Food by VICE

Eating Disorders Are Consuming the Restaurant World

"I was always tasting. My bad eating habits got even worse," says a chef who struggled with disordered eating, a pervasive problem in the restaurant industry.

by Hannah Howard
Nov 3 2015, 10:00pm

The restaurant business is fueled by hard work, insane hours, and huge passion. It's not for the faint of heart—or stomach.

"I am lucky to do something I love, to go where my heart takes me," says Jennifer Ophir, who left her career in retail design a decade ago to follow her dreams and attend culinary school at the French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center). Ophir's food career soared—she has cooked in a Michelin-starred restaurant, taught aspiring chefs, and led food tours. Now Ophir works as a private chef and food stylist.

But the journey was not all sugar and spice. For Ophir, "being thrust into the culinary world really stepped up my addiction to food. I was around food all the time. The hours were crazy. I was always tasting. I would graze all day—sort of an extended binge. My bad eating habits got even worse."

Restaurants are hubs for entertainment, nourishment, fun, and celebration. But for many who make them their life's work—chefs, servers, restaurant managers, food photographers, and beyond—food is complicated. Chefs and servers work odd, grueling hours on their feet, surrounded constantly by food. Strange eating habits are de rigueur in the industry, and eating disorders are ubiquitous.

Why? "The same reason there are a lot of alcoholics in the bar business," says Molly Carmel, founder and director of The Beacon, a clinic for weight loss and food addiction in New York City. "They love food and are trying to make terms with the thing they struggle most with."

Eating disorders are often complex and go unseen. According to Carmel, "it's not so simple as a yes or no." Behaviors like extreme exercising or intense restricting to "save up" calories for a giant meal are culturally acceptable, but can be deeply destructive to health and wellbeing.

"There's a great divide," says Carmel. "There is such acceptability around splurging, and yet this amazing weightism where people are deeply judged for being overweight."

"My eating disorder was sneaky … it was about hiding in the bathroom. There was so much shame," says a young woman who manages events for a beloved New York City restaurant group, and asked to remain anonymous. "I always, always wanted more. I used food like a drug to comfort myself. It was the only thing that worked."

Eating disorders are scary business. "I identify as a food addict because I obsess about food. I have compulsive food behaviors—it really takes me out of life, just like heroin or alcohol," says Ophir. "[The restaurant world] is a very hardcore lifestyle … I was so miserable. I felt hopeless and desperate. I saw no way out."

Eating disorders affect millions of Americans each year and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, there has been unprecedented growth in eating disorder diagnoses in the past two decades.

Still, people scoff. Jokey headlines equate cupcakes and crack. But behind the snark lies a big kernel of truth. "There's this great delusion that it's no big deal," says Carmel. "Sugar releases a flood of craving neurotransmitters that can't be stopped. The physical health consequences are overwhelming. Lab rats prefer sugar over heroin and cocaine, every single time."

Eating disorders aren't just physical, though—they can be behavioral, emotional, cultural, and even spiritual. "I compare it to cutting," says Ophir. "People cut themselves so they can feel the intensity of that pain, rather than other pain in their life. That's what my binges were like. I wanted to be distracted by my stomach pain. I didn't want to look at the real difficulty, drama and pain in my life."

"I used food to numb out," says the events manager. "It was escape."

Carmel is not alone in her conviction that "there is nothing worse than being beholden to a substance." Recovery is hard, and the process can be slow and trying. Drug addicts in recovery stop using completely; food is a necessary part of life, even more so for those who live and breathe it. And yet repairing one's damaged relationship with food is absolutely possible.

"Addiction is a chronic illness," says Carmel. "It requires maintenance, getting emotional help, checking in with a therapist or a group." Just as eating disorders are manifold, so is recovery. "It's very personal. One size definitely doesn't fit all. People picture recovery as a restrictive, horrible ending of their life, when it's actually vibrant, delicious and nourishing in a whole new way."

The events manager saw that the food she worked near and around was "someone's art, someone's passion. It was the opposite of me wolfing down bags of Oreos." Today, she gets group support and is working to mend her eating and her thinking. Her life is better than ever, she says.

In December of 2011, Ophir entered outpatient treatment, and has attended support meetings and followed a food plan since. She has lost more than 50 pounds. "I look so much better—but it's not just a physical change."

"What makes me so good as a chef is that I love to look at and make beautiful food," says Ophir. "I love to serve people and nurture them, and make sure that they are satisfied. Now I work to find that balance between what is obsessive food behavior and what is the love of food … that's the challenge, and I'm up for it because I know that it's possible."