Indulging While Training: Learning to Enjoy Food without a Reward

Recovering from an eating disorder is weird. It’s not like curing a disease or overcoming an addiction. To live, you must eat, so recovery is often a lifelong battle to find balance in a healthy relationship with food. Although never clinically diagnosed, I was able to overcome a variety of eating disorders through fitness and the CHAARG community. I try to share my experiences and opinions in hopes of helping those who might struggle with disordered eating.

Even though I would say I overcame my eating disorder over a year ago, I still struggle with orthorexic thoughts, especially working as a trainer in the fitness industry. It amazes me how many trainers still associate exercise with punishment.

On the other end of the spectrum, I see many trainers only associate indulgences with rewards. For example, only eating “bad” foods or “cheat” meals on days that involved high intensity exercise, like long runs or heavy lifting days. I noticed this behavior in myself, and I am working towards overcoming it.

When training for my first half marathon last summer, I learned that I would be ravenous after a anything above 6 miles. If I didn’t eat enough calories that day, then the next day I would be even more hungry. To try to satisfy my metabolism, I began treating myself to donuts after my long runs. It became the perfect Saturday: long run, work, get donuts, relax the rest of the day. I loved it, and it gave me confidence to enjoy these extravagant donuts (Glazed & Infused baby — the buttermilk bar is to die for!) for the first time in years.

After my half marathon, I ate 6 donuts from Stan’s. I had never felt more accomplished that day, from running 13.1 miles AND eating 6 donuts — savoring every bite without guilt.

The problem with “earning” your treats means that if you stop that regime, you may feel like you don’t deserve treats. I decided to take a break from long runs after the race. I remember missing my Saturday donuts, but I was too afraid to indulge without earning it.

A donut is roughly 200-300 calories — it’s honestly not that much. Sure, the ingredients aren’t the most nutritious, but everyone needs fats and carbs to survive each day. One donut a week is not going to hurt anyone, especially if you’re exercising regularly.

Still, I sometimes find myself trying to plan treats according to my workouts instead of eating what sounds good in the moment. This is where I’m learning the importance of intuitive eating and hunger cues. I can meal prep and plan my food all I want, but it’s important to listen to your appetite to maintain your sanity. If I tell myself I’ll eat a donut on Saturday after a workout, then come Saturday, a donut doesn’t sound that appealing, then I’ll feel like I’m missing an opportunity to indulge. I almost end up restricting myself further by telling my body, “Eat this now because if you do it tomorrow, you’ll regret it!” That’s just ridiculous.

I also still struggle with portions of treats. I’m more willing to splurge on a designer donut (donuts are my fave dessert, in case you couldn’t tell) than buy a 6-pack of donuts from the grocery store. Sure, the designer donuts are probably way better, but purchasing 6 donuts makes me fear a binge. I know some people say “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to keeping snacks/junk food/dessert in your house, but I personally don’t think that encourages positive eating. This is a sign that we believe we lack self-control, and that can have consequences in other areas of our lives too.

Today, I had a weird craving for graham crackers dipped in milk. One of my favorite snacks as a kid, I probably would have thought it was healthy back then considering how much shit I ate regularly. Still, avoiding labeling foods “good” or “bad,” I was actually headed to the grocery store that evening so I picked up a box of graham crackers — the sugar-coated cinnamon ones at that! I enjoyed a couple with a glass of almond milk. Tasting of sugar-sweet childhood memories, reminding me of all the times my mom encouraged me to have a glass of milk and a snack before bed, I realized I have come a long way in my eating disorder recovery.

There will always be some bad days of guilt, but small victories over a long period of time add up. Looking back, you can realize all the small progress was actually a lot of progress. Focus on each day, loving yourself a little more, and you can build healthy relationships with food.

++ Mary K

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