Myriam is a 30-something mother of two from the New York area. She got in touch with Spiritual Self-Help to share the following story, in the hope that it will help others struggling with the whole issue of food, and fanatical eating habits.
Let’s start at the beginning: Growing up, my family ate the standard American diet, i.e. full of refined sugars, white carbs and meat, and really not very healthy. When I was a teenager, my mother went to see someone ‘alternative’ about a health problem she was having, and then ended up switching us all over to wholewheat bread, and cut out the Coke.
I pretty much ate that moderately healthy-ish way until I got married, in my early twenties, but food definitely hadn’t yet become my religion. That really only started when a few years’ into the marriage, we still hadn’t had any children, and I was starting to panic about my infertility and irregular menses.
I knew that diet and health were connected – everyone knows that, don’t they? – so I made an appointment with a naturopath who was a strict macrobiotic vegan, and from that point on, buckwheat and beans entered my life in a big way.
At that point, I still believed that my infertility was exclusively connected to my irregular period, and the macrobiotic diet was actually very good for me, initially. I felt calmer, and my period also started to settle down on a diet of wholegrains, cooked veg and no sugar.
But right from the start, I didn’t feel so happy on the diet. I felt like all the color had gone out of my life, now that I couldn’t have chocolate, or sugar, or ice cream. That was the first real hint I had that I had a lot of very deep emotional stuff wrapped up with the food. Even though the macrobiotic naturopath had promised that this diet would cure my emotional eating and cravings, I’d found myself calling up the microbiotic naturopath and telling her that despite eating the brown rice for a month, I was still having intense cravings for sweet things.
She said to me: “Ask yourself why you want the sweet things” – which sounded good in theory, but in practice actually didn’t help me very much, because if I had known the answer to that question, I’d have already been in a very different place, in regards to my eating habits.
I stuck to that diet religiously for a couple of years, but I didn’t get pregnant and I also gained a lot of weight on it, because even though I wasn’t eating chocolate, I discovered that you can still stuff yourself with buckwheat and that there were still plenty of ways of eating emotionally, even on a macrobiotic diet.
the all raw diet - but still no kids
Eventually, I could see that I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I went to a different naturopath who had a completely different approach to food: only raw, lots of fruit and vegetables, and lots of juices. “Yes!” I thought to myself when I found him. “This is the answer to all my problems!” And the truth is, I was much happier when I could eat fruit again. But I quickly discovered there were other issues with the all- raw approach.
I was literally spending hours in the kitchen every day, washing greens and making salads for me and my husband, to the point where it actually got pretty depressing. But then, the fears started to kick in: “If I don’t do this, then I won’t get pregnant, and it will be all my fault!”
I think the main problem was that both me and my husband were both trying to eat healthy, but we were still living such an unhealthy, stressful, lifestyle and couldn’t yet see how our lifestyle choices may have been affecting us on many different levels. After two months, I went back to the naturopath and told him it wasn’t really working out. To his credit, he told me: “If you’re not doing it happily, then it’s not going to work!” That was the only time that anyone mentioned that I had to actually be happy doing this stuff, and not just expect the food to magically fix the problem, all by itself.
The focus was nearly always relentlessly on the physical aspects of the food, while the emotional aspects of my eating were usually either completely ignored, or dealt with in a such a superficial way, it didn’t really get anywhere near to the real underlying issues.
He gave me permission to add some cooked vegetables and a little quinoa in to my diet, but I still couldn’t get over the feeling that I was being deprived, which meant that I gained more weight on that raw food diet than at any other time of my life. And I still wasn’t pregnant!
It was around this time that the unhealthy eating and body issues that I’d always had really started to explode. I was putting so much stress on myself that ‘if I don’t eat this stuff, I won’t heal! I won’t get pregnant!’ – and that was definitely reinforced by the attitudes of the naturopaths I was going to.
'it's my own fault i didn't get pregnant!'
The first one came across as very intolerant and judgmental, and when I didn’t fall pregnant right away she’d imply that I was partly to blame because I was too stressed and had been abusing my body for years with all sorts of evil food and toxins, things like: “Well, you’ve been abusing your body for years! What did you expect?”
Or, when I told her how I’d crave sweet things when I got stressed, she’d shoot back with: “YOU are choosing to eat that stuff. You have a choice.” Which on some level might have been true, but I felt she had zero compassion about the emotional difficulties I was going through, or perhaps couldn’t understand why just eating according to her food plan was not enough to help me truly heal on a much deeper level.
I’d been trying to have a child for six years, already, and it was a period filled with darkness, shame, fear and unhappiness for me, where despite all my healthy eating, I just kept gaining more weight and feeling more and more miserable.
In my experience, people usually turn to naturopaths when they’re feeling very vulnerable in some way, and I believe that if the naturopath is not a loving, compassionate person, but just approaches the whole problem as being rooted in a lack of self-discipline, or bad eating habits, it can really cause a lot of psychological damage to their patients.
The message I was getting, even if no-one explicitly said it, was that my fertility problems were my own fault, and that I hadn’t got pregnant because I wasn’t good enough, healthy enough, or looking after my body appropriately.
And I bought that story 100% for years, because it just reinforced all the self-rejection, beating myself up and other emotional issues I already had, that I’d kind of shoved into my eating habits. I guess I believed that I had to first reach what I perceived to be a high spiritual level, having worked on myself both physically and spiritually, so that I could then come to God and say, “Look, I’ve done all this work and I’ve gotten to where I should be. Now give me my prize! I deserve it!”
But then, the story collapsed: Months after giving up on all the ‘extreme’ diets, I fell pregnant. God had compassion on us, and gave us a child – but in the process, He completely pulled the rug out from under my feet. I suddenly realized that God was running the show, not me, and that He gave me my child when HE was ready for that to happen – regardless of how much buckwheat I was eating, or how much cucumber juice I was drinking.
"your body is full of garbage and toxins!"
At that point, I started to recognize some of the lies I’d been telling myself about my need to be ‘perfect’, and I made some progress on the emotional stuff. But the hardest part of the journey was still ahead.
A few months after the birth, I felt exhausted and stressed, like any first-time mother, I guess, and I developed some breathing issues that the doctor said was asthma. Again, I wanted to go the ‘alternative’ route, so I found an expert who came highly-recommended as being one of the best naturopaths in the state.
Initially, her approach appeared to be much more balanced than the other two I tried, combining some raw food and juices with a cooked evening meal. Only after two months, we’d move to the cleansing fast stuff.
But even so, she had a bunch of very strict rules and requirements that she was extremely meticulous about. I had to be in bed, asleep by 10pm… I had to eat only organic… I had to buy all these expensive, wild-crafted herbs and supplements, and take them religiously… I had to drink water only at set times, throughout the day, ahead of meals…
As a mother of a small child, it was pretty challenging trying to keep to all these dictates. When I told I’d try my best, she went into Yoda mode and basically told me that trying was not an option. “There is no try!” she told me. “I need to know that you are going to do this stuff!”
My nutritional guru made it very clear that I’d been eating garbage and pesticides, and I needed to cleanse my body – and only then was it going to function ok. Her emphasis was definitely on ‘cleaning out’.
scared to eat 'impure' food: the beginning of orthorexia
So, I followed all her advice and her rules – and that’s when I developed orthorexia. If something wasn’t organic, or sprouted, or if I didn’t eat it according to the food order she’d given me, or if it wasn’t ‘pure’ enough, I’d start panicking that I was messing up my body and poisoning myself with toxins.
“This is what I have to do to really be healthy!” I kept telling myself. But all the emotional stuff about not being good enough, or pure enough, and beating myself up all the time, started to get completely out of hand. The explicit message I was getting on the physical level was that my body was impure, and not good enough. I wasn’t OK the way I am.
But I also took that message to heart on the emotional level, too, and either the guru didn’t notice what was happening, or just didn’t know how to deal with it. The juice fast was pretty brutal, and lasted for a few weeks. During that time, I got really, really angry. It wasn’t because of the lack of food, because I was getting enough calories through juicing and I didn’t feel hungry after the first day.
When I told the guru what was happening, she just told me: “Oh, you just need to do another liver cleanse, once we’ve finished this one. You’ll see that this is going to open a locked place in your life, and you’ll be ready to do amazing new things once you’re done!”
None of those promises materialized for me. In fact, the whole process just made me crazy and I had more asthma at the end then I had at the beginning. Yes, I got thin, but I felt worse than I’d ever felt, emotionally. I was beating myself up the whole time, and for a long time afterwards I was scared to eat, because I didn’t think the food was ‘pure’ enough.
I was in a lot of emotional torment and I was obsessed with trying to keep this woman’s approval by eating what I thought she wanted me to.
A few months’ later, what finally broke my obsession and stuck-ness with the food was when God gave me another gift, and I got pregnant again naturally. God really sent me a clear message that He loves me, just the way I am, and that He was the one in control of my fertility issues.
the real problem is not just the unhealthy eating
Right up until the end, I was expecting her to address or at least acknowledge the emotional and spiritual dimensions to my health issues, but she never did. For all of them, it was really only about the food, and it never moved past that to address the deeper stuff, even when they’d run out of food-based solutions for my problems.
I learnt from this whole experience that the body is only the first level of the journey towards good health, but it has to go much wider and deeper than that. We also have to work on our emotions, and our negative character traits, too. We need to work on our spiritual belief system, too, and to internalize that we’re really not in control.
When naturopaths and others like them don’t include the emotional and spiritual aspects in their programs, diets and advice, they can really just pull people into despair, because if the health problem isn’t resolved through that particular program the person will just blame himself and believe that it is because he didn’t follow the program strictly enough.
The real problem is actually not just your unhealthy eating, and that can’t be the sole focus.
But all of the experts I listened to never lead me to believe anything other than eating the right food would solve all of my problems. Whatever ‘their’ way was, that was the only thing that was going to help me, and there was an aura of intolerance, superiority and criticism that surrounded the whole approach.
My real work now is learning to love myself more. I’ve started praying that the food I eat should be healing for me, and should have a healing effect on my body, and even if it’s not Grade A organic, to appreciate that I’m doing the best I can, and to not beat myself up about it.
The bottom line is that God is in the world, and that it’s not all down to me and the food I eat to stay healthy and happy.
Myriam told her story in the hopes that it will help others caught up in ‘unhealthy healthiness’ to know that there is a way they can enjoy their food and their lives again, and that they aren’t ‘bad’ if they can’t stick to the sometimes impractical requirements of many strict diets.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at orthorexia, and explore how unhealthy emotional attitudes to food can also manifest themselves in green smoothies and organic sprouted spelt, just as much as the more traditional addictions to chocolate cake and icecream.