My Battle with Disordered Eating and How I Broke Free

disordered eating
photo: some rights reserved by Darren Tunnicliff

I once struggled with disordered and binge eating habits. For a period of about three years, I had daily battles with my body image and obsessive food habits that I felt controlled every part of me.

It’s my hope to provide some insight into a form of disordered eating I experienced, and maybe even help some people who struggle with similar issues. But, please, keep in mind that what helped me conquer my problems with food may not be the best solution for you. I don’t say that to discourage you, but to highlight the fact that what works for me may not work for you. If that’s the case: don’t give up! Simply move on to something else (provided on the recommended reading at the end of this article).

A Little Background Information

When I first started working with clients I supplied them with basic nutrition information. Most people asked me about counting calories, weighing food, nutrient timing, and meticulously tracking macronutrients. During that time I had zero issues with food and my body image, and I never over-thought what or when I ate. Naturally I was surprised at how obsessive and controlling many people were about how, what, and when they ate.

I just wanted people to focus on eating real minimally processed food the majority of the time and enjoy things like ice cream and pizza when they truly craved them.

During that time I was blissfully unaware of how many calories were in common foods, mostly because I didn’t care. I was amazed that so many women could immediately recall how many calories were in a hamburger, slice of pizza, a quarter cup of peanuts, or a chicken breast; it was as if they had a calorie catalog in their brain.

Then over a period of a few months, I started to look closely at labels and tracked how many calories I consumed along with grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. This first started out of curiosity, but quickly turned into a compulsive habit.

In addition to counting calories, I also adopted other nutrition “rules” as well, such as eating 5-6 small meals each day, measuring and/or weighing everything and eating only “clean” foods. The stress from taking so much time out of my day to think about and prepare food, and the lack of flexibility, caught up to me. On the weekends I would reason that, “I was good all week long, so I deserve a cheat day.” On those self-rewarded cheat days, I would eat anything and everything I wanted, only to feel horrible both mentally and physically afterwards.

I Completely Lost Control

The disordered eating habits didn’t escalate overnight; about a year into the disordered eating was when my problems with food, lack of control, personal troubles, and self hatred peaked. And that’s the period I’m going to focus on during this article. It’s this time, the time when I truly had no control over when or how much I ate, that I’ll reveal in detail.

When the disordered eating was at its worst, all I thought about, from the moment I awoke in the morning to when I fell asleep at night, was food and my lack of control with what I put in my mouth; this is no exaggeration. Every thought revolved around food or negative self talk about how much of a failure I was for having no control over food.

No longer could I rigidly follow my old eating patterns – 5-6 small meals, count calories, eat clean, weigh food and keep my daily intake at a certain level. I completely lost control and couldn’t stop binge eating compulsively; and I battled daily only to fail over and over again.

Once I put food into my mouth, I lost all control and would just keep on eating. My “full” sensor was completely out of whack and I was a seemingly bottomless pit.

Jars of peanut butter. Boxes of cereal. Loaves of bread. I ate in massive quantities throughout the day.

And because I had no control over food, I tried to take control elsewhere via self induced vomiting. I tried on dozens of occasions to make myself puke, but it never worked. I started to drink “weight loss teas,” but they were just glorified diuretics. I’d attempt to count every calorie I ate on days where I was “good” and didn’t binge and tried to keep my total intake below 1100 calories (these days rarely happened).

As a result of binge eating on a very frequent basis, I got up to a soft and pudgy 140 pounds. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but for a girl who was used to weighing 115 pounds, it was a lot.

To make the situation worse, I developed gastrointestinal issues as a result from severely overeating on a recurrent (practically daily) basis. Things got so bad I had to get a HIDA scan (hepatobiliary scintigraphy – fancy way of saying scanning the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and small intestine via nuclear medicine that uses a radioactive chemical to highlight the organs). The scan results revealed some glaring issues (including bile leaking into my stomach) that were causing a lot of stomach pain and upset, and I was prescribed some pills for a couple of months.

(Note – once I got control over my issues with food and disordered eating habits, it took a couple of years to heal the damage that was done from all of the overeating).

And because I was unable to stop binge eating . . .

Bring on the Cardio

Because I was unable to self induce vomiting or control how much I ate, I figured I would do the next best thing – burn as many calories as possible through exercise. I’d spend hours each and every week on the elliptical machine, bike, treadmill, and stair stepper trying to “undo the damage” from overeating.

I meticulously kept track in my training journal how many calories I burned with my cardio marathon sessions (little did I know at the time that the cardio machines greatly overestimate how many calories are truly burned). I also lifted weights at least four days each week, and I performed at least one full hour of cardio each day. At one point I was even running sprints a few times each week as well.

It was Personal

There were also larger personal problems I was battling at the same time as the disordered eating, but I reveal in That Time I Hit Bottom, if you’re interested.

In retrospect I realize it was the personal issues that added fuel to my disordered eating fire – I’d try to comfort myself from my daily personal problems and self heal by eating food. The only time I didn’t feel pain, sadness, or remorse was when I was eating. As long as I was chewing something, I was “okay”.

Bottom line, I was a huge mess (emotionally, mentally, and physically) and my body was over-stressed. It was no wonder that I also battled severe fatigue along with depression, gastrointestinal issues, and disordered eating on a daily basis.

The Repair Process

I sought help from several counselors, but to no avail; things kept getting worse with both my disordered eating and my personal life (note, in retrospect I believe it was because the people I spoke with were not professionals when it comes to disordered or binge eating). I started to question everything at one point – who I was, what I was doing, what purpose I served in life. I completely lost sight of things I was once certain of and no longer recognized myself; I was a totally different person.

But it was time to defeat my disordered eating patterns and break free from binge eating.

Long story short, things in my personal life reached a tipping point, and I knew I had some tough decisions to make and that I had to finally take control of my life – personally and with food. In the end, I made drastic life changes.

Some of the changes included giving up my training business that I was building and moving to a different city. I knew that such radical changes needed to be made; I needed to “start over” and create a new beginning.

It was actually these personal life changing decisions that initiated the healing process for my disordered eating habits. Once I started to rebuild my foundation, re-discover who I was and who I wanted to be, the roles in life I wanted to fulfill, and the future I wanted to create, that’s when I finally took control of my problems with food too.

However, I desperately needed to adjust my relationship with food, so I followed some simple nutrition guidelines. I also had to relearn what it meant to feel hunger (I completely lost this natural feeling for a few years) and start from scratch to improve my relationship with food. As time has progressed, I’ve simplified my guidelines more and more.

Some people scoff at my nutrition recommendations as being “overly simplistic”, but they’re very effective and were initially developed out of sheer necessity. Plus, who said something must be complicated to produce results? That hasn’t been the case for me or my clients over the recent years.

I always start out with the simplest and easiest nutrition guidelines possible, and only make tweaks when absolutely necessary. Why do something complicated first when something much simpler could be all you need to achieve the desired results? This is what I call Sane and Simple Nutrition.

How Things are Going Today

I’ve been free from disordered and binge eating habits for many years, thankfully.

It was a slow and steady process at first, but each “small win” (e.g. going a day without binge eating, saying something positive to myself) gave me more momentum moving forward.

I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and living a life I wouldn’t change for anything. I’m surrounded by people I love, and who love me for who I am. I have a “job” that allows me to help people and that brings me joy each and every day. I no longer question who I am or the person I want to be; I know without a doubt. And I’m always striving to become the most awesome and strongest version of myself.

I’m grateful for those “dark years” and wouldn’t change them if I had the opportunity. Those trials I endured and the resulting changes I made caused me to grow up and taught me very valuable lessons I couldn’t have learned elsewhere.

It’s because of my battle with disordered eating that I developed my current nutritional guidelines that I use with myself and my clients – they’re simple and as stress free as possible, but also effective. You can find them in Sane and Simple Nutrition. It’s my sincerest belief that nutrition should (eventually) become effortless and not require much mental effort. The sane and simple approach, in my experience, it what gets you there.

It’s my sincerest hope that, if you too struggle with disordered eating habits, you’ve received a glimmer of hope from this article. You’re not alone, and no one is totally exempt from the potential of developing disordered eating patterns.

It’s a challenging battle, but it CAN be won.

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