Foodie with Eating Disorder Stuck Between Passion and Pathology

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Earlier this year, Refinery29 published an article about the curious paradox of being a foodie recovering from an eating disorder. The author’s hesitant conclusion was that an epicurean tongue may be impeding her efforts to regain her health, but do eating disorder recovery and a deep love for food need to be mutually exclusive?

In tenth grade, I was obsessed with food blogs. I spent hours gazing at photo after sumptuous photo, imagining how each exotic, full-flavored morsel would feel on my tongue. Saving my favorite recipes and reviewing them again day after day, I constructed imaginary multicourse dinners around each dish. At night, I dreamed of eating, of clearing plate after plate until finally my appetite was sated.

And every morning I would wake up covered in cold sweat and regret, relieved that my nighttime feast had only been a dream; the food of my fantasies was also the food I feared most, the literal forbidden fruit that I could never let myself eat. I tantalized myself with images of endless burrata crostini and salted caramel cheesecake while restricting my diet to meticulously measured portions of food I considered “safe.”

As one might expect, this wildly unhealthy—not to mention miserable—behavior was unsustainable, and I had to take a leave of absence from school in order to recover from my eating disorder. Thankfully, medical intervention, personal introspection and the unwavering support and validation of my best friends allowed me to escape the mental prison that I had constructed around myself. I am now physically healthy and able to eat intuitively. Most importantly, I have overcome my pathological preoccupation with food, weight and exercise, a feat which I believe was both the most challenging and most important step in my recovery.

However, I cannot say that my fixation with food is completely behind me, and I am ambivalent about whether my attitudes toward food are healthy. Like Linnea Zielinski, the author of the Refinery29 article that inspired me to write this piece in the first place, I could be considered a “foodie.” Even before the development of my eating disorder, food was a huge part of my life: living in San Francisco, with the highest number of eateries per capita in the United States, it’s easy to become a foodie simply through immersion.

Research has shown that millennials value food and gourmet culture to a degree that appears to be unprecedented. This passion is heightened in an urban center of diverse culinary excellence that is dominated by a young-adult demographic. At least for me and my friends, eating lies at the forefront of almost all of our daytime social activity; we’ve celebrated birthdays with burritos in the Mission and spent many lazy summer afternoons scoping out the best food trucks in Fort Mason.

None of my close friends have eating disorders, and they are just as interested in food as I am. Furthermore, the word “foodie” tends to evoke images of pretentious yuppies and various gastronomical atrocities involving açai; eating disorders definitely aren’t the first idea to come to mind. Does this mean that my love for food is perfectly normal, perhaps a symptom of middle-class millennial ennui at worst?

But what even is “normal?” Seventy-five percent of American women engage in disordered eating (which includes subthreshold behaviors that may not be diagnosable as full-blown eating disorders), and diet culture is rampant across all genders. Therefore, the prevalence of a practice does not necessarily imply that it is non-pathological, and the mass appeal of gourmet culture does not pardon it from scrutiny.

According to a recent Atlantic article, the root of my generation’s collective obsession with food may be due to the influence of technology: sitting at our computers all day has made us socially isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation, and food excites our senses while allowing us to connect with others. Although I concede that technology has definitely had a huge effect on foodie culture and society as a whole, this theory strikes me as incomplete. Advances in technology are just one of the many changes that set us apart from previous generations—eating disorders are also on the rise.

I believe that the increased incidence of eating disorders is strongly related to the growing popularity of gourmet culture. As explained in Zielinski’s article, fanatical foodie-ism has shown to be a natural psychological response to long-term starvation. In the famous 1944 “Minnesota Starvation Experiment,” previously healthy volunteers were put on restrictive diets, decreasing their original body weights by 25 percent.

By the end of the study, many of the test subjects had developed culinary obsessions eerily reminiscent of my own attitudes toward food when I was at the nadir of my illness; one man collected over a hundred cookbooks, and another lamented that “food [had become] the one central and only thing really in [his] life.”

New York Magazine’s 2012 article on young foodie culture profiled the eating habits of Diane Chang, a “prime specimen” of an emerging breed of millennial food connoisseurs. Before delving into her citywide culinary excursions, the article mentioned offhandedly that Chang had suffered from an eating disorder in college, hinting vaguely that her love for food helped prevent the exacerbation of her disorder.

Clearly there is a link between eating disorders and epicurean appreciations for food. But is being a foodie simply an insidious way for the disordered psyche to maintain an obsession with food? Or does a heightened appreciation for cooking and eating help people to recover? I’m not sure. Trying out new recipes and exploring restaurants with my friends has certainly taught me to eat freely and appreciate food instead of being afraid of it.

Still, in a world where food culture overlaps significantly with diet culture, the gourmand in recovery may often find herself in treacherous territory. I work at a local take-out place that is geared toward young, health-conscious professionals: even though we place a premium on our food’s flavor and quality, it feels like everything is either gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carb, low-fat, paleo or vegan, and the nutrition information for each dish is available at the click of a button. It’s not just my workplace, either. From snack aisles to high-end restaurants, “reduced guilt” calorie estimates and “sinlessness” are as much a selling point as taste. As the distinction between diet food and haute cuisine gradually disappears, it will become more and more difficult for foodies recovering from eating disorders to avoid falling back into old mindsets.

Even independent of diet culture, food obsessions could increase the risk of relapse in individuals recovering from eating disorders. Overzealous appreciation could easily devolve into overeating, which could lead to purging or fasting, which could spark a vicious cycle of bingeing and compensating. Recovery requires balance, and foodie-ism seems to encourage extremes. A mentally healthy gastronome can probably practice her craft without any problems, but the danger of being a foodie in recovery is that gourmet culture can be a way to perseverate on a preexisting preoccupation.

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