What It's Like To Be A Foodie With An Eating Disorder

Photographed by Liz Clayman
Seven years after I should have asked for help, I sat across from an eating disorder specialist, sobbing. During our first session, after asking about my career as a food writer and editor, she handed me a study to read for our next session and gently guided me to the bathroom, where I could wipe off mascara from my chin, cheeks, and nose.

The study, conducted during WWII and aptly known as either the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” or simply the “Starvation Study,” tested the effects of starvation on men who were conscientious objectors of war and who had volunteered to participate in the study. The researchers hoped to gather data for relief workers treating starved populations and refugees in war-torn parts of Europe. Kept in dorms and fed a restrictive diet designed to slash their starting body weight by 25%, several of the men apparently developed a passionate interest in cookbooks, spending hours poring over the pages. The study authors called it a preoccupation with food.

“Don’t you think,” my therapist asked me in my next session, “that your interest in food and this job could simply be a byproduct of your disorder?” Livid, I hid my shaking hands until the hour was up. I shredded the printout of the study, requested a change in psychologists at the front desk, and walked down the street to Financier Patisserie to buy myself a cassis macaron.

After three years had passed, I was a little wiser and I wondered if my therapist had a point. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that my love of food predates my eating disorder, diagnosed as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which means I don't fit into the neat definitions of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. But what I think she might have been asking me — subtly, way too subtly for me to understand at the time — was, “Can your passion for food and your health coexist?” And I’m not convinced that they can.

Raised on triple-cream Brie and marzipan, and a jet-black coffee drinker from the age of 15, I never stood a chance. The foodie life chose me. (Cue your eye roll here.) It found me in college and convinced me that the best way to deal with stress was to bake my roommate a three-layer chocolate cake with handmade caramel-and-chocolate ganache. It followed me all the way to my Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, where I helped my host mom make pyrizhky and discovered that nothing is more divine than a simple piece of bread slathered in butter and topped with a couple red pearls of Russian caviar.

Raised on triple-cream Brie and marzipan, I never stood a chance. The foodie life chose me.

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But if food characterizes my nurture, the values my parents had instilled in me, then starvation sits at the core of my nature. It’s the little voice in the back of my head, and I’m only now starting to learn to tune it out.

Unfortunately, I’m hard-wired for disordered eating; the roots of anxiety and depression run deep in my family. My mom lived subject to extreme calorie counts for at least a year in college, and was haunted by dreams of being chained to a pole in a pastry shop — just out of reach of the sugar-dusted confections. Simultaneous urges to feast and fast rage in both of us.

I fatefully followed in her footsteps, enrolling at the same university, and falling into the same restrictive habits. As much as I wanted to join the Peace Corps when I graduated, it was also a desperate attempt to flee my eating disorder and the destructive ripples it sent through every part of my life. While I felt called to learn to create apple butter and vodka pickles near the border of Poland, I was also told that I, a stocky American among the bird-boned Ukrainian nymphs, was in desperate need of a diet. After my 27 months of service were over, it felt like that little voice in my head, the one that told me that food was the enemy, had found a megaphone.

Coming back to the States and all the foods I had been missing felt like a vicious game of tug-of-war. On one hand, what is life without peanut butter? On the other, a spoonful would send me spiraling into mathematical equations about calorie counts and daily calorie budgets and my basal metabolic rate. Was that first spoonful — which never fails to make me pause and savor the way it melts on my tongue, as if the whole world has stopped for a split second — worth all the mental anguish?

I found myself alarmingly pulled in one direction after the other, losing all sight of the middle ground. One week, I would say yes to delicately tart lemon-ricotta pancakes. I would buy myself a box of macarons, reveling in the little crack that happens when you bite through their perfectly taut shells. I wouldn’t feel any qualms about pouring myself a whiskey, neat, after a long day. I would pull a piece from the s’mores monkey bread I had created for a food video at work with gusto, not caring if the whole office saw me pile on even more chocolate than the recipe called for. The next week would be a joyless march through meal after meal of “safe” foods, foods that didn’t require any mental gymnastics or calorie budgeting but also left my mind, body, and taste buds utterly unimpressed.

It felt like that little voice in my head, the one that told me that food was the enemy, had found a megaphone.

During a particularly tumultuous week, I found myself at a lunch for food-media professionals, staring at the most amazing apple tarte tatin I had ever had the luck to taste — and knowing that all but the tiniest sliver would be left on the plate despite wanting, with every fiber of my being, to savor it down to the last crumb. During another, I found myself baking recipes, sourced from bloggers, that sparked that feeling; the feeling of being totally and completely absorbed in something. Baking felt divine. Hours would disappear. But then, the soaring feeling of accomplishment I felt pulling something I had made with my own hands out of the oven festered, within seconds. My roommate found me, standing still like an idiot with a pan of rapidly browning cookies in an oven-mitted hand, listening to the voice scream, Not for you! Not for you!

I wish I could tell you I channeled someone inspiring — Beyoncé, maybe — and took charge, demanding that the voice just shut up already. I didn’t. Or that I poured my energy into healthy eating. Spoiler: Didn’t do that either. Well, okay, I tried. But my heart just doesn’t seem to leap over anything that isn’t baked with plenty of butter.

So the solution was simple: Stand and fight.

Maybe I can’t enjoy a tasting menu without a growing feeling of guilt deep in my gut. But one day, I might. I miss most limited-time creations from Dominique Ansel, but there will be others.

The voice still screams, but I’m learning not to cringe. Maybe one day, I’ll scream back. For now, I stand my ground and anticipate its sound whenever possible. Indulging in whiskey-smoked s’mores is tempered by plenty of boring salads.

I stopped seeing psychologists once I left grad school, but I'm now looking for one who is a good fit for me, and I encourage anyone struggling with disordered eating to seek help. Eating disorders are isolating enough even with support; it's not something you should handle alone. I don’t know when the battle will be over for me, but I know that being able to truly enjoy the magic of sugar and butter meeting flour — and the ability to put myself above a calorie count — is worth fighting for.

For now, this is what I call progress: For the first time in 10 years, I had a slice of pie at Christmas and thought, Worth it.

For more information about eating disorders, or if you think you may need help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association.
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