Access to Healthy Food Is a Privilege in Eating Disorder Recovery
When I finally made the decision a couple of years ago to heal from my lifelong battle with anorexia, one lesson eating disorder recovery taught me is that access to healthy food is a privilege. As I obsessed about the nutrition and ingredients of whatever I consumed—tabulating each item's sodium, carbohydrate, and refined sugar content—it dawned on me that not everyone can afford to be as selective or meticulous about the foods they eat.
While I scoured the grocery aisles for the freshest local produce, organic almond milk, and gluten-free pasta made from lentils, some people just tried to survive on the most basic necessities. In the depths of my eating disorder, this had not even occurred to me, but the more I healed, the more eating disorder recovery taught me that access to healthy food is a privilege, and I need to be conscious of the effect this can have on others—both in the United States and across the globe.
Here Are the Facts About the Privilege of Healthy Food
More than 820 million human beings around the world experience starvation or malnourishment, based on data from the World Health Organization.1 The people who tend to be the most impacted by hunger are those in economically depressed nations or marginalized communities, but this does not always take the form of emaciated children in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa (although it certainly can). In the U.S. alone, an estimated 19 million people in low-income neighborhoods live more than one to 10 miles from a supermarket with no reliable transportation to drive there.2
This situation is known as being in a food desert, and it's characterized by minimal access to nutritious food which means ultra-processed, artificial ingredients are the only available options. In that case, malnourishment often does not lead to emaciation, but to obesity, since people are forced to sustain themselves on empty calories without the nutrients their bodies require.3 But whether the issue is a starving family in Ethiopia or a pre-diabetic single mother in an urban food desert, the systemic root cause is the same.
There is a direct relationship between economics and healthy eating—those who cannot afford to plan their meals around nutrition, versus those who shop at Whole Foods with their plant-based smoothies and organic protein bars in hand. I do not want to come across as someone who minimizes the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet here. I adore fruits and vegetables. My lunches usually consist of some quinoa bowl variation. And I would not be shocked if an avocado tree grew in my stomach.
In other words, I am conscientious about how I fuel this body of mine, but I am aware this is a luxury. The food decisions that some people make are not based on the quality of ingredients because, for them, it's pure sustenance—a matter of survival. Eating disorder recovery has taught me that access to healthy food is a privilege, and it's a lesson I cannot overlook.
- World Health Organization, "World Hunger Is Still Not Going Down after Three Years, and Obesity Is Still Growing." July 15, 2019.
- United States Department of Agriculture, "Food Access Research Atlas." October 31, 2019.
- University of Texas at San Antonio, "Those with Inadequate Access to Food Likely to Suffer from Obesity." January 23, 2019.
Schurrer, M. (2020, March 17). Access to Healthy Food Is a Privilege in Eating Disorder Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, October 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2020/3/access-to-healthy-food-is-a-privilege-in-eating-disorder-recovery
Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
It's a very spiritual connective way of living when you take the time to be grateful for the luxuries you have that others do not.
I'm not able to waste any food due to guilt. I grew up with the mantra that "there are starving people in africa."
Yet no one bothered to mention the hungry people down the street! Everyone is deserving of healthy nutrition. It's really sad this isn't the case. Spreading awareness and advocating (like you have done) and making sure to not waste food are things we can all do.
I dont think you meant it this way, but since I know the guilt layer that can often live in us around food, I just wanted to add that if you have this luxury use it!
After a 12yr battle with my anorexia, I'm trying to recover again! This time I'm faceing new and unique challenges. Emotionally I feel more ready than ever before. Physically I have managed to get to a healthy weight in the last few months.
However, the amount of food I require now to maintain is ridiculous. I quit my job in March to go to a day program, but then they all went virtual! Part of the reason I like programs is they give you food. I have great insurance and an HSA card from my dad's job. But that's not going to help me right now. I cant even see my doctor in person.
I've run out of money due to eating so much. I have a big box of cheerios and some almond milk for the next two days.
Due to my ED issues I cant face begging for food or money from anyone. I have 4 grocery stores around me but I cant buy any food!
I cant ask my parents for any more money right now because they let me live rent free in an apartment. I have enough to pay my bills and that's it.
Unfortunately people with eds are just regular people too. So that means every economical background. Not everyone can afford to get better or eat the sustained large amounts during the two years of rebound high metabolism. Or they end up having to use fast food places like you stated, and end up staying malnourished.
I will just say, thank god I'm no longer orthorexic!! Because that means I can sustain on cheerios for a while.
Please keep fighting to spread awareness! Eating disorders are sometimes stigmatized as "mostly white or rich people," but I am neither, and I wonder if this is in part due to some people not being able to afford treatment or even getting diagnosed, or that BED is often hidden due to stigmatization.
It's really sad that people dont always realise you can be malnourished at any weight! Everyone needs good food no matter what weight you are.
It's really unfortunate that I will likely relapse this time due to not being able to afford food for the first time in my life. I need to work on my timing with things!
Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment and feedback. You are absolutely right, eating disorders are so often stigmatized as a white person's issue that people of color are frequently overlooked or excluded from treatment access. I am so sorry to hear this has been your experience, but you are brave to reach out and voice your struggles. Your body deserves adequate nutrition—is there a local food bank in your area perhaps? If you feel alone or overwhelmed in the midst of ED recovery, The HealthyPlace Eating Disorders Community page (https://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders) has a list of resources to look into, and our Mental Health Hotlines page (https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer…) has numbers to call if you need support or assistance. I know it can be difficult, but please continue to reach out.
This is such an honest, and insightful read that everyone could benefit from -- not just those in ED recovery. We can be so quick to take all of our healthy, nutritious options for granted. Right now is a very interesting time and many of us are realizing just what luxuries we truly have. Taking care of our bodies, our health is so important, but realizing how much we have available to us is absolutely something to be thankful for. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful feedback! You are absolutely right—now is the time to practice both gratitude and generosity as a culture. We have the unique opportunity to be thankful for the privilege it is to keep our bodies healthy, while looking out for those in our communities who do not have that same access to nutritious, wholesome foods.