Eating Disorders and Labeling Negative Thoughts
I recently read this article in Elephant Journal entitled “Confessions of a Food Restrictor.”¯ In the words of my beloved Oprah, it was an “Aha Moment” for me. The author, Anne Falkowski, explains her experience with a registered dietician who, after a conversation about her eating habits, informed her that he believed her to be a “restrictor.” He defined the term as “someone who counts calories” or “someone who has so many rules around food and the rules give more power to food than food actually has.”¯
Wow. That’s exactly what I used to do. For years. The term “restrictor” really resonates with me because I have always been reluctant to refer to my past eating disorder as anorexia. My case was serious. My relationship with food was certainly unhealthy and it dominated my life. But I always felt as if I were a step or two away from all-out anorexia (though I realize that what constitutes anorexia for me may be somewhat different for someone else).
Before I go any further, I want to clarify my feelings about the power of food. We give food as much power as we choose to. I don’t believe that power has to be negative. It can be very, very good. Sharing holiday meals with family, trying a new restaurant with a friend, preparing a meal for your partner … these are all very positive, powerful experiences. In fact, since recovering from my eating disorder, I’ve fallen in love with cooking and baking. A friend and I are even planning to start a cooking blog together.
However, for people with eating disorders, the power given to food is, of course, very negative. It is not a healing power, or a power that creates community and reinforces bonds. It is a power to overwhelm and control. It is a power that allows food to take on a life of its own—and to overshadow the person’s real life.
But when we understand where this power comes from – that it comes from negative thoughts that we can label (meditation can be particularly helpful in this regard), then we can defuse that power. This is why finding the term “restrictor” was so meaningful to me. If I’d had this term at the height of my eating disorder, I would have been able to mentally label my negative thoughts as “restriction.” That would have helped me to separate the thoughts from myself and my truth and to thereby begin to disregard them.
Humans like to quantify things. We like categories and names. This is sometimes helpful and sometimes detrimental—but it is undeniable that we like to make order out of chaos. Having a label for an eating disorder helps us understand that those negative thoughts don’t represent truth, nor are they an essential part of our being. They are simply the voice of the “restrictor,” something we can recognize and then move on from. The terms anorexia and bulimia are very familiar, but I believe there are a lot of people out there like me who have truly disordered relationships with food but may not consider themselves anorexic or bulimic. Perhaps those people would benefit from having a label that makes their experiences more tangible, and helps them separate themselves from their negative thoughts.