There’s a point in your disordered eating when you become your disorder. When, without realizing it, you stop separating your own body from the image of ED in your head. And suddenly: your body starts to comply. You want to … Continue reading
And now for something completely different: Oh, friends, it just keeps getting better. Stress aside, there’s so much for which to be grateful. To kick off your happy Monday, check out the GUEST POST I wrote for Healthy Weight Week … Continue reading
I met ED, as you may or may not recall, on July 4, 2001. Just a few days before, a boy in my summer camp had declared that he “liked” me (a very strong proclamation to make at 13) and … Continue reading
Since I feel like we all know each other so well by now (said the girl who developed a parasocial relationship with the internet), I want to post about a very exciting first–and ladies and gents, I apologize if any … Continue reading
Calories in/out rant ahead. Be prepared.*
Good morning, friends! And Merry Belated Christmas!
I’m sorry that I haven’t been by the blog in a week…I can only hope that you haven’t either–after all, this is the time of year to be spending away from your computer screens and spending time with your friends, family, and loved ones.
It’s strange to be away from the blog for so long–or what feels like so long, anyway. I’ve been doing a ton of writing, but, unfortunately, none of it for myself. Between the writing I do at work (who knew it was possible to go 8am – 6pm without putting down a pen or moving away from the keyboard while writing about a single topic?), the writing I do for freelance projects (hooray for commuting on the train sans wifi), and the transcription I do for the Relentless Roger & The Caveman Doctor podcast (which you should immediately go download and listen to if you haven’t already….I’ll wait.
Aaaaaaand we’re back.), I haven’t actually had the time to analyze, synthesize, and write down my thoughts on any topic that truly hits home at the In My Skinny Genes blog.
But here we are…just a week away from New Year’s, and everyone’s making resolutions about weight loss, exercise, and control.
At the same time, there’s been a lot of chatter in the Paleo-blogosphere about low carb vs. calorie restriction for weight loss, and I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at what’s been going on:
As some of you may be aware, the inimitable Jimmy Moore of the Livin’ La Vida Low Carb blog and podcast as been doing a nutritional ketosis experiment. (For those of you who don’t know what nutritional ketosis is, you can read up about it over at Jimmy’s blog or at itsthesatiety/myketohaven or Peter Attia’s Eating Academy. Suffice it to say that it’s a way of forcing your body to burn ketones instead of glucose for energy by eating a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet. It has nothing to do with Dr. OZ or raspberries.)
Jimmy Moore is doing this experiment because of his health: for the past 9 years, he’s been blogging about his battle to overcome his obesity and his struggle to understand and control his nutrition and fitness so as to live an optimal life. And this nutritional ketosis experiment, which he’s doing for himself and not for anyone else (in fact, he won’t even post his meals, so it’s not like he’s proselytizing a specific diet plan to anyone else), has been a huge success in terms of helping this very insulin sensitive person fix his health. The weight loss is just a part of that.
Of course, Jimmy Moore’s success has spawned debate. He isn’t counting calories or doing high intensity exercise. He’s just eating a lot of fat–not overeating, but just eating until he’s full–and not a lot of carbs . (Like, tons of butter and avocados and coconut and meat and sour cream and all of the things that conventional medicine tells us will kill us). He has lost a ton of weight, started to change his body composition, improved nearly all of his blood markers, etc. etc., But the main thing that people seem to care about is that he’s lost weight. And if he’s lost weight doing this experiment, then perhaps, they reason, so can I. And therefore, in the Paleosphere at least, nutritional ketosis–eating fat until satiety and not counting calories–is being hailed as the next intermittent fasting.
And so those in the very low carb high fat camp have taken up the battle cry, “Calories don’t count! Eat fat!”
And, of course, Robb Wolf–who is a total fitness BAMF and one of the biggest names in Paleo–recently published a post about calorie counting vs. low carb diets. His argument was based on his own experience with very low carb eating in an attempt to change his body composition. Robb, mind you, was an already slim person with a good amount of muscle mass. This, of course, sparked a whole big debate around the blogosphere. The gist of his argument is that, while LCHF worked for a time, eventually it became difficult to support his body composition goals using that diet. (Robb, for the record, was a Crossfitter and now does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, among other gymnastic and strength protocols.) His argument is well reasoned and based on his own case study: “LC is fantastic for this in that one typically feels satisfied on high protein, moderate fat, loads of veggies. If one is insulin resistant, this approach can be nothing short of miraculous. HOWEVER! If one manages to cram enough cheese, olive oil and grass-fed butter down the pie-hole, this is in fact, a ‘mass gain’ diet.”
Robb says (and I’m quoting here, so sorry for “screaming” in caps lock), “CALORIES MATTERED MORE THAN CARBS FOR BODY-COMP.”
Do me a favor, all of you, and just keep that sentence in mind for the rest of the post.
I read another argument about the efficacy of calorie counting vs. low carb/high fat diets for weight loss over at Weight of the Evidence. The argument there looks at Jimmy Moore’s 85% fat, ketogenic diet, and asks if it’s more useful for weight loss than calorie restricting.
The argument opens with a quote about carbohydrate recommendations made by the Atkins Diet and other prominent low carb advocates, such as Phinney and Volek (two vey prominent LCHF researchers who have published the modern day HF bibles, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance). The author uses Phinney and Volek’s own words against them in order to make the case that, in the end, calories matter most. For example: “…of course, if one eats too much fat during that low-carb diet, you’re not going to lose weight; there are differences in metabolism, but calories count in the process of eating a low-carb diet” from Steve Phinney, and “Don’t count calories, although we ask you to use common sense. In the past, some individuals made the mistake of thinking they could stuff themselves with protein and fat and still lose weight. If the pounds are falling off, forget about calories. But if the scale won’t budge or it seems to be taking you forever to lose, you might want to do a reality check, caloriewise” from New Atkins for a New You.
Reminder: keep Robb Wolf’s quote in mind: “Calories mattered more than carbs for body comp.”
So then “That Paleo Guy,” Jamie Scott in Australia, posted an absolutely brilliant rebuttal to pretty much everybody. His argument is that, yes, calories count. Sort of. If you eat enough of them and don’t do anything about them, then sure, you’ll gain weight. BUT the composition of those calories count just as much, if not more. If you can, go check out his absolutely brilliant currency analogy. (Summed up: Calories in and calories out is not just like putting money in checking or savings, but about what kind of currency conversions you’re doing, whether you’ve devalued the currency by flooding the market, etc. etc.)
I’m not going to go into the finer points of everyone’s articles and just rehash and rehash the same thing over and over again. Why? Because the articles are already written, and there’s no need to opine when the opinions are already well-documented…but also because I think everyone’s kind of missing the point.
And the point is this: What is the purpose of focusing on calories in/out vs. LCHF in the first place?
I want you to think about a time when you, or someone you know, started on the calories in/calories out bandwagon or started a diet or made a resolution to go to the gym. What was the reason you gave, regardless of your actual weight?
(I’d place money that the first reason, no matter what you actually meant by it, was the phrase: “to lose weight.”)
If you recall, the first time we even started worrying about calories was in that diet book, Diet and Exercise with a Key to the Calories by Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918. It was, let me reiterate, a diet book. A book about losing weight for cosmetic reasons.
It was a book that villainized body fat, not because of its health implications but because of its social implications. It was a book about losing weight.
Now, when we talk about calories in/out in the “real world” today, we use the phrase–no matter what we actually mean by it–”to lose weight.”
If we look at Oxygen Magazine and its fit sisters–Women’s Health, Self, Health, and the like, you’ll see the “lose weight/cut calories/eat less fat” message repeated over and over, with “lose weight” used as a synonym for “stay fit.” I have friends who love their fitspo and go to the gym every day and plug away at their cardio machines, because they are trying to maintain or increase their fitness. They tell me, however, that they are trying to “lose weight.” When I was 112 lbs, cutting/restricting calories, and adding an hour of cardio to my weights workouts, it was because I was trying to increase my fitness/maintain my level of leanness (or so my anorexic brain told me)…but the words I’d use to describe what I was doing was “trying to lose weight.”
Do you see where I’m going with this?
“Lose weight” does not always mean “maintain body composition/increase fitness.” That is not to say that the two can’t happen at the same time (look at Jimmy Moore: he’s losing fat and increasing muscle mass by eating LCHF and performing low intensity/heavy lifting exercises)–they’re mutually exclusive. And we’re using them as synonyms. And then making arguments based on not necessarily aligned goals.
So here’s the thing–and then I’ll shut up about the calories in/out thing for a little while–I just want you to consider this:
When you look at all of the bloggers and fitness gurus and tweets by Dr. Oz and fad diets on the Today Show and try to parse out a definitive answer to whether eating fat or burning it with exercise is going to be more efficient…it’s impossible. The problem here is that everyone has the right solution…but maybe focusing on and fighting about the solution isn’t really a solution at all and just an excuse to continue feeding a disorder.
So I think we need to stop arguing about which diet is more efficacious and look instead at why people care so much about either diet in the first place. And I think the biggest issue for me is that when people say “weight loss” they actually want “sustained weight maintenance.” Or they need sustained weight maintenance because they’re already at a healthy weight/level of fitness, but are busy chasing after a disordered, aesthetic goal.
Body composition isn’t everything. Weight maintenance is not the same thing as athletic performance OR aesthetic goals. It can be, but it isn’t always.
You have to ask yourself whether you’re living on ketones because you’re trying to improve your blood lipid profile or because you’re trying to get better at kipping pull ups or because you want to look better in your lululemon sports bra. You have to take stock of whether your diet is supporting weight loss for your health, weight maintenance for your well being, increased fitness for your sport, or aesthetic goals because you want to look like one of the skinny celebrities on the cover of Shape.
Whatever your goal, you have to be honest with yourself and others about why you’re striving for it and what your diet and exercise is actually accomplishing.
If you’re an intense exerciser, you need to eat the food that will fuel your exercise, just as if you’re a light exerciser, you might not need as much food (not calories, but food, there’s a difference thankyouverymuch) to fuel your everyday goals.
Low carb high fat is not necessarily a solution for getting a six pack (it can be but not always), but it is a solution to help you get in touch with your body’s satiety signals, to help reset your neurotransmitters, to help end cycles of snacking and bingeing. It’s not only a solution for weight loss (although it can be if you’re starting with a sad diet or processed food/carbohydrate dense diet), it’s a method for finding and maintaining homeostasis. If it is psychologically sustainable for you (i.e. you’re not looking at it as an “Atkins induction phase” and waiting for it to be over so you can eat a doughnut), then it’s just as good as spending 100 hours on the spin bike, if not better.
Calories in/calories out is a short term solution that people mistake for a long term practice that they ultimately can’t sustain. LCHF is a long term solution that people look at as a short term diet fix. Do you see the problem here?
Jimmy Moore is using nutritional ketosis to lose weight. Robb Wolf was using LCHF to increase fitness/change his body composition. Those are not the same things. Maybe they’re both in perfect health for where they need to be, but that’s not always the case. It wasn’t for me. When I ate a calorie restricted diet with moderate carbs, I could do 10 perfect dead-hang pull ups and run for an hour in the hot sun, but I was also not getting my period and at a risk for osteoporosis. And I believe that there is a large contingency of people out there who read these blogs and don’t have the insight or the self-awareness of the Jimmys and Robbs of the world–people who truly understand their own body’s needs, who both understand how to do the exercise and eat the food that works for them.
Instead, these people–my friends, my acquaintances, my coworkers, my blog readers, my strangers-I’ve-eavesdropped-on-at-Starbucks–these people honestly believe that they have to lose weight because they have to be fit, and they honestly believe that they need both of those things to be healthy. So they’ll listen to any person who can podcast their message loud enough, because they’re chasing this magical dream of “losing weight” so they can have a six pack.
So here are my last words (for now, because I’m sure I’ll end up having more to say about the subject) about calories in and calories out:
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “in shape” does not equal healthy.
Burn all the calories you want. Run yourself into the ground. Restrict your food and grow yourself a six pack. But DO NOT mistake that for health.
Conversely, eat all the fat you want and don’t think about quantity at all. Gorge yourself on cheese and coconut and never touch a weight. Sit on your butt eating egg yolks. But DO NOT mistake that for fitness.
My unsolicited advice? Eat a diet that helps you clue into your satiety signals and eat until you’re full. Exercise enough to stay fit and healthy without turning muscle into a measure of your worth. Eat fat if it supports your goal. Eat carbs if it supports your goal. Go to the gym or do sprints or take a spin class or do crossfit, but don’t bear your exercise–or the calories you do or do not expend–like a cross. There is more to life than “losing weight,” whatever the hell that means. Find a balance, stop counting calories, and quit quibbling over the minutiae. Or at least stop trying to compare apples to bacon and just eat them instead.
P.S. I hope this rant made sense. I am writing it before the sun comes up after only about 4 hours of sleep. Just to clarify, in case my thesis got buried: It makes me sad when people sit down to eat together and spend the entire meal discussing a) how guilty they feel for not eating a salad because they don’t like the way they look, b) how they’re eating a salad because they’re trying to count calories because some doctor on TV tried to sell them a fitness tracking device and a calorie counting app, c) how they’re just going to be a “pig” and eat what they want because they’re going to gym later anyway, etc. etc. and that’s how you “lose weight.” I am sick of people conflating “weight loss” for health, and embarking on restrictive diets for aesthetic goals instead of scientifically-reasoned diets to support fitness/athletic goals. Especially when they take a way of eating, like low carb/high fat, and turn it into a weight loss miracle instead of a way of supporting physical and mental health. Does that make sense? I hope so.
*Note: Please don’t read any negativity toward Jimmy Moore or Robb Wolf into this post. I think they’re both incredible and have done SO MUCH to help thousands of people change their lives. I highly suggest following the both of them to learn as much as possible & then go and make educated choices about how you choose to live your life.
When it comes to the calories in vs. calories out issue, I know that there are no easy fixes. We live in a culture that sees “truths” in absolute terms so long as they’re based on recommendations by the government … Continue reading
I know that I’ve been incredibly positive, posting about my wins and making sure to tweet my gratitude daily…but I do have to admit that life after ED is not always rainbows and lollipops and warm puppy kisses. (Well, I do at least get to partake daily in the latter, but you catch my drift.)
I’ve been lucky to have had the whole summer to sit alone in my house and make peace with my disordered eating and my eating disorder; however, now that I’m back out in the world, forced to interact with real people and not just ancestral health podcasts and recovery blogs, I’m finding myself bombarded with disorder again. I don’t think people even realize how disordered their conversations are–even if they don’t actually have an eating disorder proper. But just because talking about calories and exercise and food and dieting is “normal,” doesn’t mean that it’s right.
I’ve really been struggling lately, because I’ve had no choice but to be back out in the world again, reading Facebook posts about feeling guilty for not exercising, in line at Starbucks listening to apologetic “I really shouldn’ts”, at work watching my friends check their Nike fuel, on Twitter reading HuffPost articles about calories out and super foods, in physical therapy at the gym watching women toil away on their treadmills, at rehearsal listening to my fellow actors worry about costumes feeling tighter than when we first tried them on…and it goes on.
On top of that, I often have to stop myself from even trying to explain my position on food and nutrition in public. People bristle when I try to explain that I’m eating low carb/high fat, or else they apologize for eating gluten/sugar in front of me (“I know it’s not healthy, but I can’t imagine life without it/but I only have one life to live and I don’t want to miss out on cake/but I know that saturated fat is bad for you, so I’m actually eating raw vegan on the weekends now and giving up soda every other Thursday…)
Maybe I’m just listening for it…but it seems like that’s all anyone knows how to talk about anymore.
Moreover, my physical therapist asked me to go back to the gym…to do cardio. At first I balked, but I eventually decided to compromise: I went back to do strength/rehab exercises. No cardio machines involved. I found myself finishing my workout quickly and then eyeing the cardio equipment, convinced that I hadn’t sweat enough yet. And I found myself trying to justify my desire to hop on the revolving stairs for an hour with the thought that my PT wanted me to do cardio. (Never mind the fact that he was talking about 30 minutes of non-impact exercise a few times a week.) But as soon as I neared the cardio section of the gym, I knew I had to stop myself.
Sometimes I think that going back to the gym period was as bad as asking an alcoholic to hang out at a bar. I could feel ED stirring.
Since I’ve spent the last two weeks at work and in rehearsal/in a show with barely a moment for breathing in between (especially since I got sick somewhere in there), I haven’t been able to work out at all. And even though I made it through the summer just fine, between the conversations about Thanksgiving calories and the reawakened gym rat in me, I’m struggling.
That being said, a little struggle is no reason to give up or give in. I’m just having to relearn how to be a part of this nutritionally backward culture, where we value the last box of Twinkies more than a life without diabetes or calorie counting.
I’ve had to stop myself from getting involved in peoples’ conversations or offering my opinion. I’ve had to stop myself from getting upset when people start in on me about why they have to keep eating wheat or why they have to go to the gym for sixteen thousand more hours. I’ve had to stop myself from allowing other people’s disorders trigger my own.
I’ve realized that, just as I’ve resolved to meet myself where I am each day, I have to do the same for others.
I get it. Not everyone buys the “Paleo” thing. And I get that people are leery of going low carb and high fat. I get that hours on the stairmaster seems like a necessity. I get it, because I once was there. I get it, because I see and hear just how ingrained the message is. And just because I’m learning (and trying) to disavow that kind of thinking doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world is ready.
I accept that the world is full of disorder. I accept that I am responsible only for myself. I accept that I have to respect the body I’ve been given, and I have to honor my beliefs. And I believe that following a low carb/high fat Paleo diet is going to keep me from seeking ED in times of stress and vulnerability.
And just to explain: Paleo–or, rather, ancestral health, as I prefer to refer to it, since I’m more focused on just eating real food and not following a “diet”–is a lifestyle choice. It’s not a restrictive diet (can’t eat this or that, only so many calories, no cheating, etc.).* At the core of the Paleo movement is the belief that modern disease was born with the advent of agriculture, and that human beings are genetically better adapted to a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer diet. In overly simplified terms, going Paleo means not only cutting out all of the processed foods that have come to clutter our grocery store shelves, but also cutting out foods that the human body has difficulty processing for nutrients (or foods that actively poison the human body) like wheat, grains, legumes, and dairy.
As soon as I wrote that, I could already hear you, my readership, flinching. Wait, you’re thinking, so you are cutting and restricting your food again? Looks like you’ve still got a lot of recovering to do…
And to that, I counter:
I no longer think about the foods I can’t eat. I look forward, instead, to the foods I can. I eat meat, fish, eggs, fruit, and all the vegetables I want. And the best part is, Paleo really isn’t as simple as just cutting out foods and starving for “cheats” from the bakery section. In fact, that’s why I kind of shy away from the whole “Paleo” moniker, since it’s associated with certain limitations.
This past summer, while I’ve been trapped in my house, waiting to heal and go back to work, I’ve had the opportunity to do a little research about nutrition as well as the science behind food addiction and health. And the most important thing I’ve learned is that there is no one way of eating. The only “diet” you should follow is the one that works for you, and you alone. That means that if you can tolerate dairy, go for it. If nightshades make you sick, don’t eat them. If you were one of the lucky ones who developed the gene to produce more amylase** than your hunter-gatherer forefathers, have at those carbs and don’t look back.
And when you find the foods that work for you and cut back on the ones that don’t, you’ll start to free yourself from the ugly world of obsession and food addiction, calorie counting and processed foods.
Personally, because I’m not working out very hard (or moving very much at all), I’ve found that a low(er) carb approach works best for me. No, this isn’t Atkins, and I’m not going to die of a heart attack because I’m drinking heavy cream. I’m also not going low carb, low fat, and high protein, because that actually causes calorie restriction by necessity. I eat fat. A lot of it. Maybe not enough, but I’m not afraid of it anymore. And I often don’t measure my portions except with my eyes–nor do I worry about calorie counting.
And, while I’m not able to go out for a run, I’m in good “shape.” I am happy living in my body, because my body not only looks good and healthy, it feels good and healthy. And I’ve realized that’s even more important than the image in the mirror.
I have to just remember that what I’m doing is healthy, that I don’t need ED to be loved or respected, that a “perfect” body means I’ll have to live an imperfect life. I don’t need to binge on cereal for the same reasons that I don’t need to chain myself to the treadmill.
I will find balance. I will not look for excuses, and I will not give in to triggers.
It’s easier said than done, but just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
I’m going to keep my head up and do what’s right for me. Because I respect myself. I respect my values and beliefs. I respect this body I’ve been given. And it’s as simple as that.
*Although there are plenty of people who do it wrong, and it morphs into the same cycle of restriction and deprivation that leads to yo-yo dieting.
**An enzyme released in the mouth during the digestive process that helps break down starches.
This commercial makes me so angry–it embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with the state of fitness and nutrition in our country today. There are so many things wrong with commercial that it’s almost hard to find a place to start. So I’ll do my best to focus on the main reason why this seemingly innocuous Cheerios commercial makes my blood boil.
Looking past the fact that I no longer agree with the contention that the whole grains in Cheerios are part of a “heart healthy breakfast,” the majority of my ire today comes from the last line: “But you still have to go to the gym.”+
Now, as a certified personal trainer and an incurable gym rat, I’m happy that General Mills is suggesting that fitness is an important part of anyone’s “heart health” and “weight loss” regime; however there’s a more insidious message behind the commercial, and it contains that ugly, 7-letter “C-word.”
(If I never have to hear the word again, it will be too soon.)
The crux of this commercial’s message is: no matter how healthily you eat, if you don’t burn it off, you’ll get fat. (And Cheerios carries disordered food messages throughout much of its marketing strategy. Dr. Deah Schwartz, a Health At Every Size blogger, did a great post on the disordered implications of its “more whole grains, less you” message on Peanut Butter Cheerios boxes).
Here’s the thing: calories in vs. calories out does work. But only for so long.
It goes something like this: I start eating well and working out. I eliminate processed foods but don’t change my portion sizes. I buy a pair of running shoes and go for a 12+ minute mile jog 3-4 times a week. I lose weight. And then, all of a sudden, I plateau. So:
I lessen my portion sizes slightly and keep up with my running. I lose weight and then plateau. I get a personal trainer and lift weights several times a week in addition to the running. I lose weight and then plateau. I read some broscience forums and realize that I need to tighten up my diet. I eliminate fats (because fats make me fat amirite?*) and start working out 6 days a week. I lose weight and then plateau. Fine. Now my choices are to either make my portions even smaller or eat nothing but egg whites and tuna with steamed broccoli. I do both just in case. My metabolism slows. I become leptin resistant. I am hungry all of the time. I need to work out more. I go to the gym twice a day or do more than an hour of steady-state cardio every day, because who needs rest days?**
And in order to maintain, I have to continue manipulating my food or my workouts in an ever lessening/increasing ratio.
WHY. Why would anyone–anyone–do this to him or herself? What’s the point of spending your entire life worrying about how small, bland, and tasteless you can make your portions or how long, bland, and exhausting you can make your exercise? For some aesthetic goal? (Because it’s certainly not for health, despite what the fitspo images are assuring you. If you were healthy, you’d be able to go to a restaurant without freaking out when they cook your chicken breast in oil, or stay out late without worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to wake up in time to do an hour on the elliptical before work.)
Sorry to be absolutely blunt here, folks, but calories in/calories out is a really tragic*** way to live.
But what’s the alternative?
Well, let’s start at the beginning.
+And I can guarantee you’ve all seen this couple at the gym, too–you know, the woman sweating it out on the treadmill for an hour, lifting a light dumbbell awkwardly while reading a magazine, the man sitting on the pec-deck machine for an hour, doing endless sets of chest flyes with his neck jutting forward and taking 20 minute breaks between sets to chat with his friends…
***I was going to use a different word here, but I figure I’ve maxed out my curse word allotment for this post by using the “c” word again.
I have added a new “bad” word to my vocabulary. Forget the f-word, forget the four-letter c-word: this is a 7-letter c-word, and it’s the most heinous, stupid, useless wastes of breath I think I have ever wasted time uttering:
In fact, I am sick of hearing that word used, because I think we, as a culture, completely abuse it without having any actual understanding of what it actually means.
Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to explain how potentially ruinous the “calories-in/calories-out” mindset is, so prepare to have your minds blown (and your sanity restored):
From the moment I met ED, I had a niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that part of my miraculous weight loss was due not just to the fact that I was eating less, but also to the fact that I was exercising more.
The summer between 8th and 9th grade was spent not only eating soy-free (a.k.a. apples and peanut butter), but also biking back and forth to the gym every day, spending an hour doing some asinine combination of light weights and cardio, and then doing “toning” and “core” exercises on my bedroom floor each night. And, for a long time, that formula worked.
After my 9th grade knee surgery, I started increasing my caloric intake while sitting on my rear and healing, so I, of course, gained weight. As soon as my knee would allow it, I joined the cross country team and began doing long, slow (very slow) endurance runs. As my competitive nature kicked in and my leg grew stronger, I started running longer and faster, even on the weekends. By the time I became cross country team captain in 11th grade, I was going for a second run every night after dinner, even if I’d already run long and hard at practice that day.
Of course, the more I ran, the hungrier I got. And all of the conventional wisdom at the time pointed toward carb-loading, so I made sure to have extra helpings of french bread and spaghetti between my after school practice and my nightly training. I also made sure to down a Clif Bar before cross country every day, even though I had eaten a large lunch and a packet of peanut M&M’s less than 2 hours beforehand.
I thought it didn’t matter, because conventional wisdom also said that my exercise (calories out) was burning off the huge amounts of food I was eating (calories in). As long as I went for that second run each night, I was golden.
And yet, two years later in New York, while I was dieting and cleansing and generally miserable, I was vastly under-eating (probably about 800-1000 calories a day while cleansing, if I had to hazard a guess) plus going to the gym every morning and doing an hour of some asinine combination of light weights and cardio–and I was gaining weight.
It didn’t make sense. But yo-yo diets aren’t supposed to make sense; they’re simply supposed to continue to fuel our negative self-talk, self-hate, and confusion. If anything, we’re doing ED a favor by focusing on eating less and exercising more until our bodies are so exhausted that we can’t fight back.
By the time I started bodybuilding, I got my starvation (*ahem* sorry, eating clean) and exercise down to an art, so I started dropping weight again. By this point, even though the “transformation” I was following didn’t recommend massive amounts of cardio, I still threw in an hour on the elliptical or the rotating stairs, even after a 45 minute workout with heavy weights. The fitness models I followed on Facebook and Twitter all talked about doing fasted cardio* in the morning (which I started doing) followed immediately by weights and then a second workout in the evening (which I technically did by biking up and downtown between my two jobs while I lived in NYC). I wanted to make sure that I was burning calories all day, whenever I had the chance. The more I limited my diet, the more I exercised, the thinner I was going to be.
By the time I moved to Florida, I was absolutely exhausted. I worked out fasted in the morning and made sure to drink my protein within the 15 minute post-workout window, and then went home and collapsed onto the couch for the rest of the day (with minimal movement allotted for meal times). By this time, I was about 110 lbs. I was also incredibly depressed. If I didn’t work out, the depression went from awful but bearable to absolutely monstrous (cue: depleted neurotransmitters and fatigued adrenal glands lecture here). If I didn’t work out, I would spend the day sobbing, brooding, scowling, snapping or some combination thereof.
Worse yet, I found that, even though my diet wasn’t changing, I had to do more exercise, harder exercise, to get the same weight-loss and mood-altering affects. It wasn’t fair–but I was addicted. I was ED’s willing prisoner, and so I didn’t care.
*Cardio on an empty stomach
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.