How Travel Saved my Relationship with Food

Warning: This story deals with the topic of restrictive eating patterns that could be potentially triggering.

In the year before I moved to Rome, I was obsessed with eating in the most “clean” way possible. It was the year of my glorious discovery of kombucha and learning that other greens besides iceberg lettuce existed. I lived in an arugula and kale-tinted dream. I meal prepped after I got back from half-marathon training sessions, then treated myself to diet, protein-packed ice cream. 

And it was good! I never really paid attention to nutrition before, and I felt like I was improving my health by eating in this way. My skin was clearer, I was running faster, and I felt lighter.

And while this was good in the beginning, this way of living became more than just a new interest – it started to seep into my life in destructive ways.

Like the time someone brought cookies to work – an innocent and totally sweet gesture. Despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten that day, I couldn’t stand the thought of having one. Or knowing that I would be going to a meeting with pizza later that evening, so I would intentionally only allow myself baby carrots before. Or getting invited to ice cream with friends and panicking if going out with them was worth the calories and what the scale would say in the morning.

There were other effects, too. When I went home to Chicago, I struggled with my family’s relationship with eating and felt isolated as everyone enjoyed my former favorite food of deep dish pizza. I got on the scale twice a day. I forced myself to vomit. I stopped getting my period.

It was clear that this was starting to harm my everyday life. All I could think about was food, or lack thereof, and how much working out I could do would burn off what I was consuming. I looked at food and saw calories.

Restriction was constantly on the back of my mind.

Then I began to travel.

Before even getting on the plane, I was scared traveling would change how I looked – the ever-present worry of gaining weight back was on my mind. I googled “how not to gain weight while traveling” and tried to read tips from people in similar positions. It didn’t help – I was still preoccupied with it.

But things began to change, partially out of necessity and partially out of my desire to experience global culture through food.

At Mauerpark in Berlin, I knew I would forever be angry at myself if I missed the opportunity to try currywurst. So I did. A friend took me out to get Indian food in Kreuzberg – and happy to have been invited, I tried some Malai Kofta.

It was shaky in the beginning- I had these foods and, get this, really really liked them! But then, there came this guilt afterwards. A sort of shame that I was ‘letting myself go.’

After Berlin, I spent a week on a boat sailing in Croatia.

The food came from Aunt V, the onboard chef and sister to the captain. Here, options were limited… you ate what was served on the boat. But V, who you could spot in the minuscule ship kitchen, sometimes cooking at 3 am, made food with so much care.

As I ate a slice of bread with soup on the ship, I would sometimes get a glimmer of my former way of thinking. Is this worth the calories? Anything that wasn’t a vegetable felt almost wrong to me. Then, sure enough, sweet Aunt V would come around, purely delighted in the fact that we enjoyed what she had worked so hard to make.

I was still preoccupied with food to an extent – each meal time felt like a little hurdle I’d have to mentally jump over, but I think my desire to explore other cultures began to outweigh my desire to look a certain way.

And I felt good: I swam in the Adriatic, walked miles with the classic traveler look of  “a backpack on both my front and back,” and climbed thousands of feet up to a cliff. And perhaps more of an accomplishment to me than that hike: enjoying an ice cream cone later without massive guilt.

By the time I arrived at my final destination of Rome, about two months after I left the US, things started getting easier.

I enrolled in a class about the history of food in Italy, where I’d go on field trips to sample dishes at markets and restaurants. Yes, food is for giving your body energy – but as this class and my traveling were showing me – food is a way to literally taste history and culture, too.

Now, I’ve been eating *gasp!* the pasta and bread that I used to just call ‘carbs’ and not dare to get. I’ve tasted regional olive oil, sampled homemade bakery items, and enjoyed group dinners with my roommates at our kitchen table. I’m not feeling lonely and conflicted at every meal time anymore. And I really think that traveling was key in helping me to get here.

Travel allowed me not only a change in location but a change in mindset. It gave me incentives to eat outside the food that I considered “clean,” sometimes out of necessity, like when I was sailing.

I eat things that are in season when possible (still a huge fresh arugula and kale stan), I enjoy an occasional gelato from my favorite spot, and go running along the Tiber river on nice days.

And, maybe most importantly, travel allowed me to accept myself in a way that I was trying to achieve by dieting.

Each accomplishment I had along the way, whether it was making friends at a hostel or speaking the local language to buy a train ticket, gave me a boost of confidence. I found interests – like writing about art and travel – that weren’t centered around altering my body to fit an unattainable mode. I began finding worth in who I was as a person, not in the size I fit in.

I love travel. And I love food! And right now, I love that I’m in a place that I can accept myself and am lucky enough to enjoy both those things.

Note: while I displayed patterns of highly restrictive eating that negatively affected my life, I was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder. This is my personal story about my own relationship with food and travel – and not a substitute for professional help.

It’s impossible for me to fully understand the issues that people with different eating disorders face and I do not want to speak over the experiences of anyone else. But, if you’re reading down here, I just want to take a moment to say that you (yes, you!) are totally worthy of enjoying a full life.

For more information on EDs you can check the National Eating Disorder website or (for US residents) reach the helpline at (800) 931-2237.

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