“We Can’t Just ‘Quit’ Food”—and Why That’s Okay

A woman in a home kitchen with a plate of food

When eating disorder recovery is compared to substance use recovery, a sharp distinction is often drawn: You can’t quit or give up food, vowing to never touch it again. You can’t cold-turkey it with a pledge of sobriety.

That is to say, the human body doesn’t need alcohol or drugs in the way it needs food. Eating disorder or not, we all need food to survive. It’s one of the few can’t-live-without, most basic human needs. And those recovering from eating disorders need it, too, to heal from their mental illnesses. No matter your restricting, bingeing, or purging history, you do need to eat.

Eating is integral to the process of eating disorder recovery in ways that drinking or using are not part of substance recovery. To assume that recovery would be easier if this were not the case is, of course, an inaccurate oversimplification of the complexity of issues with alcohol and drugs, but the analogy does underscore a reality specific to eating disorder recovery: You face food every day, multiple times per day. You sit in the discomfort of eating a portion right for you, then the discomfort that often follows, then the discomfort that may come with knowing you will do it again. Soon.

Especially in early recovery, this can sound overwhelming. It might sound unfair, like you’ll never catch a break given this biological necessity. And when restricting, bingeing, or purging have long marked your relationship with food, it surely sounds hard, if not downright impossible.

It does take some serious practice.

But that’s where the unavoidable nature of food might actually favor this recovery. We have endless opportunities to practice—endless occasions to take a new shot at healing, even if just a bit at a time. Endless chances to redefine our relationship with food, to fit it better to the lives we want to lead. To try a new condiment or a different snack. To say “yes” to the option our body truly craves, and “no” to the micromanaging voice set on doing otherwise. We have endless invitations to show up to the table and our lives with our full, more authentic selves.

Eating disorders are exhausting, and as attractive as an abrupt, one-and-done solution of recovery may sound in the depths of it, there is power in each gradual shift. There is space for a new relationship to evolve. No, we don’t “get” to quit food for good, but we don’t need to. It’s not the enemy here.

Food isn’t “addictive” or “habit-forming” in the way substances are. It’s just food. Even in the most disordered relationships with food, food itself is not the problem; it’s the disordered relationship that is. The way that your sickness has given food so much power is not your fault. But it’s not food’s fault, either.

Food can be food again. Your experience with it can be free from the “good” or “bad” and “vice” or “virtue” labels attached to it. Your relationship with it can develop and unfold in recovery if you allow it to. It can be redefined, a meal or a snack at a time, until all foods fit.

Perhaps someday eating will be mere background noise to your daily life, the backseat to the parts that bring you real joy and meaning. Perhaps it will be a part that gives you joy. Perhaps on some distant day in the future, you’ll slide up to the table for the umpteenth time and an otherwise very basic, ordinary moment will be a stunning reminder of how far you’ve come.

It is in each of these day-to-day food moments that we heal. We actively put our recovery into effect each time we sit down to eat. Our next meal is our second or third or billionth chance, and it’s here for us to take.

Let’s take it.

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