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.

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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?

Let’s connect!

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The following post, “Living in a Grey World” is an essay I contributed to the website Stigma Fighters, a non-profit mental health organization dedicated to helping real people with mental illness, back in April.  I was approached by SF because of my posts addressing my struggles with anxiety, emotional eating, and bulimia nervosa.  I think it’s crucial that people struggling with mental illness speak out and let others hear their voices and stories.  I wanted to share my story with my readers.

The first time I ever purged was in the bathroom of a Friendly’s restaurant at the age of 15. I had just finished eating a Colossal Burger, french fries, and chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and gummy bears.  You may be thinking, “after eating that combination of food no wonder you felt sick!” — This was true.  It was a lot of food, but it wasn’t the food that made me sick; it was how I felt about what I had eaten that was making me sick to my stomach.

After I had been finished regurgitating the $16.00 lunch my mother and father had bought me, I felt this immediate calm rush over me.  This feeling of peace which felt like a hug or a heated blanket, it was that comforting.

I thought, “I feel better. I’m okay.”

I felt better than before I had eaten.  It’s as if I had never eaten.

This “event” (as I will refer to it) started a fifteen-year battle, which I still must contend with every day.

See, back then I thought of bulimia as a skill, and for me, it was.   I could eat all the time, and all I had to do was make myself “get rid of it.”

I felt powerful.

However, even way back then, I knew that this wasn’t something I should do all the time.

I said to myself, “I’ll only use it on weekends.”

“I’ll only use it at holidays.”

However, this “control” I was so pleased about — being able to “get rid of” food I would overeat — started shifting into every weekend and then, unfortunately, over time, every day.

After I had graduated from high school, I moved out to Denver from New Hampshire to live with my best friend.

It was my first time living on my own.  I was 2000 miles away from my family.  It was at this point in my life, where I was purging up to five times a day.

However, I wasn’t overeating every day.  No.  I was purging after the consumption of reasonable amounts of food.  I couldn’t stand the way anything felt in my stomach.  The instant I would feel food or liquid in my belly, I would immediately start to panic.  I could feel myself expanding.  I thought I looked fatter.  My jeans were tight around my waist.  This feeling couldn’t be just in my head; I could physically feel my body reacted whenever I ate.

I couldn’t rest until  I could “get rid of” what I had consumed.  If I didn’t evacuate my system, fast, this feeling would overwhelm me.

To the people around me, I looked healthy.  I wasn’t underweight.  At times I was slightly overweight.  However, people started to notice that I wasn’t myself.  I was much more anxious and much less happy.  I made comments about my weight 24/7.  I made comments about what everybody else was eating.  As you can imagine, the relationship I had with my best friend became very shaky.  In fact, we spent over two years not speaking to one another as a result of the person I had become.

I started therapy to work on my bulimia and emotional eating issues and got to a point for a while when I wasn’t purging at all.  However, to make up for the lack of control I had with the food I was eating, I decided to take up an excessive amount of exercise.

I would run five miles to work, be on my feet all day long, and then run the five miles home and then some.  Every day.  I thought that it was healthy for me.  I mean, I was exercising, right?  Surely cardio is better than sticking your fingers down your throat multiple times a day.

However, my exercise obsession soon caught up with me.  I would give myself heat stroke, flu-like symptoms from dehydration, and my hair started to get coarse and thin.  My therapist told me that I was replacing one compulsive behavior for another and that we should start paying closer attention to my “triggers.”

I thought, “Lady, I don’t have any triggers other than the fact that I have to eat and I hate the way it makes me feel!

I kept food journals.  I wrote down what I had to eat.  I wrote down how I felt before and after I ate.  I documented the times I exercised and purged.  I visited a nutritionist.  I visited a psychiatrist.  I tried anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, and meditation.

I still obsessed over food and felt it’s complete control over me.

After I had graduated from college, I moved to New York.  I moved in with a boyfriend who was a secret alcoholic and 14 years my senior.  I was a secret emotional eater and bulimic and 24 years old.  You can only guess what this choice did for my eating disorder issues, I’m sure.

At first, as with any relationship, things were great.  We were in love, and things were perfect (well, as perfect as they could be).  I got a job, settled into life, and tried to keep a balanced diet and exercise.  I kept my bulimia issues a secret.  I would get up in the middle of the night to eat hidden food and then would purge in the bathroom.  I would binge eat on my lunch break and purge in the bathroom in the warehouse where nobody could hear me.  I guess in those days I thought, “as long as nobody knows I’m doing this and get away with it, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

What wonderful logic, huh?

If a bulimic person binges and purges when no one’s around, did it happen?  If only it were that easy to ignore.

As two people living with addictive personalities will clash, my boyfriend at the time and I started to bring out the worst in each other.  I drove him to drink, and he drove me to bulimia.  It was an awful cycle.   It was at this point that I officially switched from binging and purging and moved into emotional eating.

I didn’t care about having friends or doing anything with my life.  I just cared about making myself numb by eating all the time.  When I went to the doctors for a yearly pap smear, they weighed me.  I weighed over 150 pounds.  I had never weighed that much in my life.  As a 5 foot tall girl, this was considerably overweight for my frame.  I became emotional.  It was as if it was the first time I had felt anything for months, but it wasn’t a good feeling.

I decided I had to do something.  I knew I was unhappy.  And I knew that what I was doing to myself was much bigger than what I could understand.  I decided to go back to a therapist, but this time I was going to be selective.  I couldn’t pick a decent boyfriend.  I couldn’t control myself with food.  However, I could control who I chose to help me get myself back.

My therapist’s specialties were eating disorders and anxiety; the two things from which I was suffering.  I never understood how much anxiety I had until I worked with her. I also never understood that it was the root of my problem.  Therapy helped me to understand the patterns of my behavior and how my underlying anxiety contributed to my disordered eating.

For once in my life, I felt like I was capable of understanding my behavior.

I learned that the cycle I was trapping myself in was something I could gain control over.

A couple of times, like during the recession when I couldn’t find a steady job and while my father was dying from cancer, I did relapse.

After I lost my father in 2011, I decided to change my life and take hold of my health.

I became a fitness instructor, certified personal trainer, and certified nutrition specialist.  I educated myself about exercise and food and how to use the two in a respectful and balanced manner.  I also started a blog, so I could talk about my passion for wellness and living a happy life.

In November, I married the love of my life, and in March I moved to Scotland to live with him.

My logic is no longer about all or nothing, black or white, and yes or no decisions.

I live in a grey world, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I’m linking up with Amanda at Running with Spoons for Thursdays are for Thinking Out Loud.

Do you feel that mental illness is seen as a stigma?  For more information on Stigma Fighters and their mission click here.

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