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 being somewhere in which I knew 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 pre-determined, 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 that I know I am safe.
My life began to be 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 a lot of the judgement around the foods I ate was not coming from other people, rather it was coming from myself. I saw that patient’s 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. I noticed that they were both focused on the feeling that there is something wrong with me. I noticed that avoiding foods and perfect eating were prevalent in both for different reasons. I noticed that food was viewed as something negative, 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 noticed that both people that struggle with food allergies and people that struggle with eating disorders do not have something wrong with them. They are actually both very good at coping in a way that they know in order to survive. But just the coping mechanism used was not sustainable.
Eventually, after about 20 years of being allergic to foods, something happened. I got an allergy test at the doctors one more time at the age of 30. The test revealed that I was no longer allergic to all of the foods that I had to avoid for most of my life. Peanuts, wheat, soy, dairy were the main allergies. When I got the test results, I questioned the doctor and told him that the test was probably false. 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 through reintroducing and enjoying the foods I was unable to have for so long I finally felt what I have been missing most of my life when experiencing food: gratitude. I realized that the foods I enjoy now are all of the foods that I could not have before. 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.
I remember the first time that I reintroduced a food that I was previously allergic to. It felt like it was a life changing experience. It felt like all my problems had gone away, it felt like I can finally be normal. However, after a while of being able to eat the foods that I was previously allergic to, I started to realize that this had become my new normal. The feeling that there was something wrong with me did not magically go away when I started to eat foods that I could not eat in the past. The feeling was still there, but the way I reacted to it started to change. The thoughts changed from people are judging me for eating the foods I am not 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 nothing had changed.
Food freedom is a concept that everyone should strive for, but there is no magical event or circumstance that will give it to you. Not until after I was given a magical gift to eat whatever I wanted, did I realize that I still did not have food freedom. I still had the judgement that I put on myself, and it didn’t magically go away. 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.