NEDAwareness Week Reflection: What a Food Challenge Taught Me About My Recovery

The Notorious B.I.G. challenge requires participants to consume one pound of onion rings, one pound of french fries, one pound of beef burgers and a large milkshake in under 30 minutes. I didn't expect it would teach me so much about my eating disorder recovery. Photo courtesy of Amayah Spence.

I would like to start this column with a trigger warning. If topics pertaining to Eating Disorders and discussions of disordered eating are triggering for you, please discontinue reading, or find extra support for this reading. Help is out there.

Last week we at the Oracle did an editorial on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week). For this issue, in column form, I would like to reflect on the week as someone who is six years into recovery from Anorexia Nervosa. I will do so through the lens of one particular, food-related experience.

On the Thursday of NEDAwareness week, I went to B-Side — a beloved, retro burger joint on Main Street, New Paltz for any non-locals — and attempted the “B-Side Notorious B.I.G. Challenge.”

Not unlike other food challenges at restaurants, the “Notorious B.I.G. Challenge” is an enormous (some may say, uneatable) amount of food: two one-pound bacon cheeseburgers, a pound of fries, a pound of onion rings and a milkshake of choice to wash it all down.

And boy did I need something to wash it down — but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The best part? It all has to be completed within thirty minutes.

Why, you may ask, would I do this to myself? Why, you may ask, would I attempt a challenge (certainly akin to binge eating) on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week of all weeks?

My answer is simple: I thought I could. And I thought I could because I had an eating disorder.

For some background, I had Anorexia Nervosa (AN), acutely, for about two years. I then lived in a quasi-recovered state for roughly five years after that. After treatment, I became ravenously hungry. After years of not eating (and starving myself to the point of no longer even feeling physical hunger cues), I gained a small amount of weight from treatment (nowhere near where my current, unsuppressed body-weight is), rebooted my hunger cues and suddenly I felt (almost disturbingly) hungry. I thought that I could eat, and eat, and eat and never, ever stop.

This is a common phenomenon in recovering anorexics (or anyone recovering from malnourishment). It is called post-starvation hyperphagia (loosely translated to obsession with eating and dubbed “extreme hunger”) and it is the body’s powerful attempt to undo the brutal damage that starvation does to every system in the body. It goes away once you weight restore (and keep the weight on for long enough) but unfortunately, it isn’t always talked about in the raft of AN literature, so many recovering anorexics feel extremely scared and alone through this process.

Don’t forget, eating and weight gain are anorexics’ biggest fear (literally) and those are the two and only components of “extreme hunger.” Imagine a person with a phobia of spiders being forced to sit in a bathtub full of spiders — it feels something like that.

For that reason, many anorexics (myself included) become bulimic (a binging and purging disorder) in recovery attempts. Because I wasn’t prepared for that extreme hunger and I was terrified of it, I would eat the food my body was screaming for (it felt like I had no choice), but then freak out and make myself sick or do too much exercise, afterwards. This, sadly, only prolongs the hyperphagic process and constructs a life-sucking, compulsive and habitual process of restricting food and then binge eating.

Anyway, long story short, I used to be able to eat ridiculous amounts of food. Easily 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day without even trying. So I thought — naturally — that I could re-harness this ability (skill?) for one meal, on one day, and demolish an amount of food that no one, in or out of the restaurant that night, thought that I could finish. (For context, I am 5’ 4 and 130 pounds; not exactly the normal demographic for meat-eating challenges).

Further, I thought it would be a nice thing to do on NEDAwareness week because, unlike the ‘no-choice,’ ‘out of body’ and compulsive experience that binge eating or extreme hunger is, I would be choosing to eat the food. And the best part is, now, six years into recovery, I wouldn’t feel any need to compensate afterwards. I would feel no fear or shame post-eating. I wouldn’t feel like there were spiders crawling all over my body.

So, I make it to B-Side. I sit down with my boyfriend Jayden on my right, my best friend and editor-in-chief of the Oracle, Amayah across from me, and our lovely staff writers, Gabby and Lilly next to her. I had a cheer squad, a support system of sorts. I was ready to blow them away with my ability to consume. “This is going to be a piece of cake,” I said smugly. “No pun intended.”

I begin eating, and as I do, it is just as easy as I imagined. I love cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and shakes and the food at B-Side is top-notch. “This is nothing,” I thought as I devoured the first burger and half the pound of fries.

One thing was off though. I was not at all harnessing the ability I thought I had. You see, the ability wasn’t just eating a lot of food. The ability was eating a lot of food and barely even feeling it in my stomach while I was eating it. This allowed me to consume food rapidly in my eating disorder days.

But I was feeling the food. Around half-way through the meal (feast) I was definitely overly-full (bad-sign) and by three-quarters of the way, the unexpected happened. I began to feel physically unable to finish.

I panicked a bit but remained determined. I recalled what I saw competitive eaters do to aid themselves in finishing, from various YouTube videos I watched prior to the challenge. One of which is dunking the food in water and swallowing it as mush. I’m only slightly ashamed to say that I resorted to this strategy . . . and yes — even with the meat.

Yeah, pretty gross, huh. I’m still surprised my boyfriend didn’t break up with me after witnessing this.

But what else was I supposed to do? I had been talking about this for weeks to just about everyone I knew, bragging about how I knew I could do it. I couldn’t fail!

But . . . I did fail.

“I knew it was looking bad when I saw that first glimmer of defeat in your eyes around half-way through,” Amayah said. “It was so unexpected, such a shift from the confidence leading up to it!”

At first, I was pretty crushed. But soon after, I had a thought that turned the whole contest into one of the most enriching experiences of my life:

I can’t do what I once did in my eating disorder. Bam. The thought struck me like lightning but was refreshing as a light rain on a hot day. 

I had spent the weeks leading up to the challenge banking on the fact that I had anorexia and would never lose the ability to eat that I developed in my wobbly recovery.

But right there in B-Side, I learned I had recovered from my eating disorder. There was no longer a deficit to fill. I also don’t restrict fun foods anymore, so the greasy deliciousness didn’t have the same lure it had in my disorder and recovery.

As I said before, in extreme hunger and bulimia, I would basically dissociate from my body as I took in thousands upon thousands of calories. In B-Side, six years into recovery, I was tasting every bite and feeling my fullness gradually increase. It was a completely embodied experience and I just couldn’t push my body past its limit.

So yeah. I failed the challenge and lost out on some free ice cream and a t-shirt. I also had to pay $25 for the meal that would have been free had I succeeded.

But I realized I no longer have an eating disorder, not even lying dormant to be called upon in my time of (competitive-eating) need.

That realization was the best success and greatest gift that I could have acquired on NEDAwareness week.

If you think you or a loved one may be struggling with the topics covered here, I urge you to reach out for help. If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. NEDA has a hotline to call (800) 931-2237, Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. ET, and Friday 11a.m. – 5 p.m. ET. Translation services are available on the phone for those who need it. This number can also be reached by text, Monday – Thursday 3 p.m. –  6 p.m. ET, and Friday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. ET.

About Ethan Eisenberg 49 Articles
Ethan Eisenberg is a third-year psychology major and this is his sixth semester on The Oracle. He currently holds the position of Co-Editor-In-Chief, having previously held the positions of Managing Editor and Arts and Entertainment Editor. He feels privileged to exist in and work for a space that has the potential to uplift voices that may not typically be heard; he feels his experiences in psychology and journalism neatly intersect to aid in this process. When Ethan isn't Oracle-ing (yes, he considers it a verb) he is a Research Assistant on the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, the President of the Evolutionary Studies Club and a Course Assistant for the Evolutionary Studies Seminar. Outside of academia, Ethan enjoys watching horror movies and loving his friends, family and boyfriend, Jayden.