I struggled with several eating disorders for over 10 years of my life. Anorexia in high school, bulimia in college, and orthorexia post college when I got deep in the bodybuilding world.
On the surface, I still looked very healthy, athletic, and “normal” during all of these. No one could tell. I downplayed it, told myself things were not “that bad,” and that it wasn’t a “real eating disorder,” it was just “dieting” and “health.”
But under the hood I was struggling hard. There was a constant battle waging between my brain, body, and food. I could not look at food without fear, and worrying about the calories in it. I could not look in the mirror without obsessing over my body, picking it apart. I was addicted to exercise and felt extreme anxiety if I missed a workout. I could not visit my family without panicking about what food I was going to eat or how I was going to get in my workouts. I lost many years of my life, missed out on countless social events because I was stuck in my head obsessing about food and my bodyweight.
I want to share with you exactly how I overcame disordered eating and reached peace with my body and food for good.
NOTE: I am not a therapist. This is not medical advice nor is this an ED recovery blog. But I do think this info can be valuable to anyone struggling with their relationship with food and body.
I worked with trained nutrition professionals & a therapist when I realized I needed help.
In high school, my first eating disorder got so bad that I stopped getting my period – So I worked with a dietician to teach me about nutrition, and restore my menstrual cycle. Post college I worked with a personal trainer & nutritionist who taught me more about nutrition and fitness, and I also worked with a therapist to fully heal my EDs and improve my body image.
A HUGE part of my food anxiety arose because I simply did not know anything about nutrition. I thought I should eat as “little as possible” – which is just false. I actually slowed down my metabolism, and the restriction led me to binge and overeat when I ‘caved.’ (In reality if fat loss is yo ur goal, you want to be in a moderate deficit not an extreme deficit).
I also had a whole list of “fear foods” — Including bananas. Rice. Juice. Salad Dressing. Indian Chai with sugar. I was irrationally afraid that I would gain bodyfat if I took even one bite of these foods, and panicked around them.
Some of these make no sense, but again — I didn’t know anything about nutrition. I didn’t realize that no one food can make you gain weight, it’s a calorie surplus over time.
After working with a coach and dietician several years ago, I learned a ton around how our metabolism works, how muscles are built, and how true body composition changes actually happen.
Learning about nutrition was actually what inspired me to become a personal trainer and nutritionist myself, and help other women improve their relationship between food and body.
I dealt with all the deeper issues that I had been using my eating disorders to cover up.
An eating disorder is never about food, it’s always about something else
The need for control.
The need to feel perfect.
The need to release emotions or stress.
The need to cope with bigger insecurities in life.
Disconnection from our body after a traumatic event.
Fear of what everyone thinks of you.
Fear of judgement and criticism.
My eating disorder was always a way for me to deal with being “different” from everyone around me – it started when I moved to a new school in 8th grade and looked different from all the girls around me. It got worse in college when I was in a new environment, and felt hyper-judged.
My ED was a way to release the extreme pressure I placed on myself as a high achiever, a perfectionist. It was a way to cope with feelings of inadequacy, and it gave me a false hope that if only something were different then my life would be ‘perfect.’
Speaking of this–
I had to let go of perfectionism and my “all or nothing” mindset with life.
My entire life I have been an all or nothing woman, the model child— with grades, sports, business, everything—I prided myself on extreme achievements – multiple sports team captaincies, going to a prestigious school, getting a prestigious job in Silicon Valley – these extreme achievements made me feel good, protected me from criticism & made me feel like nothing could hurt me if I was just ‘perfect.’
But thats the thing — This perfectionism is rooted in fear.
My eating disorder told me that if I wasn’t not perfect, I’d be nothing, worthless, trash. I had no concept of “moderation.” To me “moderation” meant total failure.
I delayed gratification until I hit the next goal, but that gratification never game — because there was always another goal to hit. I was obsessive, and it never felt safe to just “rest” and be. That’s what “other people did” but not me.
Note – This perfectionism / anxiety / obsessive personality is part genetic. If your family has a history of addiction, you are likely to have a more addictive personality.
I had to form new core beliefs, practice dealing with “moderation” and remember that my happiness is separate from my accomplishments.
My new beliefs include things like –
My friends like me just the way I am, they don’t care about my accomplishments.
I can be happy with moderation.
Happiness is my birthright, and I deserve happiness regardless of my accomplishments.
I learned to feel my feelings instead of using food or control to deal with them.
I am someone who puts up emotional walls. I was a math and computer science major in college and prided myself on being emotionless, logical, and rational. My family would jokingly call me a “robot.”
In reality I felt emotions, I just didn’t know how to deal with them.
My ED was a way to cope. Instead of feeling sadness or loneliness, I would just throw myself into exercise and calorie counting. Instead of dealing with pain, or rejection, i would avoid my problems by pummeling my body away at the gym.
In my process of eating disorder recovery… I learned to cry. I learned to discuss my feelings. I leaned to sit with my emotions and process them instead of running from them, using exercise to cover them up, or binge eating to cover them up.
I unpacked my deepest fears of weight gain and understood them head on.
My ED made me terrified of bodyfat. But in therapy I realized I was not actually afraid of bodyfat… I was afraid of all the things my eating disorder ASSOCIATED with body fat, all the “meanings” I associated with it, like: > I’m different > I’m not perfect > This means I’m unlovable and will have no friends.
These associations are totally false. They’re just artificial meanings our society has created around bodyfat that my ED brain internalized.
Body fat is truly neutral. It’s like toenails – something you have, not something you are. I learned to look at my body fat as just a ‘thing’ on my body, and remove the meanings I associated with it.
I now focus only on how I feel in my body as a measure of my fitness success.
I learned how to be nice to myself.
Again. Very hard for someone high achieving who is addicted to never quite feeling “good enough.”
My eating disorder voice would say things like:
She hates you.
You’re so boring.
If you were skinner this would be easier.
Look at her.
She’s so gorgeous and gets all the guys–You’re never going to look like her.
You’ll never get into that company, you’re not smart enough.
You overate again? What is wrong with you.
You’re such a pig. You need to get rid of this food immediately.
Everyone’s looking at you. They’re all thinking about how big your legs look right now.
Ladies! We aren’t born with these voices in our heads. We pick them up somewhere – From critics, from society. And we can unlearn them.
I learned to speak to myself with a compassionate, curious voice, replacing these thoughts with—
Hey, Dee, you are doing great. Keep it up!
I’m so proud you did at least a 10 minute workout today! That’s better than zero minutes!
Hm, looks like you overate today. I wonder why that happened? Is your diet too restrictive? Is everything OK? Let’s take a look and see how we can prevent this.
People love you. Your friends love you. Enjoy your time with them! They deserve your full attention!
This is hard. It sounds cheesy at first. It takes practice. But re-wiring your “food voices” will change your life.
I stopped isolating myself and learned how actually enjoy my time with my friends.
The worst part about an eating disorder is how socially isolating it is. You become selfish, in your head with your own thoughts and obsession about food. In my peak ED periods, I withdrew, did not form close friendships, because I was so fixated on my body that I couldn’t really be fully present with other people.
When I did bodybuilding, it added to this social isolation – I missed countless social events because they didn’t fit into my “macros.” At the time I found it “worth it,” because I was prepping for a competition, but in retrospect I wouldn’t do it again.
This last year I focused hard on cultivating friendships, particularly female friendships. I focused hard on being fully present in my conversations, shifting attention away from myself and food and onto the person I was speaking to. I focused on really listening to the other person, and reminding myself that they deserve my full attention – because I am valuable.
Honestly – This is something I’m still working on. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, and forming close friendships is super important. One of my intentions for 2019 is to form more entrepreneur friends.
I learned how to actually *listen* to my body.
Have you ever seen a toddler eat? They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. We all have internal cues that tell us when to eat, but mine got so messed up from my eating disorders and obsessive macro tracking when I was doing bodybuilding.
Over the last year, I stopped tracking macros / calories and learned how to eat based on internal cues only.
Macros can be a great bridge for learning about nutrition — I learned SO much by tracking my nutrition. But after I did my bodybuilding comp, I was starting to become obsessed and develop “orthorexia,” an obsession with eating “perfectly” and correctly.
If I every choose to peruse an aesthetic or muscle-gain goal again I may return to macros temporarily, but I will have to be very careful not to become obsessive.
I stopped obsessing about what my body looked like and started focusing on what it can do.
I will always be athletic. I love sports and I love challenging my body. But, sports that place such a high emphasis on our external visuals (bodybuilding, cheerleading)— will always be triggers for my body dysmorphia and disordered eating.
These sports can work for some people, but with my ED history, they are not a healthy fit for me.
The athletic challenges I will be perusing include: Swimming. Running. Maybe another triathlon.
The biggest, most transformational shift in my body image??
I became highly media literate.
People severely underestimate the influence of western media & western cultural values on the development of eating disorders. People assume that having an eating disorder is *your fault.* Something you choose. Or that it’s the fault of bad parenting.
This is so far from the truth it’s unreal. Yes – there are a few genetic predispositions that put people at higher risk of developing an ED including a predisposition for anxiety or history of addiction.
But the Western media plays a MASSIVE role.
Study after study has shown that the Western “thin ideal” directly correlates to ED development. For example, in Fiji – until 1995 there were zero incidences of ED. The culture valued full bodied figures, and associated thinness with communicating social isolation and loneliness. In 1995 western media was introduced, and by 1998 11% of the women had developed an ED, simply because they were exposed to American TV and internalized the “thin ideal.” How ridiculous is this??
A a BIG PART of developing a positive body image this involves media literacy, understanding the messages we’ve been told about how our bodies “should” look, the way the media capitalizes on the female body, and the impact it’s having on us psychologically.
The fitness industry plays a massive massive part in shaping our body image. Terms like “bikini body” are so common in this industry but so problematic. I’ve stopped using these terms in my marketing after realizing how harmful they can be.
One of the best books I’ve read on media’s capitalization of the female body is this is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe. Check it out!
And finally…I stopped believing that we are all supposed to look the same…. And started to believe that we are all *supposed* to look different.
The media ideal makes us believe that we are all supposed to look one way, and that everyone’s body is capable of being thin and staying there. THIS IS FALSE. We are not supposed to all look the same. Bodies come in SO many shapes and sizes, and I started celebrating body diversity instead of conformity.
I cleaned up my news feed, got rid of all the accounts that told me I was supposed to be one X shape in order to wear a bikini and encouraged me to sacrifice my mental health to conform my body into something it’s not.
I filled my feed with accounts of women who actually embody athleticism, strength, and power, and focus on what their bodies can do.
We are not supposed to all look the same.
Our bodies are NOT supposed to be one size throughout our entire life.
Focus on making yours feel the best it can feel every day.
Final note: Not everyone who attempts a diet will get an ED. Not everyone who attempts weight loss will get an ED. But I did. And it stole 10 years of my life from me.
THIS Is why I’m so damn passionate about helping women heal their relationships with their bodies, and achieve their fitness goals in a balanced manner – because no woman should need to deal with what I’ve gone through for the sake of “beauty” and “health.” There is a way to achieve fitness, weight loss, and strength that doesn’t leave you broken and with a worse body image than when you started.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I strongly encourage you to seek out professional help. You won’t regret it. In retrospect – I wish I had started therapy in high school or during college. I didn’t think my ED was “that bad” at the time I downplayed it, because like many mental health illnesses I felt shame associated with seeking help. But look – Even if you have an ED for 10 minutes you have an ED. Seek out support. Get your life back. You won’t regret it, I promise. A life in which you cannot enjoy social events is not really living.
Let me know if this helped you! <3
If you want to work with me 1:1 fitness & nutrition coaching to reach your goals – Whether that’s fat loss, strength gain, or just reaching peace with food & body – apply here! https://deegautham.typeform.com/to/kGklLt