Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Purging Bad Behaviors

What do you picture when you think of a person with an eating disorder? It is hard not to think of a skeletally thin woman; weak, pale and sickly. This almost universal image focuses on the most extreme sufferers, anorexics, but leaves out so many others that endure various other forms and degrees of eating disorders. Those struggling with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, but those who are not thin often go untreated or undiagnosed as they display no observable signs of their disease. Very few recognize or understand the wide spectrum of eating disorders or the people who struggle with them. Far too many people, women and men, have an eating disorder and do not recognize the signs or are too ashamed to admit to their issues.

After years of yo-yo dieting and struggling with weight and poor body image I finally recognized early this year, with the help of books, a health coach and other medical professionals, that I suffered from a binge eating disorder complete with a side of exercise bulimia and super-sized diet obsession. This was only half a surprise as my past includes a dark bulimia nervosa period in college and my early 20s. While I stopped the puking, a pattern of binging, feeling guilty, starving myself, hiding my food consumption from friends and family and then binging again out of hunger and frustration was long established, deeply cemented and refined over the years, becoming just as much a part of who I am as my blue eyes and big smile. Half jokingly, I used to think that anorexics were lucky in their obviousness of their struggle with food and body image. Shamefully, the biggest struggle with “coming out” about my problem is the embarrassment of people thinking that being thin is an eating disorder pre-requisite and therefore I must just be a fat person looking for an excuse. While it would be easier to hide the issue I feel compelled to begin sharing some of the obstacles, insights and discoveries in my journey to combat my problem with overeating and exercising.

Bad habits, entrenched such as mine, cannot be fixed with a diet; I needed to tackle the “demons” in my head. Food is not the enemy, fat is not the enemy, carbs are not the enemy, I am the enemy. Through the years I had varying amounts of success with every diet imaginable. From liquid and pills to fasting and hypnosis, no approach to weight loss was left unturned. As a binge eater, fad diets were even more dangerous, bringing a level of justification to my problem and masking the extent of the issue. Bingeing within the guidelines of the diet de jour, bacon binges during the Atkins phase or Snackwells during the fat free craze, seemed perfectly legitimate in the mind of a compulsive overeater. People often develop fads of their own, disguising their eating disorder as healthy eating. Some vegetarians actually suffer from eating disorders, giving up meat as a weight loss tool. Others employ strange eating obsessions like refusing to ingest mammals with gestation periods less then 322 days or only eating foods that begin with the letter Q. Don’t be fooled into thinking these people are doing something healthy, they are just creating their own little disorder.

Even the healthiest diets can turn bad when put into the hands of a person with an eating disorder. Weight Watchers, unarguably the healthiest food plan in the diet market when done correctly, can teach the average person how to eat healthier and with more controlled portions to lose weight safely. Weight Watchers provides the necessary tools and tips to both lose weight and keep it off the weight in a world filled with restaurants and holiday parties. Yet somehow I managed to turn the healthiest diet on earth into an obsession that spiraled out of control.

Losing 60 pounds in six months back in 2002 was easy, all it took was calculating the points of every single item I ingested, avoiding friends and temptation like the black plague, and working out 3 hours a day, 6 days a week to ensure that everything I ate was burned off (aka, anorexia athletica). Piece of cake, right? Wrong. The weight was impossible to keep off and I blamed everything from breaking my left foot, changing jobs, breaking my right foot, and moving for the scale creeping up, up, up. Not until I re-joined Weight Watchers this year did I acknowledge my deep rooted issues with food and how I could manipulate any diet or eating plan into a compulsion. Almost immediately I transformed into what is un-affectionately known as a “Points Nazi.”

After a few weeks of being “on-plan” and eating like I was in prison or “off-plan” and gorging like it was my last meal I decided to switch from the flex (points) plan to the core plan. For those not religiously affiliated with Church of Weight Watchers, the core plan includes a menu of healthy foods that you are permitted to eat as much of as you want, so long as you stop when you are almost full which brought to light a major issue; diet plans, news, friends, family all teach us how and what not to eat, but no one really ever teaches us how to eat and when to stop. This was a major discovery in tackling my overeating. Somehow through the years I developed a mindset that my mouth was either turned on to eat everything not nailed down to the floor or turned completely off to everything but water. Eating until full then stopping was a foreign concept but a necessary piece to master in maintaining a healthy weight. Out of all the lessons I’ve learned over the past 6 months, this is one of the most difficult but important.

It is estimated that over 30% of women seeking to lose weight suffer from a binge eating disorder and after understanding my own issues I quickly saw the signs in others. My time attending Weight Watchers came to an end because there were far too many women making the same mistakes I made years ago; approaching the diet as another goal to be attained and not addressing their real issues. I could look around the room and pick out those who would lose weight in record time only to put it back on again and it pained me to hear their dieting triumphs and tragedies. While I could try and point out their paths to failure, dangerous habits and need to address their emotional health, I needed to focus on fixing me which couldn’t be done in a room full of women dieting and talking about their guilt and shame in eating. We each have to find our own path to combat our own issues and realize the journey of self-discovery is the most important of them all. I have been consuming solids for over 32 years now, but am really just beginning to learn how to eat.


Dan said...

Michelle, congratulations on your discovery! For some it takes a long time to come to your realization. You know we still like you anyway! Has it got any warmer in your neck of the woods?

husband said...

as a man who has also struggle with weight since the 4th grade, it's been an interesting journey with Chelle through the years. we've each gone through the ups and downs, and I've been a proxy participant in the Weight Watchers program (I really didn't have much choice, but it did teach me a lot about food). On a related topic, what I find really interesting is all of the new studies coming out about trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, splenda, and more. How are bodies digest these unnatural ingredients. It's becoming more and more clear how people in the 50s ate steak and potatoes 7 days a week and were thinner than we are today.

Also Dan, it's 75 and sunny and I'm sitting on my patio enjoying a beautiful Friday afternoon. :-P