How Nature Helped Me Recover From an Eating Disorder
Outside correspondent Kate Siber learned to reinhabit her body by being outdoors. But she didn’t expect that healing would also bring a new perspective on nature itself.
Outside Online | March 25, 2021
By Kate Siber
Click here to read the story on Outside magazine’s website.
About ten years ago, at the end of a 19-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon, I grabbed the bag I had stashed in the shuttle van and pulled on my jeans. They felt a little tight, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I had spent the previous few weeks in swimsuits and board shorts, hiking and swimming, sipping beer by campfires and staring slack-jawed at cliffs and canyons. I figured my jeans simply felt unfamiliar.
But a few days later, standing on a scale in the chlorine-scented locker room of the municipal recreation center, I tapped the little weights back and forth to discover that I had gained a considerable amount of weight. I was amazed—and elated. I didn’t necessarily need to gain weight, or lose it. What was significant was that I had barely noticed. In that moment, I realized that after more than a decade, I had made a full recovery from anorexia nervosa, which had once caused me an unthinkable amount of suffering. I thought I would never be free of it.
The illness started more than a decade before, subtly at first. I was a junior in high school, struggling with depression after a difficult move to a new city. I felt isolated and disconnected from my peers, myself, and the natural world, which had always been a source of solace for me. I started to get curious about what it would be like to skip a meal or two. In hindsight, like many who suffer from eating disorders, it was a misguided and desperate grapple for control at a time when the great themes of my life were in chaos. But soon, what seemed like just a weird idea gained momentum. In that distorted state, it felt good to deprive myself, as if it were some ascetic form of self-mastery. Just like that, I started the steady slide into a vortex of self-denial, compulsiveness, and perfectionism while withering into a wisp of my former self, both physically and emotionally.
My well-meaning if perplexed parents attempted to secure care for me through standard methods. They delivered me to a psychiatrist, who listened stony-faced, pronounced me depressed, and prescribed a drug. (With teenage defiance, I never took it and vowed never to go again.) They brought me to a pediatrician who specialized in eating disorders. She weighed me, sized me up, and offered weight goals and diet plans. (I pretended I didn’t have a problem, and she pretended not to see through me.) At that time, I wasn’t ready to recover. I wasn’t even ready to admit something was wrong.
It’s common for those suffering from eating disorders to wait a while, sometimes years, to get help, and treatments vary greatly. If the case is life-threatening, sufferers are hospitalized. Others spend time in multiweek residential treatment centers or intensive outpatient programs. For less severe cases, patients ideally consult with a dietitian, therapist, and psychiatrist to develop a tailored treatment plan. But because eating disorders—which include anorexia and bulimia, as well as lesser-known conditions like binge eating disorder and orthorexia, a debilitating obsession with “healthful” eating—are shadowed with stigma, they are often suffered in secret.
Unfortunately, some people never seek treatment. These afflictions are known as some of the hardest mental illnesses to treat, and they have the highest mortality rates of all mental conditions. But eating disorders on the whole are surprisingly common. An estimated 8.4 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men will suffer from one in their lifetimes. Worldwide, the prevalence of these conditions is rising alongside increasing urbanization and industrialization, particularly in Arab and Asian countries.
Perhaps out of stubbornness, ignorance, or fear of the stigma, I took a divergent path. Four years later, as a junior in college, after a morning swirling in yet another eddy of food-obsessed thoughts, I finally reached a breaking point. How much brain space had I ceded to my diet? I realized that I would genuinely rather be fat and happy than thin and miserable. I just didn’t know how to get better, and, perhaps foolishly, it didn’t occur to me to seek help. My route to healing would involve a therapy that gets surprisingly little play in the medical establishment: nature.
After college, I moved to Italy for work and instinctively let go of all semblance of control. Nothing was off limits—thick, steaming mugs of Italian hot chocolate; crispy, delectable pizzas; cheesy panini. I bought new clothes and then more new clothes. I gained weight very quickly, and waves of anxiety and panic washed over me for months. The experts I consulted for this story told me that many people with eating disorders go through phases similar to this, releasing their rigid behaviors only to swing drastically to the other side of the spectrum. For me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Day and night, I felt like I was wearing a hot, itchy fat suit. As excruciating as it was, tossing myself into the fire of weight gain seemed to burn away the most entrenched mental patterns.
I still, however, needed to learn how to eat and live in a balanced way, and I had no idea how to do that. Some of the hallmark behaviors of eating disorders include skipping meals, cycles of binging and depriving, and restricting food groups, so after I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to work for this magazine, I promised myself that I would eat three square meals a day, no matter what. In hindsight, it would have been advisable to secure professional help. Instead, I gravitated outside.
At the local ski area, I learned how to bounce through giant mounds of powder. At dawn, my colleagues and I hiked up white slopes in the gathering light and blazed down before work. As the weather warmed, I huffed to the top of local peaks for views of the sunset over the empty desert beyond town and learned to haul myself up sport climbs at local crags. I had run and skied and biked before, but I had never lived in a place where the natural world threaded so seamlessly into the fabric of my everyday life. In these wild places, I began to make the long, slow shift from imposing a steely will over my body to actually inhabiting it.
But the Type A perfectionism that spurred my anorexia didn’t fade easily. At first, I brought those compulsive and self-recriminating habits to my time outside. In many ways, I still treated myself like an object or a perpetual self-improvement project. At the end of a day climbing, for instance, I wouldn’t feel content unless I pushed myself as hard as possible—an arbitrary bar that necessitated a certain attitude of self-punishment.
“For most people, as they treat their eating disorder, there’s a tendency to feel like they need an outlet for those controlling, rigid behaviors,” says Heather Caplan, a registered dietitian who often works with athletes and the host of the RD Real Talk podcast. “Especially with athletes, exercise can become the new coping mechanism.”
Kara Bazzi, a therapist and founder of Opal Food and Body Wisdom, a treatment center in Seattle, says it can be particularly tricky when the compulsive behavior is wrapped up with a genuine, healthy passion for a sport or activity. “Most people can say, well, I love my activities and I have a high appetite for movement,” Bazzi says. “But then where does it cross the line to be problematic? That’s a very gray, intricate thing to parse out.”
Endurance sports, individual sports, and elite athleticism are risk factors for eating disorders, and it’s not rare for athletes, including outdoor and adventure sports athletes, to struggle with eating. Bazzi, a former Division I runner, says athletic culture commonly normalizes disordered behaviors.
To the extent that it encouraged me to fully inhabit my body, being active was helpful. But I realized over time that there’s a difference between being an athlete outside and just being outside. A key piece of reclaiming my health and well-being was letting go of the need to be good, or fast, or even notably skilled at anything. It took many years for me to slow down and fully understand that healing came less from the exercise itself and more from the feeling of groundedness that comes from being immersed in nature. Sometimes that meant simply sitting down and listening to the frogs, the wind through cottonwood trees, or even just the sound of silence.
It may seem obvious that spending a lot of time outside would support recovery from an eating disorder. Institutionally, however, the so-called nature prescription gets surprisingly little attention when it comes to anorexia, bulimia, and related conditions. A mountain of research has uncovered other health benefits of spending time in the natural world, from improved concentration to reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and inflammation. But when I reached out to Nature and Health, a research center at the University of Washington devoted to exploring the effect of nature on human well-being, the researchers didn’t know of a single study—existing or in the works—examining the role nature plays in eating disorder recovery. (There is one study, however, suggesting a correlation between positive body image and exposure to nature.) A search on the Children and Nature Network’s library, which includes hundreds of studies on nature and health, didn’t yield a single article on the topic.
Some eating disorder treatment centers offer nature walks and beach outings, but few appear to make time spent in nature a central aspect of their programs, perhaps because health insurance companies focus on reimbursing standard methods of care. At the same time, therapists and social workers at some wilderness therapy programs for troubled youth, such as Aspiro Adventure and Evoke Therapy Programs, have found that their trips can help people with mild eating disorders and body image challenges by allowing freedom from social media, mirrors, and pervasive cultural and familial pressures to look a certain way.
For years, Carolyn Costin, a therapist and author of Eight Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, has taken her clients on silent walks in nature. “With an eating disorder, you’re constantly not in the moment—you regret this or that, or you’re worried about what you’re going to eat in the future,” she says. “Being able to be outside changes what we focus on. Nature brings us back to a core essence that is not the chattering ego mind.”
Especially in the early years of recovery, I was at my best when I was in the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time—the dirtier the better. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, I lolled in alpine meadows strewn with wildflowers. Hiking at 12,000 feet, I got caught in a magnificent, terrifying thunderstorm and huddled in a crevice while it tired itself out over my head. On occasion, I sat still enough for birds and chipmunks to forget I was there and flit right in front of my face.
In the wilderness, with its elemental beauty and challenge, I could forget myself for a while. It was as if the more time I spent outside moving, exploring, and disconnecting from my responsibilities and ambitions, the more my attention loosened its tight orbit around myself. Nature is a mirror for who we really are. Being immersed in it calmed my nervous system and helped me cultivate a healthy sense of my own smallness in the context of things, but it also helped me connect to a deeper and wilder aspect of my own humanity that I had always tried to efface or control. It was as if experiencing the ceaseless changing and rhythmic cycles of the natural world helped me realize the changeable nature of my own body. I started to think of it more as an inscrutable collection of processes and a map of sensation to be felt and known, rather than a product to be controlled.
Over the years, a funny thing has happened. As I open more to the mystery of this human body, I also open more and more to the extravagant miracle of the natural world itself. Things I had only been peripherally aware of in the throes of my former preoccupations have become more apparent and vibrant—the lush sounds of a forest, the delicate scent of sage after rain. It’s as if the heavy lens of self has thinned a bit to reveal a clearer picture of the world.
Recovery takes diverse forms and means different things to different people. For me, the process was like erosion. It took many years for the compulsive thoughts, difficult emotions, and inflexible behaviors to wear away completely. But now they are gone. Like others who consider themselves fully recovered, I know where my boundaries lie: I don’t ever do cleanses, and I don’t have a scale in my home. I also know that regular contact with the outdoors is crucial for me to maintain a balanced mind, and I make sure to get my feet on dirt every day and to not take my time outside too seriously. In Durango, Colorado, where I now live, while my friends are out running 20 miles through the mountains or winning 24-hour mountain bike races, I’m wandering around in the wilderness inspecting flowers, picking mushrooms, and staring at the sky.
Not long ago, I went camping one weekend with a friend. We took a hike on an obscure, overgrown trail that led pretty much nowhere—just the sort of long, delightful, pointless rambling I like these days. It had rained a lot, and the wildflowers had grown gigantic and unruly, sprawling over the trail and stretching neck-high in some places. Winding through aspen groves and meadows, I started to relax after a long week, and the landscape appeared like a mosaic of light. The forest was at once completely ordinary and utterly awe-inspiring. Perhaps the ability to feel at home in my body, to experience it from the inside out instead of manipulating it from the outside in, has come with the capacity to feel more at home in the world. It’s hard to imagine a deeper sign of well-being than this: not needing anything to be different, especially yourself.
If you are struggling with eating and body image in any way, you do not have to suffer alone. Consider reaching out to the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline, which is available via text, phone, or chat.