Yesterday I sauntered into the kitchen and opened the cabinet containing all my husband’s snacks. Peering into the assortment of chips, crackers, and cookies I pulled out a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, grabbed a couple, and walked back to the couch where I began eating. All of this transpired without a single thought about fat or calories, a single should I or shouldn’t I debate, or any plans to later compensate for my nutritional indiscretions. This might just be one of the greatest recovery moments I’ve had in awhile.

Mindless eating, or the act of making decisions about food based on unconscious psychological cues, has developed a bad reputation. For most people, the concept conjures up images of overweight people staring blankly at the television, one hand on the remote, the other robotically going in and out of a bag of Doritos. It’s associated with a lack of control or willpower and a disconnect from physical hunger or emotional cues that prompt us to eat. To use the famous Nike slogan, it’s the kind of eating where you “just do it.” Or more appropriately as Weird Al Yankovich’s song suggests, “just eat it.”

Advocates of intuitive eating promote bringing mindfulness to eating while breaking through the indoctrination created by years of following rigid food rules. They encourage people to get in touch with their bodies’ internal hunger cues, to savor each bite, to experience the smell, taste, and texture of food, and to respect fullness. All of these goals are noble, but for the recovered anorexic, intuitive eating can often lead to over-thinking eating. What was meant to be an endeavor at respecting the body and fully enjoying food can morph into analyzing the necessity and nutritional value of each and every bite and continually questioning one’s hunger or need for food.

Health magazines are filled with nutrition experts who urge readers to get in touch with their emotions surrounding food. “Why are you eating?” they all ask. Are you bored? Stressed? Feeling social pressure? Tired? Get to the bottom of the what, when, where, and why you eat and you’ll be on your way to better health, a thinner waistline, clearer skin, deeper sleep, and better sex. Even the proverbial fountain of youth can be yours by for the taking. For the recovering anorexic, a more appropriate question to ask might be, “why aren’t you eating?” Instead of emotions prompting overindulgence, unsettling emotions lead to restricting behaviors or obsessive thoughts about food. One of the tools to overcoming emotional hurdles in recovery is to separate what the mind thinks from what the body needs to do. While getting in touch with emotions is crucial in long-term recovery, in the here-and-now of deciding whether to eat the next meal, disconnecting from emotions is critical.

Thus, learning to eat mindlessly is a major undertaking for someone with a history of anorexia. Okay let me rephrase that. Eating, mindlessly or not, is a major undertaking for someone with a history of anorexia. In treatment patients are taught distraction techniques for getting through a meal or snack. Focus attention of conversation, a book, or favorite television program. Do mental exercises, say redesign your room or plan a dream vacation, to keep your thoughts busy. The initial aim is not to enjoy the food, but simply, survive the food. It hasn’t been too long since I was religiously counting every calorie and fat gram that passed my lips. Every meal used to be a negotiation. You can have the cheese on your sandwich if you swap out the mayo for mustard and run an extra mile at the gym. Or you can binge on that cake but then you’re not eating tomorrow. With food always on the brain, I couldn’t conceive of the day when I would be able to just eat something.

But that’s exactly what I did yesterday. I mindlessly ate those cookies, and only after they were half-way to my stomach as I licked melted chocolate off my fingers did I realize it. I needed this win. I needed to be reminded that it is possible to remain in recovery from an eating disorder, even when you encounter unexpected road bumps (see Broken Bones and Broken Dreams). I’m not going to question why I did it or what might have been unconsciously going on in my head. Nor am I going to work on becoming more mindful in the future. I’m just going to sit in the present and enjoy feeling like the superhero that I am.

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