A message board member ( http://groups.yahoo.com/group/foodandfeelings ) asked me to blog about chronic illness and eating. Chronic illness is stressful—intermittent or ongoing pain, medication protocols, doctors’ visits, unexpected reoccurrences, indeterminate remissions, and lifestyle limitations that make "normal" eating difficult due to lack of exercise from pain or limited mobility, being home a great deal surrounded by food, increased depression, and using food for comfort or to reward yourself.
Although I’m no expert on chronic illness, my take is that your relationship with food before chronic illness is often (but not always) a predictor of your relationship with it when illness sets in. Ask yourself: how healthy was my relationship with food before my illness? A similar example is that disregulated eaters who develop food allergies have trouble coping with restriction because it generates feelings of deprivation and unfairness, whereas “normal” eaters aren’t so bothered by saying no to off-limit foods.
To work toward “normal” eating, start with your beliefs. Reframe beliefs about food being a reward or comfort, “deserving” sweets and treats, and life not being fair, paying particular attention to any beliefs that smack of victimhood. It is unfair and unfortunate that you have to cope with more than many people do, but getting stuck in victimhood only perpetuates eating problems. Be sure to examine your beliefs about “normal” eating and what you should weigh and look like. Make certain your belief system is realistic and reflective of what is possible. Respect your body and your limitations.
Next, focus on how to handle your emotions. If you’re depressed, get help through psychotherapy, a support group or medication. Life is hard enough to manage when your body is healthy, but with chronic illness, it’s crucial to be able to talk with people who understand your challenges—and who, like you, are working on managing them. Studies tell us that people with chronic illness and disease who are members of support groups have better health and quality-of-life outcomes.
Last, focus on the life skills you lack that provoke unwanted eating. When in pain, do you: avoid exercise, withdraw from social situations, feel angry about your situation and eat in frustration rather than self-soothe in more effective ways, give up on making life meaningful and joyful every day, use food to distract yourself from pain or physical discomfort? Set a goal to learn the life skills you’re lacking which you would need even if you didn’t have a chronic health condition. You’ll be happier and eat more “normally.”