How 'The Great British Baking Show' Helped Heal My Relationship with Food

How one fan made a breakthrough in her eating disorder and finally learned to celebrate dessert.

Woman holding lemon meringue pie as concept for great british baking show
Photo: Tom Merton/Getty Images

At the peak of my eating disorder, I hated Rachel Ray. I hated Guy Fieri. Had I known about The Great British Baking Show, it would have been enemy number one.

At the time, circa 2012, I believed that pastries were a thing to be feared. Cake was the devil. Birthday candles were torches lighting the path of temptation, a path that was paved in caramel and that led straight to a dieter's hell.

I had decided that food TV was porn. And anyone whose job it was to make a feast look beautiful, juicy, or tempting was someone working to undermine everything I'd worked for.

From this very stark view of things, you can probably tell a lot about me. (One, that I was raised Catholic), but more importantly, that I was very prone to disordered eating behavior. It started with borderline anorexia and orthorexia in high school, then full-blown bulimia in college.

Eating disorders thrive in chaos. They're a drug. They create an illusion of crystalline control within a cobwebby world of anxiety or depression, grades or bills or family feuds, niggling trauma or wilted self-esteem. For me, 18 years old and drowning in the stress of a terminally ill father, a new school, and overwhelming academic expectations, restricting and overeating became more than a drug. They became an all-consuming addiction.

I took a year off college to get treatment and saw a therapist for years afterward. Still, my disorders clung on. I lived those years in limbo, thinking I'd plateaued at half-recovered.

Things changed in 2018. I was home visiting my mom shortly after my dad died, overwhelmed with emotion and in the middle of a binge, and I decided to give food TV another chance.

Before this starts to sound like a deliberate and noble act of recovery, let me set the scene: I was laying in bed with a casserole dish of leftover nachos on my left, a box of cookies on my right, and my laptop sitting open on my stomach. I was eating with one hand, clicking through Netflix with the other.

Then along came Mary and Paul. The Great British Baking Show shone from my "Suggested for You" lineup, complete with images of colorful, kind-eyed baking celebrities Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. I'd heard friends rave about the show. And, what the hell—I was already in the middle of a binge. What did I have to lose?

Four episodes later, It was well past 1 a.m. and I was still glued to my screen. From then on, I was hooked.

Here, in this magical land called Great Britain, there was a tent full of people eating sugar and not thinking much about it. They'd have a bite, enjoy it, and move on with their lives—what is wrong with these people?!

I'm not going to lie—at first, watching the show triggered every craving I'd been afraid of. At the time, I was trapped at home and emotionally distraught, and all I could think about was food. (Not too dissimilar from the situation many of us find ourselves in now). Every now and then, GBBS made me want to close my laptop and go buy pastries in a way that set me just on the edge of panic.

Despite that, I couldn't stop watching. For starters, the show is engineered to be soothing. Everything—from the gently boosted saturation and pastel colors to the supportive competitors and lilting British accents to the B-roll of ducklings and lambs nibbling spring greenery just beyond the baking tent—left me feeling as if I was on holiday in the English countryside. It was comforting in a way eating had never been for me. And it was the first time I had ever felt calm while looking at a tray of freshly-iced cupcakes.

The other earth-shattering thing about the show was the nonchalance with which the contestants viewed baked goods. The first time I saw a competitor throw a whole cake in the trash, my eyes bugged out. (Remember, I was an addict.) For once in my life, I had a model for how a healthy relationship with food could look—none of this 'I really shouldn't' or 'I was bad today and had two cupcakes, or "I'll have to work this off tomorrow.'

Here, in this magical land called Great Britain, there was a tent full of people eating sugar and not thinking much about it. They'd have a bite, enjoy it, and move on with their lives. 'What is wrong with these people?!' I thought—while holding a fistful of cookies in the dark at 2 a.m., the crumbs scattered over my T-shirt lit by my glowing laptop screen.

For these bakers, food wasn't a drug. It was an art form. Sugar was just an ingredient, as innocuous as any other art supply, as neutral as crayons or paint.

The more I watched the Great British Baking Show, the less triggering the show became. I became fascinated with baked goods in a healthier way. My friends and I made pies. We made phyllo dough. We made soufflé. I found that learning a new skill improved my confidence, and being able to make and experience something so beautiful as puff pastry made me appreciate what my body could do. I was able to enjoy dessert (and mentally evaluate the crust and crumb with a distinctively British voice in my head), and stop there. My binges became fewer and fewer.

Experts call all this behavior "mindful eating," one of the prescribed tools for managing binge eating disorder. I called it "pretending to live my life in the pleasant delusion of being in a British reality TV show." But no matter what you call it, the result was the same for me: I had disarmed sweets. They stopped becoming a source of guilt and instead became a source of pride.

Eating disorder recovery is a complicated process, and I don't know if I'll ever be fully cured. (I'd say I'm three-quarters recovered, as of writing.) Different things work for different people. Some folks with binge-eating disorder struggle with sugar addiction and others might not yet be in a place in their recovery where exposure to a bunch of trigger foods makes sense. (See: How the Coronavirus Lockdown Is Affecting Eating Disorder Recovery)

But, for me, stuck at home in quarantine with a warm oven and a world of baking science to learn, it's helping me remember why food is worth loving, and, in turn, why my body is too.

great british baking show eating disorder recovery writer with a birthday cake
Corey Buhay
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