I didn’t expect hiking in Spain to change my relationship with food and my body, but that’s exactly what it did.

  • In 2015, I set out to hike the 550-mile trail in Spain called the Camino de Santiago.
  • I was hoping it could change my life, but I didn’t realize it would change the way I approached food.
  • By the end of the trip, I had a whole new relationship with food and my body.

In August 2015, when go for a walk 550 miles into the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s famous medieval pilgrimage, I thought my body would just hate me for a while because of the blisters and foot pain. And he did! But I didn’t expect that my sudden insatiable appetite would also force me to face my relationship with food and my body.

At the time, I was 29, fresh out of a long-term relationship, working in food service, and paying off a mountain of student loan debt. Overall, I felt like a failure by American middle class standards.

I grew up in Spain and knew since I was a teenager that one day I would do the Camino. I decided that this was the moment. My guide said that you could live on the Camino for $25 a day, and he had saved more than enough for that. So I quit my job, flew to Spain from Atlanta and started on my way. I chose the popular French route, starting in the Pyrenees and ending six weeks later in Finisterre, on the northwest coast of Spain.

My previous food haters became best friends.

At home, before my hiking trip, I rarely drank soda or alcohol. Coffee was a weekend splurge. Milk and fried foods usually destroy my stomach, so I avoided those too. I was a vegetarian for 15 years and still ate mostly vegetarian because I am very picky about meat.

But in the pathI walked about 15-20 miles a day, and because the rest of my routine was different, all those food preferences went out the window, too. I slept in cheap pilgrim hostels and shared bunk beds with epic snorers. The first week my feet and legs screamed, heat rash took over my calves, and my hips ached from the backpack.

Sign indicating the route of the Camino de Santiago

A path on the Camino de Santiago.

Courtesy Megan Thorson

I found that my metabolism sped up immediately. My body was demanding large amounts of meat, carbs, and sugar, and I was constantly craving salt because I was sweating so much. He allowed me to eat what I wanted or what was in sight because I was always hungry. It was a liberating luxury to be able to do that.

French fries with every dinner? Check. Kas lemon soda every day? Yes please. Red wine with dinner? Absolutely. And any kind of meat, plus more ice cream and hot chocolate than she could remember.

At first, I was alarmed at how much food I could consume in one sitting, but I didn’t try to control my appetite. I gained eight pounds in six weeks.

I realized that I still had old, negative body image and eating patterns.

I always had a sweet tooth, but I had internalized the idea that salt is bad. me developed an eating disorder at 13, because thanks to our fat-phobic Western culture, the words “grease” and “salt” had become just as scary to me as words like “bomb” or “gun.” For months, I tried to see how little I could eat. I hid my shrinking 68-pound frame under oversized sweatshirts and baggy overalls so my parents wouldn’t notice.

Megan Thorson doing the Camino de Santiago

Thorson walking the Camino de Santiago.

Courtesy Megan Thorson

That eating disorder morphed into ultra self-awareness about my body that lasted into my early 20s. I felt too skinny, too clumsy, too scruffy. In college I skipped the teaspoon of salt in a recipe when baking cookies, because I had been drilled into how bad salt was.

I no longer counted calories or tried to starve myself, but became obsessed with eating the “purest” foods and would beat myself up if I ate a brownie. Judging and criticizing me for what I ate was exhausting, to say the least.

Letting go gave me a better relationship with my body.

On the Camino I had coffee with a side of French fries. I stuffed dark chocolate squares between the baguette slices and drizzled them with olive oil and salt for a snack. I ate my weight in canned oily tuna and worried more about mercury poisoning than caloric content. But then my stomach would growl and say, “Fuck it,” and I’d eat a second helping.

The body has a way of getting mad at you when you don’t listen. So I gave in to my huge new appetite. And as the miles ticked by and my body got thicker in some places and gained muscle in others, it changed the way I saw myself. I felt stronger and more comfortable in my body than ever before, a welcome change that has stuck to this day.

Photo of Megan Thorson's trip doing the Camino de Santiago

A statue on the Camino de Santiago.

Courtesy Megan Thorson

My appetite on the Camino in many ways freed me from those sneaky effects of my eating disorder. I learned that the way we talk to ourselves is just as important as listening to our body’s needs.

Letting go of old food insecurities and patterns felt like I was letting go of part of the past and filling in the me I wanted to be on my terms, not anyone else’s. And now when I bake cookies I actually add a little extra sea salt because hey, salt makes things taste good..

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