This question comes to us from Aubrey in Missouri.
On July 19th this last year (two years after my brother’s car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury) I decided that I was going to change my life. I was 206 pounds, a *tight* size 15, and completely unhappy with my body. My goal weight was 140 pounds and I couldn’t wait to get started. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I have a rare condition called Exercise Induced Anaphylaxis. The condition makes it nearly impossible for me to exercise since I have it so badly. Whenever I get too hot or exercise enough to get hot I begin to go into anaphylactic shock (my throat and face swell, my skin gets red, and I struggle to breathe). Obviously, I knew that working out probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I continued to stay on my 1500 calories a day diet.
Eating healthy wasn’t always easy, but I stuck with it. Finally, I got down to 158 and a comfortable size 11. I was extremely proud of myself and my confidence levels were higher than ever! It was then that things started to get tough for me in my personal life, so I decided that I would take 5 days off of my diet. I continued to eat fairly healthy (outside of my one meal from Mcdonald’s). Although, I have to admit that I was eating an excessive amount of food, even if it was healthier food. Once I got back onto my diet things were so much harder. Suddenly I found myself going back into my old binging habits. I would eat only 1000 calories a day for a week, then I would fall off the wagon and eat 10,000 calories in a day. Now, I’m trying to control it, but it feels like the monster is out of it’s cage. I haven’t lost weight for months, and I’m back up to 170 pounds.
I feel helpless. The worse I feel, the worse I feel the need to binge. The cycle has started again and I don’t know how to stop it. I want to get back on track and lose more weight, but it feels like I can’t. It was so difficult for me to get this far, and now I feel like I’m just going backwards. I don’t want to struggle with my disorder like I used to. I just want to be beautiful and healthy.
Hi Aubrey. First off, I want to say that I’m very, very sorry to hear about your brother’s accident. What a horribly tragedy. I’m sure that watching him go through this has been incredibly difficult for you and for your family on many different levels. I do hope that you’re getting support for this.
First off, try to take a breath and calm down a bit. You lost almost 50 pounds, and you’ve only put 12 back on. This is salvageable and you don’t have to go back to where you were.
Sometimes, in an effort to “catch up,” or compensate for a binge, people will do things like reduce calories dramatically. Like you say that some weeks you only eat 1000 calories per day. That’s not sustainable. It’s not healthy and it will lead to one of two things– anorexia and loss of menstruation and eventual organ failure, or binge eating. Binge eating is usually the more common of the two because bodies will do what they can to survive.
In 1944, the University of Minnesota conducted a study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment which was done to learn about the effects of starvation and how to rehab those who were victims. For that they created a controlled famine.
Here’s the gist of it:
For 3 months, each participant was give 3,200 calories per day — which helped them to achieve or maintain their ideal weight.
For the next 6 months, each participant was given on average 1560 calories per day– which was considered semi-starvation. This amount of calories caused severe weight loss in people who were at their ideal weights. The idea was to induce people at their ideal weight lose 25% of their weight. So a 175 pound man would go down to 130 pounds. Pretty extreme.
For the next 3 months, each participant was given a controlled amount of calories to help them heal from their 6 months of starvation.
For the next 2 months, each participant was given the ability to eat whatever they wanted in unrestricted and uncontrolled amounts. Which resulted in bingeing and a preoccupation with food.
The results of the experiment showed that the participants experienced food obsession, binge eating, severe depression, and there was even self-harm when one of the participants amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation They also reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities.
So, why do I share this? Because I think that this mirrors your process in some ways. You went on a strict 1500 calorie per day diet and lost approximately 25% of your weight on it. You then went off of it and when you tried to go back, you became preoccupied with food.
So, that doesn’t mean that this is hopeless. Your ability to eat healthy is definitely intact.
Right now, in this very moment, make a decision to stop looking back right now and begin to look forward. Don’t try to make up for the weight that you’ve put back on, this will put you on a horrible roller coaster (like the 1000 calories per day some days and 10,000 calories per day on others.)
1.Stop counting calories. When you do, you put unrealistic constraints on yourself. If you decide to eat 1500 calories per day, and then you accidentally eat 1800 that day, you might find that your mind decides that you “ruined” it and that you wind up eating another 3000-5000 calories.
2.Decide that you are going to begin to love and respect your body and give it what it needs. Give yourself a variety of fruits, vegetable, grains, meats, dairy, whatever it is that your individual body needs.
3.Practice Intuitive eating– give your body the foods that it needs to run efficiently.
4.If you find that you would prefer to continue counting, I say to use a hunger and satiety scale.
-Decide that you will eat 3 meals per day and snacks if you need them.
-Rate your hunger on a scale from 1-10-. 1 being so hungry you could pass out, 5 being totally neutral and 10 being so full you could throw up.
-Don’t ever let yourself get so hungry that you’re under a 3- try to eat at a 3-4.
-Before you eat, check in with yourself and see how hungry you are. Write that number down in a journal.
-Try to eat slowly. Very slowly. In the middle of the meal, stop, put your fork down and see what number you are at. If you are at a 5 or below, continue to eat slowly, checking in with yourself at every few bites. Once you get to 6 (satisfied) put your fork down and be done with your meal. Write down what number you ended at for that meal.
-Check in with yourself several times during the day to see where your hunger is.
-Rather than counting calories, your goal is to eat at a 3-4 and stop at 6-7. You want to eat slowly and give your body what it needs.
-A guided meditation for mindful eating might be helpful as well.
5. As for exercise, you need to discuss appropriate ways to exercise with an exercise physiologist, an allergist, or sports medicine doctor. You might be able to do gentle things such as long, slow walks, or isometric exercises to help you tone up. Hard core cardio is obviously dangerous for you.
6.Get support. Don’t do this alone. Food issues and eating disorders thrive in isolation. Find a group of women who are learning how to let go of pejorative eating rituals (such as extreme calorie counting) and who want to learn to eat mindfully, intuitively and healthily together.
I hope that this answers your question and you’ve found this helpful.
Do you have a question about binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, or anything associated with eating disorders? Send an email to bingeeatingtherapy at gmail dot com. All questions will be kept confidential. Include your first name or the name you want to be referred to as and your location.