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Forced Starvation, The Flu, and Intuitive Eating…Lessons Learned

February 16, 2008

I’ve had a rough 30 days and I’m just coming out of my funk. I’m in my busy season at work. I came down with a nasty case of the flu that put me out of work for over a week, and I had a coworker pretend to befriend me and then try to implicate me in her illegal activities when she was caught and fired (thankfully, everyone knew she was lying about my involvement). I’m fresh on the other side of that last one so my back is still sore from the figurative knife that was plunged into it.

This varied life drama has left me in an incredibly thoughtful state of mind and because of my recent terrible bout with the flu and the flu-induced starvation that accompanied it, I want to write about how the experience of starving again brought back to light some old demons. And how this time, I was much more rational when it came to dealing with those demons and overcoming them.

If any of you have read Starving a Fat Child (Part One), you’ll remember that I was placed on an 800 calorie a day starvation diet at the age of 8. Surviving that period in my life is one of the most horribly vivid memories of my childhood and I have an incredibly powerful starvation response mechanism forcefully activated and ingrained in my being because of it. The flu reawakened the strength of that mechanism.

My case of the flu was intense. It started the way a flu usually starts with body aches and increasingly severe exhaustion. I had three days of feeling awful, but mostly being able to function, then two days of horrible headaches, body aches, more exhaustion, loss of appetite, insomnia, coughing, fever, sore throat…yeah, the whole gamut of symptoms. On the sixth day the true hell began. I couldn’t keep down anything. Not a swallow of water. Not a sip of tea. And all the while I was running a high fever, had a migraine of epic proportions, and I couldn’t keep down any medicine to control either. I had two full days of that (days six and seven). I was severely dehydrated and I vowed that if by day eight I wasn’t able to keep down any fluids then I was calling my sis-in-law to take me to the hospital. Thankfully, that never had to happen because on day eight I kept down a cup of water and I slowly and vigilantly began to rehydrate myself.

Day nine is when my appetite came back with a vengeance. I was still incapable of really eating anything and the smell of oily chicken broth in soups turned my stomach, but my body wanted to eat. That old mania came back; it was the same mania I felt after being starved on a diet. The differences this time were that my body had been unable to keep down food so I physically could not eat. During the forced dieting times (and as a child they were definitely forced upon me–I was not given a choice–if only parents were really aware of how they are harming their children doing this…), I was perfectly able to keep food down, but it was withheld from me.

So I listened to my body as I recovered this time. I felt like I could devour the world, but I didn’t. I actually ate very little, but I had classic “eyes bigger than your tummy” symptoms, as my father would say. First off, after fluids, my body wanted carbs–it seriously badly wanted starchy carbs. So I ate a baked potato. My body was happy and my tummy was very full. Later that day I ventured to eat a pizza bagel. I felt satisfied and once again full, but my Neanderthal starvation response was still in high gear. It screamed at me. FEED ME MORE! But I was full. I couldn’t possibly fit another thing in my stomach so I didn’t eat again until I was actually hungry again.

On day ten I was still a bit queasy and the starvation response was still kicking. On that day my body wanted fruit, and some protein along with more carbs. I ate an apple for lunch–that’s it. It completely satisfied me until dinner time and I don’t think I’d have felt better eating more even though that’s what my mind was telling me while my tummy was telling me I was full. That evening I ate an egg, bacon, cheese, onion, and bagel sandwich as eggs felt like they were the easiest to digest in the protein department at that moment. I almost finished the whole sandwich and I went to bed feeling nourished for the first time in almost two weeks. Still, I felt like I could devour the world.

On day eleven I ate some white meat chicken and another baked potato, nothing else. And on day twelve, my first day back in the world again, I met my sis-in-law for a short shopping excursion to a fabric store and then we went out to lunch. I wanted to order the whole menu. It didn’t feel like anything could satisfy my hunger. I ordered an appetizer (which, other than a small salad, I rarely do), the chicken and bean Mexican eggrolls. I ate one whole eggroll. I also ordered a burger and fries. I had a mean craving for a hunk of red meat (I’m thinking iron replenishment here as I have iron poor blood normally and when I crave red meat, I usually eat it because it means my iron is a bit low). I wanted to dig into that burger and just devour it. I only made it half way through and I was absolutely stuffed. I brought the remainder of the appetizer and burger home with me. I still felt like I could eat the world at this point, but all I wanted for dinner was yogurt, so I ate yogurt and that satisfied me.

It took me one more day after that to start to eat more normally and soon my body felt like it could handle veggies again. Still, it took at least one more full week before that eat-the-world feeling finally went away. I’m glad I listened to my body this time. I ate what my body wanted and when I did my body responded by healing much more quickly than I thought was possible after being so sick.

Please realize how intense this Neanderthal starvation response was after only being off food for less than a week. Now imagine what that response was like when I was forced off food for months and years as a growing child. As an adult I’ve come a long way in recognizing what foods my body wants and why and making sure that my body’s needs are met. As a child I didn’t have those skills and no doctor or diet pusher ever tried to teach them to me. This flu actually reminded me how lucky I am that I know I will never purposely starve my body again or allow anyone to convince me that I should. I haven’t felt that devour-the-world feeling in more than a decade because I’ve provided my body what it wants when it wants it. And my body thanks me daily for doing so.

When I went back to work, I stopped and bought donuts for the entire office so they could help me celebrate, first, the fact that I was back at work because I was so sick of daytime TV (I suffered through the Oprah child mutilating bariatric surgery show and tons of diet commercials, although I was lucky enough to catch Fatgrrl when she was interviewed about BED), and second, that I could eat almost normally again. And it had to be donuts because, you know, we fat folks do nothing but sit on the couch and eat baby-flavored donuts all day.

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