A Dietitian's Story of Disordered Eating: Part 1
Today, I share my story with disordered eating throughout the past ten years. Read on to discover why diets don't work, my road to recovery and how I healed my relationship with food. When I started this blog, one of my goals was to share my own story with disordered eating. I want each of you to know that while I am a dietitian, I have had my own struggles and successes along the way with my own eating habits. I want to share more with you, because I know I am not the only person out there who has experienced these struggles. Unfortunately, as a culture eating healthy seems to be synonymous with 'diet' and we live in a society where food is deemed as good vs. bad or healthy vs. unhealthy.
This is especially true for women. It is a positive attribute to be skinny, to "eat like a bird" and what it often seems like to me is that we almost encourage women to be underfed, undernourished and obsessed with what we eat and how that translates into how we look.
So to each person reading this, I want you to know that is not a way to live your life. I know this, because I have been there. Forming a healthy relationship with food is one of the most powerful and freeing things you can do for yourself, and I promise, you can do it.
Now, on to the story. Let's start from the beginning...
I have never been a normal eater. For many of the clients I see, it seems that the on and off diet mindset and restricting/binge eating cycle starts in adulthood. My story starts in childhood, as long as I can remember I have always had issues with binge eating. My family and I always ate healthy growing up. I was the kid with whole wheat bread, with fruits and vegetables at every meal, and grew up drinking primarily water. We never had foods deemed "unhealthy" in the house. And when I did eat unhealthy, I ate it all. In one sitting. Oatmeal cookies. Ice cream. Cookie dough. I ate it all. I remember going to friends' houses who had sweets, candy, and other junk food and I would go crazy and eat it all. I was not used to being around 'junk' food and because it was something that felt so off limits, I would eat as much as I possibly could.
I was a pretty active child, never athletic, but I danced throughout my childhood. So while I was never "skinny" I was always a healthy weight. My natural body type is to have more curves and in high school, I began to feel uncomfortable about this. All my friends were still growing into their bodies and were always much smaller than me (or this is how my 16 year old self perceived my body compared to others).
At the age of 16, my father was serving in Iraq, my sister had left for college and my mom had started graduate school. To help my mom out, I started helping with the grocery shopping and cooking. I got really into watching the Food Network and this is where my love for food and nutrition really blossomed (and when I decided to become a dietitian!) But this is also where a long journey of diets began, too. While I have always had a cycle of binge eating and then restricting, even as a child, the age of 16 is the first time I can vividly remember deciding I was going to try to lose weight. I went on a diet, which started as counting calories and tracking my eating online. It started off innocently, I was choosing healthier foods and became aware of the amount of calories in the fast food I would often eat with friends. But then I started obsessing. At first, the goal was to only eat 1,200 calories a day. But as I became more obsessed with looking skinny, I would strive to only eat 800 calories a day. I only cared about the calories, not the nutrition in foods. I was dating Nick back then (we have been together since I was 16!) and I vividly remember him stating that calories aren't everything and "is diet coke really healthy?" If only I would have thought like that! But I didn't, being on and off diets was all that I had ever known. From friends at school, family, the media. All I knew was that women should try to eat as little as possible.
I remember I went a whole day without eating purposefully, because the night before I had eaten too many desserts. I even tried making myself throw up, and did this a small handful of times throughout this time frame. Thankfully, that never stuck (no judgement for those reading who have battled bulimia, my disordered eating is just a different story). The primary 'diet' that stuck for me was tracking and obsessing over eating as few calories as possible. I freaked out on my mom when she added too much cheese and butter to my grits. I would only bring crackers to eat for the entire day at school. I wouldn't eat with my friends when they went and got fast food or even enjoy the pizza and tater tots at school (they are legendary- and by legendary, I mean gross but in a delicious kind of way).
As it always happens, I could only restrict for so long. I eventually caved in- and when I got home from school I would eat literally everything in sight. On the weekends, I would go to the grocery store and get all my favorite treats (chocolate covered pretzels, frosted animal crackers, etc) and eat it all. Until I was sick and uncomfortable I was so full. This binge and then restrict and then binge and then restrict continued for at least a year. I got really skinny....at first (the picture above is at my lightest adult weight, but also when I had major disordered eating habits). I was told I looked beautiful, and this only fueled the cycle more. But towards the end of high school, I started to gain weight very quickly. My metabolism became affected by dieting and it couldn't keep up anymore. I ended high school heavier than when I started to diet in the first place.
When I started college, I vowed I wouldn't gain the freshman 15. At first, I had "willpower" and stuck to my boring, bland foods I deemed as healthy. But slowly, my "willpower" was lost and I would binge eat chocolate, candy, Oreos and cheese with my freshman dorm friends and of course, the cycle of restricting and then binge eating began again. This, coupled with drinking alcohol and lack of activity (I never really knew how to exercise nor enjoyed it until later in my 20's), I quickly gained 20+ pounds by the end of my freshman year.
The weight I had gained my freshman year was maintained throughout my sophomore year. I moved into an apartment with my friends who were normal eaters and did not partake in crazy diets. So while I still struggled with this restricting and binge eating lifestyle (I would often eat all of the ice cream while everyone was at class), it was not as bad compared to the previous year.
As I started my junior year of college, my sister was getting married and I was determined to lose the twenty pounds I had gained in the beginning of college. So what did I do? I tried diet pills. I had previously tried those ones that make you malabsorb fat (which has a DISGUSTING side effect), but found success with an appetite suppressant. I was told this would act as a "catalyst" to my weight loss. I lost the first 10 pounds using these, but because they gave me terrible mood swings and awful headaches, I thankfully decided on my own to stop taking them. I lost the last ten pounds by eating "healthy" foods. At the time, this meant to me 3-5 Diet cokes per day, Fiberone bars, sugary yogurts and lots of Special K cereal.
By the time of my sister's wedding, I had lost the twenty pounds I had gained at the beginning of college, and kept this off throughout the rest of college and my dietetic internship by eating "healthy" foods and by starting an exercise routine (I started doing Jazzercise 3-4 times a week).
In 2012, I had finished my dietetic internship, passed my exam and made the scary decision to move to Florida with Nick. After living in Florida for a year, we got engaged, and like every bride-to-be, I was on another diet quest. This time, I was determined to get back to that 'skinny' I had gotten to in high school. I started tracking my eating on My Fitness Pal and started reading food blogs. I began to learn about eating whole, natural foods and realized my IBS symptoms (that controlled many of my college years, a story for another day) started to improve. I had a goal to eat 1,400 calories a day because this is what an internet website and my own calculations told me to do. But then the goal was 1,200 calories. And then I was proud when I would eat less than that.
Eating a whole foods based diet made me feel so much better, but because I was still severely restricting my calories, I still experienced very intense food cravings. Looking at desserts would make my mouth water. I constantly wanted sweets. Anytime I drank alcohol, I would be unable to control myself and would eat everything in sight. I would binge eat secretly when Nick wasn't around. I vividly remember after my bachelorette party, after all my friends had left, I secretly bought ice cream and cookies and chocolate and ate myself sick. I remember crying afterwards because I hated feeling so unable to control myself.
I weighed myself obsessively during this time, often five times a day. I would be furious when I didn't see what I wanted on the scale, and would be so mean and irritable to everyone around me. Losing weight became more difficult as I continued to restrict my calorie intake more throughout the year of our engagement. And while I never technically reached my goal weight I had initially set for myself, I was very happy with the amount of weight I had lost by the time of the wedding.
By the time our wedding came, I was determined to keep the weight off and just maintain and stop the crazy diets I had been on my entire life. But, old habits that started in childhood are very difficult to break. After the wedding, I spent an entire day eating cake. And then we went on our honeymoon. And I ate and drank everything in sight. The day after we came back from our honeymoon, I knew I needed to go back to healthy eating and because I felt like I had to, I tried to sneak in as many foods while I still could. I inhaled a cheeseburger, fries and beer, and even though I was so full, I forced myself to eat ice cream "while I still could". And again, because I restricted my calorie intake that entire year, my metabolism became damaged and I legitimately gained 7 pounds in one week.
I was so upset when we came back from the honeymoon because of the weight gain. I had the most magical wedding, married the love of my life and had the most relaxing honeymoon. Yet all I could think about was my weight gain. It is really sad to type that, but it is the truth. For about a month after the wedding, I started restricting and binge eating again. But at some point within that time frame, I snapped and couldn't handle it any longer. I vowed to never restrict and never to binge eat again. I hated how it made me feel. So out of control, constantly obsessing over what I was eating, weighing myself obsessively. I knew that this wasn't how life should be. Eating shouldn't be so difficult.
With time I began to heal my relationship with food. I began to realize that binge eating occurred for two primary reasons. First, binge eating was a habit I had formed in childhood, especially when trying to avoid certain emotions. I ate so that I did not feel the emotions. I had to learn to break the habit of stuffing myself with food instead of dealing with the emotions. I had to learn to experience and feel the emotion. (Note: Eating to cope with emotions does not mean I was depressed and eating because of this. For me, I often ate when I felt stressed, anxious and even bored.)
Secondly, binge eating was an inevitable and guaranteed side effect of restricting my calorie intake. So I stopped. Yes, I (initially) gained weight. The rebound weight gain was something I knew would occur and willingly chose in order to stop the vicious cycle of dieting.
Stay tuned for Part 2 which discusses where I am now with my eating habits, how to heal your relationship with food and what I think it the only answer to finding your happy weight.