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Making Food Feel Safe Again with an Eating Disorder Cookbook

For those who struggle with eating disorders, learning how to enjoy food again can be an emotional and painful process. A new cookbook, edited and written by people in recovery, aims to help with the journey.
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At first blush, Eating & Living: Recipes for Recovery may look like a lot of other healthy eating cookbooks out there, with colorful headings and lovely photography of bright greens and bubbling cheeses and delicious-yet-easy-to-prepare recipes like French pistou tomato soup or quick and easy salmon pasta. What makes this cookbook unique is it wasn't written by a great chef or TV personality: It was written by women recovering from eating disorders.


"I think there's a misconception that people with eating disorders don't like food, don't want to eat," says Francesca Baker, the book's author and editor. "But actually, that's not the case at all. They love food. In recovery, you want to eat and you find it difficult to. You need a helping hand."

Read More: When You're Both Overweight and Anorexic

The idea for the book originated in the hallways of an inpatient ward in London.Baker spent time hospitalized for her own eating disorder last year. To see her now, she's a vibrant young woman, with long dark hair and an unabashed honesty about her own struggles. She estimates that she has had an eating disorder for about 11 years and says she's still in recovery. Baker created the book with her peers from the hospital in mind. She and the other patients—most of whom were suffering from anorexia—would talk about the foods they used to love to eat before the onset of their eating disorders.

"There were so many conversations: 'Oh, I wish I could eat that again,'" Baker recalls.

Cooking and shopping for food were all a part of Baker's recovery program at the hospital. She and other patients went on field trips to a grocery store. The challenge was to find foods that felt "safe" to eat. Developing the cookbook, she says, she looked for foods and recipes that involve "normal, balanced food that anyone would eat."

Simply defined, anorexia nervosa is a serious illness, where pathological fears of food and weight gain lead to dangerously excessive weight loss. In the US, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and relapse after treatment is common.


One of the biggest challenges in treatment is the task of learning to eat again. Jess Reeve, a woman in her 20s, met Baker in the hospital after years of struggling with an eating disorder she didn't quite believe she had—one that eventually cost her her home, her job, and nearly her life at one point. "Something so rarely acknowledged in eating disorders [is that] food tastes good," Reeve says. "When I was acutely ill, all food tasted like ash. I resented by body for needing feeding and would have been happy never eating again."

In recovery, she says, it felt impossible for her to work on a meal plan with a dietician. She and Baker would "challenge" themselves with foods that could taste good "or remind us of good times as children."

When I was acutely ill, all food tasted like ash. I resented my body for needing feeding and would have been happy never eating again.

"As I began to feed my body again, I became aware of emotions other than hatred or guilt that came with food—comfort, pleasure, nostalgia," Reeve says. She notes that Baker's book goes beyond the idea that "'food is medicine' and recaptures some of what I know can be truly enjoyable about food—namely, sharing it with people and exploring different taste experiences."

The recipe Reeve contributed to the cookbook is a simple banana porridge, borne out of her recovery. "I was required to add a banana to my daily breakfast in order to progress in weight gain. To hide the fact—from myself—that I was eating more, I began to mash the banana into my porridge so that it looked like less on my tray."


The meal itself, and Reeve's process of trying to trick herself into eating a banana by hiding it, led to an unexpected revelation. "It came to me that this was what my parents used to make me for breakfast when I was younger. I connected to that experience as a happy memory, comforting and sustaining."

The most striking component of the cookbook is the stories that accompany each recipe. This was an important element for Baker, who wanted to rekindle the connections with food that go beyond nutrition: There's miso ramen that, as one contributor wrote, she made every day for dinner after coming home from her hospitalization. It was her way, she says, of taking care of herself. There's a vegan béchamel sauce that's a healthier take on another contributor's childhood love of cheese. There's a recipe for Vietnamese curry, called "The Vietnamese Chicken Curry That Made Sarah Cry," where the contributor recalls a happy memory of a bike trip in the mountains in Vietnam with her brother. Exhausted, delirious from the journey, they dined at a hole-in-wall with food so good that the author, Sarah, wept.

"Food is much more than a physical thing," says Baker. "There's always these nice stories behind it: 'My mom and I used to make this together."

Baker reached out to women all over the world to contribute to the cookbook, using social media, support groups, and recovery websites to get the word out. Many women talked of the significance of being able to eat foods they once considered bad or forbidden.


Tabitha Farrar, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, has been recovered for five years, and wrote her own book about her experience, Love Fat . Her contribution to the cookbook is cheese on toast. "Cheese on toast was one of my favorite snacks as a child and a teenager," she writes. "When I suffered from anorexia for ten years, I could not eat cheese, nor could I eat bread, so cheese on toast was a complete no-go area for me."

She continued to avoid cheese and bread for years after her recovery. Then something changed. "Gradually, I understood that following any type of diet was, for me, unhealthy. And that for me, the foods that I feared were actually the foods that would heal me most. I saw being able to eat cheese again as defying anorexia."

Read More: When Does 'Eating Clean' Become an Eating Disorder?

There are a handful of recipes from people who haven't suffered from eating disorders themselves but who have been close to someone who did. Michael Baker, Francesca's brother, contributed a pasta recipe they grew up on. "It's really tough because there is nothing directly that I can do to help," he says of his sister's illness. "If someone has a kidney disease, you can offer to see if you are a donor; you are directly helping. But with an eating disorder, the only help you can give is to support [them]."

John Linkins, a close friend to Francesca, echoes the feelings of helplessness watching someone you love with an eating disorder. He loves cooking and wanted to be a part of Baker's recovery, which he feels the book will support. "She is so strong and determined to get better," he says of his friend. "It makes you have hope and talk about the future, something really important."

Eating & Living includes a meal planner and nutritional information. The recipes are varied and include flavors from France, Malta, Vietnam, the UK, and more. They're foods that anyone could enjoy—no eating disorder required.

"We're all so clueless as to what we're supposed to be eating," says Baker. We talk briefly about the current diet fads: South Beach, paleo, gluten-free and on and on. "It's very hard to recover in that climate. We forget that a bowl of pasta and cheese is nice to sit around with."

Recovery is a long road, and Baker is not there yet. Many other women talked about the concept of recovery itself: You're never 100 percent there, and the threat of disordered eating is always in the background, even five, ten years later. So many of the challenges, different from an alcohol or drug addiction, are that "with eating disorders, the very thing you're terrified of, you have to face three, six times a day," Baker says.

"It's like walking a tightrope," Reeve says of her own recovery. "It takes practice. When I have control over that balancing act, I will be content. That is the healing value of this book to me. It says to the reader, 'We've been there, we understand it's almost impossible, but it really is OK to enjoy food.'"