Food Allergies & Eating Disorders: A Dietitian’s Personal Story
Growing up with food allergies always made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I felt like I was constantly being judged, and it was weird that I could not eat or enjoy all the foods that everyone else was eating. This led to lots of shame around the foods that I did eat. I constantly felt like there was something wrong with me because people viewed me as that boy who had to bring his lunch pail with him everywhere.
It felt like everyone was watching me every time I ate because I felt like I was doing something wrong; I felt like I was wrong. I felt that I was not made for this world and eventually I would be found out and get taken from this world sooner rather than later. I constantly heard comments about how healthy the food is that I was eating. But I always took those comments extremely personally. I felt like they were saying, “Wow, you eat so healthy”, but actually meant “Wow, you have to eat healthy because you do not deserve to enjoy food like everyone else”.
I learned how to make my own food at a young age, and this caused me to experience even more shame. When my mom would look at the foods I was cooking, I would get uncomfortable and look at her with disdain. When she asked what I was making, I would respond to her in a very condescending way. My thoughts were, “You know what I’m making, something that I have to eat because I do not deserve to eat the food that normal people enjoy”.
My food allergies led to extreme fear, a need for control, and a life that involved only wanting to stay alive out of spite for the ill health I believed that I had. I could hardly hang out with friends because if too many hours went by, then I would eventually have to get something to eat. Even in the rare event that I built up enough courage to hang out with friends, I still could not be present. All my thoughts revolved around making sure there were safe foods I could eat. If I did ever go out with friends, I would pack meals and snacks to get me through the hours that I was with them. This led to a life that was predetermined, a life that required 1-2 hours of food preparation before I could go and hang out with my friends. A last-minute event was completely out of the question. I could not go unless I have enough time to pack my food, so I would be safe.
My life was controlled by food and fear. There was no time for fun or enjoyment. Besides, there was something wrong with me so I didn’t deserve that anyway. This was the narrative: I am not normal, and that when something good happened it was a mistake. I was not meant for this world, I was never meant to enjoy anything, and I can only eat foods for survival not enjoyment.
Only after beginning work as a registered dietitian at an eating disorders center did I realize that patients experienced the same kind of feelings around food. I realized that the judgement around food was not coming from other people, rather it was coming from myself. I saw patients struggle with the same kind of issues with control and feeling different. I saw the same fears that have haunted me for most of my life, and I felt extreme empathy. I began to learn how food allergies and eating disorders were related.
Throughout this process I have gained tremendous insight into the similarities that those with food allergies and those with eating disorders experience. I noticed that they were both fueled by the fear of not having control, that they were both focused on the feeling that there is something wrong. I noticed that avoiding foods and perfect eating were prevalent in both, and that food was viewed as something potentially harmful, rather than something that can be enjoyable. I noticed that the curiosity and search for answers can get out of hand when looking in the wrong places. I came to realize that people who struggle with food allergies and people who struggle with eating disorders do not have something wrong with them; they are actually very good at coping in order to survive. But the coping mechanisms being used are not sustainable.
Eventually, after about 20 years of being allergic to foods, something happened. I got an allergy test again at the age of 30. The test revealed that I was no longer allergic to peanuts, wheat, soy, dairy-all of the foods that I had to avoid for most of my life. When I got the test results, I questioned the doctor and told him that the test results were probably wrong. I did not believe that what I knew my whole life was no longer true, and most of all I feared having to step into the unknown.
I eventually began to reintroduce all of the foods I could not have for so long, and I began to feel something new when experiencing food: gratitude. Foods containing dairy, wheat, soy, and peanuts are now some of my favorite foods. I still love all of the foods that I enjoyed before as well.
The first time I reintroduced a food to which I had previously been allergic, it was a life-changing experience. I felt as though all my problems had gone away, that I could finally be “normal”. However, after a time, I became accustomed to being able to have all these foods, and I realized that the feeling of something being fundamentally wrong with me had not magically disappeared. My thoughts changed from “people are judging me for eating the foods I am allergic to”, to “people are now judging me for eating foods I used to be allergic to”. I realized that the magical event I had wished for my whole life had happened, and yet my emotional experiences weren’t keeping pace. Food freedom is something that everyone should get to experience, but there is no one event or circumstance that will give it to you. After I learned that I could eat whatever I wanted, I realized I still did not have food freedom. I had self- judgement, and that didn’t magically go away along with the food allergies. This made me realize that food freedom is not the ability to eat any foods that you want; it is the ability to eat what you want, when you want, without judging yourself. And this freedom can only be achieved by letting go of the thoughts that weigh you down.
Joseph Bartolone is a Registered Dietitian with Bright Road Recovery. His work with individuals seeking to heal their relationship with food and their bodies is informed by his own experiences as well as a deep desire to create a safe and accepting environment for his patients. See his bio on our website to read more.