I’ve already had the great opportunity to speak with many women about their recovery from eating disorders and emotional eating (you can find the interviews here). I hope to regularly feature Q&As with individuals who’ve recovered from eating disorders, binge eating, negative body image or any kind of disordered eating. If you’d like to share your story of recovery, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at [email protected].
How many of you have dieted? How many have tried your best to stick to a diet but end up overeating? Or have a history of restricting your food and then binge eating? This is a common cycle for so many of us. A cycle that we rarely talk about. A cycle that brings us shame and makes us feel like failures. All of which takes us further and further away from honoring and listening to our bodies and our needs.
Binge eating is particularly prevalent. Binge eating disorder actually affects about 2 to 5 percent of the population, and is the most common of all eating disorders.
Whether you fit all the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder, one or two symptoms, or have struggled for years with yo-yo dieting, you know full well how devastating it can be. But, no matter how much you’ve struggled and for how long, you can get better. That’s a fact.
That’s why I’m thrilled to present part one of my interview with writer and health coach Eleanor Kohlsaat. Eleanor also writes the fantastic blog Make Friends With Food, where she shares her healthy eating and body image wisdom.
Below, Eleanor recounts her 15-year struggle with and recovery from binge eating. She talks about her experiences with yo-yo dieting, what used to trigger her binges, what prompted her to seek help, and much more.
I want to thank Eleanor for sharing her story because for so many of us, this is our story, too.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
I’m a freelance writer and a health coach. I began my career as a newspaper reporter, but a few years ago, I returned to school to study nutrition and eating behavior. I struggled with binge eating during my teens and twenties, and I wanted to write about my own experiences and also help others recover from compulsive eating.
2. How did your binge eating start?
I was always a hungry kid. My parents tell me that as a baby in my high chair, I would scream between spoonfuls of food, as if I couldn’t endure one moment without food in my mouth. As I got older, I became a food sneaker. Whenever people turned their backs, I’d grab something to eat: uncooked pasta, chocolate chips, dry cereal, papier mache paste, you name it. Every chance I got, I’d ride my bike to the store and buy a box of Pop-tarts or a tube of raw cookie dough. As a teenager, I’d babysit for people and raid their cupboards.
My eating behavior didn’t have a chance to become a huge problem until I went away to college. That’s when adult supervision ended and I could eat from morning until night if I wanted to. I went from a small town to a large, overwhelming university, and I ended up spending a lot of time hiding in my room or in the library, eating junk food. I became depressed and began putting on weight. Naturally, I decided losing weight would solve everything, and so I went on a diet. Thus began a diet/binge cycle that lasted for my entire college career and for about a decade afterward.
Basically, I’d wake up every day determined to stay on whatever strict diet I’d put myself on. That would last for a few hours, until I’d break down and eat something “wrong.” Since I’d messed up, I had license to binge for the rest of the day. I’d go out and buy enormous amounts of forbidden food and eat everything. The next morning I’d wake up full and sick and remorseful. And the whole cycle would start again.
I’ve tried every diet you can think of. Nothing lasted more than a day or two.
3. What do you think contributed to it?
I suspect I had food sensitivities as a kid, not that anyone knew anything about that back then. I remember having a lot of stomach aches. (I’m sure the papier mache paste didn’t help!) Possibly, I wasn’t absorbing nutrients as well as I should have been, which may have been one reason for my tapeworm-like appetite.
There wasn’t an excessive focus on dieting or weight loss in our household, but there were a lot of restrictions on what could be eaten, when, and how much. I’m sure I sneaked food partly out of rebellion.
4. What used to trigger your binges?
I think hunger was the loaded gun, and anything could be a trigger: sadness, boredom, anxiety, stress, or just being by myself. To a binge eater, food is like alcohol. The act of breaking a diet and eating something (usually sweet or starchy) releases morphine-like chemicals in your brain, which calm and relax you and take your mind off your problems.
After the binge, you’re flooded with guilt, which also distracts you from your real problems, because now the problem becomes your behavior around food. You believe that if you can just overcome your food issues and lose weight, everything else will fall into place and life will be great. That drives you toward the next diet.
5. You struggled with binge eating for 15 years. What finally helped you overcome it? For instance, did you seek treatment? If so, how did you go about finding it?
I’ve always been a very reserved person, and it didn’t occur to me to reach out for help. I was also good at hiding my problem from others. I always ate in secret (in addition to the college library, my car was a favorite refuge). Even though I gained weight, I also exercised like a madwoman, so I never became heavy enough to attract much attention, just heavy enough to disgust myself. I did try a couple of support groups, including Overeaters Anonymous, but they weren’t a good fit for me.
I started to experience scary health problems. I was having pre-diabetic symptoms, including hypoglycemia and dizzy spells. I had a flu-like illness that I couldn’t get rid of, and around the same time I had a severe episode of gout, which is a diet-related arthritic condition that usually strikes middle-aged people, not young women. I remember picking up my prescription and hearing the pharmacist tell me I’d probably need to rely on that medication on and off for the rest of my life.
I got to the point where my health was more important to me than being thin. When that happened, things began to turn around. Arriving at that stage is difficult, but it’s absolutely key. I’ve worked with some women who, even if they were on their deathbed in the hospital, would be happy because they were losing weight. I’m sure I felt that way too. That just seems unbearably sad to me.
I also credit my husband for my recovery, even though he never knew I had a food problem until it was years behind me! He’s a very kind, easygoing person, and I think everyone needs somebody like that in their life. That’s the approach I take in my counseling practice. I’m there to support and encourage, not to judge and find fault. If you want a health coach who’s a drill sergeant, you should probably find someone else.
6. Any books and/or websites that you found helpful?
When I was a teenager and young adult, there wasn’t much literature out there on the subject of compulsive eating, or many resources available on the web. Actually, the web didn’t even exist as such. Binge eating disorder hadn’t been defined yet. I read everything I could find about anorexia and bulimia, but I didn’t fit into either of those categories.
I snapped up every book Geneen Roth released, including Feeding the Hungry Heart and Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating. Roth really was ahead of her time in rejecting the diet mentality. Another pioneer was Susie Orbach, whose book Fat Is a Feminist Issue is still relevant, more than thirty years after it was first published.
The book that helped me the most was called Breaking Out of Food Jail by Jean Antonello. That book proposed that binge eating has a real physical cause: dietary deprivation. Somehow that idea was incredibly freeing to me. The book convinced me that it was okay to eat, that I was entitled to eat. It made me see that it was pointless to argue with my body. It also forced me to consider that maybe I wasn’t as psychologically damaged as all that, or even if I was, it didn’t mean I couldn’t overcome my compulsive eating problems and have a normal, healthy relationship with food.
These days, there are so many great books out there about food, weight, and healthy eating. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is a must-read. I like Marc David’s books Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet, which, contrary to its title, isn’t about dieting at all.
I also recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which isn’t even about food. It’s about finding and trusting your own voice. People with food issues tend to put too much stock in what other people say and think, and don’t rely enough on their own gut wisdom.
For that matter, I never buy into what any book says 100 percent. Those books all contain valuable information, but I take what works for me, and leave the rest.
Again, thank you so much, Eleanor, for your honesty and insight! Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, where Eleanor recounts the toughest parts of her recovery, misconceptions about binge eating, and her insights overall.