| Arts & Culture
Food Learning to Eat While Pregnant and Recovering from an Eating Disorder
I pray my baby will love their body, or at least accept it, and carry it around the world, just as I have carried them too, with pride and joy.
One of the many reasons I couldn’t wait to go to Milan in May 2019 was to tell my friend Paola I was pregnant. It was early, but my husband and I were giddy with excitement and we knew she’d be happy for us, too. I was right. She let out the most fantastic squealing-in-joy sort of sound and wrapped us both in a zealous hug.
When we went for aperitivo, Paola ordered me a Crodino, a yummy nonalcoholic drink—bitter and thick and the color of Orangina. We nibbled on green olives and potato chips. Later that night, she cooked us dinner at her home: risotto creamy with gorgonzola. Paola had planned on a salad, but decided to forgo the dish because of me.
“But I love salad!” Weirdly enough, I found myself craving crunchy lettuce and raw veggies during my first trimester.
“You can have plenty of salad in seven months,” she said. This was the first I had heard of a no-salad-during-pregnancy rule.
“In the US, we eat veggies all pregnancy long. It’s supposed to be good for the baby.”
Paola shook her head as if I had told her something shameful. “Vegetables are fine, but only cooked ones.” She stirred the risotto, which was starting to perfume the whole house. She ground in some pepper. “Well-cooked!”
The fear is the dreaded toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can be transmitted through food, dirt, or cat poop. For most healthy people, it’s not a big deal, but it can cause big problems for a growing baby. It’s the same reason pregnant women are advised not to clean their cat’s litter box without gloves. (In the United States, the CDC recommends washing fruits and veggies extra thoroughly during pregnancy, for this reason.)
Paola served us asparagus instead, which she roasted until blistery and perfectly delicious. Still, she offered me a pour from a bottle of juicy red wine. I didn’t accept my own glass, but I did have a sip from my husband’s. Common Italian wisdom: A little wine during pregnancy is fine.
All these food rules felt familiar in a way. A different set of food rules had ruled for much of my life. For nearly a decade now, I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder. It’s miraculous, really! At one time, maybe ninety percent of my brain space at any given time was occupied by the cycle of careful planning for what I was going to eat and not eat and how much time I would need to burn it all off on the elliptical. There was the ever-present shame about what I had done the night before and the promises I would make to myself the next morning (and then inevitably break). Living this way was immensely exhausting.
I look back and am amazed that I managed to go to school, to work, to have a life. I had some incredible friends; I worked at some of New York City’s best restaurants; I moved across the country to California and back again—but all this was warped by the lens of my eating disorder, which told me that I was not good enough, that my life would really begin when I weighed T-minus five or ten or twenty or fifty pounds, and a chorus of other sad lies.
Recovery has not been fast or easy. But I am grateful for the process every single day. It has meant sharing my deepest, darkest secrets with people who understood them and accepted me. It has meant a lot of hours in therapy. And it has meant getting rid of the long list of food rules I cobbled together from diet books, pop culture, and the crevices of my own mind.
I’ve been learning to trust myself and my body. I’ve been building a whole new relationship with food, which is no longer the enemy. Slowly, that ninety percent of brain space devoted to my thoughts around disordered eating has become eighty percent, or fifty percent, or on some days, an astonishing zero. The eating disorder soundtrack—the constant, obsessive noise and self-admonishment—has faded. I go through whole weeks without worrying about food or my body.
All these food rules felt familiar in a way. A different set of food rules had ruled for much of my life.
When my husband and I decided we wanted to try to have our first baby in the beginning of 2019, before our trip to Italy, a lot of body noise resurfaced. Some of it was fear: What would happen to my body? Would the doctor shame me about my weight, as I had heard happened from plenty of women?
But much of my thoughts around my own body were positive, which was new and refreshing. In eating disorder recovery, I had been urged to appreciate my body for what it did rather than how it looked—to marvel at the legs that carried me miles around the city each day, the arms that gave really good hugs, and the ears that listened to music and to the people I loved. I tried to acknowledge all these awesome undertakings my body performed, and sometimes I could muster genuine gratitude for all that.
But something about creating a human being in my uterus took this line of thinking to a whole new level. I know every single person is born, and yet pregnancy felt like science fiction. It felt powerful and extraordinary. I thought about it with awe: Little eyelashes were growing, cheeks were chubbifying, baby organs were coming into being inside the very body I spent so many years fighting and “fixing” and loathing.
I read a lot about pregnancy, wanting to educate myself. There are a lot of rules. Some of them were familiar and felt reasonable to me: no smoking, no alcohol, no bungee jumping. (I haven’t been bungee jumping before and wasn’t planning to start while pregnant.)
Others, especially the food rules, surprised me. They felt like those diet-y, judgmental tropes I had made it such a point to avoid. The message was that if you cared about your baby, you would forgo sunny-side-up eggs, turkey sandwiches, soft raw milk cheeses, and sprouts (that’s on the list—sprouts!). Some went further and advocated only organic, unprocessed foods; not too much sugar; not too much salt; not too many carbs. This advice set off a little “ding” in that part of my mind bruised by disordered eating.
The Center for Disease Control recommend that pregnant women avoid soft cheeses, “such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses and Mexican style cheeses such as queso fresco, queso blanco, and panela that do not state they are pasteurized.” This cheese rule irked me especially, and still does.
I’ve worked in cheese for many years as a cheesemonger and cheese writer, so my pregnant friends have asked me about feta, mozzarella, and chevre. I tell all the pregnant people I meet—or at least those in the US—not to worry! The Food and Drug Administration regulates the dairy industry, and the laws are really quite strict. Cheese made with unpasteurized—read: raw—milk can’t be sold in the US unless it has been aged for at least sixty days.
As cheeses age, they lose moisture, which makes them even more unlikely to harbor Listeria, the bacteria that could cause potential danger. That means all soft cheeses on offer in stores, that whole list from the CDC, are made with pasteurized milk.
So why has zero pregnancy literature—and I have read so much of it—mentioned this?
I was annoyed, but I was also careful. I knew pregnancy was not a diet. I understood the stakes were different. I stuck to one cup of coffee a day, when I could stomach it. I paid attention to the mercury levels of fish. I remembered to take my prenatal vitamins (gummies, because they’re way more palatable) nearly every single day. I cooked garlicky shrimp for dinner and ate curry, dumplings, steak, salads, and bagels.
Sometimes, in my recovery, I still felt an urge to restrict. What if I just skip breakfast? What if I just have a smoothie for lunch? Getting pregnant changed that. First because being too hungry made me queasy. Hence all the bagels, which felt like pretty much all I could stomach for a few weeks—preferably an everything bagel toasted with just a bit of butter.
But I also thought about the sesame seed, then pea, then cherry-sized thing growing inside of me. I wanted to nurture it with satisfying food. I thought about breakfast the moment I woke up. It wasn’t a disordered way of thinking about food, it was a happy one. The food was enabling the best thing I was doing: bringing life into the world.
Then, right after our Milan trip, I had a miscarriage. I was nine weeks pregnant, which meant the fetus was the size of a cherry. A few days before, I had started to spot a little, just a drop of brown-ish blood when I wiped, which made me nervous.
The doctor said not to worry; the ultrasound showed a small blob with a strong, steady heartbeat. The heartbeat was music. My husband held my hand and we both cried a little bit, in joy and in relief, with that blob on the screen in front of us, moving ever so slightly.
Two days later, I started to bleed.
“Remember what the doctor told you, not to worry,” my husband reminded me.
But this was different. I could feel the blood running down my legs. It gushed onto my shoe. My stomach seized up. Something was wrong. Together, we rushed to the ER. The pregnancy was now, so suddenly, in the past tense. Again, my husband held my hand and we both cried and cried and cried. We canceled our plans for the next day and lay together in bed, crying.
My midwife friend gave me a hug and told me exactly what I needed to hear: “It’s nothing you’ve done. No exercise. No alcohol. No traveling. No coffee. No nothing. Nothing you’ve done. Nothing you could have done.”
Still, I thought about the cappuccinos, the sip of wine, all those salads, that day I forgot my gummy vitamins. My eating disorder operated on a flawed but simple premise that if I could control my body, I could control my life. Old thoughts replayed: If only I had done something, anything, different. Now, at least, I know that this line of thinking was untrue. But at the time, I was taken aback by the depth of my own sorrow.
The doctor said, “I don’t know how much you remember from biology class.”
Not very much.
“But when the egg and sperm meet, chromosomes pair up. Usually miscarriage is due to a chromosomal complication. Cell division is a complex process with a lot of things that can go wrong—and when something does, this is your body’s natural reaction. In a way, it knows best.”
I took this to mean that what was growing inside of me wasn’t meant for this world.
“It’s nothing you’ve done. No alcohol. No coffee. No nothing. Nothing you could have done.”
Miscarriages are super common, and often completely inexplicable. But I thought about how my body had failed me, had failed the proto-baby growing inside me. It had failed my husband, and my mom, and his mom, and everyone who had been thrilled for us.
I bled for a week and then, slowly, it stopped. I took a nap. I went to a yoga class. I went to a meeting. My husband and I got a puppy. I felt betrayed by my body.
Then just a few months later, we got pregnant again. As I write this, that baby is due in a few short weeks. I’ve tried so hard not to let the loss of my first pregnancy tarnish this one. Even when the baby kicks my bladder or the tender spot near my ribs, I am grateful. Whenever the baby stops swimming around like an alien fish, I am scared.
During my second trimester, I went on a trip to Spain. I asked the doctor if I could eat jamón ibérico, that silky cured Spanish ham that tastes of fat and promise.
“I don’t see why not,” she said.
I ate it on platters with Manchego cheese and tiny olives. I ate it with potato chips sparkling with flaky salt. I ate it stuffed into crusty bread. My appetite, which had been shaky during the nausea of early pregnancy, was coming back.
I keep talking to people about pregnancy and meeting more pregnant people. Some of them have a glass of wine with dinner. Some of them have sushi every Friday. When my friend says she doesn’t eat blue cheese, I keep my mouth shut. She doesn’t need someone else telling her what to do. Unsolicited advice about eating, pregnancy-related or otherwise, makes me bristle. It reminds me of the way my own eating disorder once spoke to me.
On bad days, I feel like a blimp. My husband points out that I am not a blimp, that I am a human growing another human. Everything I wear is stretchy, which is not a bad thing.
This week, the baby is the size of a pumpkin. I find myself short of breath; the doctor says my uterus is expanding into the space where my lungs usually are. This body of mine is imperfect and spectacular.
I wonder if our baby will grow up to like the foods I do: stinky cheese, jamón, pho redolent of lemongrass and star anise. I pray they will love their body, or at least accept it, and carry it around the world, just as I have carried them too, with pride and joy. But I know it’s not always so simple.