Eating Disorders in the Food Industry

By Lee Musho

You wake up and make yourself some coffee, scrambled eggs and toast. Then you head into work and try out a toffee brown butter chocolate chunk cookie recipe your coworker’s been testing. You interview someone who is an expert on the ketogenic diet, and it makes you wonder during lunch if you should be eating that bread with your soup. You’re called into a meeting to discuss pizza.

You have an event after work, a six course dinner hosted by a James Beard Award winner. You’re full by the second course but you don’t want to be rude and not eat the rest. You make yourself sick in the bathroom.You go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

Even without a diagnosed eating disorder, a career in food inherently means that your relationship with food won’t be normal. There is food available at all times, and there is always ways to eat more. As a food writer or magazine editor, there are an unlimited number of multiple-course dinners and festivals to attend, and you need to stay on top of diet trends, no matter how unhealthy.

Rochelle Bilow, a former editor at Bon Appetit and Cooking Light quit her “dream job” as a food writer in New York City to live a quiet, private life upstate and focus on her recovery from her eating disorder. She is relaxed and laughs easily. Her mouth is in a perpetual smirk.  Her curly brown hair, wet from a shower, rests on her worn-in, slightly large grey crewneck sweater. She tells me she’s focusing on building up the muscle mass she’s lost over many years of “bulimic behaviors.”

Through high school and college, Bilow would binge eat, or eat a large amount of food, and then make herself sick, also known as purging. She chose to lean into her disorder, channeling her abnormal relationship with food into a career.

“It was this thing that was so harmful to me and I thought, now I’m going to make this creative amazing life out of it.”

“What a brilliant trick.” She laughs at herself. “It was this thing that was so harmful to me and I thought, now I’m going to make this creative amazing life out of it.”

After attending the French Culinary Institute in New York, Bilow began working at Bon Appétit. In the beginning, she would eat anything that was offered to her without hesitation. “I was really engaged and wide-eyed and excited about everything,” she says.

At work Bilow had to cover fads like the ketogenic diet, which she says normalize restrictive eating. “All I wanted to do was forget and not be tempted by food. I was writing about food, I was staring at food, staring at pictures of food all day…you walk by the office and someone shoves something in your mouth.”

She remembers the moment when she realized the job she always wanted was triggering her disorder, when one unplanned bite ruined everything. For the next few minutes, she binged at her desk, and then purged in the bathroom. “I’m doing this at work now,” she thought.

“I felt like I should be fine with going and eating and trying every single thing and not feeling weird or uncomfortable about it,” Bilow says. For Bilow, working in a stressful media environment aggravated her disorder. Much like bartenders and alcoholism, some may have a healthy relationship with alcohol and others may take it too far. But unlike drugs or alcohol, you can’t quit eating.

“I believe truly that you can be a food writer and not have dealt with an eating disorder or be actively dealing with disordered eating but I think that there is a pretty high likelihood that the majority of food writers are on the food weirdness spectrum.” Food weirdness, Bilow explains, is having an abnormal or uncomfortable relationship with food.

According to the NEDA, or National Eating Disorder Association, over 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, while millions more struggle with their body image. Bilow isn’t alone. Many others working in the food industry have come out about their relationships with food. Frank Bruni, a former New York Times restaurant critic, released a memoir called “Born Round,” in which he talks about his struggles with bulimia. He told the New Yorker, “the truth of the matter is, one’s love of food can get out of hand.”

Since quitting her food media job, Bilow has moved back to her hometown of Syracuse, New York and is now the head baker at Cafe at 407. All of the profits and gratuities from the cafe go toward funding Ophelia’s Place, a center for eating disorder education and support. Although baked goods are typically seen as “foods to fear” as opposed to a safe food like a salad, Bilow says working at Cafe at 407 has aided her recovery.

She says that although she is still surrounded by food, the workplace culture is completely different. The manager of Cafe at 407, Jen Caruana, sees her employees as family. “I want everybody to feel safe and tell me everything that’s going on,” she says.

Bilow says having a cafe attached to an eating disorder recovery and support center is the most natural thing in the world. “We don’t shy away from the fact that food has to be a part of the equation,” she says. “We choose to nourish ourselves with our food and honor our cravings.”

Bilow says baking is her new dream job, replacing her dream of food writing. “I get to help people treat themselves and eat something because it looks good or they want it and that’s a good enough reason to eat anything.”

Bilow says she has learned to give herself grace, as everyone is in a work in progress in regards to healing.  “I think that we are all always in recovery from something,” she says.

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