Disclaimer: I am not a certified dietitian, nutritionist, or doctor. This article is not meant to replace professional medical and/or healthcare advice. All content provided in this article is for educational and/or entertainment purposes only. Please use all information at your own discretion.
Those that have known be for several years may be aware, or have speculations, or even been completely oblivious of the fact that I struggled with an eating disorder. Some have openly called me out on it, others may have held back their questions and concerns. In our Liebster Award post, I promised to share more about my experience with eating disorders, specifically Anorexia Nervosa but I will also discuss the Binge Eating Disorder that followed. Thus, in light of National Eating Disorder awareness week, this is the full story. Please keep in mind that this is very personal and I am speaking on behalf of myself, and myself only.
Shortly after entering high school, I decided I was not skinny enough. Perhaps it was influence from the group of friends that surrounded me as a tweenager. They were all skinny, beautiful, had lots of friends, and got attention from boys. While I was not even close to being overweight, media told me that losing 10 pounds was a healthy idea. I secretly started logging my calorie intake on an iPod app because I didn’t want other people, such as my family, to think I was weird.
Sure enough, I lost my first 10 pounds. That was not too bad, I think I could do another five pounds. As my weight loss became more noticeable, I received more comments from classmates, friends, and family. “Did you lose weight? You look so fit!” I was proud of my achievements and relieved that my effort paid off. The praise spurred me to lose another 5 pounds, and then another. Just 5 more pounds and I’ll be happy. I was only deceiving myself into a two-year wrestle with anorexia.
Calorie counting and stepping on a scale quickly became an obsession. I kept my eye on nutrition labels like a hawk, only baked ‘low calorie’ recipes, recorded my physical activity to the minute, and restricted my daily calorie intake to under 1200 calories, even on the days I swam for an hour or had gym class. If I was one calorie over the limit, I felt guilty and discouraged. In hindsight, a few extra jumping jacks would have solved the problem. Every time I walked into the bathroom, I would hop on the scale and monitor the number. I knew that drinking water would cause weight fluctuations but I still became distressed by minuscule increases in weight.
It was difficult to accurately count calories when my mom did all the food preparation, so I decided to take charge of what went into my body. I stopped eating the sandwiches my mom packed me for lunch and insisted on packing my own. Step by step, I decreased the amount of food from one full cold cut sandwich with mayonnaise and margarine, to half a sandwich with one slice of meat, then to half a cucumber sandwich with a side of fruit, until my daily lunch consisted of no more than a handful of grapes and one hard-boiled egg. Immune to the feeling of a ‘caved in’ stomach, I got used to being hungry. The lack of calories, and pretty much all nutrients, made me constantly feel cold and lethargic. Despite what my weak body was telling me, I continued with exercising out of proportion to my eating, going to the pool twice a week and doing extra gym make-up sessions when I didn’t need the bonus marks. I don’t regret attending gym class because Chew made it loads of fun, but I definitely had the wrong mindset at times. I thought that a deficit in calories was the formula for loosing fat, but since my body went into ‘survival mode’, it held on to every calorie I consumed and every bit of fat I had left. The weight that had shed off was from all the muscle I lost.
Dining at restaurants was also stressful, especially when my family frequents Chinese establishments. I would search up calorie counts on the internet and add them to my app (they were likely terrible estimations). Eating out lost its enjoyment because I would direct the focus from spending time with people to avoiding the foods that would cause my calorie intake to skyrocket.
People who are overweight may be scoffing as I say this, but I didn’t realize that being told “you’re too skinny” hurt as much as being told “you’re too fat” or “you’ve gained weight”. I’ve received both remarks throughout my life. Either way, it is a punch at the insufficiencies of one’s outer appearance. Every time I went out to a restaurant with family friends, they would say “You’re too skinny, you need to eat more” and proceed to place a massive hunk of meat on my plate. Upon entering a friend’s home in Hong Kong, I was greeted with “Whoa, you’re really skinny!” These comments were no longer taken as praise or compliments, instead it came off as judgmental. My arrogance fooled me to deny I had an eating disorder because ‘I knew what I was doing’ and ‘I was being ‘healthy’ by eating extraordinarily clean and getting plenty of exercise’. This was a very warped idea of being ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’.
2011: When I had not a worry in the world about my body weight.
2012: The peak of my ED at 98 pounds. I wore a lot of children-sized clothing since adult XS draped over my skeletal frame.
2013: My first season of recovery, after I started eating more and attending group fitness classes at the rec centre five days a week. Starting to gain back some quads!
It really hit me when I saw this photo my dad took of me holding that pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in 2012. The sight of my twig-like arms even made me cringe at the time. Throughout my weight loss, I regularly examined my body in the mirror, nit picking each and every dissatisfaction with my appearance. In all honesty, what I wanted was a flat stomach since I bloat like a balloon even after drinking water. The only aspect of myself I was so called ‘proud’ of was my legs; no matter how close I turn my legs in, my thighs would not touch. I had a constant thigh gap and wore size zero jeans, but I still wasn’t satisfied. The vanity of my intrinsic motivations never led to true feelings of achievement; there was always something I didn’t like about my looks.
After about a year of constraining calories, I dropped to a staggering 98 pounds. I never intended to dip below 100 pounds, but the last few pounds came off without much additional effort (which may have indicated a very bad situation). At 5’4” with a medium-ish build, it was definitely not a healthy weight. Being underweight caused amenorrhea for well over a year. The first few months of no menstruation was bliss, no need to worry about leaking periods and visiting the bathroom between each class. Since it isn’t a big deal if a teenager misses a month or two of periods, I didn’t mention this to anyone. But this continued for another year and induced a bit of fear. As with most questions, I consulted Google for self-diagnosis. I read that if amenorrhea lasted more than 6 months, that it would likely be permanent; this frightened me greatly (and is a perfect example of why you should seek professional healthcare advice). For those that are unaware, no period = no ovulation = no babies = infertile. The plans I had laid out for my ideal future would be shattered if this held true. This thought loomed over me each time I thought about my condition.
My worries bothered me enough that I finally brought it up with my mom. I knew that she had been concerned about my health ever since I drastically lost weight, but she stopped voicing her uneasiness early on to avoid offending me. I’m glad that when I did bring it up, she didn’t go all “I told you so” and blame me for what has happened. Instead, she arranged for me to see our family doctor, who took my weight and height measurements and did a full health check. No causes of my amenorrhea could be determined solely from that visit, so he sent me to do blood tests, urine samples, and see a gynecologist. Before leaving, he warned me I was knocking on anorexia’s door and needed to eat more. Great, as if I hadn’t been told that enough already.
The first blood test went horribly; a student nurse with a trembling hand left me with a massive bruise that lasted weeks. Urine samples were, to say the least, not enjoyable, and the visit to the gynecologist is likely the most awkward examination I’ve ever been to. I had to skip half a day of classes to strip down completely naked and lay on an exam bed and have a female gynecologist stick her fingers into my vagina and tell me 3 seconds later that everything was fine and that if my period didn’t return within a month, she would put me on birth control. I did not leave with any valuable information that day and did not plan to return under any circumstances.
Aware of the side effects birth control would have, I was certain I did not want to rely on pharmaceuticals to synthetically create a menstrual cycle. My mom took me to see a Chinese herbal doctor as one of my aunts swears by Chinese medicine and my best friend’s amenorrhea was cured after a few weeks of drinking Chinese medicine. Diagnosis consisted of a Q&A session, taking my pulse, and examining my tongue and skin, among other things. I was prescribed a week’s worth of medicine, little brown paper packages of dried plants and who knows what else (I once saw a massive mountain of dried bugs being portioned out to someone’s medicine…sure hope it wasn’t mine) that I had to drink three times a day. I was welcomed with the stench of steaming black liquid each morning and after school. I made sure to have a large glass of water and a snack at hand to clear my mouth of the vile flavour immediately after chugging the bowlful. The nasty taste of Chinese medicine alone can prevent me from ever wanting to return to being underweight. I returned to the Chinese doctor each week for a follow up; I was still not cured of amenorrhea so she adjusted the contents of my medicine. A month later, and still not healed, even the Chinese doctor was baffled and said she had no idea what else could be changed.
My mom and I kind of gave up on trying to find a medicinal cure. When the results from all my tests returned, my family doctor said that my blood was fine but that I was simply a little low on nutrients. The only other change I could make to my lifestyle was to gain a few pounds. This left me with very mixed feelings. On one hand, I was hesitant to sacrifice my years of ‘hard work’ to achieve my figure (or perhaps lack of figure), even if I still didn’t have the flat stomach I was aiming for. On the other hand, it was probably the happiest day of my life because the doctor said I could eat whatever I wanted. While it may sound like I had an aversion to food during this time, I still loved to eat. The only person restraining my eating was myself. Finally, the love for food won me over and the next two weeks were spend indulging in all the foods I prevented myself from eating the years before. I still felt some guilt, but the notion that this was the doctor’s orders helped a bit. In less than a month, I gained about 10 pounds; my body immediately soaked up all the calories it had been needing for the past year and a half. And as if it was a threshold, my period came back the moment I hit 110 pounds. I was relieved that my dream future still had a chance but reluctant to abandon my XS-sized body.
The development of and recovery from my eating disorder was facilitated by emotional influences as well. I removed myself from the group of friends that were outer-beauty-orientated and went through a few months of loneliness. Breaking away from a decade-long friendship was depressing and while finding new friends is not my forte (I consider myself an introvert) it was necessary for my mental well-being. Lunch hours were quiet… very quiet, and were spent sitting with a new friend (whom I am very grateful for) who supported me through that stage. Closer to the start of my recovery, I joined my current circle of friends who were as food-loving as my true self, one of which is Chew. I was taught to embrace eating wholesome foods, to enjoy exercising, and was introduced to vegan recipes. I discovered a form of exercise I loved and that could consistently complete, Blogilates. I first started with 1 day of videos per week, then gradually increased to 2, then 3, and eventually followed her monthly calendars. Appropriate exercise and proper portions of nourishing foods kept me at a healthy weight until high school graduation. Chew also suggested Fitness Blender and I also really enjoy the challenging work outs they provide. Prom was also a good motivator to keep me on track. I went from ‘skinny fat’ to strong and lean; this time, without doubt, I felt really good in my own body.
2014: At what I would consider ‘my best’. No longer counting calories and doing Blogilates and/or Fitness Blender videos 5 to 7 days a week. Feeling strong enough to do Fitness Blender’s 1000 calorie work outs was something I felt very proud of.
2015: Stopped cold turkey on exercising, lost my strength (I could barely do a roll up), and felt ashamed of my weight gain. I was heavier than before this whole ED situation.
My first year at university involved the polar opposite type of disorder, binge eating. I moved out into the city and set in my mind that I would be too busy for exercise. That’s a flashing warning sign! I stopped doing Blogilates workouts and ate huge meals to compensate for the workload stress. I regularly binge ate on sugar, whether it be healthier treats I baked or an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s, only to feel remorseful afterwards. Any food, raw fruit, vegan pasta dish, or traditional ice cream, in excessive amounts is not good for the body. Three months into university, I already did a Freshman 20 (yes, not 15) and could no longer fit into my skinny jeans. There were mornings were I could have burst into tears if my roommate wasn’t still sleeping. In those moments, I desperately wished I was 98 pounds again. It was a cycle of feeling fat and trying to make myself feel better by eating compulsively.
To this day, I still don’t have a flat stomach, or a thigh gap, but the radiant lifestyle I live now is much more sustainable and enjoyable. I’m still trying to undo my Freshman 20, still struggle with my relationship with food, and occasionally have the vain wish of being 98 pounds again. The difference is that when I set fitness goals for myself now, I am more conscious about what is reasonable and non-destructive. Also, I steer my purpose away from vanity and strive to build strong muscles and stamina for reasons that will bring happiness: hiking Panorama Ridge, combating university stress, having enough energy to spend a day snowboarding. Even though I have conquered the weight aspect of anorexia, the psychological impacts still linger. Maybe one day I’ll fit back into my skinny jeans and chiffon blouses, but for now I’ll enjoy my life of comfort in leggings and brightly-coloured running shoes.
My message to everyone that knows someone with an eating disorder (ED) is this: People with an ED likely have a fragile mental state and many of the struggles are internal. Even if they don’t look like they are under- or over-weight, they may still be battling an ED or the remains of one. Instead of showing concern by saying “you’re too ____” and forcing them to do or eat something, phrase it as a suggestion like “why don’t you try ____?” or “would you like _____?” and encourage a balance between wholesome food and exercise.
This eating disorder testimony comes on the tail of Blogilates recent confession, demonstrating that eating disorders are more prevalent that one may think. I’ve been asked how I am able to freely talk about my experience with an eating disorder. It’s the driving force behind my desire to become a dietitian. I’ve told my story to several people in person but felt compelled to share cohesive story in time for #NEDAwareness week. It’s a story 5 years in the making and one I’ve drafted, edited, and re-edited over and over again until the day this goes live. There is unnecessary emotional and physical suffering that can be prevented by promoting a lifestyle that maximizes nourishing foods and the love of physical activity rather than minimizing all food or even eliminating a certain category of food. I’m thankful that I didn’t become hospitalized or bring my body to a point of no return; in severe cases of anorexia the body rejects any food it is fed and can lead to death. That being said, there were still valuable outcomes from my journey. For one, my mom now cooks in a healthier manner with less fat, salt, sugar, meat, and more wholesome foods like quinoa and vegetables to please my palate and keep the whole family healthy. Overall, my family is more conscious of healthy eating habits and I couldn’t be happier about that. As for myself, I am able to step back and critique my past self and use that to spot warning signs of relapse. I’ve realized the importance of including nutritious fats and carbohydrates in my daily diet (helloooo nut butters and bread), and replaced the guilt of indulging in say, ice cream, with proactive change (i.e. regular exercise). It’s all about balance, which is something every individual must discover for themselves.
My message to those in the midst of battling an ED: It requires great internal motivation to overcome an ED. There will be ups and downs and it’ll take time but don’t loose sight of what’s important, as it is surely achievable. Remove yourself from situations that spur your ED; for me that included deleting the calorie counting app and having a scale-free bathroom. Surround yourself with friends and/or influences that will support your recovery, fill your fridge and pantry with healthy foods (here are some ideas), and experiment with different forms of exercise. I discovered I really like biking and hiking in the summer, and snowboarding in the winter as alternatives to my usual indoor workouts. Remember that your healthy weight is not the same as anyone else’s and that your recovery journey is also unlike anyone else’s. Maybe working out 5 days a week is too much for you, start with 1 or 2 and work your way up as you feel ready to. That goes the same with eating habits; adjust the content and/or size of your meals gradually. Life is not a race so go at your own pace (awe yeah, look at that rhyme). Focus on how you feel more than how you look and the lifestyle will be more sustainable and the results will likely be better and be long term.
Thank you making it all the way to the end of my lengthy post. I hope that sharing my experience provides insight into the internal struggles that accompany eating disorders and ultimately increases awareness of the prevalence of eating disorders. I will be wearing #Purple4PEDAW as part of British Columbia’s ED awareness week; purple is also my favourite colour, making me that much more passionate about this topic. Comments and questions are welcomed but I ask that they be respectful. Feel free to connect with us via email if you want to keep our discussion private.