all you can eat

Fit­ness writer Muire­ann Carey-camp­bell re­veals the ex­tent of her food pho­bia – and the way she’s beat­ing it

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

What this writer thought was just be­ing “picky” turned out to be an eat­ing dis­or­der.

Crois­sants. Cook­ies. Chips. These aren’t the kinds of foods you’d ex­pect to find in the pantry of an ex­er­cise fa­natic. But un­til re­cently, I’ve bat­tled in­tense anx­i­ety be­fore meal­times, al­ways opt­ing for the same (not very healthy) foods. I’m amazed how other peo­ple man­age to nav­i­gate a bil­lion food choices ev­ery day with­out hav­ing dozens of mini-melt­downs, like I do.

I’m not a foodie; it doesn’t in­ter­est me. Rather, fig­ur­ing out what to eat has caused me stress for as long as I can re­mem­ber. I was a picky eater as a child, de­spite my par­ents’ end­less at­tempts to in­tro­duce me to new foods. We’d eat din­ner to­gether ev­ery night – such as a chicken and veg­etable stir-fry with rice – but my mother would have to make me a sep­a­rate meal, like plain chicken with pota­toes. Yes, I was that child – fussy. And I never grew out of it.

Now, at 35, I have a list of about 10 “safe foods” and I just eat those. Ev­ery day. I’m a spin in­struc­tor, teach­ing more than seven classes a week, I walk ev­ery­where, try out new fit­ness classes all the time. I move – a lot. I should be eat­ing around 9,800kj a day. In the­ory, I know I should be eat­ing more, eat­ing dif­fer­ently, adding va­ri­ety, but the thought of try­ing to fig­ure all that out is so over­whelm­ing, I sim­ply shut down when faced with the prospect of hav­ing to do it.

So far, I’ve done a great job of hid­ing my fear of food. My friends know I’m picky and they’ve come to deal with it (al­beit af­ter sev­eral eye rolls), and I avoid dis­cus­sions about food when­ever pos­si­ble. On the rare oc­ca­sions I have dis­cussed it, peo­ple will say, “Just try some new things!”, much like telling ad­dicts to stop tak­ing drugs. If only it were that easy. Be­ing in­vited to friends’ houses for din­ner stresses me out. What if I don’t like what they serve? I’ll of­fend them, it’ll af­fect our friend­ship. Go­ing to restau­rants is equally anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing; if there’s noth­ing I like, will I have to go hun­gry? Then ev­ery­one’s go­ing to ask why I’m not eat­ing. How do I ex­plain I just can’t?

Not long ago, my dog was di­ag­nosed with can­cer and given two months to live. All my time, en­ergy and fo­cus went straight to him, and my own self-care went out the win­dow. The way this man­i­fested it­self pri­mar­ily was through my diet. I went weeks on

end with­out giv­ing my­self a proper meal. I was load­ing up on sug­ary treats, skip­ping meals al­to­gether. Try­ing to care for my dog and keep up my job, where I have to be a source of mo­ti­va­tion for ev­ery­one around me, was wear­ing me into the ground. I felt stressed, anx­ious and ex­hausted. I fi­nally re­alised I just couldn’t carry on and that ad­e­quate self-care means car­ing for your­self in­side and out. It was time: I had to tackle the food is­sue.

So I sought the help of di­eti­tian Lucy Jones, who pa­tiently took notes as I talked about all my food con­cerns – and al­most ran out of pa­per when I listed all the foods on my “no” list (toma­toes, av­o­ca­dos, cu­cum­bers, egg­plant, or­anges and any­thing with a tex­ture or smell I can’t han­dle). When I fin­ished, she told me my cur­rent way of eat­ing was low in fi­bre, vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, fruit, veg­eta­bles and pro­tein. When I don’t know what to eat, I re­sort to bis­cuits and pop­corn – these binge episodes are caus­ing big peaks and troughs in my en­ergy lev­els and are mess­ing with my blood-su­gar lev­els, leav­ing me at risk of de­vel­op­ing type 2 di­a­betes. The de­fi­ciency of any good vi­ta­mins and min­er­als isn’t great for my men­tal health and will am­plify my stress. I’m also at risk of de­vel­op­ing cer­tain types of can­cers and chronic age­ing con­di­tions, such as de­men­tia.

And that was my wake-up call. I went in think­ing I was a bit picky; I left re­al­is­ing my at­ti­tude to eat­ing was se­ri­ously af­fect­ing my health. One of Jones’ main con­cerns was that I’m not fu­elling my­self for my ac­tive life. As a fit­ness pro­fes­sional, not hav­ing a han­dle on my diet is em­bar­rass­ing. One of my riders once asked me how many kilo­joules I re­fuel with af­ter a class. I replied: “How many are in an Oreo?”

In a world of fit­spo and green smooth­ies, the pres­sure to con­form can be in­tense. I of­ten get asked why I never post food pho­tos on In­sta­gram – it’s seem­ingly un­heard of for a fit­ness pro­fes­sional to show no in­ter­est in fu­elling your body. But I can’t stand look­ing at up­dates of fit­ness gu­rus’ meals, and find the ob­ses­sion with “clean eat­ing” to be even scarier than my own aver­sion to food (and un­health­ier).

Jones set goals for me to eat more reg­u­lar meals and build va­ri­ety into them. She also sug­gested I try cog­ni­tive be­hav­iour ther­apy (CBT) to deal with my anx­i­ety around food. It hadn’t oc­curred to me this was some­thing you might need ther­apy for, but de­ter­mined to get to the root of my prob­lem, I de­cided to dive in head­first. Ac­cord­ing to CBT ex­pert Dan Kol­u­bin­ski, the stress I feel when faced with food is my fight-or-flight re­sponse kick­ing in: can I face this prob­lem, or should I flee? CBT is about chang­ing the way you ap­proach the prob­lem. That’s achieved through sys­tem­atic de­sen­si­ti­sa­tion, which means putting my­self in food sit­u­a­tions that make me feel un­com­fort­able, such as eat­ing at a friend’s house, and re­assess­ing my de­ci­sions ev­ery step of the way. So rather than cav­ing into the feel­ing of stress and not eat­ing any­thing, I sit there, feel it and maybe make a pact with my­self to at least try one thing.

The idea of get­ting com­fort­able with be­ing un­com­fort­able is in­ter­est­ing to me. I can do that with phys­i­cal chal­lenges, such as a marathon, but my brain seems to short-cir­cuit when it comes to food. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate in­creases and I get flus­tered. This is prob­a­bly due, in part, to the shame I feel. “Peo­ple get away with be­ing judge­men­tal about it,” says Bee Wil­son, author of First

Bite: How We Learn To Eat. “There’s a con­spir­acy of si­lence and a sense of shame around a dis­or­dered re­la­tion­ship with food.” She says even the words “picky” and “fussy” don’t do the con­di­tion jus­tice. It’s neo­pho­bia: an ac­tive fear of try­ing new foods. I knew it! I’ve al­ways felt this was some sort of eat­ing dis­or­der, but to de­scribe it that way seemed melo­dra­matic. For­tu­nately, there’s hope. You can re­learn how to eat, although it’s harder for some than oth­ers. The key is tak­ing small steps, such as putting a tiny piece of avo­cado on my plate with the rest of my meal and try­ing that. And I have to be pa­tient and not beat my­self up for strug­gling.

So I’ve started my jour­ney to get­ting my eat­ing habits un­der con­trol. Jones helps me make the best di­etary choices I can by as­sess­ing the pic­tures of my meals I send her. I’m learn­ing to deal with food sit­u­a­tions that make me un­com­fort­able, and be­ing hon­est with those around me about my strug­gles. In­stead of push­ing food around my plate when we’re din­ing out, I ex­plain why I have an is­sue with the food and we dis­cuss it, then I get around to try­ing a lit­tle.

There’s no quick fix. Many fac­tors in­flu­ence the way we eat and the an­swers don’t lie in what the In­sta­gram nu­tri­tion­ists deem is the di­etary fad of the day. It’s worth seek­ing out pro­fes­sional help and be­ing pa­tient with your­self as you make changes that may feel over­whelm­ing. Mainly, if you’ve suf­fered with a fear of food for too long, don’t be scared to talk about it – there are more of us out there than you might think.

“One of my spin riders once asked me how many kilo­joules I re­fuel with af­ter a class. I replied: ‘How many are in an Oreo?’”

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