Saturday, July 16, 2016

When did your weight become an issue? My experience with Binge Eating Disorder.

When asked how long I've struggled with my weight, my glib response is, "Since birth."

I weighed 10lb 8oz at birth. God bless my mother.

In all sincerity, I have been either overweight or obese nearly my entire life. I'm sure a lot of things contributed to that. I didn't like going outside to play. I really liked snacks. I mean, who doesn't?

Food became an issue for me when it became something other than a way to nourish myself. I turned to food when I was sad, bored, anxious, angry, or simply numb. I didn't realize I was doing it, but it eventually became a habit. Food became comfort when I couldn't find it elsewhere.

Consuming a half gallon of ice cream and a family pack of Oreos in one sitting? No problem.
50 jelly-filled donut holes? Piece of cake!
Speaking about all of it? You betcha.
A whole package of Klondike Bars? At least once a week during the summer months.

I have a mental rap sheet about a mile long indicative of my binge eating "street cred".

At 25 years old, and weighing over 300 pounds, I truly couldn't envision my future. I even experienced somewhat of a "quarter-life crisis"; I was shocked I had survived to 25 and didn't quite know what to do next. I spent many years eating myself to death with foods that were more likely to poison than nourish.

Shortly after I turned 25, I faced the reality of my relationship with food* for the first time: I have an eating disorder. 

To claim you have an eating disorder as an obese woman seems almost laughable. When discussing eating disorders, most people think of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, both serious disorders that can result in major health issues, or even death, as a result of starvation. Only in recent years has binge eating disorder (BED) gained a bit more visibility, aided by the mental health field finally recognizing BED as an official mental disorder in 2013.

For the first time, things clicked. It was somewhat comforting to know this thing I experienced for so many years was real, and experienced by many other people. There are actually other human beings who go to the kitchen for a midnight snack, and scarf it down while standing at an open refrigerator in a dark kitchen. I was not alone.

Once I understood the gravity of my situation, I knew I needed to take action. I suffered a number of ailments due to overeating, and I couldn't let myself continue in these patterns. I knew I needed to improve my health and regain my life. And I knew I couldn't do it alone.

I began researching bariatric surgery.

I was convinced that gastric bypass was my only option to regain my health. After attending an information session at the hospital, I made an appointment for a consultation. I spoke with all my doctors, who were agreeable to my decision. And I began trying to lose weight on my own, which was prerequisite for the surgery.

Two months later and 40 pounds lost, I cancelled my consultation. I began to believe that I could actually do this on my own, and chose to avoid going under the knife.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Why, you may ask?

Bariatric surgery is an amazing, though drastic, tool that has helped many people regain great quality of life, or even save their lives in general. It is intended as a tool to make you feel hungry more quickly by reducing the size of your stomach. As someone who has spent about two decades ignoring their hunger cues, I began to realize that this is not the tool for me; I certainly didn't get to 300+ pounds by honoring my body's internal cues of "Hey, you can stop eating now. I don't think I can take any more!" I also have a hunch that this is also why a significant number of people who opt for bariatric surgery end up regaining some or all of their weight.

From that point forward, I chose to continue on my path without surgical intervention. That path has been anything but straight, short, and sweet. There has been quite a bit of a leanring curve involved over the past few years, trying to figure out what works for me and what does not, regarding dietary approaches, exercise preferences, and my well-being in general. I'll save those experiences for different posts on another day.

Instead of going under the knife, I chose to begin focusing on treating the root of the issue (emotional binge eating) rather than the symptom (excess weight). I sought help from a number of resources: health care providers (therapist who specialized in treatment of eating disorders in the obese, nutritionist who subscribed to intuitive eating principles), various organizations and support groups, Overeaters Annonymous, and numerous self-help books. Through these resources I began to develop a toolbox that has aided me in navigating the struggle of living with BED. Some of the most helpful tools are practicing mindfulness while eating, meditating, physical activity, journaling (especially noting hunger scale and potential triggers), and building a support group of family, friends, and specialists who have helped me most when I have felt helpless.

Perhaps the greatest "reset" tool I accidentally found was the power of fasting to reset biological hunger cues. A little over a year ago, I realized on a Saturday evening that I had not eaten anything that day - not in an attempt to purposely restrict, but simply because they day was very busy, and I just forgot! Nothing like going a day without food to realize just how hungry you are. I remember mindfully eating my first meal after my inadvertent fast, checking in with myself to see where I was on the hunger scale. For the first time in a very long time, I remembered experiencing the physical sensations of hunger and satiaion. It was good to find this as a tool, to be used sparingly, when my hunger cues need a hard reset.

Above all else, I have learned the importance of being patient and gentle with myself in this process.

Do not misunderstand me - I continue to struggle with BED. This isn't something I have completely overcome and never have to address, and it's quite possible I will need to manage this the rest of my life. There are a few good points, though. First, it's a struggle! To me, this is a vast improvement over apathy or succumbing to hopelessness. Second, the more I practice using the tools I've acquired, the less intense the struggle gets. The battle of BED used to be oppressive, consuming much of my day. Recently I have struggled less frequently - perhaps once every few weeks. I've recognized patterns in my life and habits that contribute to the cravings that lead to a binge, and practice avoiding these patterns as much as possible. Some periods of time are better than others; I can go a few weeks with no interest to binge, or even any food cravings, while other weeks might present a daily challenge. Just this week I've binged twice, and I began to feel really discouraged.**

Though I may feel discouraged at the moment, I do know now that I am not alone. I know that many other people have similar issues. Many struggle on their own, not knowing that there are resources and tools available to help them if they so wish. I've included a short list of resources, linked below, that I've personally found quite helpful. If you are struggling with emotional eating, overeating, or binge eating, you may find some of these helpful. You might also find something even more relevant out there that might pertain more particularly to your specific situation. If you wish to seek help, please know you are not alone.

National Eating Disorders Association
Binge Eating Disorder Association
Overeaters Annonymous

5 Steps to Break Free from Binge Eating
Break Bad Eating Habits With Intermittent Fasting
Intuitive Eating
Geneen Roth (author)


*-A very dear friend once brought up a valid point. It is impossible to have a relationship with food, as food is not a sentient being. I rarely use this phrase since then, but it seemed appropriate in looking back to tell my story.

**-I actually started this post, with an intent to share my story with BED, two weeks ago. I believe feeling discouraged has encouraged me to complete and publish this post, in the hopes that maybe it will help someone out there.

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