Navigating the Challenges of Eating Disorder Recovery: Healing Your Relationship with Food

And how to work through them in eating disorder recovery.

Letting go in order to heal from food problems.

Eating disorder (ED) treatment comes with a myriad of challenges that often deter many from starting or sticking with it. 

There’s the hesitation to let the eating disorder go. There’s the fitting in recovery among work, school, family, and other life events and obligations. There’s the expense and the impending worry of whether or not it will all pay off. There’s the common fear of unwanted weight gain and body changes.

And at the root of it all is the aspect of ED treatment that unabashedly hits you head-on day in and day out—the fact that you have to change the way you eat food.

For some, these changes feel like they are in complete and total opposition to virtually every food choice they make, and the attitude that often comes with making them is, “This really sucks.” 

Here’s a very candid rundown of four ways ED treatment can really challenge the heck out of you and how to move through the horribleness as you mend your relationship with food.

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You Must Challenge and Let Go of Unhelpful Food Rules

To heal from an eating disorder, it’s imminent you identify and challenge all of your ingrained food rules. These are food behaviors often heralded by diet culture and can range from not exceeding a certain number of calories or fat grams per day to only allowing yourself to eat at specific times or abstaining from certain foods or food groups altogether. 

On top of learning to believe there are no good foods, bad foods, unhealthy foods, or forbidden foods, your food choices, and eating habits likely need to reflect that belief. For some, this can feel impossible and make no sense whatsoever… at first. This can come with a great deal of apprehension and resistance if you’ve long abided by food rules and don’t know how else to eat or fear what the outcome may be if abandon your rules.

For example, if you’re someone who follows a clean eating lifestyle, the thought of eating ice cream or chocolate cake may seem completely asinine. But if there’s a part of you that recognizes the harm and unsustainability of such restrictive eating habits, there are ways to, slowly but surely, break free from them. 

How to let go of your hard-line food rules.

After you’ve come up with your list of unhelpful food rules, the next step is formulating a plan to let go of them. 

Pick one food rule.

First, pick just one to start. Many people will start with the rule that seems most approachable. 

Chip away at it.

Don’t pressure yourself into getting rid of the rule overnight. Not only may that be anxiety-inducing, it likely won’t bode well in the end.

For example, if you’re adamant about sticking to a daily allotment of food, it probably isn’t wise to immediately overwhelm yourself with drastic changes that could trigger feared experiences associated with food (even if you and/or your treatment team know that’s what your body truly needs). 

Instead, work with your treatment team to understand what your daily intake goal should be, and gently work your way toward it. This could be adding in a piece of fruit, a slice of bread, or some yogurt as part of a meal or as a standalone snack.

Keep building.

Once you’ve added those additional items on a regular basis (a minimum of one to two weeks of doing so), challenge yourself to add a little more, e.g. an apple and a ~tablespoon of peanut butter or some yogurt and a couple of spoonfuls of granola. 

It’s important to go at your own pace while recognizing some degree of discomfort is a good thing. 

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You Have to Grapple with a Lot of Negative Emotions

Breaking away from food rules and adopting a different approach and mindset to eating food are likely to generate negative thoughts and emotions, especially at the beginning. This is because your food rules have made you feel safe and in control, so even if you can see how letting them go is the healthy thing to do, it doesn’t make it easy.

Every time you eat a little extra or eat a particular food you’d typically consider off-limits, that little voice in your head (commonly known as the inner critic, thought bully, or eating disorder voice) is going to do everything in its power to make you feel like you did the wrong thing.

The feelings of guilt and other negative emotions like fear, shame, and disappointment can be very difficult to tolerate. This is especially true if you struggle with body image, as breaking away from the very rules and habits you’ve depended on to deter weight gain can invoke overwhelming guilt and anxiety.

How to learn to manage negative emotions.

The eating disorder voice or inner critic may feel harsher and louder than ever as you eat in ways that go against their rigid tenets. 

To learn how to respond to those inner criticisms and keep your mental health in check, work with a therapist trained in modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). These therapies train you to challenge negative, unhelpful thoughts and deal with difficult emotions.

Not learning to feel your uncomfortable feelings and challenge your unhelpful thoughts makes it exponentially more difficult time making the healthy, recovery-focused decision.  

For example, if you’re working on eating breakfast regularly, the thought, “These are unnecessary calories that are going to sabotage all the work you’ve put in to avoid weight gain” may pop into your head. With the skills gained through CBT and DBT, you’ll know to flag that as a cognitive distortion and either shrug it off or logically respond to it. And it’s with this controlled response—versus an impulsive reaction—that you’re able to both non-judgmentally feel any uncomfortable emotions and allow them to pass through you without any compulsion to fix them.

This all ties back to how, while an eating disorder is in large part healing your relationship with food, it’s also learning how to befriend and advocate for yourself so you’re in a healthy frame of mind to do so.

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You Put Just As Much (or More) Thought Into Your Food Intake

If you suffer from an eating disorder or disordered eating, odds are you spend a generous amount of time thinking or obsessing about your food intake. To cultivate a more carefree relationship with food, however, all of that energy and focus doesn’t disappear overnight. 

Now, you have the added effort of challenging any disordered eating behaviors that you’ve automated over time.

You may be working with a registered dietitian and following a meal plan that requires you to prep your food intake and log it.

You may even be trying to eat on a more regular basis, increase the amount of food you’re eating, and incorporate more energy-dense or nutritious meals versus simple and safe ones. 

In any of these cases, each eating decision may require a bit more thought than what you’ve previously given it, which can feel rather stressful and exhausting, at times.

How to persist through the exhaustion.

Not unlike many of life’s greatest triumphs, there’s an investment period when you make the courageous and honorable decision to seek treatment for an eating disorder or disordered eating. It’s at this stage of the process that the saying “Getting better often feels worse at first” stems from. 

By regularly reminding yourself that recovery is not a race, and by embracing patience, you will get farther faster

In time, the new, healthy eating habits will feel more normal and desirable. Not only will the obsessive food thoughts subside, but so will the amount of time you spend scrutinizing or judging yourself for your food choices. 

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You Might Feel a Loss of Control

Recovery from an eating disorder requires you to instill your trust in people and processes that are generally quite contradictory to your current perceptions of and behaviors toward food and your body.

Initially, you may feel like you’re giving up the control that has long kept you safe and steady. 

If you’re working with a dietitian or nutritionist, you’re following their guidance on a meal plan—not the eating disorder’s.

If you’re undergoing therapy, you’re learning to make food choices based on the logic and reason of your wise mind—not the voice of your eating disorder.

If you’re seeking a happier and healthier life, you’re eating to feed the soul—not to fuel the eating disorder.

Realize you haven’t been in control.

One effective way of coping with the loss of control you may experience in healing your relationship with food is recognizing that you haven’t been in control of it all along—your eating disorder has.

Every time you make a recovery-focused decision, you are gradually regaining control. 

You’re learning to recognize and honor your hunger and fullness.

You’re learning to give yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you desire.

You’re learning to see food not just as nourishment but also as joy, connection, and experience.

This isn’t a loss of control. This is food freedom.

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The Short-Term Suck Leads to Long-Term Food Freedom

Pursuing the path to food freedom will very well be one of the hardest, scariest, and “suckiest” things you do in your lifetime. 

  • It requires you to challenge and let go of deep-seated food rules.
  • It forces you to face a lot of new and uncomfortable emotions.
  • It entails putting a lot of time and effort into your food intake.
  • It can feel like you’re giving up all control, which can induce fear and anxiety.

Fortunately, the “horribleness” of eating disorder recovery and rebuilding your relationship with food has a lifelong payoff if you stick with it.

Along with food having a proper place in your life, you’ll also have the time and energy to direct your focus toward areas of life that make you feel whole and alive—engaging in your hobbies, interacting with your family, being fully present for a conversation with a friend.

And remember, in those moments when you really feel your inner critic nagging at you, that’s not you failing at your eating disorder—that’s you succeeding at recovery. 

Stick with it, one gentle bite at a time.