How a Nutritionist Cured Me of My Taco Fears

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

“I swear, you are the only person in America who doesn’t know how to eat a taco. You are a statistical impossibility.”

It was meant to be a funny comment, and I did think it was funny; I laughed and took a bigger-than-usual bite of my taco shell-less turkey meat as if to say, “I eat! I’m normal!”

But my good friend Katie, with whom I had been dining at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Manhattan, didn’t realize her joke also stung. For as long as I could remember, I was the friend who dismembered her tacos (and burgers and sandwiches) while others dug right in. Katie’s words served as the catalyst I needed to finally seek out real, honest recovery for a decades-long eating disorder.

I used to skip meals and sneak out of bed at midnight to do jumping jacks in the basement. There was a time when I embraced the fact that dizziness and a lack of mental clarity were penalties you had to pay to be underweight, frail, and delicate. I accepted those terms to get closer to non-existence; closer to perfection.

I’ve maintained the same healthy weight for 15 years and I no longer return a plate of broccoli at a restaurant when I detect butter in it. That doesn’t mean I savor the taste of butter — it still makes me cringe for reasons I’m working on understanding. But when it comes to enjoying all foods with reckless abandon, I threw in that towel long ago.

Most people assume anorexia is cured by weight gain. But eating disordered thinking lingers in the brain like an unwelcome houseguest who pockets your china when you aren’t looking.

I don’t starve myself. But on family Taco Tuesday night — or when I dine with friends — I’m the only one who doesn’t eat actual tacos. If everything is going well in my life, I might eat one taco. But when stressful events occur and I feel out of control, the ghost of my eating disorder reappears. Instead of programming me to skip all food (which years of therapy would never allow me to do), it whispers in my ear: Maintain control. Eat clean. Be clean.

Eating disordered thinking lingers in the brain like an unwelcome houseguest who pockets your china when you aren’t looking.

A few months ago, during a stressful move, I noticed the overwhelming sense of calm I felt while scrambling an egg on our family’s pizza night. I noticed it again on Taco Tuesday when I shot a plate of shells a dirty look and dug into plain turkey meat with avocado. The entire week had been a hellish storm of realtor appointments, plumbing issues, and freaking out over where my daughter would attend first grade. But the serenity of so-called “clean eating” alarmed me most of all because it was a sign that I was becoming obsessed again with food.

“You’re losing too much weight,” my worried husband said after we put the kids to bed. “Why didn’t you eat the taco shell?”

“Because taco shells are disgusting,” I said. And then, the most dishonest words — words designed to reduce anyone who dares to help you to ashes: “You obviously don’t know about healthy eating.”

But this wasn’t my husband’s first trip to the eating disorder rodeo.

“Do you need to find a different therapist?” he asked, ignoring my vexation.

After storming off to sulk, I returned with an apology and an actual solution. Therapy teaches me about my ED triggers, but I needed a nutritionist who could help make food enjoyable.

The first time I met with a nutritionist at ED-180 Treatment Center, she asked me to talk about the foods that I consider off-limits — and to describe those foods.

My list went a little something like the following: Taco shells are junk, white potatoes are heavy, pizza is bad. And on and on.

My nutritionist looked up from her notebook. “Do you realize how many negative words you used to describe foods that can keep you alive? Your body is smarter than you think. It knows just what to do with a taco shell — same as it does with ‘good’ brown rice.”

And that’s when I broke down and cried for 10 minutes. Admitting you have a fear is difficult, but pretending for years that you aren’t afraid — fooling yourself into believing you’re eating “clean” and that it’s beneficial — is even worse. Once you realize you’ve been betraying yourself and that your way of thinking isn’t reality, you feel lost.

Do you realize how many negative words you used to describe foods that can keep you alive?

And then my nutritionist said something I’ll never forget — words I wrote down and refer back to constantly. “Food doesn’t have an agenda. Food is there FOR you — not against you.”

It took a few sessions to start to understand — and to question — how I could be afraid of something like olive oil. Hold an adorable olive in your hand and the thought of fearing it becomes absurd. Same with a taco shell. Whole kernel corn. Baking soda. The folic acid I sought out in supplements while pregnant. When you reduce these foods to their parts, there’s nothing scary about most of them.

I still don’t love taco shells. But I eat them now because fearing them is a pain I can’t accept in my life. And I no longer lie to myself: Taco meat and fillings are way better with the shell.