Alternative title: "When you have disordered eating and don't realize it... for years."
I've been a bit gun-shy about posting this on the internet for the universe (potentially) to read, and also thought about saving it to be a longer form freelance piece. Maybe I'll still do that, but for now, I felt like it was important to stop procrastinating over writing this and just get my thoughts out onto paper.
Er, digital paper. You know what I mean.
Considering I've mentioned a few times recently that I felt like I'd hadn't always had an easy relationship with food, as well as my current venture into intuitive eating counselor training, it seemed only fair - not to mention obvious - to next share more background into my own history with eating and food.
I don't want to get too far into the weeds, so suffice to say I had a normal childhood in an Italian, food-loving family, filled with lots and lots of delicious food, and never any real qualms about eating anything - including as many pancakes as desired (stacks on stacks, duh) til I hit college. Literally, pancakes were an after school snack when I was high school. (For context, they're my favorite food and we have a family recipe that's been passed down in my family.)
Once I hit college, my eating was a bit all over the place, learning what I did or didn't like at the school cafeteria, and how eating nothing but junk food, combined with alcohol was probably not the best way to reach optimal health or weight, never mind be able to listen to hunger cues and respond appropriately.
At the end of my freshman year, I discovered working out, and began going to the gym every now and then, including dabbling in running, a sport I never, ever thought I'd be able to do, never mind enjoy. (More on that perhaps another time.) Around my junior year of college, I became more serious about running, although I was a treadmill-only runner; never outside, no races, etc. At that time, I used it purely to ease my stress as a busy college student and provide some sort of "balance" amidst the alcohol drinking and parties that punctuated my weeks.
That summer after my junior year, I lived in Washington, D.C. for an internship, and my love for running grew. And looking back, I think that's when my disordered eating started.
Actually, no - I don't just think... I know.
Running, as much as I love it - loved it then, and love it still to this day, forever deep down into my heart, soul, and bones - was what propelled me into what would become a many years-long struggle with disordered eating. I find it extremely difficult to admit this, but heck - it's the truth.
That is the first time I've ever written that out. Maybe the first time I ever allowed myself to swallow that information.
It was only a month ago (!!) that I actually admitted out loud to myself that I did indeed have a serious disordered eating issue toward the end of college and up until around the summer of 2013 when I moved back to California from the east coast. I had literally never allowed myself to recognize the fact that I'd truly had a problem, never mind think about it for long, and certainly hadn't ever said it aloud.
Once I returned to college that fall for my senior year, not only did my disordered eating habits take flight, but my running went from something I kinda, sorta dabbled in to see if I could even do it, to more of a consistent hobby. I was running almost daily, largely because I genuinely loved it, from the endorphin release to the sense of accomplishment to feeling fit and athletic for the first time in my life.
This had its own concerns because, well, my body was not meant to run so many miles so often and without rest days, but that routine came more from sincere ignorance than anything else. I was a brand new runner and didn't really know anyone other than my roommate Sarah and my best friend from growing up, Meg, who even liked running, so I just sort of winged it. The internet was nowhere near as robust or popular at that time (hello, 2007), and I didn't even know Runner's World magazine existed.
We can re-visit that particular topic (newbie runner/rookie mistakes) another time, but the reason that my running became such an integral part of my disordered eating story was because it really fostered the explosion of my disordered eating patterns. In an attempt to be what I thought was healthy, I was running all the time and only eating certain foods I deemed as "safe," i.e., low in calories and fat. I won't get into the details because I don't want to trigger anyone who may be reading this and currently experience disordered eating or an eating disorder, but I will say I remember eating a lot of apples and cereal my senior year of college. Random, I know.
It's important to note I was never bulimic or anorexic, or any of the traditional eating disorders that might come to mind when you imagine disordered eating. But I was definitely not eating enough.
I was eating regularly (meals and snacks), but it was not enough to support my high activity level - calories or overall nutrients wise - because most of what I ate was low in calories, and I used running to compensate for the calories I deemed extra or unhealthy outside of my meal plans, like alcohol, or foods eaten late at night after parties. In ways I can't completely clearly articulate, my running was inextricably tied to my eating habits at this time, and running morphed into a semi compulsion instead of just an enjoyable hobby.
And as a result, I ended up getting a stress fracture in my hip the second semester of my senior year.
You'd think this would have forced me to reevaluate my eating and exercise habits, but it didn't. One close friend called me out, but I refused to believe her or acknowledge there was truth in her statement, and basically ignored her observation for years to come. I wish now that i'd had the fortitude to see the love and honesty coming from this friend, but it took me years to see it myself.
That was, though, a tipping point of sorts for me. I ended up, after healing and graduating, moving on to run outdoors more regularly, which greatly changed my view on the activity itself. I also began reading food blogs and running magazines/websites, and learned overall more about listening to my body as well as properly fueling myself.
But, I was still holding on to a lot of the same eating habits, including trying to stick to 1000-1200 calories because I'd read in some health magazines that that was what was best for me if I wanted to stay in good shape... whatever that means.
It's sort of interesting to look back on this all, because although a lot of it makes me cringe, as well as really emotional (I wish i could talk to myself back in 2007 and tell her that pursuit of good health was not the way to care for myself), it's also just really eye-opening because I truly didn't realize I was doing anything wrong. My eating habits eventually became sort of maddening; I was so frustrated because I felt like couldn't eat like other people or else I'd gain weight, and I felt extremely restricted and strangled whenever I was faced with going out to eat with friends or family because I felt like I couldn't order what I wanted on restaurant menus. I would mentally beat myself up for not choosing the healthier options or eating "too" much of items I considered unhealthy whenever my willpower collapsed. I mean, I was still eating pizza and dessert and pancakes, and all the foods I enjoyed- but not as often, nor not without feelings of guilt. As someone who grew up loving food in a big way, and the overall experience of dining with people I love, this became a major conflict in my life, not to mention a sticking point with family members who didn't understand why I could be so hard on myself and not see how healthy and - as my mom would say - beautiful just the way I was.
This continued, through grad school, on to moving to Washington, D.C. to start my career, although ebbing and flowing and settling at a lesser degree than what I had initially experienced in college. Still with me nevertheless.
In the summer of 2013, after getting over a particularly rough break-up and traumas in my family (illness/death), as well as my first foot surgery, I began training for my first half marathon. Training for and running my first long distance race is what, I believe, finally broke me out of my disordered eating for good. And God, am I ever so grateful.
I cannot pinpoint when or how, but racing changed my mindset on how I viewed eating and my body and health overall. It was a gift in so many ways.
Even though it was not a full blown eating disorder, my disordered eating (and the associated negative self-talk and exercise compulsion), was like a prison, whether I consciously realized that while I was experiencing it or not. It was isolating and draining and tedious and stressful.
That's the reason I'm sharing all of this now. Not because I need my story out on the interwebs for strangers to pick apart or diagnose, but because I want anyone who's gone through something similar (or currently going through it) to know they're not alone. And that that's not how life has to be. I promise.
That's not to say I'm perfect now, because I honestly feel like once you've experienced disordered eating or even an eating disorder, you always sort of have it hiding in the back of your mind and it will try to poke its head out again, BUT I no longer look at food or eating in a disordered way, and instead honor my body. The difference now is that I recognize the signs and what it means, and am able to combat that negative self-talk that often is associated with egging on that disordered eating. I understand balance and how to sort through what is a disordered thought about food, and what's true. I no longer need to out-run my love for food, or anything like that, and intuitive eating has supported that immensely. (I naturally stumbled across intuitive eating without realizing the name of it, and then eventually learned much more about the actual concept and how to embrace it.) Plus, I'm lucky enough to be dating a guy who has pretty solid intuitive eating skills, not to mention loves eating and experiencing food as much as I do, and that's certainly helped.
And SO, there you have it.
Whew... congrats for even surviving such a novel of a post if you've made it all the way here to the end with me. That was a total word purge straight from the heart, but hopefully it makes some semblance of sense. I would love to hear your feedback, your experience, and really anything you want to share with me related to this (or, ya know, anything else!).
As always, thank you for reading. Now go have yourself an amazing Friday!