Hunger Games: Food Issues and the Morality of Food

Around 8 p.m. this Tuesday I left my last tutoring student to grab the dinner I had brought to eat with my end-of-the-day meeting. The dinner was Pad Thai leftovers from a nice lunch out with some of my coworkers, and I was looking forward to it. I was proud that I had applied my developing intuitive eating process to a lunch out, leaving me both satisfied and hooked up with leftovers.

As I stepped into the lobby, I smelled the distinct aroma of McDonald’s fries.

Why McDonald’s? Why not Wendy’s or some other fast food place? I’m not sure why, but I seem to be able to tell the difference. I blame it on my 2011 binge eating stint that always came back to McDonald’s, my understanding friend.

Part of the intuitive eating process is learning that no food is “good” or “bad.” If your story is similar to mine, the following will make a lot of sense to you; if your food story is not similar to mine, I envy you, and I encourage you to take something out of this as well.

I started my first diet right after my 13th birthday. My parents have their own food issues and, like many people, passed on their beliefs to my brother and me. It was a family affair, although I can’t remember if my then-9-year-old brother participated this time. We followed Richard Simmons’ plan, which is similar in concept to Weight Watchers’ point system. I weighed 150 lbs at the time and, unbeknownst to any of us, was struggling with my first serious bout of depression and OCD.

For the next ~10 years, I went on and off diets with the rest of my family. Gaining weight in between each attempt as I hoarded the foods I’d not been allowed while I was “on the wagon.” We did family weigh-ins. My parents offered my brother and me monetary awards for losing weight. This lasted even up to my wedding this past May, when my mom offered to buy me new honeymoon clothes if I lost weight before the wedding.

There was always an event we had to prepare for. I can’t remember them all, probably because we made them bigger in our heads than they actually were. The first day of a new school. The first day of high school. Prom. Prom 2. College. Break-up number 1. Break-up number 2. Some event we were going to as a family. A trip home to Georgia to see the “skinny side of the family,” where I constantly felt like the black sheep, even at a relatively healthy 150 pounds.

My cousins (male and female) are all gorgeous, and my girl cousins were (and are) tall, skinny, athletic, light brown hair with blue eyes, and homecoming queens at their respective schools. Every time we visited, my parents would be complimented on their weight loss, or, alternatively, spend time bashing themselves for gaining the weight back. “We’ve been bad,” they would say.

Bad? Were they murdering people? Stealing money? Incessantly talking down about other people?


“Bad” means eating foods that you like but that don’t fit into your current diet’s arbitrary rules. For a time period, both my parents did Atkins (and I joined them for awhile), so “bad” foods were carbs and “good” foods were bacon. Then we were calorie counting, and suddenly bacon now joined the “bad” list, and white bread was back. We were never punished for gaining weight despite the promise of rewards for losing it (including money in a jar with a sticker saying “Cash or Cow?”), unless you count sitting around talking about how fat and gross we were. Unless you count apologizing to people (family! friends!) for our size. Unless you count accepting criticism–I mean “advice”–from others because it was our duty to feel shame for our size.

After all, we had been “bad.” Let the stonings begin.

Dieting took on a religious fervor for all of us, dictating our morality by a bite of cheesecake. Before each new diet–or diet attempt–we would go through a process that I now know to be called “Last Supper Eating.” From now on we were going to be “good,” and follow the new set of arbitrary rules, so tonight we were eating everything that we would never eat again. Ever. Because from now on we would be good.

We would eat more calories during the “Last Supper” than we would have had we just eaten normally all week.

Repeat indefinitely.

My parents are still following this pattern, and I listen politely as they tell me (occasionally with a tinge of “look how good I’m being” in their voice) that they are back on the wagon. Or that they are going back on the wagon so they’re going to eat a bunch of chips and ice cream tonight. That’s fine, because it’s none of my business. But it was my business growing up, where I learned these eating behaviors. Where I learned to binge eat. Where I learned to hide emotions with food.

There is another side to the “Last Supper” eating. It’s a punishment. A self-punishment. You have been “bad” eating all these foods, so now it is time you feel sick from the very foods you want, so that you learn to only eat “good” foods from here on out. Shame on you for wanting a forbidden food.

My OCD mind latched onto this idea very willingly. When I ate a “bad” food, it meant that I, too, was a bad person, so I deserved punishment. In high school I punished myself with excessive exercise. I would go to volleyball practice for a couple of hours then come home and walk on the treadmill for two hours. This, coupled with a calorie counting diet of 1200 calories that my then-undiagnosed OCD also loved (numbers! counting! limits!), I now know to be excessive. My therapists have been concerned upon hearing that I thought that was “good” behavior that I should be striving for again. Apparently not.

When the exercise became difficult to maintain under the pressure of college, I swung to the other direction and punished myself with more food. My college roommates can probably tell you of a few times when I would cry, loudly, embarrassingly, after eating something “bad” or weighing myself and finding I’d gained a pound. And they can also tell you times where they found me sitting down with a Halloween-sized bag of Reese’s and a blank stare on my face, making my way through the bag without tasting just for the sake of keeping down my feelings of inadequacy. My feelings that I would not identify as chronic depression for another 5 years.

I went to a nutritionist at 19 and I brought a food diary with me. OCD me also loved the food diary. I was now living in an apartment on my own and making a concerted effort to cook for myself. The nutritionist laughed at my food diary. Literally. Laughed. She then looked up at me with a serious face: “You think this is healthy?” I looked back down at my list and was puzzled. She laughed again.

To this day I cannot remember the food I was eating at that time, but I do remember a professional laughing at me. She was confused by my bloodwork because, again, I was a “gigantic” and “bad” 150 lbs at 5’4″, but my numbers were all great. Clearly something was wrong. She was very dismissive of the numbers, of my earnestness and desire to learn what I should be doing. She got a phone call and hastily dismissed me.

“But wait…I don’t know what you want me to do.”

She looked annoyed at the interruption. “Just read the South Beach Diet book.”

Oh. Ok.

And so another diet began.


Today, thanks to the help of more open-minded nutritionists and therapists trained to deal with eating disorders, I am learning to disassociate morality from my food choices. I am also learning that I don’t have to listen to the “Food Police,” or people who tell me how I should feel when eating a food. My parents and society together used to serve as the food police, and now Matt and well-meaning friends (oh, and still society) do. Matt does a pretty good job staying out of my food business, but occasionally a “you ate that?” or “you’re not still hungry, are you?” will slip from him.

For any of you that act as someone’s food police, just realize this leads to rebellious eating. Matt learned that pretty quickly. We were at a hog roast and I got up to get a third plate of food. He made a comment along the lines of “I think you’ve had plenty already.” The stare I gave him bored through his soul, and I then piled my plate higher than I had intended (I think I just wanted to go get another piece of cornbread) and ate every piece of food defiantly. I was uncomfortably stuffed, but I was making a point.

McDonald’s still has an eerie pull on me that no other food seems to. I realized after the experience on Tuesday evening that meant I should eat it without judgment, so I had it for lunch yesterday. It was a strangely emotional experience, unlike other feelings I’ve had with food recently. Today I reflected on the experience, and a fleeting thought of having it again for lunch today passed through my head.

No, that would be bad.

The judgment came so quickly that it caught me by surprise. I thought that I’d made peace with fast food. Unfortunately, this is a process. I debated myself for an hour before going to McDonald’s again. I used positive self-talk to tell myself that I was not “bad” for eating fast food two days in a row. I can eat McDonald’s twice and still make a healthy decision for dinner (I had soup and salad last night). Because I am allowed any food I want, there is no need to binge or revenge eat.

Frankly, I no longer have the strong desire to eat fast food that I used to, so I don’t foresee this becoming a habit. I’m not “on the wagon” right now because I am eating intuitively, not following an arbitrary set of rules, so there is no way to fall off.

For once in my food life, I’m firmly grounded in reality.

Half Marathon Reflections and Learning To Trust Myself Again

A little over two years ago I completed my first half marathon in Indianapolis. I finished in about 3 hours and 20 minutes, a pretty slow pace for a run/walker. A woman ahead of me who powerwalked the entire race with a venti coffee beat me. But Matt and my parents showed up to support me, and I enjoyed the experience, knowing that that length would be my “marathon” for the foreseeable future. (Matt runs his marathons in less time than it took me to complete the half marathon)

Hungry Finisher

At that time, I had been recently diagnosed with OCD and was about a month away from being diagnosed with chronic depression. I was (literally) failing my coursework and barely making research progress in graduate school. I spent most of my days sleeping or watching Law and Order on Netflix. I watched every season of SVU in about two months.

The only thing I managed to keep doing during that time was run.

I don’t know why that was the one thing my mind and body held onto, but it was the only thing that consistently got me out of my apartment without outside encouragement from friends, meetings, or compulsive prompts to indulge in my binge eating disorder. Even the latter turned to delivery foods at some point, minimizing my time outside away from my cat and couch.

I’ve been exercising since I was a child. Since I established the habit at an early age with various sports, I’ve never been one to hate exercising. It’s relaxing, I can magically clear my brain, and I feel better afterwards. At some point I made the transition from organized sports to running and yoga, but I was still happy with my new fitness outlets.

The day after my half marathon, I stopped exercising. I no longer had a pressing goal, and I could barely make it off my couch as I continued to sink into the depression that eventually led me to quit grad school. I participated in the Chicago Shamrock Shuffle 8K for the second time in the spring of 2012, but I didn’t do any prep leading up to it, so I walked it. Slowly. Over the next two years, I fell out of my exercising habit, and the idea of going outside or going to the gym became a chore. I gained 40 pounds. I started sweating from walking around town or vaccuuming my apartment.

But it crept up on me, somehow. I made a concerted effort to stop judging my body for its looks in undergrad and instead focused on what my body could do. Suddenly, my body couldn’t do the things I thought it could. Sometimes it couldn’t even fit comfortably in an airplane seat, or on a rollercoaster. I’d heard of people with anorexia having body dysmorphic disorder, unable to see the thin person in the mirror, but I’d never heard of it in the other direction. My therapist confirmed that, indeed, it can work in the other direction, and that what I see in the mirror is likely not what everyone else sees. I have to rely on pictures and physical signals to mentally register that my body is shaped differently than the way I see it (or perhaps, than the way I remember it).

I went hiking again yesterday with the same group from last weekend. With half a mile and 1000 feet left to the summit, I had to turn around (and thus, so did Matt). Overexertion left me dizzy and throwing up. I tried a few more feet before sitting down on the trail, disappointed. Our 9-mile loop hike became an 8-mile out-and-back for Matt and me.

But I realized, during our silent two hour walk back to the car, that this 8 miles was the longest I had walked since the half marathon. While the elevation was not as intense as it could have been, it was still more strenuous than the “hills” on the Indianapolis course. Sure, I didn’t get sick during the race, but I was ravenous in the last mile, stopping briefly to eat a hotel sample container of peanut butter before pushing myself to the end for a free Jimmy John’s sub, or two.

I’m learning to trust my mind and body again. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during my first round of OCD therapy at Purdue I learned that my brain was out to trick me. Wtf, right? If I couldn’t trust myself, who could I trust? Then to find out that my brain and eyes don’t even see the same body in the mirror that I have is mind-blowing. It’s right there, how can I miss it?

Years of dieting have also ruined my relationship with food and thereby my trust in my body’s ability to feed itself, so my therapist is having continue the Intuitive Eating approach that my nutritionist at Purdue introduced me to. That’s another post, though.

For now, I’m continuing my slow movement back towards my healthy. I don’t know what that will look like for me, personally, but I hope it involves a strong body and mind.

Hiking at a BMI of 38

In college, I dated a couple of Eagle Scouts. They introduced me to the world of hiking in the nearby Shenandoah National Park. While our relationships didn’t last, my love of the activity did. I was never “good” at hiking, if you can be good at something as straightforward as walking uphill. I would warn friends before going out that I was slow–both uphill and downhill.

My first hike with Chris and Robbie in 2006.

During the two years I spent at UVA, I organized some hiking outings with friends: some in better shape than I, and others who joked that they needed to lay down. I took the slow and steady approach, as my endurance has always outlasted my speed. Sometimes I’d have a group to go with, and other times I’d find one free friend or classmate and take off to the mountains, lunches and nalgenes packed.

A cold hike with Brantley in 2009. All downhill to the falls, then all uphill on the return.

I weighed between 150 and 160 lbs at the time. My BMI was around 27. Still overweight, but decidedly healthy. I was also running and playing volleyball, and my diet was relatively healthy for a college student. I went to a couple of doctors who were confused by my excellent bloodwork as compared to my weight. Thankfully, my primary care physician thought my weight was fine as long as I remained active and ate well.

BMI (body mass index) is a complicated measure of health given its simplicity: it is determined by your height and weight. Gender is not considered, nor is muscle mass. I’ve known bulky men who fit squarely in the “overweight” range because of it. But for someone like me, with more fat than muscle, I have no trouble referring to it when looking at my overall health relative to my weight.

Matt and a couple of friends planned a hike for yesterday. It was originally intended as a guys’ day out, as the three of them prefer more strenuous hikes than do their female partners. After looking at the hike, Jacob’s girlfriend decided to join them, and Matt said I was welcome to come along.

But he looked hesitant. And I felt hesitant.

We have been hiking at my current weight of 220 lbs, and it’s a slow affair. I love being outside, and I still love hiking, but I am lugging around 60 more pounds of fat than I am used to, and I’ve likely lost a fair amount of muscle. Was I willing to embarrass myself (and Matt) in front of my group of fit friends? Could I physically do this hike?

I told Matt to go ahead and have fun, that I would be fine at home, but I had tears in my eyes. He offered to stay home and I told him to go. So he left, and I cried.

I’ve had a rough week with my depression. With chronic illnesses, you never truly defeat them, you just get better at managing. And while I’m managing the binge eating disorder that (mostly) got me to this weight, it appears to be at the cost of managing my depression. Food has been my major coping mechanism, and I’m doing my best to not turn to it in sadness. So I get sadder.

While the depression itself spawned the crying, part of my sadness came from not being able to do something I enjoy because of my size. If I were this weight and still able to comfortably do all the activities I used to do, I would probably be fine. But I can’t. I can’t run right now, because I hurt my knees, so I’m stuck walking, which doesn’t soothe the running desire. To become a better runner, you need to run. So how am I supposed to get back into running when I can only walk?

It appears I need to lose weight. I’m aware of this, of course. It’s difficult when my binge eating disorder kicks in at the thought of a diet, and when my OCD takes over and says “keep walking or don’t walk at all” when I try to start an exercise regimen again. I’m fighting through it with therapy, workbooks, and medication. But it’s taking time, and it’s a frustratingly slow process.

All this flashed through my mind as I sat on the couch, crying. Not thinking completely clearly, I texted Matt: Have you left yet? I kinda want to join….

Matt called me. He could tell I was crying. He told me to meet them at Jason’s place. They would wait.

He forwarded me the planned hike. 7 miles. 5.5 hours. 2500 feet elevation change. Shit.

I drove to the meeting spot, took a deep breath, put on a smile, and walked over to join my friends who had waited for me. This was going to be rough.

On the way there we chatted about some hikes the group had done before. Jen started to explain the (somewhat technical/long) Old Rag hike to me. Matt interrupted: “Mallie has actually done that hike. At midnight.”

On top of Old Rag, awaiting sunrise. It was super cold.

Only Matt and Jacob knew me at my college weight, so the group seemed somewhat surprised. I was happy to relate my accomplishment, but I was sad that it was so unexpected. It’s a similar reaction to what I get from people when I tell them I completed a half marathon two years ago. Sure, it took me 3 hours and 20 minutes, but I did it.

The hike was difficult for me. Matt didn’t break a sweat the entire hike. At some point the group decided to stop following the switchbacks and instead take the path straight up the mountain. That was my breaking point. I explained it to Matt as follows: imagine you planned to go out for a 15 mile jog, and planned your pace accordingly. Three miles in, someone decides you should sprint the distance instead. My body couldn’t handle it.

I’ve been keeping track of my pulse while doing cardio lately. Mostly because I’m noticing that little exertion leads to lots of sweating and heartbeats. Even with running/walking intervals on the treadmill, my pulse often hits ~170-180 bpm. On the hike, I estimated that I was sitting around 175-200 bpm for most of the 3 hour hike.

Long story shorter, we only managed to do a 4 mile hike, reaching the ridge but not the view given the new, earlier sunset time. As usual, I was also slow going back down the rocky, leaf-covered mountain. My knees hurt today from the downhill, but overall my muscles are handling the recovery period better than I expected.

Matt and company looking confident upon our return down the mountain at Buzzard Rock.

We got back to my car and Jason, Jacob, and Jen unpacked their belongings in the trunk while Matt and I got in the front seats. He gave me a kiss, “Good job, dear.” I thanked him. “It’s gotten to the point where my weight is affecting our lifestyle, isn’t it?” Matt nodded. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I was thinking that when you decided not to come this morning.” He paused, tiptoeing an emotional line, “I want you to get back in shape so we can keep doing things like this without you having difficulty.”

I do too.