Ahh Sunday, I find Sundays are often a day of reflection on past events, and so I thought today I would share with you a very personal experience of mine, by battle with bulimia. I’m not much of an open book but I hope that sharing my experience will help others and give them hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Not many people know about bulimia, even I didn’t know what it was until I was consumed by it. So at its basic form bulimia is an eating disorder which is characterised by a cycle of binge eating and then purging. I think it’s worth mentioning here that purging can happen in 3 ways, by forcing yourself to vomit the food back up (this was not for me), taking laxatives (again not something that I did) or an extreme amount of exercise (this was me). My journey with bulimia started last year, and I have now been bulimia free since the end of September.
The weight loss journey
Since I was around 18, I started playing more attention to my body. I think it happens naturally to most young adults, you want to look the best you can and I was no exception. I stepped onto the scales, Googled my weight to height ratio and noticed that I could lose a few pounds and still be in the “normal” weight range. This ultimately led me to restrict calories and living in fear of becoming fat for the next 8 years of my life.
In the beginning, I only changed what I ate, clean eating as they say. I refused to eat chocolate, cake, biscuits anything that could make me put on weight (“fair enough” I hear you say, but wait it gets worse…much worse).
Eventually, weight loss stalled, so I decided to track everything I consumed in a calorie counter app, it suggested I eat 1,200 calories a day to lose weight. So that’s what I did. I reduced my calorie intake and indeed weight loss resumed.
Inside I was happy, I was determined to get to the lowest point of the “healthy” weight range and I was creeping closer to my goal. My body, however, was not happy. My mood was up and down and I felt tired all the time. As my body began to realise what was happening it slowed down my metabolism, meaning it was using energy more efficiently. At this point my family had warned me I was getting too thin, but I thought: “What do they know, the chart online says I can lose more and still be “healthy” and the app still says I can lose more weight safely” (because an app knows better than your own family right?!) how wrong was I.
At this point, I had lost around 5-6lb and weighed around 7st 12lb. Weight loss stalled again and so I decided to join the gym. I went as often as I could, and if I couldn’t make it to the gym, I’d do HIIT workouts at home. If I’d consume over my measly 1,200 calorie goal I’d exercise it off and make sure I didn’t eat back the calories I’d burnt through running like a headless chicken on the treadmill. My body at this point was at breaking point, cravings were so intense that I’d always be having inner battles with myself. The fear of becoming fat had consumed me.
I’d become dangerously low in weight, I was a mere 7 stone 5lb, I started having chest pains and bouts the of light-headedness, but I kept going because the online chart still said I could lose a few pounds and I genuinely thought I was still fat. At one point I ran 16km just because I’d had a meal in a restaurant with a chocolate cheesecake for dessert!
Caving to cravings
Then it happened, out of nowhere, I caved, the cravings were just too much, I binged on chocolate, crisps (and I’m not even a big fan of crisps), cake, biscuits. Mainly anything edible, processed and quick to eat, I indulged in. I ate past the point of being full, it was like I was in a trance. Eventually, with a full swollen belly, my consciousness returned. Guilt and shame swallowed me along with panic. I’d consumer over 4,000 calories that day. I googled what’s the worst damage I could have done and be glad to hear that most of the weight would be bloating and water weight, no lasting impact. So I wrote off the day as a mistake, a “one of those things” moment and vowed to cardio my butt off the next day and restrict for a few days “just to be safe”.
The binge-purge and restrict cycle began
My plan, however, did not follow through. Over the next 6 months, I would fall into a cycle of binging, purging (in the form of excessive exercise) and restricting the amount of food I consumed. I’d binge every couple of days, and I quickly put on weight, which my family and friends thought was great. I looked healthier to them, but inside I was miserable, ashamed and felt guilty. I was even too conscience-stricken to tell anyone of my eating disorder.
Hiding the eating disorder
It was easy to hide that I had Bulimia, I could sneak food into my room, up my sleeves, in my pockets or in my bag and chow down without anyone suspecting a thing. I ate in the car on the way home from work, I even ate a whole box of Nature Valley granola bars at one point (I can no longer stand their taste). After a binge, I’d wear a baggy top and bottoms to hide the bloat. No one suspected a thing, not even when the chocolate peanuts (my kryptonite at the time) started to run out quicker than usual. I was at my worst when I was home alone, nothing stopped me from raiding the cupboards. Purging was also easy to hide, I would just go for a long run, but if anyone asked where I’d been I’d say I went for a “long walk” instead, it was that simple. I felt guilty for eating so much, wasting so much food because of my gluttony, I felt awful, so ashed of myself that I even took down my mirror because I couldn’t bear to look at myself.
Understanding what caused my bulimia
I know you may be thinking “why couldn’t you just stop eating?” but it’s not as easy as that. It’s very hard for someone who hasn’t had an eating disorder to understand what’s going on in the mind during that difficult time. The best way to explain it is that one voice in your mind is saying “I’m hungry, eat, eat, eat!” while the other side is saying “No, pig, you binged the other day!”. These two mindsets battle with each other until you give in to one of the voices and usually binge. After the binge, you feel awful and side with the other voice thinking that you’re a fat pig, you exercise like mad to try and make up for it.
I googled, researched and read many self-help books, but only one helped me understand the condition; Brain over Binge by Kathryn Hanson. Her experience was very similar to mine and she explains in her book that the intense cravings or the voice that makes you want to binge are caused by the oldest part of the brain, the part of the brain that ensures your survival, she calls it the animal brain. I’d restricted for so long my brain was in survival mode making me eat to ensure I survived. But over time the pattern became a bad habit. She teaches you that the animal brain cannot make you do anything, it can only give you thoughts, but you control the action. It might say that you need to binge, but you control whether you pay attention to the animal brain and put the cake in your mouth, chew and swallow. Many people have written that this book alone helped then beat bulimia. This was not the case for me but it certainly helped me understand why my brain was doing what it was doing.
I tried other methods, such as writing down trigger foods (that is, what food I ate that led to a binge), writing down my emotions before binging (to see if it was related), did video blogs for myself and documented when I binged. I went for walks when the urge to binge came, but nothing seemed to work.
A road to recovery with intermittent fasting
Then one day I was trawling the internet looking for other people’s experience with bulimia and saw a post on Reddit about someone successfully beating bulimia through intermittent fasting (or IF for short). I did some research about IF and discovered that it is basically fasting (not eating) for a set number of hours a day and not restricting anything when you do eat. I thought I’d give it a go, thinking there was nothing to lose and starting fasting for 16 hours a day and ate for 8 hours. It was hard at first, I had to bargain with myself, pushing my 8am breakfast to 9am then 10am but eventually I went from 8pm-12pm without food, only water and black tea and coffee to keep me going and when I ate, I had two hearty meals a day.
Of course, the binge eating monster inside me didn’t disappear overnight, it actually took a good 3 months, but something astonishing happened. When I fasted I never had an urge to binge, even though my tummy rumbled, I never felt like raiding the cupboard. My binges became less severe when I did eat, I had fewer cravings and went from binging every other day to binge once or twice a week, before I knew it the voice in my head that told me to binge disappeared. It was almost like fasting allowed my body to somehow reset itself. I know fasting helps the body in many ways, including; autophagy, increase in the human growth hormone, depletes the glycogen stores and burns stored fat and improves insulin sensitivity etc. But I never expected it to help me conquer bulimia, if I’m honest, I’m quite amazed. I continue to fast to this day because I personally feel more awake and alert when I’m fasting, I can get so much work done in the morning compared to after I’ve eaten.
I also made other changes to my life when I started fasting. For one I stopped counting calories, and I didn’t give myself a target of calories to eat. I no longer punished myself by stepping on the scales after a binge, in fact, I stopped stepping on the scales altogether. I never extended my fast to punish myself for binging. I ended doing cardio and instead started strength training, which shifted my mentality from concentrating on my weight to the weight on the barbell. But more importantly, I started concentrating on loving myself, and my body instead of hating it, after all the body we have is the only one we’ve got to carry us through this world.
Fasting may not be for everyone. I know many do not recommend fasting if you’re suffering from an eating disorder (I most definitely agree that if you are anorexic, then you should not fast!!!) until you have a better relationship with food. But, I took a punt, and it worked for me, admittedly I may be the exception rather than the rule though.
If you are interested in pursuing fasting, I do recommend giving Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore’s book The Complete Guide to Fasting a read to better understand the science behind fasting and what to do and what not to do. You might also want to check out the intermittent fasting subreddit on Reddit.
I hope my experience has been of use for others who are suffering from bulimia and given them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you don’t feel like there is it at the moment.
You can do this, you are stronger than you think and most of all, an eating disorder does not define who you are.