Eat Your Way To a Healthier Relationship With Food
How healthy is your relationship with food? In an age where it’s hard to so much as scroll through your phone without seeing some sort of diet or fitness related hashtag, more and more of us are succumbing to disordered thoughts around what we eat, when we eat, how much we eat and what it’s supposedly doing to our bodies. Journalist, eating-disorder survivor and passionate foodie Eve Simmons is one half of Not Plant Based – a refreshing voice in the plethora of online resources which cuts through all the under-researched ‘facts’ out there about what we put on our plates. Seeking to help us all beat the damaging rhetoric around diet culture and find true joy in food once more, I caught up with her to find out more about how her website – and her new book, Eat It Anyway, – can help us get to a better place with body image.
Can you tell us a little bit about Not Plant Based and why you and your co-founder, Laura, wanted to create it?
What we’re finding frustrating at the minute is that there seems to be this swirl of anti-diet rhetoric and books and Instagram accounts springing up around it all. Whilst that’s obviously great, I think there’s this risk that it becomes just another trend to get likes because it’s got a certain hashtag. I think with a lot of the other people who sit in this area, their whole thing is based on them touting this belief. Either they are therapists or practicing health professionals or in some way nutritionists and this whole ‘anti-diet’ body-positivity thing gives them an angle which generates clients for them. I believe we are the only people in this space who are 100% basing all our ideas on own personal experience and we are so open and honest about that. We wrote a book because we are writers, not because we’re trying to sell an ideology. It’s primarily there to offer comfort and support to other people and to share an experience – and that’s it. It’s important to me that we make that distinction as we seem to keep getting lumped in with all those others.
You and Laura have both suffered from eating disorders in the past. Can you tell us about your personal journey?
About five years ago, I went into my first job, which was in fashion journalism. I was a very impressionable 22 year old, so I was really desperate to impress my editor and everyone in the office. I was living at home, just into my first serious relationship, fresh from my journalism masters – basically, there was a lot going on. It was a bit of an identity crisis when I think back now – I was thinking I could be a certain way, like “maybe I’m going to be this sort of fashion girl”. I got really really obsessed by fashion, started working all hours of the day or night to try to impress my editor and, with that, I was surrounded by people who didn’t eat very much and were very disordered in the way they ate, so it all became very normalised for me. I started getting into clean-eating and diet blogs. I’ve always loved food and I think I was trying to negotiate that with my new sense of self and make the two fit together. These blogs offer you a way to try on a different type of personality, of someone who maybe doesn’t like food or doesn’t have much of an appetite. With all of these things, all you’re trying to do is fight against who you are and your natural sense of self – which is always going to end badly, as indeed it did for me. Within about six months of trying to eat less and make healthier choices I stopped eating breakfast, which led to me quickly cutting out other things, so then lunch sort of went. If I did eat lunch I’d have a handful of leaves. For a while I was doing that so that I could still go out with my boyfriend and enjoy a nice dinner. Everything just became very disordered for about six months. At this point, I probably could have stopped it if someone had said to me: “what the f*** are you doing?” But they didn’t.
After about 6 months, I’d lost a lot of weight and my mum and my boyfriend started saying things too. So, I tried to start eating normally again and I found that I just couldn’t. I didn’t know what a portion was, I felt confused about how many meals a day I was supposed to eat, I got anxious when I went out for dinner. I’d have breakfast and lunch and wasn’t sure if that was OK. I was just in a complete frenzy about food which is remarkable because I’d never ever worried about anything that touched my lips throughout most of my life. I kept losing more and more weight and because I’m quite small anyway it all happened very quickly. Then eventually, after much rallying from my mum and boyfriend, I went to the doctors. The doctor told me he was very concerned and that I had lost almost 20% of my bodyweight, which put me in an anorexic category. He didn’t say much to give me a diagnosis but the message was pretty clear. The doctor I saw had no understanding of eating disorders whatsoever, although it was very clear I had one. He basically just told me, “Why don’t you just drink loads of chocolate milkshakes, stop going to the gym and eat MacDonald’s?
If only it was so easy!
I left and remember just bursting into tears, hysterically ringing my best friend saying I didn’t know what to do. From there I was just so in the grip of it. My mum kept marching me back to the doctors and eventually I got diagnosed with anorexia and referred to a specialist unit. But I had to wait four or five months, which meant by that time I’d lost even more weight and ended up in hospital, where I was for about six weeks. I’d been trying to recover for all of those four or five months before that point but unfortunately the way this illness works is that it’s not your choice. You can want to recover as much as you want to but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I battled on and carried on working and, when you’re at that point where you are at such a low weight, your body is holding on for dear life to every ounce of energy it can, so actually gaining it again takes a lot of effort and my brain was barely there at this point. By the time I got into treatment it was pretty late, almost too late really. From then I was able to gain a lot back in hospital and eventually came back out, the rest is history, really.
You’ve both said the whole normalisation of diet culture and obsession with ‘wellness’ played such a role in both yours and Laura’s eating disorders. What damaging messages do you think are out there right now?
Oh my God there are so many. What isn’t? All of it. I would say what worries me the most is that it’s kind of an accepted understanding amongst the Instagram community that ‘clean eating’ is passé – I don’t think that’s seen as trendy anymore and we are moving past it. But in that space there are a lot of people who made a name for themselves based on it. Strip it back and it’s all the same thing: it’s pretty, slim, glamourous girls who want you to look like them and who you want to look like. If we pick it all apart, it’s basically playing on people’s insecurities who are vulnerable and worried about something in their life they can’t control. For most women I would say it’s about how they look but that’s because we’ve been told we need to worry about how we look, because corporations make money off it. What worries me is that, within that space, the definition of clean eating/heathy eating blogs or influencers is now blurred. People will say they are not pushing something negative but lots of people peddling it don’t necessarily have a career – Instagram is their career so in that sense it’s very insular. I don’t think they are doing it deliberately, but I think that they don’t understand the nuance of it. By saying you’re anti-clean eating and you’re all for body positivity then posting pictures, all with your abs out in your bikini, do you not understand the hypocrisy of that? As far as I’m concerned there’s a very simple test when posting online. If the photo you’re about to post would make you, in your most vulnerable state, feel bad about yourself, don’t post it. But I would hazard a guess that 95% of those people don’t go by that rule. They are more concerned about feeling good about themselves than they are about others feeling bad about themselves. Whether you want to call it #cleaneating, #fitandfearless or #strongnotskinny it’s the same thing. And we are still focusing on the way that women look.
I think selfie culture is horrendous for women’s self-esteem. We say it’s empowering. No it’s not. It’s just making us feel worse about ourselves. And within that, food is a really easy thing for people to turn to as a means of control. It’s so intrinsically linked to our emotions but also supposedly linked to the way that we look. Not everybody can go and afford to spend £2000 on plastic surgery but everyone can afford to make a change to the way they eat or exercise. It’s a no brainer that that’s what people then obsess over, which is deeply depressing because all it’s really saying is, “I feel like shit about myself and I want to make myself feel better.” That really is it, in a nutshell.
I totally agree that all of this sort of thinking has seeped into everything around us. I’m much more aware of it all now personally but have friends who still unwittingly buy into that ideology – for example “cheat days” or “cheat meals.” What would you say to women like that who don’t necessarily have an eating disorder but may have some very disordered thoughts around food and their body they are not necessarily aware of?
It’s a difficult one – because I think, in some sense, ignorance is bliss. To not be aware that all of it is contrived to control you and make you attack yourself, so you’re not attacking the people who are making you feel this way, taking up all this headspace. I guess it’s to do with what you think is important. Susie Orbach’s book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, is such a manifesto to me and one of the times I interviewed her she said something that really stuck with me, which was: “Think of all the things you could do – not even achieve – just do, if all the time you spent thinking about food and your body and your exercise plan was taken up with something else.” I remember I said, “Oh yeah, you could be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company.” And she said, “No, I don’t even mean things like that. I mean things as simple as spending time with your family, planning something special for them, volunteering at a food bank or helping people in your community.”
If everyone could take all of that intellectual space and donate it to something that’s actually valuable, I think our society would be a much better, mutually beneficial place.
The things you just said remind me a lot about Naomi Wolf’s quote that “a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Her book, The Beauty Myth, was the lightbulb moment I needed when I was at sea with some really damaging attitudes towards food and my body. What were the lightbulb moments for you in your recovery?
An Irish mental health nurse, who was amazing in so many ways, once said to me, when I was really struggling, “Your desire to recover has to be larger than your desire to be thin.” It seems so simple, but for somebody who is still in that illness, it’s not. Recovery means so many different things to different people. It’s terrifying. On the one hand, it’s the fear of the unknown and on the other, it means you get back to your old life. If the root cause of your fixation on food was an attempt to move the focus away from other things in your life, which may be painful or traumatic, then going back to all of that is also going to be traumatic. That really stuck with me and I think of it when I have rubbish days or the voice in my head isn’t nice to me.
There was also something I heard on a podcast about how our thoughts don’t define us. A psychologist said that the thoughts in your head are not ‘you’. The inner rhetoric you have doesn’t define you, and your brain is an organ like any other in your body. It can malfunction and it doesn’t hold you ransom to anything that goes through it. Thinking about my brain as a separate organ can help me rationalise better.
Are there any movements or resources (other than Not Plant Based, of course) you think are really helpful for anyone struggling at the moment?
The Health at Every Size Community is really useful for me. It’s founded by a fascinating woman called Linda Bacon, who basically picks apart all the research which links obesity with poor health. A lot of it is very radical as it’s basically saying there is no concrete evidence to confirm that being overweight is linked to poor health. I’m not sure how I feel about it… but ultimately it makes you reassess things you think you know from academic research because the whole process is hugely complex. The papers we know about are the ones that make good headlines, but there are so many other studies to counter them which are not pushed forward, often because the researchers themselves are too busy working on the next paper to bother publicising it! I can think objectively about weight gain and know that it doesn’t mean my heart is going to suddenly stop because the research shows that’s just not true. We all have this mystical fear of being fat, and it’s interesting to ask yourself where this comes from and ask yourself why you believe those things.
Yes, and that is one of the biggest barriers to true recovery in so many people’s thinking. A lot of the time, people’s issues with food don’t even necessarily come from a desire to be skinny – it’s just that desire to fit into the ‘acceptable’ body standard society sets. And that standard is never, ever fat.
Completely. And, if you pick it apart further, you realise it’s not even about body shape. It’s just that feeling of being isolated or ostracised from a group. For some that is a very real fear and has a huge impact on their avoidance of certain things and that sort of thing is incredibly complicated. This attachment to body image is just an easy thing to latch on to because it’s physical and you can see it. I guess it’s easier to comprehend than that feeling of not fitting in, which could come from anywhere, and takes years to figure out.
What advice would you give to somebody who has lost their way with food, or has a voice in their head that tells them the calorific content of everything they eat. I found that once I had that voice, it was so hard to go back from it, and just eat without thinking about it. It’s something Dolly Alderton mentioned in her book Everything I Know About Love, about how that childhood joy in eating purely for pleasure is so hard to get back again once you’ve lost it.
Yes! She did say that. I think it’s two-fold. If you have an active eating disorder, there are very specific things you need to do like structured meals, eating regularly throughout the day and working with a dietician who specialises in eating disorders. Not only does that get your body used to eating regular food again but it trains your mind to face that fear of eating.
Also, to get that balance back and feel hungry at appropriate times because yo-yo dieting or disordered eating patterns stop us from recognising or even receiving proper hunger signals.
You don’t realise how much food your body needs to redress that balance once it’s been starved for a long time. I think the concept of starvation is a really interesting one because a lot of people will actually be eating a 200g bowl of granola with fat-free milk for breakfast, a tiny little egg pot for lunch and soup and a roll at dinner. That is starving your body. I also think there are huge amounts of people who will go out after work, have a couple of drinks and skip dinner. Do that for a long time and your body is essentially lacking in nutrients. You’ll need to consciously help your body to start creating those normal signals again because, at a hormonal level, things will be out of whack. The solution really is to just eat. The more you do, the more your body and mind will realise there’s nothing to be scared of, and the more it will be able to balance and control itself.
And how about for those who aren’t suffering from an eating disorder, but definitely have some conflicting feelings or fears around food?
For everyone else, similar rules apply. Take small steps – the whole thing about it is habits and that’s what is so strong. It’s like retraining your brain. If you’ve got used to thinking a certain way, it’s just a habitual way of thinking. It’s possible to challenge and change that. You have to throw things into the mix which will challenge your brain and there’s research to show it doesn’t even have to be in relation to food. Even taking a different route to work or walking on the other side of the street will also challenge those habits in your life to help move on to doing it with food. Say you’re wary of dairy, for example: try one coffee a week with cow’s milk. Don’t feel despondent if you find things anxiety provoking.
Yes, so picking off those limiting beliefs you have about food and trying to get to a point where you forget about them?
Absolutely, also having motivating factors is important. What else is there that gives you meaning and comfort which isn’t related to food or the way that you look? Find those things.
If someone has unintentionally toxic friends who talk constantly about their own weight, diets or other things which may limit your recovery, how would you suggest people deal with that?
I really want to say f*** them off! But I won’t. Bear in mind what is right for you. Comparisons are a nul point – it’s like comparing oil with water. So, if you’re feeling vulnerable, perhaps give those people a wide berth for a while until you feel more able to shrug things off. Also, allow your pool of friends to expand and flower with people who offer you something different. People who have a different outlook or can introduce you to new experiences or challenging views. Find those people that make you feel you are the best version that you can be of yourself. I think it’s really good to have at least one friend who never ever says anything negative about food or their body. Who really loves food and has a really healthy appetite. I try to make that 70% of my friends now. I don’t think you need to necessarily cut people out of your life, but there are plenty of people out there who will make you feel like you deserve to feel and that you are enough.
To find out more, visit notplantbased.com
Eat It Anyway, by Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison, is out now.