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REFLECTIONS: Living at the intersection of food insecurity and eating disorder recovery

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Ella McCarville | The Daily Wildcat

Many people struggle with both eating disorders and food insecurity.

Editor's note: Trigger warning. Eating disorders are discussed in the following piece. If this is not supportive of your recovery, please skip this piece. If you are currently experiencing food insecurity, please check out the UA Campus Pantry.


It can be difficult to realize issues are happening when you are still experiencing them. 

It was hard for me to acknowledge that I had an eating disorder in the first place because I convinced myself I wasn’t binging and purging as much as other people.

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By the time I started as a freshman attending the University of Arizona, I was tenuously recovered from bulimia. I was now the only person I could rely on for food. This same person was immensely concerned with fighting any semblance of the “freshman 15” on my body. 

Feeding myself every day became an odd balancing act of budgeting my meal plan and stuffing myself with food. I would simultaneously stock the mini-fridge I shared with my roommate with small amounts of "safe foods" (things that I could eat that wouldn’t make me worry about gaining weight) and buy what I could, when I could, from the fast-food offerings at the Student Union. 

I didn’t realize that I was dealing with food insecurity too. My eating disorder behaviors hid my food insecurity like a cloak. Bulimia made it difficult to grasp appropriate portion sizes, and the lingering thoughts of controlling the muscle and fatty tissues on my body made food insecurity even more difficult to identify. With bulimia, I had a schedule of eating that was clear and patterned. I was in a predictable cycle of starvation, binging and purging. In recovery, I had to relearn what my body was telling me — basic cues when I was hungry and when I was full. 

My food insecurity was different. It felt much more abstract. I did not know hunger in the same extremes that I imagined “real” food insecure people to be living under — a real food insecure person, as in someone who was hungry all the time and emaciated. The few nights I spent going to bed hungry in anticipation of my parents’ pay day seemed like an odd dream. I was living under the promise of food but not the guarantee. 

When I was at the height of my struggle with bulimia, my family would look at me with concerned eyes when I wanted to eat more or eat fast food. We both knew what might happen, and it was one of the most difficult things to go through — being looked at with any amount of distrust from people you love is heartbreaking, to say the least. I didn’t want to “waste” food, but my emotions were too big for my body that wanting to physically shrink made me feel like everything was worth it. It wasn’t. Not even a little bit. All that happened was I had a weird amalgamation of guilt about not eating and eating too much that I would purge and waste all of the food I used to wait until payday for. 

As a college student, I entered a whole new world of both issues tangled together, making feeding myself every day a weird experiment of combatting old eating patterns and making new ones on my own. I couldn’t even give myself space to acknowledge any of that. My privilege of having help to obtain a meal plan in the first place made me unsure of my own situation, and the fresh memories of my food insecure childhood made me hesitant to ruminate on my individual challenges.

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This isn’t a rumination though, and these aren’t individual challenges. It is a meditation on an issue that affects 54 million food insecure people in the United States alone during the pandemic. Societal inequities also contribute to food insecurity. It most strongly impacts people of color, people living in rural areas, children and the elderly, according to the Duke Health Center for Eating Disorders. 

Being a part of a research project that focuses on the insecurity of food and other resources has made me realize a few things about my experience and food insecurity in general. All of these facts made me feel more comfortable sharing my experiences like this.

  1. Food insecurity does not necessarily equal hunger. You can be food insecure without being hungry. If you have any difficulty accessing the food you need to be a healthy person as much as you need it, you may be food insecure.
  2. There are levels of food insecurity and none of them are shameful or indicate a lack of responsibility. The shame of any sort of resource insecurity is unfortunately real and can deter people from accepting government help or other types of assistance. According to a report from the National Food Access and COVID Research Team, 47% of U.S. households and 43% of low-income households said they did not want to rely on food assistance programs in favor of their personal independence. Without accepting assistance, issues can deepen in the name of self-sufficiency. 
  3. Food insecurity doubled for UA students during the pandemic. Yes, you heard that right. According to a survey done by a UA agricultural and resource economics/nutrition and food systems class called “The Food Economy – Efficiencies, Gaps, and Policies,” UA students answered more questions indicating food insecurity during the pandemic than at the onset of the pandemic in March.
  4. Food insecurity and eating disorders have some connections. People who deal with food insecurity exhibited more traits of eating disorders than food secure people such as binging, restricting meals or night-time eating according to the Duke Health Center for Eating Disorders. Not knowing how you will get your next meals, when you will get them and where can have real consequences.

On an individual level, I have mixed feelings about the intersection of my eating disorder and food insecurity. I had the privilege of being treated for my eating disorder fairly early (although the thoughts I had from that time are still with me today). I also had the privilege of a costly meal plan that my family and I would never be able to afford without support. There are a lot of “what ifs” running through my head as I write this. Maybe in your head too. That’s okay. Issues can be difficult to identify when you’re in the midst of experiencing them. Focusing on living your life and getting through the day can be hard enough.


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Ella is our Arts & Life editor here at the Daily Wildcat. Check out their page here!


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (9/21)
993 29 2.9%
Total (8/2)
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Includes tests since August 2, 2021
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated September 21, 2021