Tech Bytes: The Struggle of Healthy Eating at Conferences

It's that time of year again. Time for the annual pilgrimage to the desert for two major security conferences, Black Hat and DEF CON. That means it's also time for me to have at least one breakdown over too many or too few calories from foods I consider "bad" or "safe." 

I do not have a normal relationship with food. But with all the diets and paleo recipes and celebrity poop teas of our age, what is really normal anyway? Well, it's probably not being afraid of anything with dairy, sugar, or too many carbs, and it's definitely not restricting yourself because if you eat a slice of pizza you will hate yourself for a week. 

Traveling is really difficult for me. I am in recovery from anorexia and purge disorder, and although I went through extensive therapy to try and tame my demons and learn that it's okay to eat more than oatmeal, whenever I break from my normal eating patterns, some of my bad habits return. I think about how many calories are in whatever I put in my body, and tell myself if I eat something I consider "bad," it will ruin everything I have worked so hard to maintain. 

In my life there are four main food groups: vegetables, grains, protein, and fear. I am afraid of pizza. Of fried chicken. Of mayonnaise and thick cuts of meat. And don't get me started on cheese. Cheese is the boogeyman, the scariest food of all. Sometimes I eat my fear foods, and then I feel terrible for days, regretting every bite.

This is not normal, and it is not healthy. I know this, and I am working on it. Part of maintaining a healthy relationship with food is maintaining healthy habits. At home, my fiancĂ© and I cook vegan recipes regularly, and stick to the foods I consider "safe." That means nothing fried, nothing with heavy meat or dairy, and bowls bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables. It's a comfortable rhythm, and thanks to therapy and mindful habits I feel like I can get through my life without the specter of an eating disorder suffocating me. 

That all falls apart when I travel, especially for work. I joke about this a lot on the internet, about where to find avocados in Las Vegas or that groceries stores are too far from the Strip. I hide behind self-deprecating humor because it's easier than being honest. I also joke about the time I started bawling in the middle of a casino during another tech conference (CES) because I hadn't eaten vegetables (or really anything) all day. Gamblers thought I was drunk; I was actually on the verge of collapse and self-harm. My friend AJ knew, and walked up and down the Strip with me for a while until we found something I considered "safe" to eat. I will never forget the way he smiled -- because I can see why it's humorous when your friend is crying about broccoli -- but didn't judge me, and instead helped me get through the darkness.

Meals on business trips are largely predicated on the food at the venues, at the scheduled dinners, and at whatever line is the shortest. They are also booze-filled, which, for me, exacerbates the feelings of disgust and likelihood of harmful behaviors when my habits are broken. I try hard to stick with what I am comfortable with, but I also don't want people to wonder why I'm not eating what everyone else is.

I am extremely good at hiding things; I just want people to think I'm normal.

I might be embarrassed about my behaviors, but I shouldn't be. At least 30 million people in the US have an eating disorder, and almost 1% of American women will have anorexia at some point in their lives, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. There are millions of people like me -- and chances are some of them go to technology conferences. 

If you are one of those people and you experience the struggle of trying to maintain healthy habits and not self-harm while at events like Black Hat or DEF CON, I want you to know you are not alone. I don't have a solution for surviving Las Vegas or the best ways to plan to eat healthy on business trips because I have not figured it out myself. It is still extremely hard for me. But hopefully by talking about it I can help alleviate the shame and stigma that surrounds eating disorders and encourage people to discuss this with their friends or colleagues who will be sharing the environment if they feel comfortable enough to do so. 

I am not ashamed to have an eating disorder. But it took me quite a while to come to that conclusion. Self-hatred and shame are invisible, but they are absolutely devastating to your body. Some people looked at me with complete disgust when I told them about my behaviors, and those are the looks, the voices, and the feelings I used to focus on. Now I think about the compassion and kindness friends and strangers have shown me when I admit Hey, this shit is really hard!. A kind and empathetic response to these feelings is so powerful, and helps the shame lift. 

I'm excited to spend time in the desert with my friends and coworkers, and hopefully learn a thing or two. And I also hope that this time is easier than the last. If it isn't, that's okay, too.