This topic is personal and a little triggering for some but I feel like it’s an important subject to talk about. In our society, we tend to pretend like it doesn’t happen. Disordered eating and eating disorders are ALL around us. From the latest diet fad to the constant calories counting to emotionally eating entire tubs of ice cream, disordered eating patterns have become a norm in our lives. I rarely go a day without seeing or hearing something that fits into this category. While people generally have a clear idea of what constitutes an eating disorder, most would be shocked to realized some really common dietary habits are considered disordered eating. First, lets define disordered eating and eating disorders and distinguish between the two.
Disordered eating: a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder (DSM-IV-Text Revision)
Eating disorder: diagnosed according to narrow criteria defined by the APA, any of several psychological disorders (such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia) characterized by serious disturbances of eating behavior (Merriam Webster dictionary)
People struggling with disordered eating may experience some common symptoms of eating disorders though they don’t fully meet the criteria for the defined disorders. Because disordered eating is less well defined and more socially accepted, it is not given the attention it deserves. Both disordered eating and eating disorders are serious health concerns and should be treated seriously. Disordered eating patterns have serious physical and mental affects and can lead to eating disorders and severe health risks. So what does disordered eating look like?
- chronic “yo-yo” dieting
- participation in fad dieting
- frequent fluctuation in weight
- Strict diet and exercise regime
- Feelings of shame or guilt when failure to maintain rigid regime
- Emotionally driven eating
- Compulsive eating
- “Pre-occupation with food, body and exercise that causes distress and has a negative impact on quality of life”
- “Use of compensatory measures, such as exercise, food restriction, fasting and even purging or laxative use to “make up for” food consumed” (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2013)
Counting calories, coping with break ups through 6 bowls of ice cream and a tub of cookie dough, spending 4 hours a day at the gym, and clean eating are all examples of very common disordered eating patterns. It’s easy to negate the damage done by these habits in our society. If I don’t track my food, how will I know when I hit 1200 calories? If I don’t run for two hours today, how will I work off the slice of chocolate cake I had last night? The constant focus on weight is damaging to both your body and your mind. Self-esteem spirals down and weight obsession can lead people to more and more drastic measures to obtain their “ideal” body. Counseling from a Registered Dietitian is key in treatment and healing for people with disorder eating and establishing an intuitive eating pattern. Therapists and other health professionals may be necessary to help with both the mental and physical results.
Most people suffering from disordered eating aren’t aware that their habits are causing them harm. I certainly wasn’t. This is my story of how bears and beets helped me battle my disordered eating and get me to where I am today. For anyone out there struggling with their dietary habits, disordered eating, or an eating disorder, please reach out to a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorders or go to the National Eating Disorder Association website for information and assistance finding treatment options.
Battling Disordered Eating
As a kid, I never worried about my weight or my diet. I ate what I was given and I played all day. When I hit puberty, I developed faster and more than most of the other girls in my class. I couldn’t help compare my average weight and tall height to the skinnier, petite girls around me. My thighs felt massive, my stomach not as flat. I didn’t change my eating habits but I was always aware that I was bigger than most of the other girls around me and I was embarrassed. I wanted to be smaller. I wanted to take up less space.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school, the trend continued. My weight was normal but I couldn’t help compare. I told myself I wasn’t as thin so I wasn’t as pretty (something as you know, is of great importance to a 15 year old). I hid myself in lose athletic shorts and large t-shirts, nothing to draw notice to my extra weight. I exercised constantly, trying to shrink down, trying to take up less room around me. Late in the year, I started my long year and a half battle with a chronic illness. Throughout this time, I was often too nauseous to eat, I worked out daily for an hour before school and attended multiple sports practices after, and I was placed on several medications that result in a 40-50 lbs weight loss over the course of several months. The healthy body I had maintained for years shriveled away to nothing. I rarely had energy to do anything but people and my peers kept commenting on how great I looked. “How did you lose so much weight? You could be a model! Thin looks so good on you!” I finally was what I wanted to be for so long, a double zero, with a flat stomach and thin thighs. I didn’t feel it though. I still felt big. I was so happy people were complimenting me but I didn’t realize I was hurting myself. I felt terrible and spent all day sleeping but I finally was thin. Of course, family and close friends were more concerned. “Where did Julianne go? You shriveled up! It looks like you disappeared. Do you need to go to the doctor? Are you eating? You look like a skeleton.” My mom took me to a Dietitian to help me gain back the unintended weight loss. I didn’t want to gain it back. I purposefully cut the portions my mom served me in half and continued the daily workouts despite the fatigue. I was eating less than 500 calories a day. My mom would bring me an Ensure and sit there while I drank it. Slowly but surely, I started getting back to a healthy weight and more comments started rolling in. Those same people that had told me I had looked great said they were so happy I was healthy again. “You were scary skinny there for a while! You look so much better with some meat on your bones. Julianne’s back!” I had no desire to restrict my intake again but I was so stressed about looking good, performing well in school, and having friends. I felt great, healthy, happy and was no longer suffering from my illness. But, I became obsessed with being healthy, clean eating and exercise. I rarely skipped a workout and refused to eat anything processed or containing sugar. I spent an insane amount of energy and focus on what I was putting into my body and guilt would consume me if I had a bit of anything outside my restrictions. I wasn’t starving anymore but I was still restricted, I still wasn’t feeding my body.
Fast forward again to college, my experience with my Dietitian inspired me to become one. Earning a dual degree in Dietetics and Exercise Physiology, working part time, fostering dogs from the local shelter, playing a club sport, and maintaining a long distance relationship left me stressed. Unbelievably stressed. Some days I would just breakdown and cry because I didn’t know how to handle it. “How can I afford to go out this weekend? I’m not playing well. Things are falling apart. I’m too stupid to do well in this class. I’m overweight. I need to lose 10 pounds and get leaner to be a better athlete. I need to look better for my partner” were all thoughts that circled through my mind. I didn’t know where to turn to. So I turned to food. I found myself bingeing on anything I could get my hands on. Eating entire boxes of crackers in one siting, reaching for cookies anytime I had a disagreement with a partner or got a grade lower than I wanted, or eating a jar of peanut butter with a spoon while thinking about how unhappy I was with my appearance. I would come too half way through an box and realize what I was doing. I was conscious but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t put the food down. I couldn’t stop the negative self talk. I didn’t have the skills to cope with the stress I was under and I couldn’t go for help. I was going to become a dietitian and I couldn’t even control my own diet? I was embarrassed. I was stuck in an endless cycle of stressing about my life and my body and stress eating because of it. I was absolutely miserable.
I wasn’t strong enough to go for help or ask for it. I couldn’t let myself be vulnerable enough to talk about it. Luckily, I found ways to slowly heal myself. Practicing yoga and mindfulness helped me control and alleviate unnecessary stress. Most stressors are temporary and stressing over things that you can’t control has no positive place in your life. Remind yourself what is truly important. For me, the people I love, the places I love, and the things I love doing are truly important. So yeah, I got a C in Organic Chemistry but that in no way takes away from my worth as a person or the love in my life. Taking up intuitive eating and practicing it helped me stop the overeating eating and guilt/shame cycle that I had been stuck in for so long. I can look back now and realize how misguided I was. I was depriving myself an starving both my body and mind. The cycle of deprivation and self-hate seems endless until you step outside of it. Focusing on eating foods that make me feel good and that my body wants and craves has allowed me to have so much more flexibility and enjoyment out of my diet. I still eat nutritious meals but damn you if you think I’m not going to eat a chocolate chip cookie when I want it. I fuel my body and it thanks me for it. No restrictions, no deprivation, no strict guidelines. I listen to my body and I respect my body.
I found an appreciation for my body and what it can do for me through the outdoors. Every climb, every hike, every run, I thank my body for making me strong and for carrying me. I will never be naturally model thin and that’s okay. My body and my curves have taken me further than I could have ever hoped to go. When I’m in the wild, my mind never wonders to the scale or to my appearance. In the wild, it doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters what you can do. I have never felt more beautiful than when I’m dirt-crusted and flushed from hiking, surrounded by nature’s beauty and feeling sunbeams on my face. I have never felt stronger and more powerful than when I’m out on rock leading a climb. I love my arms for taking me higher than I’ve ever been before. I take pride in my muscular thighs for being able to hike 20 miles and still have energy to keep going. Walking up hill and feeling my thighs pump with effort, I smile at the power in my legs. Living in freedom gave me the freedom to love myself. All of myself. My messy, lioness hair, my easily sunburned Irish skin, my lopsided smile, and my oddly shaped toes all make me who I am and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am never more myself than when I’m sweaty, dirty, and happy. All this time when I had been thinking of myself as weak for not being able to lose weight, I was actually strong and powerful. I am a beautiful force of nature.