How a diary can become your best friend when healing from an eating disorder
by Jane Cook
Keeping a journal can be mentally healthy, but it can also heal physical wounds. In a fascinating study by the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a group of participants were asked to write about traumatic events they’d experienced, for 20 minutes a day, delving deeply into their real feelings and thoughts. A second group was also asked to keep a journal, but not write about their feelings or thoughts in it. After two weeks, researchers took skin biopsies from the participants, and took regular photographs of how their wounds healed. It was found that 76 per cent of the participants in the group who had written about their trauma in-depth had fully healed.
A food journal helps you see patterns
When it comes to dealing with an eating disorder, writing can help the healing process by making you aware of unusual thoughts and habits, but it has many other benefits too. I used to have issues with food without thinking that I did. It sounds strange, but I’d eat food and feel guilty for small amounts of calories I was eating in my very strict diet. Only when my psychologist suggested keeping a food journal did I start to see some interesting patterns. I was feeling guilty, but the foods I was eating weren’t even bad for me! I wasn’t even eating a lot of food in general, yet I always thought I was overeating.
I started to note important feelings, such as physical symptoms of being malnourished. These included dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. When I could see these in black and white in my food journal, I started to understand how much I was hurting myself, instead of helping my body. This helped me begin my journey towards a healthier diet.
Here are just a few ways that keeping a diary can be beneficial to anyone recovering from an eating disorder.
You improve your nutrition
You might think that you’re getting enough nutrients, but one way to check this is to write them down every day in a food journal. For instance, if you don’t get enough protein, this could lead to various health problems. You’ll realize you’re not getting enough of this important nutrient when you keep track of it. In this way, a food diary can establish a healthier, more balanced diet filled with essential nutrients like protein that prevent illness.
It’s amazing how empowered you’ll feel when you can see what nutrients need to be included in your diet on a daily basis to keep you feeling energetic and healthy.
Important: it’s essential to share your food diary with a health professional who has expertise in eating disorders, such as a dietitian.
Such a professional will be able to recognize that you’re under-eating in an unsafe way and gently help you get back on track to a more balanced diet.
I shared my food diary with my dietitian, who pointed out nutritional deficiencies as well as unhealthy behaviors I had towards food, such as having an irrational fear that all the foods I ate would make me put on weight. It was eye-opening for me to have these consultations with her. Taking time to reflect on my habits and disease gave me greater self-growth and spirituality. I felt more connected to my body and its purpose. This was essential to recover. My body was no longer this thing I hated, but something that could enable me to live a happy, healthy life.
You discover food allergies and intolerances
Life can be busy and if you’re rushing through meals without really being aware of how the food you’re eating is affecting you, you risk falling victim to food allergies. People who have eating disorders often experience new food allergies or the avoidance of food that they used to enjoy, as outlined in reports about anorexia nervosa. But logging your daily food intake isn’t enough – your food diary should contain information about your feelings and thoughts related to food. In this way, it should be more of a general diary.
During consultations with your dietitian, and/or therapist, you can uncover interesting insights into an unhealthy relationship to food that shows up as food avoidance or allergies. This can put a stop to dangerous diet habits, such as completely cutting out food groups. I used to cut out all dairy and carbs, thinking they were evil. I was always told as a child that carbs were what caused people to get fat, so I avoided them like they were made of poison.
I actually started to feel sick when I ate carbs, and somewhere along the line I told myself I was allergic to them. I even used that as an excuse when friends offered me something delicious to eat. I’d say “I’m allergic to carbs – my body can’t digest them.” It made them stop nagging me to eat. Keeping a diary and consulting with a dietitian helped me see that cutting out food groups can be dangerous and I was creating food intolerances to make me control my disease. And these behaviors were harmful to my health.
You destroy your illusions
Anorexia is filled with various illusions you might have about food and your body. For instance, you might look in the mirror and think you’re bigger than you actually are. You might tell your friends that you eat lots of healthy fruits and vegetables, and really believe you are, when you’re not achieving a healthy amount at all. By keeping track of what you really eat on a daily basis, and sharing this with your trusted health professional, you can see how you’re deluding yourself and risking health complications from not getting enough calories. You focus on facts instead of incorrect beliefs that could impact your recovery.
You note your body’s hunger signals
When anorexia develops it may cause you to avoid food and learn to ignore your body’s signals of hunger. Not eating much over a long period of time can actually cause your body to feel full when you’re not. To get your body’s signals back on track, it helps to keep a diary about your food and body. When you notice the times you eat, how much you eat, and how your body feels when you’re hungry, and share this regularly with your health professional, you can help yourself get back on track with a healthy diet.
You learn the difference between hunger and loneliness
Keeping a diary also helps you to identify and separate times when you feel hungry out of an emotional response, and to avoid overeating and the guilt that comes with it.
From personal experience, I restricted so many calories every day that I didn’t even notice when I felt nauseous or irritable from a lack of food. By writing down these physical and emotional symptoms, I gradually became aware of my body and how great I felt when I listened to its signals and ate something. Slowly, I started to see how much better my body was feeling. And, that was a sign that I was healing from my disorder and disordered thinking.
Use your diary to help yourself
Keeping a diary when you’re recovering from an eating disorder can help you learn to spot your body’s hunger signals. It also keeps you in tune with your unhealthy relationship with food so your diet can be less rigid and more balanced. Go on and write.
Jane is a freelance writer and editor. Her own personal challenges have driven her passion to explore how people can improve their health and well-being in their everyday life, and this has become the foundation of her work. She continues to keep a journal where she documents her thoughts, emotions and experiences of being a busy working mother.