Happy Friday! It’s Hannah, one of the interns again. I’m hoping that through sharing my experience with the paleo diet, you may learn that:
- Recovery and breaking free from dieting IS possible.
- An eating disorder doesn’t always look like eating nothing or binging on a lot of food at once.
- What looks like a perfect picture of health is oftentimes the complete opposite.
How it Started
Starting in January of my freshman year in college and continuing into my third year, I let the pursuit of (what I believed to be) health and holisticism control every food decision I made. I banned gluten, all gluten-free grains, soy, processed oils, dairy, fried food, refined sugars, nearly all packaged goods, legumes, and all desserts except for no sugar-added, 100% dark chocolate. I preached to anyone who would listen about why those foods were “bad” for me and why I would never eat them again.
Most mornings and evenings in my dorm room, I listened to paleo-centric and ketogenic “health” podcasts. I believed everything the hosts proclaimed about wellness, nutrition and weight to be factual. I’d base many of my food decisions on their recommendations and advice. It’s one thing to be an intuitive eater and incorporate gentle nutrition when and where appropriate, but that was not the way I was engaging with nutrition at that time. I wasn’t implementing nutrition gently and kindly with myself. Foods were being restricted on the basis of its nutritional value alone. All other realms of health were neglected.
I cooked fried eggs, fruit and spinach for breakfast just about every single day. I didn’t intuitively wanted this for breakfast 7 days a week, but I ate it because it was paleo. It felt safe because I knew they were grain and dairy free. My sister called this dish “leafy eggs”…and she was kind of right. Now, if this was what I actually wanted for breakfast every day, that would’ve been completely fine – but it wasn’t. I was eating it out of obligation due to my obsession with healthism and diet culture. I didn’t know of other options for breakfast because everything I could think of (aside from chia pudding) consisted of ingredients that I was restricting. Ingredients that I thought I literally could not eat for the sake of health.
Going out for food caused me so much stress. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to find a meal that fit the bill of being free of grains, processed oils and refined sugars. It was a tall order. On the occasion that my family and I did go out to eat, the only section of the menu that I ever spent a few minutes glancing at was the Soups & Salads. I’d always order the same thing:
“Can I do your Cobb salad with no tomato or bleu cheese? I’m allergic. May I add grilled chicken, too? Instead of the dressing, can I do olive oil on the side? Oh, and no croutons, please.”
Looking back, I’m realizing how exhausting that was and how draining of an experience going out to eat used to be. It used to revolve exclusively around restriction. Around getting something that followed my self-imposed rules. Unlike now, going to a restaurant was extremely stress-inducing and unenjoyable. At the time, I didn’t even realize this because I was so focused on my diet and what I thought was “healthy.” Now I realize spending this much time on finding ways to accommodate my unnecessary food restrictions wasn’t healthy. I have much more positive, healthful and less complicated experiences dining out now. I choose something that sounds good and satisfying while I enjoy time with the people I’m with.
Eating “Paleo” In College
While still living in my freshman dorm at Northeastern, I excitedly spent my Husky Card dollars on plantain chips, paleo-friendly granolas, paleo hot cereals and jars of nut butter. (But definitely no peanut butter, as “peanuts are legumes and legumes are not paleo.”) On road trips, I’d get so frustrated that the only snacks I “could” eat were unsalted almonds. All of the trail mixes had cranberries that contained added sugar and cashews that were roasted in soybean and safflower oils. I’d bring my own breakfast of eggs and avocado to the coffee shop when my friends wanted to go for bagels. I didn’t drink anything aside from black coffee, tea, unsweetened almond milk, green smoothies and a lot of water. On the surface, it appeared that I was a beacon of optimal health and nutrition.
Dig a little deeper and we’ll find that this was in no way the truth.
After a dinner of grilled chicken, sweet potatoes and a salad, when no-one else was around, much of the almond butter jar would be gone in 10 minutes. The dark chocolate bar that was unopened a day earlier would now be almost finished. My rigidity around food needed an outlet where it could take a break from resisting every single temptation day in and day out. Looking back, this makes so much sense now.
I attempted to bake paleo-friendly treats made with coconut/almond flour and no sweeteners – except for a bit of maple syrup. They always turned out unpleasant. Dry, not sweet, and not tasty. But I ate them anyway and tried to pretend like they were good because they fit into my dietary plan.
I tried so hard to make paleo work for me. In this period of rigidity, I lost sight of what worked for my body and made me mentally and emotionally happy. I cared about avoiding all foods on the “not paleo” list and finding the most nutrient-dense, “healthiest” meals possible. I didn’t go out with my college friends and I neglected friendships, other hobbies, and relationships to make more time to focus on “health.”
Forgiveness and Grace
I give myself so much forgiveness and grace for this period of my life. At the time, I was making all of these choices and engaging in these behaviors because I thought they were in my best interest. Simply, I thought what I was doing was good and I really didn’t know better. How could I be upset or mad at myself for things that I truly didn’t know at the time? If you’re in a similar situation and you’re looking back on your ED/diet-days and cringing, I encourage you to let go of any judgement that you’re holding onto. You didn’t know better and you were doing your best. Now that we know better, we’re trying our best in this direction.
Over the course of about a year, I was able to let go of all dietary restrictions aside from my legitimate allergies. I still don’t eat tomatoes for this reason, for example. I’ve been able to re-become the intuitive eater that I once was before diet culture and healthism took over my life. I do not strict what I eat in any way and if I’m craving it, I’ll eat it. If it sounds like something I’ll enjoy, I’ll eat it. When I’m pressed for time and a certain meal is going to get the job done during a busy school afternoon, then that is the meal I’m going to eat.
I don’t feel frazzled or get stressed out by cooking food, going out to eat, or grocery shopping anymore. Food takes up significantly less time and space in my brain. Because of that, I’ve truly been able to find deeper value in extracurriculars, school, work, hobbies and my relationships. They are what matters most, after all. I get to focus on my values instead of micromanaging my food intake.
Also, I stopped binging on nut butters. I’ve gotten to a place where I can keep a jar of it in the pantry/fridge for a long time because my brain no longer feels deprived. As soon as I allowed myself to find more balance and variety in my life, the obsessive nut butter habit ceased to exist. Keeping a jar of peanut butter in the house doesn’t give me the paralyzing anxiety that it used to. Life is good!
I no longer put too much effort into eating healthfully because some podcaster told me that XYZ foods are the best for me. I eat the foods I do now because I like them. I’ve reached a point where I can gently implement nutrition without feeling rigid. Now I realize that ALL food, not just unprocessed foods, nourish my mind, body, and soul.
What I wish I could tell my old, paleo self now is this:
No diet – no matter how health-promising it may seem – that induces anxiety, binge-eating, or a highly restrictive/degrading mentality is a positive approach to health.
For anyone who’s going through a restrictive, stressful struggle like I did, let me tell you that it gets better. You have the capacity to make it better if you choose to take the first step. I empower you to experiment with a variety of foods. It’s 100% okay to not base your diet on a set of specific guidelines that some health program emphasizes. After walking the hard, rocky path myself, I believe that intuitive eating is the way to finding peace with food.
In no way do I want to paint a picture of this being an easy, linear road. It absolutely has not been that way for me. There have been many ups and downs. Moments I’ve thought it might not be worth it. Sometimes I thought it’d be easier to stay in restriction. There were moments I doubted if I was even doing “intuitive eating” right. Side note: there is no ‘right’ or perfect way to intuitively eat. I want you to know that recovery is possible. More importantly, recovery is worth it.
One of the best things I’ve ever committed to has been ED recovery and letting go of restrictive “health” habits. My picture of health looks far, far different than it used to, but I’ve never felt healthier. And I’m so thankful to be living a full life now!
This is so wonderful, I’m so happy for you!
I can’t imagine having an opened nut jar and not binge on it! I know I have to allow myself to eat everything, no matter what time is it but it’s really hard 🙁 do you have a special advice how to fuel your body fully to destroy a b-r cycle?
After working with members of the reallifewomen’s team and now my current nutritionist on campus, it has been helpful to me to make sure I eat enough throughout the day, but especially earlier on (ie: breakfast, lunch + snacks). This can be hard, especially if you have a lot of calorie numbers internalized and keep subconsciously restricting. But eating enough (in quantity and essence, like having your tastebuds happy as well as your nutrient needs), has helped me not feel crazy around different foods.
Its always a work in progress, but don’t give up!
Loved this! I did the same thing but with a different diet my freshman year. I think that was my way of coping with the the discomfort and uncertainty of the transition. Looking back, I am so much healthier now that I eat less rigidly. I never want to care *that* much about food again.
Thanks for sharing, it needs to be heard! As someone with a similar experience of devotion and loyalty to a highly restrictive diet, it is so nice to be on the other side. Letting go gave me the freedom to put my energy into things I value at my core.
Oh goodness I can so relate with the overeating nut butters. I went through different periods of disordered eating and that behavior was so prominent during those times. I’ve definitely noticed how I don’t feel the need to overeat them now that I eat more intuitively. Thanks for such a good post.
Yess!!! All of this 100% yes. I went through a very similar experience Freshman through Senior year. Not entirely paleo but same basic experience. There would be nights I was so bewildered at how I could still be hungry, or still need food! And not to mention literally any social gathering, not being able to stop eating veggies or hummus even though I just wanted a freaking brownie. I am 2 years in grad school now and appreciating all the little accomplishments I’ve made, knowing that I would have NEVER been able to do x y or z in my ED years. Thanks so much for sharing! Especially about giving your past self grace instead of cringing at the thought.
Hannah, thank you so much for sharing your story. Sadly, your story and mine seem to have a lot of parallels. My freshman year started with me naturally losing some weight without any thought or effort, and I quickly became inspired to embrace a “healthy” lifestyle. This quickly led to extreme restriction – e.g. only really acceptable meal was sweet potato, chicken, and spinach. And that quickly turned into an eating disorder. Obsession with being “healthy” is not healthy! I’m thankful that I’m in a much better place now and intuitively eating and working on body image is still something that I have to work on every day! I’ve heard from more than a few women on how the first year of college and the advent of disordered eating coincide. I’d love to find a way to become involved in this issue in the future and help women from falling into the traps that diet culture has set!
Emily Swanson says
I can not tell you how much I love this. It makes me think about how when I was about 14-18. People called me the ‘healthy eater’, but I was so tortured inside. I wanted more food, and my brain always felt deprived of foods, because I wouldn’t allow myself to eat those things. Thank you so much Hannah; I’m so grateful you can eat all the things your body needs and craves. I find such a refuge here on Robyn’s blog from diet culture, and it reminds me why I’m not wanting to stay in those lies about food or one way of eating being ‘perfect.’
This is my story too. I started Paleo senior year of college because I was diagnosed with T1 diabetes. I remember that for years I would eat half a jar of almond butter with dates. NOT good on the blood sugars. Now that I have found Intuitive Eating I am so much happier and look back at the time, like you, as trying to be healthy and in control of what I could eat when my disease took so much of that control. Thank you for sharing your story. Blessings.
This is a great post Hannah!! I love it
Katie Wheeler says
THANK YOU! This was a great post and speaks to so much of what I personally experienced and what I see so many other women do. We think that something we read or heard must be the way to “health” and then we basically torture ourselves trying to live up to that standard without even listening to our own bodies. I appreciate you taking the time to write this and share your story 🙂
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