Today I spent the afternoon at a presentation by Andrea’s Voice author Doris Smeltzer. Ms. Smeltzer lost her 19 year old daughter, Andrea, to bulimia 11 years ago and now has a book and foundation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.
Andrea’s eating disorder began as a regular old diet that lots of 19 year olds wind up doing when they start college. Diets, of course can be deadly. And for so many reasons. There’s the obvious reason, where one can take a diet too far and become anorexic, but then there’s the other (and more common) reason. When people diet, they deprive themselves. Eventually, they will binge. And sometimes they will purge. The majority of binge eaters are also compulsive dieters. They always think “Oh, this time, this will be the diet that changes it all…” It’s not about willpower. Our psychological makeup doesn’t want us to restrict food. We are built to survive. So, when we go on a diet, willpower won’t help us to resist food. We are predisposed to find what we need when we have a belief that food is restricted or hard to come by. When we diet, we have the mentality, “can’t eat this, can’t eat that…” and a survival mechanism kicks in and we begin trying to eat everything we can get our hands on because we don’t know the next time we’ll let ourselves eat. Most people have a lot of black and white thinking about it. “I am going on a low carb diet starting tomorrow, so night, I should really eat everything I want since I won’t be able to for a long time.” Usually after 2 or 3 days (and often after 2 or 3 hours into the first day), it backfires and you’re bingeing again.
Andrea had only been exhibiting bulimic behavior for a year when she died. We forget how quick and deadly bulimia can be. Not only are you depriving yourself of nutrition, but when you purge and/or drink excessive water, you are changing the balance of your electrolytes. When certain electrolytes go out of balance (when your potassium levels drop) your heart can stop. It can happen in a moment and it can happen to anyone. Purging, starving, overexercising, or hyponatremia (O.D.ing on water) can cause it. I knew a woman who had a heart attack at the age of 26 from abusing laxatives. Fortunately, she lived through her trauma and recovered from her eating disorder. Many people aren’t that lucky. Remember Terri Schiavo? She was another casualty of an eating disorder. She suffered from cardiac arrest at the age of 27. The primary assessment was an electrolyte imbalance most likely due to purging and food restriction.
So, how can you become healthy? Go toward health! But what if you believe that you need to lose weight? You might, but you might not. Let yourself eat! But let yourself eat healthy, without forcing yourself to go hungry. Exercise! But not in a punishing way, do things that are fun for you. Go outside, play frisbee, basketball, go for a walk or a run on the beach or through your town, go on a bike ride. Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Go to farmer’s markets, find new produce, give your body what it needs to be strong.
For lots of people, giving up dieting also ends bingeing. Not for all people, but for chronic dieters who also happen to be compulsive binge eaters, ending the diet ends the binge. They are different sides of the same coin. Let go of one and the other goes away.
What’s really sad is that for every one person who is trying to be healthy and go toward healthy balanced mind and body, there are another 1000 people who are trying to push a certain diet plan. There is always some kind of promise of doing some kind of new revolutionary diet plan and finally becoming thin and therefore happy. There are all those commercials on TV with before and after pictures of people. In their before pictures they are large but miserable. In their after pictures they are slim and happy. They do testimonials about how they weren’t hungry at all on their diets, how they used to be miserable when they were large, but now that they are thin, their marriage is great, they are back in school, and they are rich! Whatever it is, each new diet not only promises a slimmer body, but a wealth of riches that come with it. A veritable smorgasbord of every jewel that life has to offer waits for you at the end of this diet.
It’s not true. You won’t find happiness in a diet. But you might find some more freedom and happiness in letting go of diets and going towards health. When you empower yourself to eat what your body needs when your body needs it and to exercise it enough, your body will reward you with energy and strength. Will you be thin? Maybe, but maybe not. When you go toward health you go toward the positive. You are trying to achieve something. When you go toward skinniness, you are going toward the negative, you are trying to lose something. Your body deserves love, no matter what size it is. Love comes in all different forms. Feed it lovingly with life affirming fresh food – don’t starve your body or punish it, don’t stuff it uncomfortably with artificial, unhealthy food. Exercise it lovingly and gently (and sometimes hard when you have the compunction). Don’t punish it by pushing it to exercise when you are tired or sick or injured. Give it kind words and send it loving messages instead of telling it that there is something wrong with it. This is yours! It’s the only body you get! It’s a gift and itt deserves to be cherished, treated with respect, love, and kindness.
You are beautiful just by the nature of being human. You might not look like Gisele Bundchen, but nobody does except for Gisele. You look like you, and that’s pretty great.