Feeding an eating disorder


In July 2019, I tasted dal, the South Asian equivalent of chicken soup, for the first time in four years. The red flat oval lenses, eerily similar to the microscopic imaging of red blood cells my anemic body was missing, floated in a spicy broth that thickened after cooking for hours in a metal cauldron.

During my years without dal, I had started to demonize food, to the point where I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. The dal I ate that day was prepared for me at Monte Nido, a residential inpatient treatment home for adults recovering from eating disorders on the north coast of Long Island. I did not have cooking privileges so I was not allowed to enter the area or even peek inside, but if there was someone with the power to pass besides authority, it was Alyson Crispi, the chef of Monte Nido, 46, a native of Long Island.

Chef Aly, who usually kept the kitchen of her life, brought me into her workspace one day, where she made curative concoctions: quinoa salads and paninis with finely grated pears, a drizzle of honey and creamy peanut butter. “What spices do you taste? She asked, bringing a ladle of dal to my mouth. My instinct was to step back. After almost dying of malnutrition and severely low body weight a month ago, the last thing I wanted was some extra calories. But then I hid this irrational thought in the back of my mind and leaned forward. As Chef Aly put the hot aromatic dish in my mouth, I felt like a contestant in a cooking competition in reality, elevating the spices – cloves, cilantro, cumin, turmeric – that I could identify by the smell and taste.

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chef aly baking for the residents of monte nido inpatient house in glen cove, ny

Chef Aly cooks for the residents of the Monte Nido inpatient house in Glen Cove, NY. “I bake my banana chocolate chip bread at least once a month, it’s everyone’s favorite food,” she says. “They smell it when I cook it.”

Courtesy of the author

When I returned home from hospital treatment in the fall of 2019, I thought I was at the end of my recovery. I had all the evidence I needed to know that eating, frequently and in a variety of ways, drastically increased my quality of life, and that the weight gain, which I still had to pursue, was neither debilitating nor unsightly. I was proud of myself as having gained over 30 pounds; I packed clothes, moved undisturbed, thought clearly, and felt something other than numbness. As I followed a meal plan and hit the gym, I started to feel confident in my ability to eat and move again.

But the second week of March 2020, everything changed. For many, the pandemic resurrected the fictionalized concept of the kitchen as the heart of the home, but for me, it blocked my steep path to recovery from near-fatal anorexia nervosa. As people were encouraged to take shelter in their homes, the kitchen became my battleground. Even reaching the perfect pantry became impossible as my go-to ‘safe foods’ – items I knew the nutrition facts for and had eaten enough times not to stir up anxiety – were ripped off in the latest efforts. to store food in the event of a shortage.

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Without weekly weigh-ins, meetings with my therapist and doctor, and occasional check-ups with my registered dietitian who works full-time at one of the hardest hit hospitals for admitted COVID patients, I was forced to trace how I originally began to heal my relationship with food.

two large organic soft-boiled eggs and a Hannah roasted sweet potato on spinach, one of my favorite breakfasts

Two large organic soft-boiled eggs and a Hannah roasted sweet potato on spinach, one of my favorite breakfasts.

Courtesy of the author

I thought back to my time with Chef Aly and the others who cooked for us during the treatment, the people who gave us the chance to literally put our eating disorders to sleep. These chefs are never publicized on television, nor credited with any role in treating eating disorders, but they and the food they heal us with – its taste, texture, temperature, and the food it takes. ‘It provides – feel just as essential to recovery as dietitians. , doctors and therapists.

Chef Aly told me that she was inspired to heal through food by the woman her parents hired to cook for her grandmother, who had cancer, when she was in fifth grade. In 2001, she attended the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, a culinary arts program focused on cooking for sick people and promoting wellness through nutrition. After graduation, she cooked professionally as a private chef for wealthy people with medically prescribed diets, before joining the Glen Cove site in Monte Nido in April 2019. Chef Aly says the job was “ of divine inspiration ”and she jumped at“ the opportunity to cook for the welfare of the people. While she hasn’t suffered from an eating disorder herself, Chef Aly says she’s not immune to diet culture. “I’ve been exposed to all these different fad diets, seen friends and family dabbling in them.” Since working at Monte Nido her mantra has been: “I can give my body whatever I want. This is totally ok.

In treatment centers, the emphasis is on the principles of intuitive eating. This philosophy asserts that food is not only fuel – its consumption is only a means to an end, the alleviation of hunger – but that it can be used to comfort, satisfy and promote socialization. “The cuisine here is based on intuitive eating,” explains Chef Aly. We were given snack menus and told to choose three a day, depending on what we wanted to experience. There were sweet options, like milk and cookies, as well as savory offerings, like wheat crackers with string cheese.

one of my first attempts at cooking in the kitchen after returning from monte nido in september 2019 was my take on the moroccan quinoa bowl, a favorite dish prepared by chef aly

One of my first attempts to cook in the kitchen after returning from Monte Nido in September 2019. It was my take on the Moroccan Quinoa Bowl, a favorite dish prepared by Chef Aly. Still struggling with fear foods, I swapped the quinoa for some cauliflower in rice.

Courtesy of the author

Early in my recovery I was obsessed with new flavors and used cooking as therapy. My new favorite recipe – the first dinner I ate at Monte Nido – was a mix of Moroccan spicy quinoa with dried currants, flaked almonds and chickpeas. But during the pandemic, I became apathetic about food. With the universal upheaval of an impending election and an airborne virus, I no longer had the mental hunger or curiosity to rediscover flavors and textures. This apathy, combined with my ability to ignore signals of hunger and fullness after years of resisting my body’s needs, allowed me to easily feed my eating disorder. I began to starve myself again, controlling my energy intake and my efforts to cope. I knew I wanted help, and a year after the pandemic started, I contacted a former recovery trainer from Monte Nido who became a licensed therapist for twice-weekly therapy.

I also reconnected with Chef Aly, who immediately understood my renewed aversion to eating. Before finding her, I was constantly receiving unwelcome and irrelevant advice from family and friends on how to eat. (One counselor went so far as to suggest that I eat the exact same foods as them “until I learn to fend for myself.”) Chef Aly reminded me of how I coped with the treatment. when I was shaken by a new variety. granola or surprised with Oreos instead of my chosen protein bar at snack time. “Think of the real world: Brown sugar tarts are out of stock at the supermarket. You have to decide what to buy instead, ”said Chef Aly. Being able to make that decision is part of the recovery process, she told me.

I am still working in this direction now. “A big part of recovery is being able to eat freely,” says Dr. Colleen Reichmann, a registered clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders. And as I continue to struggle to cook without measuring, to eat the amount I should, and to participate in family-style meals, it is in the kitchen that I can see the woman I know I can become. A woman thirsty for strong aromatics and flavors, the tingling of spices on her tongue.

strawberry picking east in North Fork, Long Island opening weekend, June 2021

Strawberry picking in East North Fork, Long Island, opening weekend, June 2021. Picking produce on the farm is one of the ways I try to practice mindfulness and help myself. anchor since I was diagnosed with anorexia in 2015.

Courtesy of the author

Chef Aly was the first person to reach out and lead me into the kitchen. Although I haven’t tasted dal since that July day, I still can smell traces of it when my mother cooks. And when those flavors hit my nose, I can see the healthy woman I was becoming as Chef Aly and the healthy woman I can still be today. So until I am at this point in my recovery, I will stay in the kitchen because as long as I can see her, I know that someday I can be her too.

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