How a Popular Weight Loss Program Relapsed My Eating Disorder

How a Popular Weight Loss Program Relapsed My Eating Disorder

Hey, guys!  In the spirit of the new year, I have been bombarded with diet and meal plan emails.  It can be overwhelming and how can you ever be sure which program might work best for you?  Today, I’m linking up with Amanda at Running with Spoons for Thinking Out Loud to talk about my personal experience with how a popular weight loss program relapsed my eating disorder. 

How a Popular Weight Loss Program Relapsed My Eating Disorder

“Lose 10 pounds or your money back.”

“Fit into your little black dress without giving up cake.”

“Lose 10 pounds, and we’ll give you money back.”

I want to say right now, that this post is not bashing meal plans or weight loss franchises.  I have advised people on fitness nutrition, and I always encourage people to do what works for them.  

But are some of these meal plans just too generalized in nature?  Or worse, are some of them causing people to develop issues with food?

As I’ve written before, I struggled with bulimia nervosa and emotional eating, for over a decade.  When I was 19, I became obsessed with only eating specific foods and running twice a day.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I just knew that I had to be thin, and I didn’t like having to make myself ‘physically ill’ all the time.

On a typical day, I would eat half of a dry, plain bagel and a black coffee for breakfast.  The other half of the bagel and a diet coke for lunch (followed by several diet cokes throughout the day), and then I would maybe pick at my dinner or eat my absolute favorite thing ever, a Subway whole wheat sub with just mustard and pickles.   If I were feeling adventurous, I would have some diet jello or sugar-free pudding.

Paired with running twice a day naturally led to a large weight loss.  I was extremely restrictive, and it was paying off.

Then, I met the boyfriend I would have all through college, and I got “comfortable.”  He loved to go out to eat and take me to do different activities that usually started, involved or ended with us eating some delicious (but not so good for us) type of foods.  As you can probably imagine, I put on all the weight I had lost plus about 15 pounds.  I knew I had gotten heavier, but was feeling happy, so I didn’t fixate on it so much.

Then, about a year after we started dating, I transferred to a college back in New Hampshire, and that’s when reality hit me.  I was suddenly surrounded by beautiful, thin girls in all of my classes and I felt totally disgusting in my skin.  I sat and compared how much weight I had to lose to look like one of them.

Good ‘ol comparison, right; the thievery of our joy.

My college roommate had been interested in losing weight, and my mother had discovered that our health insurance covered weight loss program costs.

I was excited because I assumed that signing up for a popular program meant that it would help me learn how to eat a regular, balanced diet.

And for a person without previous issues like mine that was probably an accurate assumption to make.  Before I knew it, it triggered me into a fully blown relapse of my bulimia with a big side of emotional eating.

Trigger #1:  You can only have this many ____ a day.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we all need to know there’s a stopping point.  However, for an individual with restrictive eating, bulimia nervosa, and emotional eating issues, telling me I can only have this many of anything automatically made me slip back into “control” mode.  Again, I’m not suggesting that people not be told, “you must stay within a calorie/macros/whatever” range if they are looking to lose weight.  It’s that I had just gone from one extreme to another and now I was given the green light to start on my way to being told: “you can only have.”  These are four words that have not and probably won’t ever work for me on my journey.

I was desperate, though, I wanted to lose the weight, and knew how it made me feel to starve myself or binge and purge, and that wasn’t a place I wanted to head back.

Trigger #2:  You can have this much more if you exercise.

Okay, so, truth be told I was doing rather well the first month of the program.  I lost 8 pounds and had started eating as normally as a college kid could.  I made sure to eat balanced meals with carbs, proteins, and fats.  However, I was a college kid.  People were going out drinking on the weekends and being honest, eating a self-serve frozen yogurt bar for lunch every day appealed to me.  I started to feel the burn of the restriction, and it was taking its toll.

To my delight, at the next weigh-in I had, the attendant gave me a hand out all about how I could “earn” more food per day if I upped my activity level.

Yippee, I was going to hit the gym between my morning classes and then make it rain at the frozen yogurt bar on campus during lunch.


And that’s what I did. In fact, I didn’t limit it to the frozen yogurt bar.  I would workout for 4 hours on a Saturday so that I could drink cosmopolitans and eat chili cheese fries.  I would figure out how many calories, sugar, and fats were in everything I wanted to eat and then I would know how many hours I had to workout to eat those foods and still lose weight.

All the while, I didn’t understand that my obsession with working out was a form of bulima nervosa also called “exercise bulimia” and it is just as dangerous, maybe more so than the average “I’m just going to use the bathroom” variety is.

The bad habits were already back in town, and they were about to get squatter’s rights pretty quickly.

Trigger #3:  You can eat whatever you want as long as you stay within the ______ range.

College is a stressful time for everyone, but it is especially stressful for me because I had never really been that dedicated to being a good student.  However, I knew my parents were breaking themselves to pay for me to get a good education, so I would study and pull all-nighters to make sure that my grades would make them proud.  I was working part-time at a call center to earn money for my daily needs.   I also had a long-distance relationship that was difficult.

I think it was this stage in my life when I started to develop my emotional eating issues.  If I wasn’t feeling stressed, I was feeling directionless.  If I wasn’t feeling directionless, I was feeling lonely.  If I wasn’t worried about something, I was focusing on how empty I felt inside.

What better to fill a void than a pint (or two) of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?  I mean, technically on my plan, I could eat whatever, “as long as I stayed within my ____range.”

I could eat a pint of ice cream or a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s if I wanted to.  All I had to do was rework the rest of my food for the day to allow for the ice cream, burgers, and late night taco bell I was eating.

So, I would eat frozen broccoli for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so that I could eat my crap foods and still get away with losing weight.

Living like this felt balanced because before it just felt like I couldn’t eat those things and also lose weight.  But with the “get out jail free” vibe of this program, I could not only do hours of cardio to avoid weight gain, but I could also eat frozen vegetables to allow for my weekend bar visits and new junk food obsession.

Until one week when I went to weigh-in, and I discovered that I had gained two pounds.

[Tweet “How a Popular Weight Loss Program Relapsed My Eating Disorder #EatingDisorders #SelfImprovement #Wellness via @BeetsPerMinute”]

All hell broke loose, let me tell you.

I asked the girl weighing me in, “how is this possible, I’ve covered myself so that this wouldn’t happen?”  She said, “these things happen all of the time; it could be water weight, your menstrual cycle, stress — you’ve had a steady weight loss so I wouldn’t get too hung up on it if you’re following the ‘rules.'”  She then offered to look at one of my food logs to see if I was doing something incorrectly.  I said, “oh I don’t need a food log, it’s all in my head.”  She said, “Oh dear, you really should write it all out so that you can get a better understanding of your way of eating.”

And that’s when it became apparent to me; I was obsessing all day, every day about what I had eaten, how much, what to eat next, and how much exercise I had to do to be able to have a beer on Friday night.  Still, I was determined not to have the scale go up at a weigh-in ever again.  If that meant I had to up my game, so be it.

I was careful that week following the “gaining episode,” and when I went to the weigh-in, I discovered that not only had I lost the two pounds gained, but three more pounds on top of it.

The weigh-in clerk said, “see, I told you that it was just a one-off kind of thing and are you writing everything down like I suggested last time?”  I lied and told her yes.

I was so pleased with myself.  I had total control again.

Until I didn’t.

An eating disorder is a slippery slope, and I was about to be going headfirst down a mudslide.  It wasn’t long after that weigh-in that the final weeks of the spring semester began.  I was completely stressed out with papers and exams to prepare for along with the weight of working at a job where people were rude to me on the phone every day. One of my high school friends had suddenly died in a car accident.  I was having issues with my reproductive system. My relationship wasn’t going great.

So, naturally, the one thing I still had control over was my weight and winning at the weigh-in scale each week.  I wasn’t giving that up.  When I would buy a party sized bag of Doritos during an all-night paper writing session, and I didn’t have enough energy to go to the gym the next morning, it called for desperate measures.

I received shiny ribbons for all my weight loss achievements.  I stuck on them on the refrigerator door to serve as a reminder not of what I had achieved but of how much control I believed I had over my life.

That’s when I started to binge and purge again.  I had completely reverted to a version of myself that I thought I had left behind me.  Eventually, I reached my goal weight and was encouraged to start a “maintenance” program to keep my weight off.

I received shiny ribbons for all my weight loss achievements.  I stuck them on the refrigerator door to serve as a reminder —  not of what I had achieved — but of how much control I (believed) to have over my life.

I also continued to lose weight, so I could no longer go to weigh-ins anymore for fear that I would be called out for going “too far.”  Let’s be honest; I had abandoned that program before I even actually started it.

They designed this program for someone who was ready to handle all aspects of their issues with their body, weight, and self.

That sure as hell wasn’t me.  In fact, it wasn’t until I started seeing a psychologist for my anxiety and insomnia that she pointed out to me how much this weight loss program had triggered me back into a destructive pattern of control and disorder.

I knew how many program units were in everything I was eating and drinking.  I knew how many miles I had to run to earn back an Oreo McFlurry, but if you asked me about something happening in the world around me, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Including knowing anything about myself.

At the suggestion of my therapist, I started seeing a nutritionist and taking anxiety medication to try and get myself back from this relapse.

I wish I could say it was the last relapse before my choice to fully recover (well, as best we can fully recover) but it wouldn’t be.

Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t joined that program, I might have figured out a better way that didn’t send me quite so over the edge, but everything happens for a reason.

As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  This program has worked for many people, and I’m by no means saying it doesn’t promote a healthy approach to eating and fitness, but whether it was bad timing or not it was not a good program for me.

Recovery isn’t one size fits all and what matters most is that we eventually find a way to make peace within ourselves and our need to control everything outside of ourselves.

I am thankful that I was able to do this and so much more.

Have you ever had a similar experience with a weight loss program? Do you find weight loss programs to be helpful?

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  1. January 14, 2016 / 11:11 am

    At my previous job, I worked with those who had eating disorders and there was a female with a very similar story as yours. I love the quote “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Dieting and exercise starts off like that and then it can (not all the time) become obsessive.

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 11:15 am

      That quote is something I try to remember all the time, Hollie. I just wanted to share an example of how even when we set out to change our behaviors it can take a turn. It is a very common story, you’re right. I was lucky that I was able to continue to work my way out of it. And it is work! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. January 14, 2016 / 12:23 pm

    While I can’t relate to a weight-loss program triggering my eating disorder, it’s definitely something that started out super innocently and quickly spiralled out of control. I was going through a really stressful transition period at the time, so I figured that I would try to clean up my diet a little bit and get healthier. Well, one thing led to another, and pretty soon I was the unhealthiest I’ve ever been and knocking on Death’s door. It’s funny… we do all those things because we want to be in control, when really it’s the disease that controls us 😕

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 12:29 pm

      I’m happy that you’re on the other side of it now, Amanda. You’re very right, our desire for that control ends in us being controlled by the disease. It’s a very personal experience for each of us but I feel like we could all basically tell the same story about ourselves. Thanks for sharing! <3

  3. January 14, 2016 / 1:36 pm

    This is SO true. The more I would swing back and forth between ‘losing a bit of weight’ through a new diet or cleanse, the more I became focused back on my body. The more God focused my mind on seeking His kingdom and NOT a perfect body, the more freedom I’ve had, for which I’m so thankful. <3 Thank you for writing this!

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 1:41 pm

      Thank you, Emily! As soon as we commit to what we really want to focus on, only then the breakthrough can happen. At the end of the day, we have a greater purpose and spending time and energy harming ourselves over control and perfection is time we can’t get back. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. January 14, 2016 / 1:51 pm

    It is so important to take these programs as a guideline and not let them overtake outlives I’m sure your story is that of many others. Thanks for sharing the real that it is.

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 2:04 pm

      I have actually worked with women as clients on this same program and their stories are similar to mine (not as extreme). I don’t like to demonize certain approaches to weight loss but I see a definite pattern with people ending up with the controlling and ritualistic behaviors after losing weight depending on the way they’ve gone about it. It’s easy for things to get out of control. That’s why I’m so thankful that I’ve found a happy medium for myself and a passion for helping others with the same issues. Thanks for reading and sharing, Ivanna!

  5. January 14, 2016 / 2:09 pm

    This is such an interesting perspective – I’ve never suffered from an ED, but I can see how it happens. When I was losing weight, I saw how easy it would be to abuse “weight loss rules” and interpret them to support bad and dangerous habits!

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 2:21 pm

      It can happen to anyone. I recently worked with a client who had the same experience. It was not a relapse like mine but a full-blown eating disorder. The issues are deeper than the plan, but how some plans might be designed to trigger certain people into that control mindset. Thanks so much for reading and sharing, Morgan! 🙂

  6. January 14, 2016 / 3:30 pm

    I was hooked, word for word, on reading this.

    You are always so brilliantly honest in words, and although I have been fortunate enough myself, to have not had an eating disorder, when I become conscious of being overweight, I set out a plan, and lost nearly 3 stone. At that point Lynne was saying I was too thin. I took heed and took up the lifestyle I live now. Otherwise it might have gone too far.

    This serves as a great reminder to show how being in control can actually lead to loss of control.

    Thanks for sharing what must sometimes be times in your life which were extremely difficult. And possibly painful for you relive again, when writing.

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 3:53 pm

      Thank you, Neil. That means so much. Losing weight and getting fit can become a compulsion for people when other aspects of their life are chaotic. You’re lucky that you had Lynne to look out for you and a clear perspective about what your goal was. There’s nothing more tedious and discouraging than trying to control what’s outside of us because it always bounces back to controlling ourselves in unhealthy ways. It’s still a struggle, but it does get easier. Thanks for your kind thoughts! 🙂

  7. January 14, 2016 / 4:29 pm

    Yes, the “dieting” mindset is easily one that turns obsessive. Even with ones that are flexible like IIFYM you can take them to extremes by worrying about weighing everything, eating when you aren’t hungry because you have calories left, or eating weird things to meet certain numbers. I think the answer isn’t always one extreme or another, but in the shades of color in between. Little changes add up, are less restrictive, and can actually be fun in the process. Awesome points in your post!

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 4:34 pm

      Yes, especially IIFYM. I know people have success with it and, again, different things work for different people. I definitely agree that the happy medium is where it’s at. One of my posts earlier this week was all about how I finally got to that point. I also agree with making the smaller changes and progressing to better choices. No more “all or nothing” thinking. Thank you so much for your input and for stopping by! 🙂

  8. January 14, 2016 / 6:24 pm

    How scary. I haven’t had an eating disorder myself but I do see how the control trap and the verbiage these diets and fads use could negatively affect any view of food. I’m victim of the “if you work out you can have this…” myself! Good for you for getting out of that.

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 7:01 pm

      Thank you, Rachel. This particular program works really well for most people, but I do know that I’m not the only person to have relapsed or developed disordered eating habits from it. I think it’s totally fine to balance treats out with the fact that you work hard, it’s like any extreme (like mine was) that definitely creates a dangerous line to cross. Thank you so much for your thoughts! 🙂

  9. January 14, 2016 / 7:55 pm

    This was such a compelling post! I have a hard time with the “X amount” as well. In fact, even using Myfitness Pal is sometimes even too much for me. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Erin
      January 14, 2016 / 8:00 pm

      I definitely feel that way about Myfitness Pal too, but again, it works amazingly for some people. This is a topic that could definitely use some research, but I think that kind of detailed journaling and tracking drives certain personality types mad. I know it does for me, as this post proves! Thanks for reading, Heather!

  10. January 15, 2016 / 2:30 am

    For me it was all about the sense of control, eating and exercising were the two things I could fully control in my life…. So I went to the extreme. I didnt have any experience with any programmes but I know for sure articles from ‘Health’ and ‘Women’s Health’ etc sure didn’t help me 🙁

    • Erin
      January 15, 2016 / 10:01 am

      It is about control. I know that my relapse was partly the program, but mostly the fact that I was stressed out and felt like I had no control over anything that was happening. Many people say that’s what all this “fitspo” stuff is doing to people too. Making people feel very black and white about why their body is a certain way. While it sucks to go through these things, it’s also great to get on the other side of it. Thanks for sharing, Jen! x

  11. January 15, 2016 / 9:36 am

    If you’ve had an ED, any diet can definitely spur on old habits :(! Thanks for your honesty Erin. I totally agree that diet programs need to do a thorough background check of the client’s health history. Eating disorders are so real and common and these precautions need to be taken! It’s as much the health professional’s responsibility as it is the person in question.

    • Erin
      January 15, 2016 / 10:04 am

      Thank you, Khushboo. I also agree that there needs to be more support and discussion within some of these programs to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen. I take responsibility for my part of it, but I definitely think there were red flags there that someone should have caught. They all rely on personal responsibility, but it’s definitely worth getting a full history prior. I totally agree there. I do that with my clients. Thanks for your kind words! 🙂

  12. January 17, 2016 / 8:45 pm

    It’s definitely true that there can be too much of a good thing. When I started exercising again after getting into recovery, I of course took it to the extreme. It took me awhile to finally realize the damage I was doing. Glad you recognized it and got back on track!

    • Erin
      January 18, 2016 / 1:07 pm

      Thanks, Erin! Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into those patterns during the recovery process. What starts out as something positive can easily shift into a toxic obsession. It’s all a process! Thanks for sharing!

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