Struggling with overeating? Cool–you’re not alone. Read Part One: Habit and then head back over here to find out some strategies for getting past the compulsive eating roadblocks. ROADBLOCK #2: Emotional Eating [source] “Mindful eating” isn’t a new concept. But … Continue reading
Despite the fact that I believe in the core mindset behind low-carb/Paleo/ancestral nutrition, there is one phrase uttered by so many who follow that type of diet/lifestyle that just kills me: “When you’re eating real food, like healthy fats,* you … Continue reading
[source] A few days ago, I had a conversation with a woman who was seeing a man she’d recently met on an internet dating site. On the surface, they seemed quite compatible, and he was the kind of guy who … Continue reading
Back when I was training to become a figure competitor (aka during my last and worse relapse with ED), I thought I had it all figured out: The carefully researched broscience in my muscle magazines told me that I was … Continue reading
If there’s anything that I’ve gotten out of the past ten years of starving myself, yo-yo dieting, and exercising until I’ve dropped from exhaustion–anything at all–it’s that I hate being hungry.
I’m not necessarily talking about that acute, stomach-rumbling, natural reaction to the fact that I haven’t eaten in X hours sort of feeling, although that’s no picnic (pun intended) either.
I’m talking about the kind of hunger that happens when you’re purposefully navigating the treacherous waters between caloric deficit and emotional eating, the kind of hunger that settles on you like a fog, slowly rolling in and obscuring your vision so stealthily that you don’t realize you’re being engulfed until the moment it hits you that you can no longer see.
I’m talking about the kind of hunger that happens when you’re depriving you body and, perhaps more importantly, your brain of the nutrients it needs to survive, whether that be by starvation or by restriction or by just consuming nothing but man-made, processed foods.
I’m talking about the kind of hunger that you can’t ever feed–not fully, not completely–until you learn to speed your emotional and spiritual hunger, and even then you have to consciously work to nourish yourself or else you’ll go right back to starving again.
When I was in the worst throes of my last bout with anorexia–living in New York but barely living in any sense of the term–I spent every day in tears, running almost exclusively on cortisol and egg whites, with some protein powder thrown in for good measure. All I wanted was to go home.
But I remember one conversation exploring that possibility with my mother very distinctly:
She told me that it might not be a good idea, because my little brother was afraid of me.
My brother, who is 13 years younger than me, who has a terribly gentle soul, was afraid of me. I was too mean, too angry at the world, and his youthful naiveté and general good cheer upset me enough to lash out at him verbally whenever he bounded into the room singing Hannah Montana. And so he was afraid of me.
That killed me.
Even after I moved home, even after I worked hard to become the kind of person who my brother could trust, I still struggled with the anger, the depression, the anxiety that all led me to say hurtful things and storm out of the room. And it was because I was hungry.
Even after I started eating again, I was still hungry. I moved in with my fruit stand roommates, and, while they had their part in destroying our relationship, I can’t help but wish I could take back the things I said and did because I was hungry. I was a vegan, eating nothing but fruit and soy and whole grains and nuts, beans, and seeds, and kale-and-broccoli smoothies (so much kale), and doing Bikram yoga twice a day or going to spin classes and I was hungry. I had panic attacks when I had to be away from food, panic attacks when I had to be around other peoples’ food, panic attacks when I couldn’t have everything my way so that I could just eat my food when I wanted to (even though that was always) according to the schedule that the government and the health and fitness industry and the Huffington Post and Oxygen Magazine said I should be keeping.
And this past Friday (two weeks ago now), having had to give up some of the fats I normally eat (a new n=1 acne experiment I’ll write about soon, I’m sure), having had to give up all control over my schedule with the new job and the musical, having relied on extra fruit and caffeine and chocolate and sugar-free gum to keep me awake and functioning, I came home and saw my brother for the first time in nearly a week, and I was hungry. And as soon as I realized that I was lashing out at him the way I had when I was 112 lbs and starving, I realized that I was falling back into the mindset of the person I didn’t want to be.
I am all about full disclosure, so here it goes:
These past several weeks, I have been struggling so hard with my body image and my food issues. I haven’t worked out or been near a gym in so long that I’m starting to beat myself up every time I look in a mirror. I have been lashing out at the people I care about because interacting with them means less time for sleeping or eating food at a normal (for me) hour. I have been agitated by having to explain my eating habits over and over again to my new coworkers and have been apologizing for the way that I eat (as well as avoiding invites to lunches and dinners because I just want to eat alone).
But I don’t want to be the girl who needs the gym to validate her existence. I don’t want to be the coworker who eats alone at her desk every day. I don’t want to be the girl whose younger brother is afraid of her.
I don’t ever want to go back to being hungry again.
I don’t have any answers today, or even tips or tricks or scientific studies…just honesty. That’s all.
I wrote last time about how limiting calories can change the chemicals in your brain–how my dopamine highs from under-consuming calories and my endorphin highs from over-exercising had become inescapable addictions. But there is more to the story than the upset of just a couple of brain chemicals:
We hear a lot these days about insulin, especially in reference to the diabestiy epidemic. [Brief science lesson: Insulin is a regulatory hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to the presence of sugar in the blood. Our bodies were only meant to have about 1 tsp of circulating blood sugar, so when you eat foods that contain (or are converted to) a lot of glucose, the body responds with insulin, which shuttles that glucose out of the blood and into your muscles to be burned or liver to be converted to glycogen and stored.]
But there’s another hormone that people are only just starting to talk about (because it’s only recently that science has begun to understand it…): Leptin.
Fat cells, believe it or not are part of the endocrine system (the system related to the release and regulation of hormones). Your fat cells tell your brain when you’re starving and need to eat or that you’re full and good to go by releasing the hormone called “leptin.” When your fat stores are high, your fat cells are full of leptin, which transmits the “we’re full, don’t send supplies” signal to the brain. When your fat stores are low, however, there’s a lot less leptin to go around, and your brain gets the message that you need to eat.*
Leptin is also responsible for stimulating the production of endorphins, the exercise-high neurotransmitter.
Now, there’s a lot of chatter in the science/nutrition world about leptin disregulation as a result of obesity, but what about leptin disregulation in anorectics and eating disordered people? (For a short, really informative look at how leptin disregulation and insulin resistance can influence/be influenced by obesity, check out this awesome video by Sean Croxton: Leptin: Fat-Loss for Smart People)
When you’re eating disordered, an overly restricted eat-clean devotee, or somehow reaching low levels of body fat, your leptin levels go way down. Your brain gets the message that you’re starving and need to build up your body fat levels again, so it tells your body to start craving food. The cravings raise your dopamine levels, making extended marathons of Man vs. Food seem like a good idea. Of course, the restriction is what feeds the dopamine high, so you keep restricting and craving.
Now, those of us who couple the restriction with exercise are in an even more dangerous boat, addiction-wise. Why? Well, as I mentioned earlier, leptin is partially responsible for your brain’s release of endorphins. If your leptin levels are low, your endorphins become low as a result. What raises endorphins? Exercise.
So it’s very possible that your exercise regime becomes necessary to maintaining your mental health. And, as with most addictions, you can easily build up a tolerance. Now you need more exercise to get the same high.
I know this to be true because I’ve lived it. Because I used to read the transformation stories on the Oxygen and Eat Clean websites, because I still follow some of the professional fitness models on Twitter. The stories are all the same: I was overweight (or thought I was) and decided I needed a change. So I started by cutting out processed foods. I felt so good that I went for a run. Then I found (insert clean-eating protocol here) and started lifting weights. I looked and felt so good that I got a personal trainer. In a few months, people in my gym suggested I compete. And so: the diet became a strict regimen of extra-lean meats and “complex carbs” like oatmeal and brown rice. And so: the exercise became fasted cardio in the morning and weights in the afternoon. And so: the complex carbs were “too much food” except around training times. And so: the exercise became necessary to not having a nervous breakdown today and I pushed myself so hard I cried but it was worth it because I’m still in shape. And so: the food became all I thought about and egg-whites-with-stevia are delicious, you just don’t understand because you’re not healthy and devoted like me. And so: exercise became the only thing I cared about, not that you’d understand because you’re busy living your fat lifestyle while I’m flying high on thinness and muscle.
It scares me that this is even a possible thought process, but there it is. (And you can find some version of it on every thinspiration Pinterest board or on some of the fitness pros’ Twitter feeds if you don’t believe me.)
I’m not saying that this will happen to everyone who tries to get healthy, nor am I against cleaning up your diet and starting to exercise–in fact, I’m all for it! But for those of us who may already suffer from neurotransmitter imbalances, trading one addiction for another–cookies and cake for quinoa and kale; “skinny is the new healthy” for “strong is the new skinny”–becomes a real and imminent threat.
And if you’ve ever had these thoughts, it’s okay: it’s not your fault. There are processes in your body and brain that you and I can’t see or hear or feel, processes that happen in the background, processes that can mean the difference between starvation and health, addiction and freedom. And once your body/brain chemistry is affected, it’s hard to see past the immediate need for the next hit.
It’s especially hard when the messages sent out by science and society only serve to encourage these addictions.
*Leptin isn’t the only hormone involved in hunger–there are other hormones/peptides like ghrelin and PYY that are secreted by the lining of your stomach/pancreas to mediate some of those hunger responses…But we won’t get into that today!) For more, check out Wellness Mama’s great explanation here.
To read the whole series in order, start here:
I love this: Just as I begin working on a series about food addiction, the New York Times goes and scoops me. (I’m totally okay with this, however, because that means these theories are FINALLY gaining some mainstream acceptance!)
“Eating disorders are addictions. You become addicted to a number of their effects. The two most basic and important: the pure adrenaline that kicks in when you’re starving–you’re high as a kite, sleepless, full of a frenetic stable energy–and the heightened intensity of experience that eating disorders initially induce. At first, everything tastes and smells intense, tactile experience is intense, your own drive and energy themselves are intense and focused. Your sense of power is very, very intense. You are not aware, however, that you are quickly becoming addicted. And there’s the rub. As with drugs, the longer you do it, the more you need to achieve that original high.”
–Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
I understand now what was going on, both on the behavioral and neuro-chemical levels. Addiction is more than a simple equation of brain + addictive chemical–one drink too many or the extremes of coke and meth. Our brains themselves are dependent on certain endogenous chemicals (chemicals produced by the body) for normal function. Feelings of anticipation and reward, as well as the fight-or-flight reaction, are all mediated by the presence of these chemicals.
To simplify: Dopamine is the anticipation neurotransmitter. Vera Tarman of Addictions Unplugged and the Renascent treatment center in Toronto, explains that it is the chemical that makes us enjoy the days leading up to Christmas more than unwrapping the presents–it makes the feeling of wanting even more pleasurable than the act of receiving.* Serotonin is the fulfillment neurotransmitter, the one that gives you the warm-fuzzies when you’re with people you love or participating in a hobby that makes you feel fulfilled.** And endorphins are the anesthetic neurotransmitter, flooding the brain anesthetize you when you hurt to help you push past the point of pain.***
Addiction is about altered neuro-chemical pathways in the brain. Substances may or may not instigate or amplify the changes taking place in the brain, and substances include not just drugs and alcohol but also certain types of food. Sugar, grains, processed foods…these are, believe it or not, addictive substances. But it’s not just about substances–gambling, sex, and exercise addicts don’t have to have a substance present to keep them addicted to a certain behavior. The rush of dopamine, the endorphin high…those can happen just because you engage in a an action that triggers the same reactions in the brain as a shot of vodka or a hit of cocaine.
So when you couple addictive foods (anything that gets converted to sugar in the body, especially those processed foods that contain massive amounts of sugar to begin with) with the addictive/obsessive behavior of restriction/calorie counting/weighing and measuring, etc., you end up on the crazy yo-yo binge/purge, extreme-weight-loss-and-gain roller coaster that dictated the course of my life until now. Dr. Tarman explains:
“[…T]he anorexic, while not eating, is experiencing a dopaminergic euphoria. She or he is experiencing an altered agitated ‘high’ as they obsess about food like any drug addict would over their drug of choice. We know that hunger creates dopamine – and the reward value of food heightens the hungrier a person becomes. This is the body’s attempt to entice the person to eat, to nourish itself. The anorexic does not eat food, but as he or she gets hungrier, she or he instead anticipates food – in the food preparation, in the food obsessions, in how she or he ‘plays’ (but does not eat) the food, – this is a dopamine high which builds and builds the hungrier the person gets. And, importantly, it stops the moment food enters the body. Anorexics resist food the same way as the drug addict resists withdrawal from their drug.”
(For a great analysis of Dr. Tarman’s philosophy of food addiction, don’t miss Weight Maven’s post here!! AND for some info on serotonin and food addiction, check out Kevin Cann’s great article at Genetic Potential via RobbWolf.com.)
On the “bad days,” the days when the hunger grew too great, when I was forced to eat lunch in the company of others–at restaurants, where I couldn’t control the ingredients or the portions, the days when I “let go” or “cheated,” I would binge until I hurt. I would eat and eat and eat and feel like I couldn’t stop. The food never tasted as good as I’d dreamt it would, but that didn’t stop me from handing the control over to my unbalanced brain and starving body. I ate everything I could before ED could catch me–I ate knowing that ED would punish me later (and that promise of punishment, the illicit nature of the act of eating made the binge even more uncontrollable).
To this day, I have to be aware of my portions, mindful of my hunger, cautious about overindulgence. I know I’m not the only recovering prisoner of ED who has dealt with the same paradox: I cannot restrict my food, because that’s an anorexic behavior, but I cannot eat without control or mindfulness because that starts the slippery slope to binge eating disorder. Navigating that constant duality (control/no control) is emotionally exhausting. Knowing that I will panic if I go out to a restaurant without consulting the menu beforehand is embarrassing. Feeling like I’m alone or “crazy” is depressing and deeply shaming.
And while I had convinced myself that becoming a vegan had freed me from the shackles of addiction, I had really just traded one jailer for another.
*This neurotransmitter may share responsibility in binge-eating disorder and/or the obesity epidemic, at least for food addicted individuals, according to a recent study.
**Many people with depression are unable to access the warm-fuzzies because they are deficient in serotonin. They are often treated with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to rebalance the neurotransmitters and give people the ability to feel warm and fuzzy inside again. (Oversimplification, but feel free to ask Dr. Google how it all works for now…)
***You get an endorphin high after performing any sort of strenuous exercise for this reason: your muscles are torn or your various bodily systems are taxed, and your body recognizes the need for you to keep functioning despite the pain. Athletes and fitness buffs joke about being addicted to this high, but there’s a reason why part of my EDNOS is classified as compulsive exercise or exercise bulimia. My depression would utterly cripple me if I missed even a single day of exercise.
To read the whole series in order, start here:
Let me be clear: I was already a food addict. A different kind of food addict, but an addict nonetheless. I’ve been a food addict since I was at least 10 years old.
I can remember back to my Friday night binges on baskets of garlic rolls at Mario’s or Dominic’s, eating between three and six rolls before digging into an adult-sized baked ziti entree; my anticipation of pizza night on Saturdays with Dad, and how we’d have to buy at least two boxes from Pizza Hut because I could knock back five slices on my own–and follow them up with a huge chunk of Tollhouse cookie dough without stopping to consider hunger; my ability to eat both servings of boxed Stouffer’s french bread pizza and still want finish off the tortellini I’d cooked for me and my sister; my insistence that my favorite food–above even chocolate and candy–was bread, and my inability to stop wanting after two and then three pieces of toast for breakfast…
After the soy-free summer, my tastes changed somewhat. When I cut out processed foods, sugar, and soda, I cleansed my palate of the hyper-sweetened and -salted foods that had “nourished” my childhood. Instead, I became dependent on my breakfast cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, living for my second and third helpings of spaghetti. (And once I reintroduced soy, I reintroduced chocolate–unable to concentrate after lunch in school if I didn’t buy a pack of peanut M&Ms–not because the stimulants in the chocolate helped me focus but because the cravings became more important than anything my teachers had to offer.)
A large part of my anorexia–the part about which I was conscious and in which I was aware of my engagement–was my attempt to control my addiction to volume. The irony here is that “anorexia” literally means “without appetite.” Rarely, I think, is that actually the case with this disease. In my own experience, once I start eating, especially breads, sweets, and even fruits, I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. Even when I’m full. And anorexia, a rejection of that fullness, was the only way (I thought) that I could control myself.
“There is a very simple, inevitable thing that happens to a person who is dieting: When you are not eating enough, your thinking process changes. You begin to be obsessed with food. They’ve done study after study on this, and still we believe that if we cut back fat, sugar, calorie intake, we’ll drop weight just like that and everything will be the same, only thinner. Nothing is the same. You want to talk about food all the time. You want to discuss tastes: What does that taste like? […] Salty? Sweet? Are you full? You want to taste something all the time. You chew gum, you eat roll after roll of sugar-free Certs, you crunch Tic-Tacs (just one and a half calories each!) You want things to taste intense. All normal approach to food is lost in your frantic search for an explosion of guilt-free flavor in your mouth, an attempt to make your mouth, if not your body, feel full, to fool your mind into satiety. You pour salt or pepper on things. You eat bowls of sugar-coated cereal (no fat). You put honey and raisins on your rice.”
-Marya Hornbacher, Wasted, a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
When I started my intensely restrictive “eat clean diet,” I thought that I was finally free. I convinced myself that I was no longer hungry, that I was sated by my 100-300 calorie meals. But in the time between meals, I thought about food. I ached for it. And not the dry turkey breast and 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli, I ached for sweet and starchy. I used stevia (a “natural” sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant and 200-300x sweeter than sugar) on nearly everything, faking out my tastebuds in order to trick my lizard brain into thinking it was satisfied by egg white pancakes. I ached for my morning oatmeal. I substituted stevia-based whey protein powder for real food in as many meals as I could justify to myself. I spent my entire day in anticipation of my stevia-sweetened casein-and-peanut-butter pudding every night.
And worse, I watched the Food Network obsessively. I subscribed to allrecipes.com and read their daily baking email. I scoured the internet for decadent recipes, reading blogs like Cookie Madness and The Picky Palate so I could live vicariously through someone else’s Pretzel Caramel Shortbread Bars and Brownie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies. I baked, constantly, so that I could at least have the smell of warm cookies saturating the air, enveloping me like an old friend.
Even as a vegan, I was still addicted to sugar and grains. It was all I ate, all I craved. Moreover, my vegan diet was just an animal-free facsimile of the bodybuilder’s regime: I inflicted upon myself the same rigid routine, eating small meals every 2-3 hours, aching with longing for the next helping. I sweetened my green juice with Stevia, and I couldn’t get through a morning unless I followed my green juice with low-sodium sprouted grain bread. Rice cakes were my midmorning salvation. My sugar addiction found a new home in extra servings of fruit,* wads and wads of bubble gum, packets of stevia poured onto anything that should taste sweet but didn’t. I still looked forward to my after-dinner peanut or almond butter (now with vegan chocolate chips added) with an intensity that defied explanation or avoidance (and I was usually so depressed about finishing my snack that I would open a box of cereal and eat that–dry–and then go to bed feeling painfully full but unsatisfied).
And through it all, the only thing I could think about was the food I couldn’t eat, wasn’t eating, wanted to eat.
*3 apples a day plus the pear in my green juice, entire 2 lb. bags of grapes in one sitting, etc.