If you would like to listen to the audio version of this article click here.
She’s only eight years old and although I’ve just met her, I can tell that in these few short years she’s aged. This beautiful and bright little soul is wise, but trapped. As we chat in the dining room of the eating disorder hospital, she tells me about where she’s from and how she rode on an airplane to get here. But it’s hard to hear what she’s saying, because all I can focus on is the feeding tube that begins in her nose and ends in her stomach. This tube is the easiest way to get nutrition into her broken, tiny body now consumed by anorexia.
Is It A Diet or An Eating Disorder?
That’s what it says on the on the small pocket of cardboard that holds a stack of brochures I’m staring at. The most loaded question of my life currently. One I’ve been asking myself for the last eight weeks when it comes to my relationship with Paleo.
It’s been eight weeks now since someone else’s anorexia crashed my party like a drunken frat boy who is completely incapable of listening to you tell him to leave. Eight weeks since I was forced to come to terms with my own eating disorder as an 11-year old that I apparently forgot to deal with. It’s been eight weeks since I began questioning everything I know about food.
I’m a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in the Ancestral Health/Paleo community. I’m a regular speaker at conferences, a podcaster, blogger, and now the author of a Paleo book. I’m also a person with a long history of disordered eating dealing with a very recent spotlight shined on this painful part of myself.
Now the question has become “Who am I as a so-called thought leader and innovator in the Paleo community when I come to terms with my eating disorder/disordered eating, working in a diet world?”
The Haunting of Julia
When I was ten my mom remarried and we moved to a new state. That first year in Georgia was the first time I experienced a “worst time of my life” scenario. From day one at this new school, there was no chance of fitting in. When the “mean girls” became relentless with their bullying, I developed anxiety disorder and had panic attacks just about everyday after school.
It was also the same year I watched my first horror movie; a really bad 70’s film called The Haunting of Julia. It’s about a girl who chokes on an apple and comes back to haunt people. Meanwhile at school, we were learning about the Heimlich maneuver in science class. Between fresh trauma, the movie, and the science lesson I developed a phobia of choking and I began restricting food. At first I would just chew for a really long time and try to liquefy whatever I was eating as much as possible to lessen my chances of choking. Then it got to the point that I would only eat ice cream and mashed potatoes. Eventually I became disinterested in swallowing food beyond liquids so I just quit eating.
From start to finish the eating disorder lasted about six months, coming to a halt one night during a family beach vacation. I’d been out at the beach and on my way back in my family realized my lips were blue because my circulation was already so bad. Everyone panicked and there were threats of hospitals and feeding tubes as they waged their intervention on my eating disorder. To shut them up, I said fuck it and I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and that was the end of the eating disorder.
The choking phobia or ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) never returned, but it was the recruitment into my soon-to-be drug addiction. When you take away one form of self-medication and that is your only coping skill, you’ll seek new ones and nine times out of ten they’ll be much worse. This became my pattern for the next two and a half decades. Quit one addiction and move to the next.
“Is This Paleo?”
I was a really sick kid. Allergy testing around the age of seven revealed pages of foods I needed to avoid. The short story is I was very skinny and after my ARFID ended I began decades of binge eating, which would not result in any weight gain so I thought it was fine. Then I got pregnant when I was 23-years old and for a very long time I didn’t know how to live in this new body brought on by pregnancy and breastfeeding. For multiple reasons including other people’s comments, my body issues began.
In 2011, after I knew I would not be having any more children, I was desperate to lose the last ten or fifteen pounds of “baby weight.” I wanted my old body back. How many new mothers say that?
I heard about Paleo and that’s all she wrote. I jumped in full force and used Paleo treats to deal with my sugar cravings early on. I’d make almond flour muffins for my daughters and by the next day they’d all be gone…by me. But they were “Paleo!”
I started falling off the wagon eventually resorting back to more processed treats (ie: peanut m&m’s) and really struggling with my sugar indiscretions. Sugar detoxes would help for a while, then that one piece of gluten-free birthday cake would send me into weeks of binging. The usual cycle was binge until I started feeling the effects of the brain fog, the extra pounds, my clothes feeling too tight, and increase in aches and pains that I wouldn’t experience if I was eating what the real food community refers to as a “clean” diet. I’d get clean for a while and go back to binging eventually, continuing the cycle.
One part of my story is that I come from a family riddled with diabetes and severe insulin resistance so genetically all the odds are against me when it comes to sugar. Despite that, eating has become an all out war at times.
In an effort to ignore my disordered eating, even refusing to acknowledge it, I brought a topic to the Paleo community that had only been touched on up until that point. In 2014 I presented at Paleo FX and the Ancestral Health Symposium on the Beyond Food model; shifting the focus to lifestyle approaches being more important than that of the food model.
This non-dogmatic, middle of the road approach gave me some relief from the shame of my disordered eating. That same Paleo FX I also presented on Paleo perfectionism. Obviously, that was the beginning of me trying to come to terms with some of this. I just didn’t know it yet.
The Darkness Will Set You Free
This summer, in a split second my life became about trying to keep another person alive. It was the first time I truly had to stare in the eating disorder mirror and what I saw nearly broke me. I had to allow myself to go to the darkest places inside of me if I wanted to break free of this pain.
Here’s the brutally honest part: I’m not better. I’m not fixed. I don’t have a course to sell you to tell you how to break your disordered eating.
What I am is real and honest and vulnerable. I am also a dichotomy. I love the hell out of myself, even the dark stuff that can feel shameful at times. But I don’t want to look at my physical body in a mirror right now. Sometimes I can face that body and sometimes I can’t.
The question I started out with was, “Who am I as a member of the Paleo community when I come to terms with my eating disorder/disordered eating, working in a diet world?”
Well for one, I spot anorexia and orthorexia now in a way I couldn’t see it before. I saw it at the Ancestral Health Symposium just two weeks ago in Seattle and it shook me. I went out there highly exhausted and emotional with no foresight into how triggering it could be to be immersed in so much food talk. I found myself getting angry and resentful. I broke down crying during lunch with a friend. I had just spent over a month talking about food in a very different way, one that was about the opposite of restriction. Then suddenly I’m in this altered reality where it’s okay to talk about restricting food! All I could think about is the 8-year old anorexics with feeding tubes while I’m listening to food extremism every hour. I couldn’t deal.
And yes, before the angry emails about allergies and disease start pouring in, I know and I get it. I can’t eat gluten either. Remember the part about my pages of allergies? But there’s still a place for balance in how we discuss these things. How much does it consume our lives in conversation, in making plans, in going with the flow, in personal relationships, in time management? These are the discussions we need to be having at these conferences.
So to finally answer that earlier question…
Who am I now?
I am a work in progress.
I still love the Paleo community and I believe it does so much more good than harm. People heal here. We have to honor that, despite the orthorexia that can breed out of this diet. I have healed so much of my past trauma and struggles here.
I don’t intend to ever stop bringing thoughtful and brutally honest conversations to this community. The ancestral connection piece that I treasure and live by means so much more to me than focusing on the food. If you need me, I’ll be somewhere in the middle, working towards a little bit of balance and hopefully a lot of healing.