Calorie Counting Isn't An Eating Disorder, But It's Disordered Eating
Eating disorders aren't always glaringly obvious or by-the-book. When we think of eating disorders, we, for the most part, immediately think of anorexia or bulimia. We think of starving or bingeing and purging. But, there are so many other variations of disordered eating that don’t have a name.
What I did to myself for nearly two years was not necessarily a classifiable eating disorder, but it was extremely disordered eating.
When I returned from a study abroad trip in Australia, I noticed I’d gained a considerable amount of weight. It was a six-week program and they didn’t allow us access to a gym unless we paid extra. I went for a few runs outdoors here and there, but mostly, I just ate a lot and drank a lot.
I was ashamed of how much I had let myself go, even though when I stepped on the scale at home, my weight hadn’t actually changed. I just converted my muscle to fat.
This was something I couldn’t accept. I played three sports in high school and lived an extremely active lifestyle up until college. I’m not talking about hitting the gym every once in a while — I worked my ass off every day after school for as long as I can remember. Not being thin and fit felt like losing a part of my identity.
When you’re young and active like I was, you can eat whatever you want and see no physical changes or consequences. It was hard for me to let go of that.
While I was in Australia, I experienced the onset of a latent gastrointestinal disorder that became chronic. All of the foods that I loved began to make me sick. I didn’t have any choice except to restrict. That’s what it was about in the beginning, anyway.
I started out being sort of gluten free and recording everything I ate in MyFitnessPal, the iPhone app. If you plug your height and weight into the app, it tells you how many calories you need to eat every day in order to lose weight. I wanted to lose two pounds per week.
I am 6 feet tall and at the start of this, I weighed 165 pounds. MyFitnessPal recommended that I eat 1,200 calories per day to lose two pounds per week. For those of you who aren’t familiar with daily caloric needs, the average person needs 2,000 to maintain weight and an active person needs 2,500. This app was telling me to eat just enough calories to survive.
And, I did.
I recorded every single thing I ate, every single day. I stopped eating bread, I stopped eating most meats, I stopped eating sweets and I stopped eating many of the foods I loved.
I recorded calories from vegetables, I recorded calories from fruits, I even recorded calories from gum and pills, like Tums. I started exercising every day, without fail. Nothing felt weird or wrong about this; I felt good. I felt like I was taking control of my health.
The pounds started melting off. I had my flat stomach back and my clothes were fitting a little looser. I felt amazing, I saw the changes and I wanted more of it. My initial goal was only to lose 10 pounds, and that came relatively quickly.
Once you reach your goal, it becomes addicting and you want to lose more. Once I was at 155 pounds, I wanted to get to 145 pounds. I vowed I would get there, and then I would stop.
My body was wasting away. My formerly muscular thighs were becoming twigs and my butt was nonexistent. My body wasn’t meant to be 145 pounds. It’s still within a healthy BMI, but I didn't look healthy.
I reached 145 pounds, and I still wanted more. I wanted to be less than 140 pounds, like I was in high school. Of course, looking back now, I realize how insane that sounds, but at the time, I was so blinded by my obsession that it seemed logical.
Food was my friend and my enemy. I forced myself to eat foods like Brussels sprouts that I never normally would have liked. I’d eat entire bags of frozen vegetables with a veggie patty as my dinner. I would drink water if I still felt hungry. There were days where I didn’t even eat 1,000 calories. On those days, I would go to bed early to avoid the hunger pains.
The only person who could pull me out of this obsession was myself. The constant restriction was not easy. There were many weekends when I would break habit and binge on anything and everything. Those binges were probably sustaining me from major health problems, considering I was probably grossly undernourished.
I started dating my now boyfriend around this time, who is a 6’4", 200-pound man, who loves to eat. He didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. We’d go out to eat together and I’d get upset afterward because I’d eaten too much.
He was concerned, but felt helpless and unable to make me realize I didn’t need to do what I was doing. He was patient with me and supported me through the ups and downs. I wouldn’t have gotten out of it without him.
Luckily, at my lowest, I still weighed 142 pounds. I never broke under 140, which is a goal I’m happy to not have accomplished.
I wish I could say the process of breaking out of these habits was simple and easy, but it was far from that. I felt constant guilt after eating normal portions. My stomach adjusted to the 1,200-calorie diet, so whenever I ate more than that, I felt sick.
I flip-flopped back and forth between counting and not counting. I saw food as numbers, not nourishment. I didn’t just decide one day to stop, it was a slow process of acceptance.
I deleted MyFitnessPal, confided in some friends what I was feeling and used their support to come up with a new plan. If I had to pick a specific turning point, I would say it was when I started lifting weights.
I set goals, made a plan and rebuilt my body back to how it was when I was an athlete. The difficulty of the exercises exhausted me and felt like such a release. I felt empowered and excited. I slowly noticed the changes in my body, and I was so happy with them. I wasn’t skinny anymore; I was strong.
To this day, lifting weights and eating clean makes me feel great about myself. Sure, I occasionally drink and binge on the weekends, and I still kick myself for it the following week. But, I’m young; I make mistakes. I go through phases and I take each day with a grain of salt.
I don’t see food as numbers anymore, and I don’t see myself as a number on the scale. As cheesy as it sounds, I try to look at myself in the mirror and be proud of the body I built.
I still worry what people think of me and I fear that I’m not thin enough. Some days are worse than others, but I am making my mental health and body image a priority in my life. This time, I want to do it the right way.
If you’re going through something similar, you may be in different stages of the process. You might feel in control and ecstatic about your thin body.
You might feel trapped and obsessed with your diet. You might feel afraid of spiraling out of control. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay. Lean on people you trust and find a safe way out of the obsession. This disorder isn’t your life; you are beautiful.
Don’t let your body or your diet define who you are. It’s so much easier said than done though, especially when it feels so good to achieve your goals and lose weight. But, you can still do that in a healthy way, and I promise when you find that way, it will be so much more satisfying.