Writing About Food Helped Me Beat My Eating Disorder
The career I ended up in threw a harsh spotlight on my issues with food. But it also, eventually, helped save me from myself.
The first food-related article I ever published was called "Anatomy of a Sandwich," but when I wrote it I wasn’t eating sandwiches at all. I was too afraid of them even to taste the one I was featuring (prosciutto, mozzarella, and basil on a baguette).
It was 2004, the height of the Atkins craze, and what had started as an innocent flirtation with the diet in my last year of college had quickly descended into an all-consuming obsession with carbs, calories, weight, and exercise. After sharply restricting my food intake for as long as I could each day, I would inevitably spend my nights bingeing on every starchy, sugary thing that wasn’t nailed down. Bread in particular was so triggering that merely taking a bite of a sandwich for research was out of the question.
I took comfort in knowing I didn’t really have to eat the sandwich, anyway. The article — one of my first assignments as a freelance journalist — was an investigation of why local and sustainable ingredients cost so much, illustrated by the example of a pricey sandwich at a nearby café. The piece was about the politics and economics of food; I wouldn’t even have room to describe the flavors.
This type of writing is interesting and important, but for me it was also a nice way to intellectualize my growing obsession with food, which hummed at a low level under everything I did. My next food article, a more in-depth look at the cost of organic products, was similar: a dense piece with lots of quotes and stats, and no real descriptions of food (except a “single, succulent peach,” which I ate without incident, since fruit was on the “safe” list).
I would have to eat lots of things I feared — and deal with the consequences.
Still, I knew that if I kept reporting on food, which I wanted to, eventually I wouldn’t be able to get away with just chatting on the phone to farmers and manufacturers. I would have to eat lots of things I feared — non-organic meats and cheeses, grain-based dishes like noodles and pizza, meals in fancy restaurants where I didn’t know the calories — and deal with the consequences.
That happened early the following year, when I wrote a short blog post about the opening of a place called Birdbath Bakery in New York City. The piece required me to sample a number of different pastries, and I also figured I ought to compare them to the ones at Birdbath’s parent store, City Bakery.
I tried to “be good” (aka restrictive) about my eating for a day or two beforehand, thinking that if I got into the habit of eating “normally” (aka restrictively), I could then stop myself after just a bite or two of each pastry. Instead, I ended up eating nearly a dozen large cookies, muffins, and croissants in one day.
Initially I’d started writing about food to impress a guy, a fellow journalist and the first “foodie” I’d ever met (who quickly let me know that the term “foodie” was extremely uncool). When we started dating I was somehow able to pass as an adventurous eater with him, saving the restriction and bingeing for when he wasn’t around, and I started to develop some knowledge and opinions about food in the process. My experience in environmental journalism also made me genuinely interested in the burgeoning sustainable agriculture movement.
Yet I’m 99% sure I would have pursued a different journalistic beat if I hadn’t been so hungry all the time. I had lots of other long-standing interests — books, psychology, performing arts, social justice — and I’d never even cared that much about food until I developed an eating disorder (which, at the time, I wouldn’t or couldn’t admit to having).
I now know that this is a common biological phenomenon. When people are deprived of food, they tend to get obsessive. Take the seminal and fascinating Minnesota Starvation Experiment (trigger warning for graphic descriptions of starvation), which began in 1944. The experiment found that men who were (voluntarily) subjected to a semi-starvation diet became suddenly and intensely interested in cookbooks, recipes, and menus. Participants engaged in weird eating rituals to draw out their meager meals. As one participant said of the experiment, “it made food the most important thing in one’s life.” A number of the men even changed their career paths to get involved in the food industry. This kind of behavior is also well-documented in people with eating disorders, many of whom turn to cooking, food blogging, and Instagram as outlets for their food fixations.
I’m 99% sure I would have pursued a different journalistic beat if I hadn’t been so hungry all the time.
Back when I started writing about food, though, I didn’t know any of that. I just thought I was messed up, broken, and a total fraud. And, as I became more specialized in my work, I developed an increasingly severe case of impostor syndrome. I worked hard to keep my binges, body judgments, and calorie and carb restrictions a secret from colleagues, certain I’d be ostracized if they knew.
I lived in terror that anyone would find out about the gross combinations of food I ate during my solo binges, which often involved raw pancake batter — my most shameful binge food, and also generally the only starch I kept in the house. But going out to events and tastings unconsciously became a sanctioned way to binge in public. I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted at food events; I could eat a lot in one sitting, and people applauded me for it.
The few food restrictions I talked about with colleagues were the seemingly innocent ones that many of us shared: Buying local and organic as often as possible, steering clear of processed food, eating less meat, and avoiding gluten. The effort to follow all of these rules caused me considerable angst, but the gluten thing was particularly insidious. Deep in denial, I was looking for a way to explain all the health problems my disorder was causing me, and gluten became an easy scapegoat. I kept circling back to it throughout the course of my eating disorder, and I wrote about gluten-free diets and products several times, to positive feedback from my editors.
At the time I couldn’t acknowledge the true name for my problems, and I hadn’t been diagnosed. Now, with hindsight and education about eating disorders, I can see that I was struggling from what at the time would have been labeled “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” But I always “looked healthy,” which is probably why none of my doctors caught on. Instead, some of them were all too willing to co-sign a gluten-free diet without even screening me for an eating disorder — and so, like too many people, I stayed under the radar.
In late 2006, I got a gig as a blogger for Chow (now Chowhound), where I covered food media. My mandate was to blog about interesting stories that came out each week, focusing particularly on my chosen beats: food politics and nutrition.
One day I came across a piece in The Guardian about the eating disorder orthorexia, which was little-known at the time. I blogged, in part: “As reporter Kira Cochrane writes, ‘We are living in a uniquely orthorexic moment’ where food-safety scares, conflicting health advice, and the prevalence of organic food trigger mass anxiety about food choices.”
Writing that sentence might have been an uncomfortable moment of self-reckoning, had I really stopped to reflect. My own eating issues had undoubtedly been exacerbated by everything I read about health, food safety, and environmental concerns, and I experienced debilitating anxiety about my food choices every single day. I spent hours agonizing over whether to buy the non-organic local kale or the organic bunch that was shipped cross-country, the more-processed gluten-free granola bar or the less-processed bar with gluten, the grass-fed whole milk or the organic low-fat milk.
I spent hours agonizing over whether to buy the non-organic local kale or the organic bunch that was shipped cross-country.
Yet I didn’t see the parallels between my issues and the struggles of people with orthorexia. I kept those difficult feelings locked away even from myself, and kept churning through my freelance writing. I worked from home and my roommates were never around, so it was easy to keep my disordered eating habits hidden.
A year later, I landed a full-time job as an online editor at Gourmet. I couldn’t quite believe I got the gig. On my first day of work, I put on the expensive new outfit I’d bought for the occasion, but it was all wrong. I was SO fat, I thought — how had I not noticed how fat I looked in the store?
My body image had been painfully skewed for years, but working in the Condé Nast building took it to a whole new level. While the Gourmet offices were full of wonderfully down-to-earth people, I zeroed in on the models in the elevator and the fashion-mag editors in the cafeteria, comparing myself from head to toe and always coming out lacking.
At the same time, working at a food magazine inevitably forced my eating behaviors to become less restrictive. I was surrounded mostly by people who had good relationships with food, sometimes for two to three meals a day; our hours were long, and the staff often went out to eat together after work. Soon we started testing recipes to publish on the website, and I never knew when I would be called down to the kitchen to taste a dish. I couldn’t be weird about it; I had to eat.
I couldn’t be weird about it; I had to eat.
Not only did I want to look normal in front of my colleagues, but I also wanted to do a good job. I was on a daily schedule with work that had to be turned around quickly, so I needed brainpower. I started allowing myself to have more satisfying lunches and to snack on some of the free food that was always floating around the office.
That free food was tricky, though. One morning, someone on my team brought in scones for a breakfast meeting in my large shared office, and afterwards there were four or five left over. As everyone filtered out, I told one of the interns she couldn’t leave the scones there, because I would eat them all. It was the closest I’d come to telling anyone at work about my eating disorder. She laughed it off, assuming I was joking, and walked away, leaving the box of scones. Sure enough, a couple hours later, I’d polished them all off and had a terrible stomachache.
Still, the good food moments far outweighed the bad. Every editor got a monthly “research budget” to try new restaurants, and I used every penny of it. I also got to take writers out for meals to discuss story ideas, so some weeks I ended up having more meals in restaurants than at home. When I was out, I couldn’t control what went into the food, and I didn’t want to be that difficult customer who asked for dishes to be modified. So I ended up eating a lot of things I feared, and I rolled with it.
By about midway through my two years at Gourmet, I had dropped a lot of my weirdness about food. I had finally opened up about my eating and body-image issues to my therapist, unable to escape talking about them now that I was spending 50-some hours a week surrounded by food. And her counseling, along with the ad hoc exposure therapy I got at work, helped me make some big steps toward recovery. I still binged occasionally, and still judged myself harshly when it came to exercise and my body, but something had shifted.
In mid-2009, amidst rumblings of major cuts to come at Gourmet, I took the opportunity to think about my career goals and decided to pursue both a master’s degree in public health nutrition and a registered dietitian’s license. My work reporting on food politics and nutrition made me want to help change the food system and, on a deeper level, my personal struggles had made me want to help others (and myself) develop a better relationship to food.
I enrolled in a program at NYU with night classes so that I could hopefully continue working, but just weeks after the program started, Gourmet was shuttered. Like the rest of the staff, I was devastated. But going back to school was also a godsend, because it led me to the final steps in my recovery: breaking down my lingering irrational thoughts about food, learning the principles of intuitive eating, and giving up the fight to look like a runway model.
I no longer agonize over what to eat, or how it’s going to affect my weight and shape.
Now I’m proud to say I’ve been fully recovered for more than three years. I no longer agonize over what to eat, or how it’s going to affect my weight and shape. When I’m hungry I eat whatever I’m in the mood for, until I’m full and satisfied. I still consider the nutritional value of different options, but I give as much or more weight to factors like deliciousness, convenience, and context, knowing that my food choices will balance out over time. I exercise for the mental benefits and for how it makes my body feel, rather than how it makes me look.
I still write about food and nutrition, but now I focus on sharing information that will hopefully keep at least some people from going down the disordered path I did. I love debunking fad diets and weight myths, and giving balanced nutrition advice. I’ve come to understand that we truly are living in a “uniquely orthorexic moment,” so I try to provide sensible guidance for anyone who’s ready to hear it — and I empathize with the people who aren’t, because I used to be one of them. Now, though, I eat sandwiches almost every day.