As I scanned the aisles at Trader Joe’s this weekend, a container of animal crackers caught my eye. In a matter of seconds, I went from noticing them, to placing them in my cart and moving along. I thought animal crackers would make a perfect snack to fill the void I’ve been feeling in the afternoon since I’ve been running early before work. That was all the convincing I needed to take them home with me.
Later, as a munched on a handful of lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!), what I tasted was familiar yet nostalgic.
“When was the last time I ate animal crackers?”
I began to rack my brain. Throughout my childhood, and into my high school and early college years, animal crackers were a staple in my pantry. A simple, yet relatively filling snack I could grab as I headed out the door for karate class or after a run while waiting for dinner. Thinking about it, I realized I probably hadn’t enjoyed animal crackers in about five years.
It was my senior year of college when I stopped eating gluten. I did it because I had so-called stomach issues and I thought that maybe I was ‘gluten intolerant’. It never occurred to me that maybe the reason I constantly felt sick and lethargic was due to the stress and guilt I struggled with every time I ate bad food.
For me there was a clearly defined line between good foods and bad foods. Was it green? Good. Did it contain sugar, carbs, or fat? Bad. I was all in for spinach and egg white omelettes, grilled chicken salads, and fruit smoothies parading as meals. I internally praised myself any day I didn’t eat more than an apple and peanut butter or carrots and celery for lunch. I silently applauded when I said no to ice cream while everyone else headed to the on-campus Friendly’s.
I was constantly keeping score in my mind. If I ate something healthy my score went up, if I ate something unhealthy my score plummeted.
It happened gradually, but overtime I placed all foods into one of the two categories; yin or yang. If a food fell on the side of evil (in other words, if it tasted delicious or actually satisfied me) it required planning and preparation to be eaten. If I ate something I wasn’t supposed to, breaking an arbitrary food rule, I’d bury my head in guilt and shame. In order to rid the guilt, I’d punish myself with something like endless sit-ups, skipping dinner, or brutally negative self-talk until I cried myself to sleep. It was exhausting, but my food rules were the Ten Commandments and they were to be obeyed.
Looking back, I never realized all the rules I’d created for myself, so when I began to heal my relationship with food and my body, I didn’t anticipate all the undoing that would be necessary. Little things, like ice cream once in a while or fries with dinner began to creep back into my diet on occasion, giving me the illusion that I was ‘better’. I was no longer micromanaging every little thing in my body so in my mind I was ‘healed’.
My food rules were so ingrained that I didn’t even notice how vehemently I was still following them.
In August of 2016, we were at the beach, laying in the sun while snacking. In the bag of snacks we toted, alongside some fruits and veggies, was a box of Cheez-It’s. I still hadn’t eaten gluten since 2012, but Cheez-It’s sounded really good, so I thought “what the hell” and dove in. For the first time in four years, I ate gluten. And absolutely nothing happened. I enjoyed the Cheez-It’s, I felt satisfied, and I immediately began to think about all the delicious and fulfilling foods I could finally eat again now that I had officially broken my “no-gluten” rule (GIMME PIZZA!).
No gluten was certainly my most far-reaching food rule, and I’d love to say that once I broke it I began eating intuitively all the time, but that just isn’t the case. I continued to subscribe to a number of food rules for a very long time and I’m realizing there are still many I’m working to break. Just in the past year, I’ve finally begun to allow white bread, white pasta, and white rice back into my life rather than scrutinizing every food label to see if it’s really 100% whole wheat. A couple of months ago I ate a cupcake a student brought in for his birthday for the first time in my four years of teaching. And honestly, eating pizza on a weekday still takes a little dose of courage. But here’s the difference, instead of passively following the arbitrary food rules I created, I’m working to actively break them every chance I get.
Instead of passively following the arbitrary food rules I created, I’m working to actively break them every chance I get.
I don’t think I was holding onto a specific “no animal crackers” rule, but I do think I’m still working to loosen the reins on what I see as an acceptable snack. Animal crackers didn’t fit that box before and now I’ve let them in. It’s a teeny tiny victory, but it’s a step in the right direction. I can think of some food rules I’m still working through and I’m probably still holding on to some that I do not realize now but will eventually be confronted with. For now, it’s a work in progress and there is no longer a clear line between good foods and bad foods. Except that good foods are the ones I enjoy and bad foods are olives.
National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 800–931–2236
Originally published on Medium