Systems: How Engineering Cured My Eating Disorder

DISCLAIMER: The following post outlines the writer’s personal journey with an eating disorder. It is not intended to act as medical advice. As always, please consult your doctor with any questions about how to improve your health.

Would you believe me if I told you that systems based on engineering principles changed how I think about life, informed the way I approach motherhood, and cured my eating disorder? Well, it’s true, and hopefully this philosophy can help you tackle some of the challenges in your life.

W. Edwards Deming was an engineer, author, statistician, professor, and leader in the field of quality management. I know, he’s not the person you would imagine curing eating disorders and helping new mothers, but stay with me here. Deming is credited with the following quote: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Deming said this in the context of his work as he believed that the vast majority of business problems were created by systems that weren’t functioning properly, rather than individual actions. From the first time I heard this quote, I was hooked. It felt applicable to so much more than business problems. Almost EVERY problem is the result of a system and would take systemic changes to fix.

Photo by Melissa Douglas Co.

My first exposure to this concept was through my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The concept is used in that space to explain systemic issues relating to DEI. For example, a company may notice that it is lacking diversity in its leadership. Using Deming’s principle, we know that this issue is not caused by one diverse employee not getting promoted, but rather, a system in the company exists that creates a larger issue.

A Perfectly Designed System

At the time this quote moved into what has become a permanent spot in my brain, I was dealing with several mental health issues. I was experiencing severe anxiety, periodic depression, and struggling with an eating disorder that spanned almost 20 years. It probably was not apparent to most people since I had always been a good student and had become a successful attorney. As a type-A overachiever, I had always been a fan of organization and systems, and loved the idea that this concept could be applied to issues beyond business and diversity.

A few months before my 30th birthday, I found out I was pregnant with my first son. At that point, I was in a relatively stable place in my life. I was married, owned a beautiful home, and had a good job. Unfortunately, I was still juggling anxiety and depression, and struggling to keep my eating disorder under control. The idea of having a baby was exciting and joyful but also piqued my existing anxiety and introduced new concerns about how my body would grow and change.

Making A Decision

I knew I had to figure out how to get through my pregnancy and keep the baby healthy. For almost two decades, I had cycled between dieting, disordered eating, and several varieties of full-blown eating disorders. Over the years, I had tried various types of therapy and a few different medications. Things would get better for a while, but I would eventually slip back into the cycle.

One night, while flipping through the pages of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I made a decision. I would keep this baby healthy, repair my relationship with food, and start to build a better body image. I thought about systems and how my issues had not been caused by a singular event, person, or comment.

These issues were the result of a system: stick-thin models in magazines, shelves full of diet foods at the grocery store, dancing during my formative years, and the oh so many comments I heard from women about food and their bodies. As Deming might have noted, the systems of fatphobia and diet culture had operated perfectly to get the results of me hating my body.

My System

After a lot of research, therapy, and soul searching, I started to develop a system to change these results. I thought through every minute of my day and the things that prompted negative thoughts about weight or food.

Please note that I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or mental health professional. These are just things that I found helpful that may or may not be helpful to others. Here are some of the components of the system that helped me.

I have a loose and flexible plan for most meals.

Instead of limiting or restricting what, when, or how much I eat, I focus on making sure I get plenty of certain nutrients such as protein, green leafy vegetables, and fiber.

I plan to be physically active every day.

But, only doing things that I genuinely enjoy. If I do not feel like working out or don’t enjoy the workout I am doing, I don’t do it.

I speak openly about my issues with food and body image.

To keep myself on track with recovery and lessen any potential shame or isolation, I talk with my therapist, friends, family, and strangers on the internet.

I stopped tracking.

I stopped tracking my weight, calories, or any sort of body measurements. When buying clothes, I try to completely ignore the sizes and sometimes cut the size tags out.

I tried to remove anything that triggered me.

This included getting rid of clothes that no longer fit, unfollowing influencers that made me feel bad, and telling people when I felt uncomfortable with their conversations about diets or body image.

And, I started using two mantras.

At night, I thank my body for carrying me through the day. I think less about what it looks like and more about what it can do. Secondly, while pregnant, I started saying a phrase in my mind before I ate: “I am keeping this human alive.” This reminded me that I needed to eat enough to keep the baby living and growing. Only after I had the baby, and continued to use this phrase, did I realize that I was also a human that needed food to survive. If I could eat for the baby, I could eat for myself.

Recovery from an eating disorder is a long and ever-evolving process. This system has helped me work towards a happier, healthier existence on planet earth. However, like all systems, it takes maintenance and updates. Would you like to change any systems in your life?

The more we talk about health, the more we encourage others to do the same. We shared snippets of our team members’ mental health journeys to help others feel seen + validated.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.