The Case for Farming as an Alternative Treatment for Anorexia
5 min read | Apr 2021

The Case for Farming as an Alternative Treatment for Anorexia

A young woman, who has struggled with eating disorders, explains why alternative treatments for anorexia, like farming, should be explored further.

Sweet tomato / Millennial / Progressive / Student

When I was 19, my parents and doctor sent me to an eating disorder clinic for anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia. After four months of working with a multidisciplinary team, I “graduated” from treatment. They advised me that to maintain the progress I made, I needed to participate in something every day to reinforce what I learned in treatment. For me, that meant AA meetings at a West Village LGBTQ center, mediation classes and therapy with a woman from the rehabilitation center.

I didn’t realize until much later in my recovery that sitting in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings only heightened my sense of isolation and depression. I concluded that, like an alcoholic or narcotics addict, I possessed a chemical imbalance that demanded attention. But unlike a drug addiction, sex addiction or alcoholism, we cannot live without food. 

It wasn’t until I visited a nutritionist in Israel two years later that I was opened up to the world of mindfulness in eating disorder recovery. My nutritionist explained the distinction between addiction and eating disorders, something that seemed radical to me. She emphasized the importance of self-compassion. I started to accept that there would be days that I returned to certain behaviors, but that didn’t have to mean my recovery was undone. Each day was separate, and each meal needed to be treated in isolation rather than in conjunction with the meals before and after it. Before then, I couldn’t distinguish between a chemical reliance and my eating disorder.

What Started as an Escape Turned Into So Much More

A few years later, I experienced real heartbreak for the first time, the kind that will lead you down all kinds of existential rabbit holes. It brought up an eagerness to return to my disordered eating behaviors: binging, purging, restraining and exercise bulimia. Determined to not allow this experience to erase all the hard work I had done, I decided to take action. I reached out to family in Humboldt, California to ask if I could stay with them. I knew I needed to remove myself from the situation, and thought it would be a pleasant place to heal.

In Humboldt, I started working on a farm that practices radical sustainability. This is a process in which sustainability is addressed from the bottom-up. Set along the Van Duzen River, the farm values biodiversity and incorporates holistic planned grazing. This is a system of incorporating the rearing of livestock with the production of crops. The goal is to help regenerate the land and the soil through a total integration of all aspects of the farm. While I was there, they had chickens, turkeys, cattle and the oxen that provided draft power as an alternative to gas-powered tractors. The oxen require no fossil fuel and eventually they become beef, continuing the cycle of sustainable practices. 


How Mindfulness and Eating Disorders Are Linked

I was surprised to find a common link between some of the farmers and me. A few of us had experienced a similar history of yo-yo dieting and starvation. As we would make our way down the strawberry patches, harvesting berries and picking away the culls, we would share stories. Many of them included our personal history with anorexia, binge-purge and body dysmorphia.

I believe regenerative agriculture can restore not only the damage done to both physical lands but our personal connections to them. It is the focus on the micro aspects of eating that allows an eating disorder to run wild. Thoughts of the self become all-consuming, putting our lives on autopilot. This extends to what we put in our bodies, when calorie-counting becomes a transactional matter leading to malnutrition and severe depression.

On the farm, my favorite task was picking vine tomatoes and harvesting peppers. The hothouse was so warm that it made me sweat, and I loved being covered in a dusting of green tomato perfume. I looked forward to finding oddly-shaped peppers. Later in the season when we harvested squash, I looked for the ones that were the bumpiest and most misshapen and took them home.

Food Is So Much More Than Just Calories

A common issue during eating disorder recovery is that people push their bodies into recovery before they are mentally capable. When I found myself taking the time to pick through the wonky veggies or to look for the culls, it was one of the first times in a long time that I felt fully connected to food. Upset that no one else seemed to want these beautiful vegetable creatures, my mind was on food waste.

When I was in the bulimia stage of my disorder, my food waste was off the charts. I would buy things just because I knew I could easily throw them up. Things like ice cream and sweets were always a go-to as I knew my body had been trained to reject them. Going to the market almost daily just to buy purge-inducing food was a very low point in my disordered behavior. Speaking to my peers, I have found this was not unique to my experience. 

Each week when I do my grocery shopping in my London neighborhood I’m shocked by how affordable excellent quality fruits and vegetables are here. Then I immediately think of my home in Los Angeles, and places like Erewhon and Whole Foods that have capitalized on wellness culture and made it nearly impossible for a person living on an average salary to eat locally-sourced produce.

The United Kingdom has become a hub for innovations in the regenerative agriculture movement. Many restaurants in London have partnered with farms around England as a response to the demand for ethically grown produce. Even my local produce shops in Hackney sell ethically-grown foods, and my weekly tab never exceeds £32.


What Makes Farming a Viable Alternative Eating Disorder Treatment?

For people like me, with a history of disordered eating, conscious consumption is unavoidable. Early in my recovery, I believed this meant making sure I ate at the scheduled times and got in enough calories to satisfy my therapists, doctors and nutritionists. I have since come to understand that the last step in my recovery is giving food more thought. This includes reconnecting with foods I had previously written off merely for the sake of their higher caloric content. I have a deep sense of gratitude for the food I consume. Not only am I more aware of the hard work that goes into its production, but I am finally able to enjoy eating.

Sending someone to a farm won’t automatically lead to a healthier relationship with food. But I hope it can offer an alternative approach to the standard Western treatment for anorexia and disordered eating. Hospitalization and clinical rehabilitations lack a connection between personal experience and the world at large. People who are struggling emotionally need to feel like they’re part of something. Finding this missing link is vital, and often transformative.

Focusing on our macro relationship with the food ecosystem rather than the micro personal relationship can lead to real sustainable recovery. These days I look forward to biking to my local fruit and veg shops, planning what recipes I am going to cook for friends and family. It’s so far from anything I thought possible.

Getting in touch with food through learning about biodiversity, regenerative practices and soil health can not only impart valuable life skills surrounding food, but they also offer a deeper kind of mindfulness. This is far from the “mindfulness” tips we see on Instagram, telling us to journal or run the bath to calm our thoughts of restriction and binging. This is a mindfulness that incorporates a radical self-care that considers what a person is struggling with—in this case, food—and provides more thoughtful alternative approaches.

If you or someone you know is struggling, I urge you to look into treatment that can provide lifelong tools and a total expansion of the way we look and talk about food. I ask that you consider the harmful nature of the current rhetoric surrounding eating disorders in the West. We need to start to look at reconnecting with the larger food ecosystem as a method of healing and recovery.

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