Learning To Enjoy Unhealthy Food
Orthorexia and Unhealthy Food
When I had orthorexia, I aggressively avoided unhealthy food. This isn't inherently a problem. From an outside perspective, maybe I just hated the taste of unhealthy food? However, the problem was that I was eating based on arbitrary food rules and not my genuine preferences.
I define arbitrary food rules to be what popular media tells you about food. Two common problematic trends are:
- Associating food with morality. Calling unhealthy foods "guilt foods" implies that eating those foods is shameful. Foods that "cleanse your body" sound like they're cleansing you of sin.
- Excessive mention of weight/appearance. Every spring, there are new diets to help you "get a bikini body." Healthified versions of traditionally unhealthy food claim that you can still "fit in your skinny jeans."
To me, it felt like an invisible god kept a running tally of everything I ate. When faced with a simple question, such as "Do you want a cookie?", I'd have the following thoughts:
- Do I deserve this cookie? Have I exercised enough today? Have I eaten enough wholesome vegetables lately? How many desserts have I eaten lately? Am I eating too much sugar?
- Is it worth the calories? A standard cookie is about 160 calories. I could have a banana (110 calories) instead.
This made eating unhealthy foods stressful. I struggled to silence those intrusive thoughts and find my genuine preferences.
It's common to hear the advice "eat unhealthy foods in moderation," but how do you find moderation? The first step was adding more unhealthy foods into my diet. I had to do this to stop mentally categorizing several foods as "bad":
- food high in refined sugar (ice cream, cake, brownies, cookies)
- food high in refined carbs (bread, rice, pasta)
- heavily fried food (fries)
- food heavy on cheese/cream/butter (cream sauces, baked goods)
My biggest concern about eating less healthfully was gaining weight and becoming fat, ugly, and unlikable. I do weigh more, and dealing with the changes to my body has been a struggle. My stomach folds over when I sit, and I no longer have a thigh gap. Some days, I hate my body, and I wish I could go back to eating clean and being thin. However, the following facts reassure me:
- I don't need to be thin. Marketing executives spend a lot of money to promote an unrealistic beauty standard and make women feel bad about themselves. How else do you sell useless products?
- No effort is required to maintain my current weight. Overall, I'd rather weigh an extra 5 pounds than track every bite I put in my mouth and cry about eating too much.
The second step was to eat fewer unhealthy foods based off my genuine preferences. Here are my general principles for eating unhealthy food:
- Consider context.
- Many social situations revolve around food. I'll get pizza if I'm eating out with friends. If I'm baking a cake for someone's birthday, I'll have a slice.
- On the other hand, if I'm cooking and eating by myself, I try to have protein and vegetables at meals, and I'll have dark chocolate or fruit for dessert.
- I've struggled with emotional eating, and I used to eat ice cream to numb sadness. This is unpleasant because I don't really enjoy the food and feel too full. Instead, I try to play ukulele, go for a walk, or talk to friends instead.
- Consider quality.
- Homemade desserts taste so much better than store bought. The exception? I really hate microwave mug cakes. Either they contain an absurd amount of oil and sugar to mimic the texture of actual cake or they are spongy and eggy. If you are craving cake that badly, I'd suggest buying a cupcake.
- Respect my cravings.
- I used to crave ice cream all of the time. I treated getting ice cream as a super special occasion, which made me view ice cream as off limits. To deal with this, I tried getting ice cream with friends more regularly. Normalizing the food made ice cream less of a forbidden fruit and reduced my cravings.
- At restaurants, I'm tempted to order the most wholesome entree - the one with the fewest calories and the most vegetables. I often have to catch myself and ask, "Do I really want grilled chicken and steamed broccoli?" Having this internal dialogue helps me order what I actually want.
- Consider what foods satisfy me.
- Just having refined carbs leaves me hungry shortly after. If I only have cereal or a pastry for pastry for breakfast, I find myself wanting more food before lunch.
- I generally prefer sweet foods over savory foods. Fried foods, such as chips or fries, feel too greasy to my palate and leave me feeling sluggish. I'm not a big fan of fried rice or noodle dishes.
- Avoid making foods too healthy.
- "Healthy" desserts never satisfied my craving for the original. Once, I made actual cookie dough and "healthy" cookie dough (spoiler alert: it had chickpeas). One tasted like butter, and the other tasted like hummus. Also, even "healthy" desserts tend to be high in sugar.
- Avoiding all sugar makes food unpalatable. Flavored yogurts tend to be high in sugar, so I've always gone with plain yogurt. However, I used to be unwilling to add any sweetener besides fruit. Banana makes yogurt sweet enough, but too thick and dry to eat. I actually like granola, but I would avoid it because it's high in calories and sugar. Since I've started adding granola to my plain yogurt and berries, breakfast has gotten so much better. When I get tart yogurt, I'll add a splash of maple syrup or honey.
- Baking without adding any sugar or refined carbs is also not as palatable. My freshman year, I recall looking up a recipe for "sugar free oat flour carrot muffins." The muffins weren't bad, but they didn't really satisfy my cravings. I do modify some baked goods to taste, which coincidentally makes them healthier. For example, banana bread recipes usually include 1 cup of sugar. That's too much for me, so I usually go with 1/4 cup.
Generally, people recommend cutting out unhealthy foods to improve your health, but for me, learning to enjoy unhealthy foods has significantly improved my mental health and made my life so much richer.