How eating my way through Hong Kong might have saved my life
By Malin Angell
I have always loved food, ever since I was a child in Norway. I aced cooking classes in school; friends would come to my house, and I would cook for them. Exploring food was a part of my life. My mom never worried about me not eating or finding something I would like. I would eat everything. I was never big, but what an aunt might call chubby.
But when I was 15, I started going to the gym. What came next was editing my diet.
The National Eating Disorder Association in the US divides eating disorder recovery into five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Though I did not have an official diagnosis of an eating disorder, I experienced all of these stages
The first stage is all about neglect; the person won’t see the problem. This is where my diet slowly changed into a simple, no carbs, no fat and no sugar diet. Every day my weight decreased, and I got comments telling me I looked good. I got skinnier. My grandmother would not comment on my “heavy” weight anymore. But I did not stop. My social life that had included food slowly dissolved. At this point, my biggest fear was food.
When I moved to Hong Kong, I was extremely underweight. My safe routine that I had in Norway was now totally ruined. I could not get the food I usually had; my gym was no longer there. I had no one here, and to make friends, I had to go out to eat and drink. It was a mental nightmare resulting in endless calls to my mom crying. I ended up seeking mental help at my university as well as contacting a doctor.
This is when I reached the second stage, contemplation. I started to see what I was doing to myself, and what I had to improve to get a better life. I got to a point where my body was screaming for food, and around my student accommodation, there were plenty of restaurants and street food stalls. I started to binge eat, every day. However, my mind was going crazy. I was not supposed to eat this much, so to compensate, I ran, hours at a time.
This is the time I started the third stage, challenging my barriers and crossing them. Even though I was running more, I was also eating more. The Hung Hom promenade not only became a familiar place but also a place where my mind could relax, because when running, all I focused on was the music I listened to. Still today, when having a difficult day, I travel there to relax. It is the only place in Hong Kong where I feel like I do not need to worry about anything. I feel like that promenade knows all my sides.
The action stage is the second to last; this is where behaviors start to change, and fear is lowered. After getting comfortable with food, accepting that my body was changing and needed this food, the spark of food exploration was lit. I spent my first semester eating everything I could find. I tried street food, restaurants, bubble teas, snacks, noodles, cakes, literally everything I wanted to try. I started to feel comfortable going out with friends, and I started dating. After my first semester in Hong Kong, I had gained 10kg to 15kg, and when I went home, people said, “you look healthier now.” I went back to the gym and my eating habits, but this time in moderation. I spent my holiday filled with friends, family and, last but not least, food, and I enjoyed it. I actually got so comfortable I gained 30kg and stopped working out.
It was found in a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that meaning and purpose as well as empowerment are key components to recovering from an eating disorder. Moving to Hong Kong gave me exactly this after finding my peace. I knew that I belonged here, and I could be myself, like I hadn’t been in my hometown.
Now I have entered the maintenance stage, where I know my triggers, avoid them and use healthy self-coping skills. I’m a healthy weight, eat normally where I can enjoy food, not restrictions, and have healthy food. I can also go to the gym without having the mindset that I need to burn off what I eat and would rather see my body get stronger than thinner.
Hong Kong saved my life because I was forced to change. Had I studied in Norway, I would probably have continued in my old habits and made it even worse. Hong Kong has an amazing food scene that would be a shame not to explore and take advantage of. Even though I have a normal relationship to food now, I think I will always be affected by the “skinny” period of my life. I am also scared that I will end up there again, but I have confidence I won’t. Food is the most important thing in life; it’s your fuel for living. You need it every day, why not just enjoy it?
My social life that had included food slowly dissolved. At this point, my biggest fear was food.
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