My Relationship with Food
After my introduction post last week, I originally was going to talk about how I got into triathlons and share some useful resources for anyone interested in getting into triathlons. However, with it being National Eating Disorder Awareness week, I felt it was important to share my relationship with food and how toxic it became when I started training for longer distances. I have to admit - it is not an easy story to share, and it has taken me almost four years to feel comfortable to say out loud that I have an eating disorder. As a society, there is so much stigma on mental health that someone who struggles with a mental health issue tends to feel shame or embarrassment to admit that they struggle with a mental health issue.
There is also a misconception out there that eating disorders are a "thin person's problem." I struggled with acknowledging that I had an eating disorder because of this misconception and because I was overweight and losing weight. However, as more men and women speak up, it is being recognized that eating disorders do not discriminate against age, gender, nationality, or body type. Before I tell you my story, I want to pull some facts around eating disorders from The National Eating Disorder Association. This is only a small sampling of the statistics on their website. For more information, please go to: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders:
Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk-especially those competing in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size and weight. In weight-class sports (wrestling, rowing, horseracing) and aesthetic sports (bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving) about 33% of male athletes are affected. In female athletes in weight class and aesthetic sports, disordered eating occurs at estimates of up to 62%.
Males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don't have eating disorders.
Subclinical eating disordered behaviors (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among males as they are among females.
Three out of ten individuals looking for weight loss treatments show signs of binge eating disorder
By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.
79% of weight-loss program participants reported coping with weight stigma by eating more food.
Weight stigma poses a significant threat to psychological and physical health. It has been documented as a significant risk factor for depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.
Low self-esteem is a common characteristic of individuals who have eating disorders.
Perceived weight discrimination is significantly associated with a current diagnosis of mood and anxiety disorders and mental health services use.
Childhood obsessive-compulsive traits, such as perfectionism, having to follow the rules, and concern about mistakes, were much more common in women who developed eating disorders than women who didn't.
Americans spend over $60 billion on dieting and diet products each year.
A content analysis of weight-loss advertising in 2001 found that more than half of all advertising for weight-loss product made use of false, unsubstantiated claims
According to the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, 10,500 women and girls in 13 countries and found that beauty and appearance anxiety continue to be critical global issues and media are a key factor driving their concerns.
Approximately 7 in 10 women and girls report a decline in body confidence and increase in beauty and appearance anxiety, which they say is driven by the pressure for perfection from media and advertising's unrealistic standard of beauty.
Almost 8 in 10 girls (79%) and even more women (85%) admit to opting out of important events in their lives when they don't feel they look their best.
Nine out of 10 women say they will actually not eat and risk putting their health at stake when they feel bad about their body image. And 7 in 10 girls said they're more likely to be less assertive in their decisions when they're feeling insecure.
To counteract these unreal messages, a majority of women and girls around the globe are challenging media to portray more diverse physical appearances, age, race, body shapes, and sizes.
Now that I have provided some eye-opening statistics and facts let me tell you about my story. Growing up, I was always the bigger girl. There was no specific reason why I was bigger, it could have been my genetics, or it could have been the medication I had to take to control my seizures as a child. I did remember from my childhood that I did not let my size bother me. I didn't see myself as different because I was bigger than some of the girls in my class. It wasn't until I got into high school when it really started to bother me. I was teased because I was bigger, and back then, I would have done anything to fit in. I tried some things, but it was a quick fix that I would gain the weight back. As I moved on to college, I had the freedom to make my own food choices, and I did not make the best choices when it came to nutritious meals. Like most students - meal choices were fast food or convenience food and lacked nutrient-dense food. As I continued through college, I gained weight, and it caused some anxiety in me because I was already a big girl, and I didn't want to even bigger. I would always say, "I will start a diet tomorrow, or I will exercise tomorrow" - I started spending time being concerned about my size versus everything college had to offer me.
I married my college boyfriend and had a great life until we faced some hard challenges that no young couple should have to face so early in their marriage. I turned to food to comfort myself. I would encourage my husband to go out with his friend to stay home and eat in secret because food made me feel better. However, after I would binge, the guilt and shame would wash over me, and I would hide the evidence of my binge because I was embarrassed and didn't want my husband to see how much food I had eaten.
I decided to control my eating, which was going on a diet, not seeking therapy to understand why I turned to food for comfort. Over time and with various diets, I lost weight. However, I never really addressed the underlying issues that would cause me to binge. While I developed a party trick where I could recite calories for food from memory, I also created a toxic relationship with food. I would label food as "good" or "bad" and would consciously not eat something because it was "bad" for me. The same feelings I would associate when I would binge are the same feelings I would feel when I ate a "bad." Here is the thing, the food wasn't "bad" food. At one point - I would feel guilty for eating whole grain bread. As an athlete, complex carbohydrates are staple in my diet to help me fuel for my training.
I moved on to endurance sports, where a lot of the time, it was hard being a bigger athlete, and just like high school, I had those feelings of wanted to fit in, so I turned to more diets so I could lose weight to feel like I fit in. I spent a lot of money on a diet geared towards athletes and saw success with it and got positive reinforcement from people telling me how great I looked. However, deep down, I never felt so miserable in my life. My life revolved around food, concerns about losing enough weight to be successful in my races, and the one thing that comforted me the most was my biggest enemy. My relationship with food became so toxic that I was afraid to eat and food is what I needed if I was going to continue and train for endurance events.
I am lucky because I have been able to find a nutritionist and therapist that have helped me with not only my relationship with food but also my relationship with my body. I am also lucky because I have a great support system through my family and friends to help me on this journey. I love my body for the first time in my life, and I don't punish it because it is not a specific size. I honor it for all the amazing things I have been able to do. I don't count calories and learning how to eat intuitively. Intuitive eating is an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and body image for those who are wondering. The idea is that you should eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. If you are interested in intuitive eating, I recommend checking the Intuitive Eating Workbook.
I wanted to share my story because my story is similar to other stories out there. Society today has so much pressure to be a specific size that the diet industry prays on our insecurities with our bodies with the latest diet or exercise regime. To anyone out there that feels like they failed at another diet - you didn't! You didn't fail at the diet - the diet failed you. I encourage anything that thinks that they may have an eating disorder to reach out resources that may be available through your insurance or check out the resources available through National Eating Disorders Association.