We spoke to Francesca Baker, the author of ‘Eating & Living: Recipes for recovery’
We need to change the way we view eating disorders for there to be any real change
After struggling with an eating disorder, Francesca Baker wrote Eating and Living: recipes for recovery, a beautiful cookbook filled with recipes donated by people who have been personally affected by an eating disorder. Aimed as a guide to reintegrate food into your life and begin to start enjoying it again, the idea started in 2014, when Francesca was in hospital.
Francesca and other patients often spoke about the foods they missed, wished they could eat, or recipes they used to cook with their families.“There is this misconception that people with eating disorders hate food, when actually they often do really like food and do really want to eat food,” she explains. Part of the recovery process included planning a meal and cooking yourself: getting ingredients and portioning it all out. She realised they all had enough recipes between them to make a cookbook, but this didn’t happen till a few years later. “It was bubbling away at the back of my mind.”
Francesca was curious to see if this is something people would want to have as a resource, so she put out some tweets and calls on social media and got a great response. “A lot of people said, ‘yeah it’s a wonderful idea, I’d love to give you a recipe’.”
These days, there is much emphasis on food itself, rather than the importance of our relationship with it, and what that means when somebody has an eating disorder. Having an eating disorder doesn’t simply mean you consume less food: it can affect your social life, and sufferers end up isolating themselves from certain events because food will be involved.
“Food isn’t just your proteins and your carbs,” Francesca says. “Yes, there is [that] side of it, but there is also the relationship with it, with your family, your friends, how much you can enjoy experiencing and enjoying meals.
“You can’t go out for lunch with people, you can’t do certain things. [There were ] all these things that I ended up missing out on, because I felt like I couldn’t engage with the food side. You end up disconnecting. That’s why I wanted to put recipes along with stories in [the book], to show all sides of it.”
The aim of this book is not to replace medical care, but rather to act as a tool during out-of-hours, when you can’t visit a doctor or therapist and don’t know who else to turn to. The recipes are varied. Some are recipes people used to make with their family; others are recipes from people who have cared for people with an eating disorder.
Each recipe comes with a story from the person who donated it, to show people struggling that they are not alone and they can recover – the proof is in the pudding (pun very much intended.)
“The kind of brief wasn’t something you would feed to someone else with an eating disorder,” Francesca says. “They are all normal balanced healthy meals that anyone could eat. No undressed salads, but no deep fried mars bars either!” Rather than using calories, everything is based on portion guidance and all the recipes have been checked by dieticians.
Treating eating disorders is not just about revising the medical support system – it is also about changing the way we think about them. People tend to assume it is something you can see by looking at someone: it is very difficult for those who are not ill to understand. In fact, obviously, eating disorders are both mental and physical. The illness is not always visible. This is the the biggest misconception.
“It’s really hard in a society that is always talking about bodies and dieting and people don’t even understand that it can go too far,” she says. “I’ve had someone say to me, ‘when I broke up with my boyfriend I didn’t eat biscuits for a week so I totally understand’. I think there’s a misconception that you would always know that someone has an eating disorder. Someone said to me but you were smiling or but I saw you eat dinner last week so you must be fine. It’s not that I didn’t eat, I just didn’t eat enough for what my body needed.”
The way we talk about food and eating is also something that needs to change. Because of the importance placed on body image and the kind of unrealistic images of weight we see all around us, the language around it is about doing something wrong and being naughty.
“People say things like I’m gonna be naughty and have a biscuit or I wish I had your self control,” she says. “I think it just permeates everything and it’s really hard to switch off from.”
“We’ve got such a warped sense of what a healthy body is. Again, I’ve had someone say to me, ‘oh you’re looking really health’, when I was in a suboptimal place, because you do see models and stuff, and I looked healthier than that.”
The discourse on mental health is getting better. People feel more able to talk about their issues. But there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly relating to the way eating disorders are seen by doctors and those who have not suffered.
“That’s the weird thing about eating disorders, they’re both mental and physical,” Francesca observes. “They do have a high mortality rate: about 1 in 5 people who have anorexia die. Your body can shut down, there are heart problems, fertility [problems], brain damage… It’s not just a case of being a bit sad and not eating breakfast…it’s much more that that.”
There is too much of a focus on the physical side of the illness and on helping only when the situation escalates drastically. But perhaps many people would avoid that stage in the first place if there were better resources available and doctors listened when people asked for help, even if they aren’t below a certain weight deemed sufficiently serious.
“I think they’re too focused on certain weight levels you have to get to, to access the resources. It’s flawed. There are lots of resources when you’re extremely ill. There is too much of a focus on get worse and then we’ll help you because we need to. Rather than out of hours support there could be supported meals or groups, that would mean that people didn’t get to that stage and require hospitalisation.”
Francesca estimated her treatment cost the NHS a couple of hundred thousand pounds, but thinks that maybe if she had received the help she asked for ten years ago, she may never had needed hospitalisation in the first place. Maybe all that is sometimes needed is a few counselling sessions, rather than a decision based on weight. Again, it was about making that connection between the seen and the unseen.
“When I was at university I went to the doctor and said I hadn’t had my period in a while and he told me I was a bit under weight and asked if I was struggling, which I was – I was obsessed with food and exercise.”
So Francesca was referred to an eating disorder specialist, who told her that obviously no one wants to be fat and that they see girls much worse than her all the time. If she fell below a certain weight they would help, but she was told not to worry about it for now. “I asked for help a long time ago…and perhaps all I needed was someone to talk to,” she wonders. “And I don’t think I’m alone in that experience, I’ve spoken to lots of people who have been told you’re not bad enough yet.”
There also needs to be more support in place post-hospitalisation and out-of-hours. The long term and help with integration back into everyday life is vital, which is why this book is such a useful tool. Francesca was in hospital for months, after which she only had two follow-up counselling sessions. “You know I wasn’t just cured when I came out. It wasn’t going to just go away. And they see it as, ‘we’ve done our bit now, off you go’.”
Any words of advice for people struggling now? “Get seen as soon as you can. You won’t grow out of it. Realise that it won’t go away. You have to take the action even though it feels really shitty and really hard and you’re going to struggle a lot before mentally you’re going to feel any better. You have to nourish your brain and do the stuff that seems difficult…do it even if you don’t quite feel like it.”