If you haven’t read Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit? then I would start there first.
On reflection, over the years I was going through my eating disorder, I developed many habits that I have had to work very hard to break – skipping breakfast, weighing everything I ate, cutting my food in a specific way, only eating with a specific spoon, only eating a specific brand, only eating at a specific time of the day…
Thankfully, I am now free of these habits (I explain how I freed myself here: How To Break Unhealthy Eating Habits but I want to highlight a couple of habits that led to my eating disorder becoming so engrained in the hope that, if you have them, you might be able to identify similar habits in your own relationship with food so that you can begin to change them.
The Soup Story
I was diagnosed with anorexia at 15 and it spiralled out of control when I was at university. Somehow I would get through the day without eating and then every evening I would weigh out half a can of Heinz minestrone soup containing 140 calories. I would always get the same brand, I would always use the same bowl, and I would always microwave it for the same amount of time. I would use a teaspoon to make the soup last longer and have a pint of water to drink whilst I was eating to make me feel fuller. This was my soup eating routine aimed at weight loss (even now, I don’t really know why I ever wanted to lose weight to begin with).
If I ate the soup earlier, I thought it meant I was greedy. If I didn’t weigh my soup, I thought I would lose control and eat everything in sight.
I’ve shared my story in more detail here: My Story, but to summarise… I started restricting my food at school about three years before developing my soup routine and spent my college years in and out of eating disorder units being refed to a healthy weight and then losing all the weight again as soon as I was discharged. And then once I turned 18 and went to university, it meant that I could lose weight without anyone saying much at all.
When I first started my soup eating routine, it felt like an accomplishment. I made me feel like I was in control and that I had self-discipline and willpower, and seeing the number on the scales go down felt like a success – like what I was doing was taking me closer to my arbitrary goal.
When it comes to habit formation, my soup eating habit was goal-reward motivated. My GOAL was to restrict my food intake to lose weight (by only eating soup) and my REWARD was weight loss. And soon, I got the result I wanted – I lost the weight I aimed lose. But it wasn’t enough (because it never is enough with anorexia).
Months later, even though my weight had fallen to a dangerous level (which, logically, I was fully aware of), I still continued to restrict myself to half a can of soup for dinner. But I now did it almost in secret. I didn’t want anyone to say anything about what I was eating. And I isolated myself because I didn’t want anyone to interfere with my soup eating routine by inviting me out. I no longer felt any success or pride in my eating. Instead I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But I also felt totally trapped and alone.
The weight loss I had thought would make me happy, didn’t. It simply sucked the life out of me. I was exhausted all the time, my hair fell out, I went deaf, my organs started failing… I obsessed over calories and exercise and all the foods I couldn’t eat. I lost friends. I lost all passion for my studies. I lost hope. I knew how much damage I was doing to my body. I knew how much pain I was causing to those I loved (this is still something which hurts me even now). And yet I still couldn’t break this soup eating habit and begin to eat in a way that would nourish me.
Emerging research suggests that eating disorders are maintained not because of emotional issues, or wanting to be skinny, or a desire for self-control. They are maintained because of habit. And I can totally relate to this. At the time, my soup eating routine happened almost automatically regardless of what outcome or goal it achieved. Weighing myself everyday happened almost automatically even though I knew it was pointless. Skipping breakfast, and reading food labels, and cutting my food into tiny pieces happened almost automatically even though I got no pleasure or reward from doing it. Neurologically, by repeatedly carrying out these behaviours, they had become wired into my brain so happened automatically.
After a few months, it took no mental effort for me to carry out these behaviours. And it took a heck of a lot of mental effort, mindfulness, and intentional living for me to break these habits and create healthier ones. But I promise you it was worth it.
I’ve shared my example here in the hope that if you are going through your own food struggles, you stop blaming yourself. You have innocently fallen into unhealthy habits and you have the power to change them.
Your eating disorder is not your fault. But recovery is your choice.
Likewise, if you are reading this because you know someone who is going through an eating disorder, then I hope it helps you to understand why it is so challenging and exhausting for them to recover – breaking habits is terrifying. Recovery means literally rewiring your brain and this takes so much neurological energy.
The Habitual Voice Recognition Technique
The main tool I used in my own recovery to break unhealthy eating habits, and the tool that my clients find most helpful, is the Habitual Voice Recognition Technique (HVRT). This helps you to become aware of habits (thoughts, urges, behaviours, and feelings) and begin to separate these habits from your deep desire for health and happiness. I talk you through it all here: How To Break Unhealthy Eating Habits.
And if you want a more in-depth understanding of habit formation, then I explain it all here: Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit?
And if you simply want to bake a really delicious banana bread, then I’ve just shared a recipe here: Carrot Cake Banana Bread