The first time I remember feeling food deprived, I was eight years old.
I seemed to be hungry when the other kids weren’t—maybe I just had a larger than normal appetite? I was nowhere near being overweight: not chunky, no belly. I don’t think people were consciously restricting my food because they perceived me to have a weight issue…regardless, with my persistent hunger, I became very conscious of my appetite.
I began exercising at age 12 on a bike at home. That was also the year nutrition labels came out. I remember being shocked when I did the math and learned how many grams of fat I was consuming in just Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Pies alone. That is when I began restricting my intake myself—and exercising off what I believed to be an overconsumption of calories.
In my late 20s through mid 30s, I ran (and won) races of varying kinds. But then, one Friday night in 2012, I realized something. I had been on the treadmill for a while, but when I actually looked down, I saw I had been running for four hours straight, even though I wasn’t training for anything.
I realized I had a problem—a big one. It scared the sh*t out of me. (Okay, not literally, but runners poop is a legit thing, just FYI). I immediately became anxious and scared, so I decided to make an appointment with my family physician.
I explained everything to her, and she told me I was bulimic. Say what? No, no I wasn’t. I didn’t eat crazy amounts of food and throw up. How could I have bulimia?
She explained that purging wasn’t only achieved by puking my guts out. Purging also included taking laxatives, diet pills, water pills, energy pills, enemas—or engaging in excessive exercise. Bingo. I had literally been trying to outrun my food intake, planning my social and work calendar around being able to work out.
My doctor suggested counseling. For months, I went to weekly cognitive-based talk therapy and saw a nutritionist weekly for this so-called eating/exercise disorder. She helped me understand for the first time ever that the fact that I thought about food before my feet hit the floor in the morning until I fell asleep at night was not normal. It wasn’t right that the only time I didn’t feel guilty for feeling hungry was right before breakfast, since it just made sense to me that I’d be hungry after not eating since the day before.
She also introduced me to the phrase “food insecurity.” This basically refers to a period of time in which a person did not have a steady supply of food, like if we grew up really poor, or had food withheld, or lived in a country experiencing famine or drought. For people who have experienced food insecurity, it’s not uncommon to become obsessive about not having enough later in life, even if we do.
But still, I struggled. I began to eat large quantities of food in private. And I mean larggggge. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even make it out of the grocery store parking lot. I’d eat so far beyond the point of feeling full that breathing deeply was near impossible, my stomach would distend to where it hurt, and I’d end up laying on my side for many hours just to let it all digest, swearing it would never, ever happen again…
I determined that neither the therapist nor the nutritionist could really help me, so I dropped both of them like a hot, juicy, fully loaded baked potato. Who am I kidding? I had not allowed myself to have a potato with anything other than salt on it for years.
After turning to a personal trainer in preparation for a body building competition (I finally got the abs I so desperately sought), I realized I still had an issue. After the competition, I binged for several days, and it worried me. I went back to the family doctor, and she prescribed me a medication that was new to the market and intended to help with bingeing. It helped, but I still wanted something more.
I turned to the internet and found someone who I thought might be able to help further: a former bulimic herself. What hooked me was she had helped thousands of people, she was accessible, her book had great reviews everywhere, and she had a different theory about the root cause of eating disorders than I had heard in my counseling sessions. She said eating disorders were not always attempts to maintain control over unprocessed childhood issues. Sometimes, they were simply caused by food restriction. Period. That’s it. In other words, our bodies’ ability to feel and interpret hunger was dysfunctional because we were being starved—either as prisoners-of-war somewhere, or because we were doing it to ourselves in the pursuit of some fitness or aesthetic goal.
Whoa. Mind blown. This was a new angle. And one that made a lot more sense!
So many of us feel defeated and like something is wrong with us because we are failing to achieve a certain physique, improve health, lose weight, or just change shape. As a result, many us turn toward disordered thinking, which in turn leads to disordered eating or exercising.
But this year, I finally learned about a thing called reverse dieting, which involves a gradual increase in total daily calories that is intended to increase metabolic rate and health. I did it gradually over nine months, increasing my calories from about 1,300-1,500 a day to 1,600-2,100 a day, depending on my activity level (for perspective, I am a 5 foot 2, 38-year-old female).
Both my weight and body fat percentage have gone down.
I also learned about tracking macros. Food issues or not, this is a useful skill for all people. Tracking macros consists of tracking the total grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates we consume and adhering to an individualized “macro split” among those three categories.
This is much better than tracking calories. For the record, most nutrition labels inaccurately report total calories per serving. That’s because they’re are allowed to round, so they often round down (although there are cases of them rounding up). So when we tracks total calories, if we are not doing the math ourselves, we are often 10 to 20 percent off. In reality, 1 gram of protein equals 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories.
However, staying within the optimal range of our macros doesn’t always correlate to consuming optimal micros (vitamins and minerals), so it’s important for us all to eat a variety of fresh, healthy proteins, veggies, and fruits for long-term good health. It is entirely possible to stay within an ideal range of macros, have a kick*ss body, and still not be healthy if we don’t.
All this macro talk and math sounds confusing and overwhelming, but after tracking for a week or so it is a lot easier. And it’s not necessary to keep tracking forever—just until we get a better sense of what we are actually putting into our bodies.
If you can relate to any of the following, you might also benefit from reverse dieting and tracking macros:
>> I try to eat clean 90 percent of the time, but I’m unsatisfied both physically and mentally with my food.
>> I’ve tried eating more to put on muscle, but notice I’m soft and squishy after the first couple of weeks, so I just reverted back to trying to cut calories and assumed I was incapable of putting on muscle mass.
>> I have thinning hair (especially at my temples) and disrupted hormones, despite no family history.
>> I am unsure if I am under-eating, particularly protein.
>> I feel unclear on how much protein I need for muscle gain and preservation.
>> I feel unclear on how many calories I need to take in to actually put on muscle.
>> I didn’t know it’s inaccurate to rely on nutrition labels for calorie tracking.
>> My body fat is higher than what I want it to be.
>> I don’t have as much lean muscle as I’d like.
>> I binge often.
So many of us have struggled with disordered thoughts about food, exercise, or body image. We suffer for two primary reasons: we don’t like what we see, and we don’t understand the proper and healthy ways to correct what’s going on internally to achieve changes on the outside. Understand that not all personal trainers or nutritionists are qualified to counsel people in meal planning, food education, or understand the science to do so in a way that keeps us healthy, satiated, and safe. Seek out those with success in helping people overcome disordered thinking and teach how to nourish (not starve) our beautiful bodies—because we all deserve that. And we need these precious vessels more than they need us.
In closing, I’d like to add that it is entirely possible—and certainly more common than people realize—for people with a “healthy” body weight to still struggle with an eating disorder. As I saw in conversations with some of my family and friends (as many of us do), this issue is often minimized or not taken seriously when you’re of a healthy weight.
If it feels like a problem for you, then it probably is—regardless of whether or not other people understand it.
Talking to an actual professional, the right one, can be of benefit to us. That said, working with the wrong one can result in no change, or worse, changes in the wrong direction—so choose wisely!
Author: Gentrie Pool
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis