways of managing my erratic relationship with food, and my tendency to want to eat more in difficult times. It is possible to learn good ways of eating, but it’s easier still to simply plaster over terrible habits. That second part came back to bite me during this pandemic, when I noticed that all the effort I had put into having a routine that allowed me to exercise as often as possible, feel happier within myself and eat reasonably well was not going to be so easy to carry on with.
Since the pandemic started my whole day has seemingly become based around what I eat. Keeping my mind elsewhere has never been trickier. I used to be able to find a number of ways during the day to not think about food – socialising, smoking, drinking, working, group exercising – but now I don’t smoke and I’m doing my best to avoid a descent into daytime drinking, eating is the one obvious activity that can fill any gap in time and attention. Not that I’m the only one. A cursory glance across social media feeds sees a glorious array of homemade efforts coupled with seemingly more recipes than ever. At times, it makes me want to hide and switch off completely
The danger for many people with eating disorders is that it can go one of two ways. Unless you find a definitive gap in behaviour-bridging, you can hit a dangerous cycle where you think ‘fuck it’ and spiral into unhealthy eating habits before someone catches you. Or you can tell yourself that you shouldn’t eat at all. Of course, this version is even worse – as you starve the brain of glucose, you kill your ability to think clearly, and descend into yet another spiral. All of these feelings are amplified as the anxiety of a pandemic hems these emotions in, creating a sense of difficulty around every food conversation.
Of course it wouldn’t be logical to hit out against those who are just trying to enjoy themselves during a difficult time, but there are things that aren’t going to help people who are struggling right now, and it’s worth talking about it. There was a genuine and heartfelt wave of criticism over a recent BBC Two programme where unaware diners found out that the food they were eating was being measured as calories to be burnt off in a secret gym in the room next door. Without trying to apportion blame, the insensitivity to people with eating disorders suggests that editors are just simply not thinking about what effect conversations like this can have.
A British study from 2007 looked at how those with high levels of cortisol in the body (a key measure of stress) were much more likely to snack. During the pandemic, there are many obvious reasons why people are more stressed than usual, and many of these are outside of our control. Shaming people for what they eat is unlikely to make them feel better – in fact, making people feel bad about what they eat tends to have a negative effect, and can make their relationship with food much more stressful.
What might be a lot more useful would be to try and remove stress and anxiety around eating during lockdown and beyond. Eating a whole tub of ice cream at midnight because everything feels strange is clearly not a healthy option but we need to find the space and accept that it’s okay to talk about it if this is happening. For those in a position of strength to make a difference, see how you can reduce the feelings of stress in your friends and family and have an open conversation about them about your relationship with food. Those developing food programmes, commissioning recipes and writing about food in the industry should consider their ability to help change the course of this topic, where a move towards improving the relationship between stress and food could well benefit millions of people.
Every individual has their own situation to be concerned with, and there’s no catch-all solution to a multitude of unique problems. Let’s continue to look out for each other and find ways to keep a healthy relationship with our food, and ourselves.
Dan Gibbon-Walsh is a social entrepreneur based in Amsterdam. Since writing this piece in April, he has trying hard to find ways to get a grip of his eating habits, with some success. Dan was paid for his article.
Menus, Routines and Hunger, by Marie-Henriette Desmoures
I love menus. I collect them, sometimes as mental pictures and sometimes they go straight to my purse. The first thing I ever stole was a menu from a bakery, as a gift for my mother. It came with a request for the cheese straws I had seen on display which I wanted her to replicate. All those words hold possibilities and, for the most part, unknown flavours.
When the lockdown hit, my immediate fear came back to the menus. I realised that I now had to create one for myself. My love of menus is, full confession, the synecdoche for my tense relationship with food. Menus act as personal scriptures for indulgence – by dining out, my eating disorder stays outside.
Qualifying eating as a purely social activity was my solution to the toxicity, mimetising earned meals with treasured moments. Working from home, however, my non-eating was confronted. I could no longer lie through my parsley-less teeth with a sneaky, “Oh, I had breakfast at home” or “Oh, I eat breakfast at the office”. The lockdown blatantly locks me to the disorder. The two together, unable to coexist. More time at home means more time with my person, to eventually feel my own hunger.
Hunger is the root of the problem. Before the work-from-home started the justification was easy: I had a busy, on-the-move schedule that kept me going and numbed the hunger. And partially, this was true; I don’t recall getting to lunchtime and feeling hungry. I did not know the difference between hunger and appetite; as I can always eat and am constantly thinking of food, I suppress all emotions related to it. This sensation was quite satisfactory; a meal skipped, an imaginary sparkly badge on my chest. I pictured these badges sticking to my skin. Savouring the next one in full glory.
After the first few weeks, when the texture of my white living room walls began to resemble a blanket of rice, I felt it. Hunger had struck. I reached my notebook and first wrote, then ate.
Hunger pangs are not mated or defined, and although a belly monster will cry for attention, appetite has other layers I am only beginning to uncover. Hours spent at home, with myself, have gifted me the meditative act of noticing. Between breakfast and dinner, I have picked up my own cues such as a gentle twirl in my stomach or mental signals like whispers from Demeter letting me know it's time for lunch.
Currently, I am listening and responding, pairing ingredients to new sensations in parts of my body I hadn’t given a chance to be more than sore or energised. Oats are in the heart and yoghurt feels like the blood through my veins, nourishing me throughout the day.
First, on the kitchen whiteboard, as a work email in disguise or on a scrap piece of paper, I began to note ingredients and their possible plate companions (i.e. day 54: millet, then spring onions and ricotta) as they came to mind, until I understood that I wanted to eat them. These notes have become my daily menus, written on my finest cartridge paper, which bring me back to the restaurants and gradually towards guiltless eating.
Right now I have menus on my side, this time, that are my own and for me. They are kind and generous; with colours and ingredients I dream up the next day's specials, honouring the little symbiosis created between me and the food I am learning to eat.
Marie-Henriette Desmoures is a writer and illustrator. For more commissions she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @dancing_garlic. Marie-Henriette was paid for her writing, as well as her illustrations for this newsletter.
If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286, which ensures all contributors are paid. Any donation is gratefully appreciated.