Since February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Month, I decided to dedicate all of this month’s posts to that topic.
Eating disorder awareness has personal significance to me because I recovered from bulimia in 2016, after struggling for over ten years. You can read my bulimia recovery story here.
While that story goes into detail about my personal struggles with bulimia and how I ultimately recovered from my eating disorder, it doesn’t dig too deep into how it started in the first place.
So that’s what I’d like to share now—how my disordered eating began and how it developed into a full-blown eating disorder. Looking back, I see many behaviors and beliefs that led to and prolonged my battle with bulimia. Some seemed so innocent and even in line with cultural thinking on diets and weight loss at the time. But, in reality, it all contributed to my disordered eating habits that eventually became my bulimia.
Of course, the warning signs I am about to share were specific to me. I’m not a diagnosis specialist and can only speak to my own experience. However, over the past few years, I’ve heard many others detail similar stories of how their eating disorders started, so, from that, I can add that there seem to be many similarities in disordered eating patterns.
I recognize that what led to bulimia for me won’t lead to bulimia for everyone. But, I also hope and pray that more and more people will fight against disordered eating, too, because it’s quite plainly an awful way to live—even without the development of an eating disorder.
Here’s what I know to be true of myself: the following actions and thoughts took me from “I want to lose a few pounds” to being on a perpetual diet to having a full-blown eating disorder. What started as an innocent diet when I was 15, quickly morphed into weight loss that I didn’t know how to stop, then weight loss that became an obsession, followed by years of disordered eating, and finally reached the stage of bulimia when I was almost 23. That lasted till I was 33 years old.
My bulimia warning signs
I am 100% sure that, over time, the following disordered eating patterns led me to a ten year battle with bulimia.
1. Calorie restriction: less than 1,200 calories per day
My initial diet plan at 15 was to eat a little less, work out a little more. That’s it.
When I quickly lost a couple of pounds, I liked that. So, I started tracking calories, cutting calories and increasing my workout frequency and duration. More weight loss resulted. This sort of “success” played right into my goal-oriented, perfectionist mindset.
Likely due to something I read, I settled on 1,200 calories as my maximum per day and 800 my minimum. While I mostly stayed around 1,200, there were days for sure that my intake was closer to 1,000 and occasionally about 800. Whatever the number, I was restricting.
1,200 calories is NOT enough to properly fuel most adult bodies.
Today, you’ll find lots of conflicting information on 1,200 calorie diets. I won’t go into the science of it because that’s not my area of expertise. If this 1,200 calorie topic intrigues you or challenges what you believe or practice, I encourage you to seek out more resources that speak to why it does more harm than good long-term!
I will share this article here that does a stellar job of combining personal experience, factual information, and psychological effects related to eating only 1,200 calories a day. It certainly fits with my own experience.
All that to say, eating 1,200 (or less) calories per day was a major catalyst to my eventual bulimia.
2. A very low fat diet
As I started cutting calories, I also started cutting fat out of my diet. Within the first year of my disordered eating, I had my fat calories down to less than 10g per day. Even that felt too high, but it was hard to give the appearance of eating normally without getting close to 10g.
This was the 1990s, when low-fat diets were all the rage. I genuinely thought that’s what I had to do to stay skinny.
Well, eating that little fat is not sustainable. Let me tell you. Diets that low in fat are not satisfying. It’s no wonder I quickly moved on to the next warning sign.
3. Cheat days [aka. binge eating]
That’s right. Binge eating.
After, gosh, maybe a year of restricting to 1,200 calories (with very little of those being fat calories), the occasional “cheat day” happened. At the time, I thought it was a lack of willpower. Now, I know it wasn’t about willpower at all. Instead, it was my body physically screaming at me to EAT MORE. And also psychologically, the more I restricted, the more I fixated on food.
Read this study about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. It completely changed how I now understand what I went through all those years ago.
But, back to cheat days, which society actually deems okay and normal. Friends, let me challenge you to consider that cheat days are an excuse to binge, and that urge to binge comes from restricting calories. It’s a vicious cycle. Restrict. Binge. Restrict. Binge. Restrict. Binge.
Today, free from that cycle, I feel so sad whenever I hear someone mention a cheat day. I don’t want that for them. I don’t want that for anyone! There is so much freedom in eating without restriction or bingeing every single day.
4. Over exercising and undereating after a binge day
I went from maybe one binge day every few weeks to once every weekend; and then, in college it was almost every other day. While I wasn’t throwing up at that stage, I was purging through excessive exercise. I’ll never forget how frantic I was to burn off as many of the extra calories as I could! There were days I worked out at least two hours in the basement of my parent’s house and then went on a long bike ride—or worked out more in the evening. It was EXHAUSTING. Physically. Mentally.
On top of that, on the days between binges I’d sometimes eat closer to 500 calories—or as low as I possibly could without passing out. I remember a few days of feeling so faint and sick from that few calories, but I felt I had to make up for all the extra food I ate the day before.
Back then, I swore I’d never every throw up. Never say never.
Eventually, the exhaustion of over-exercising and physical weakness of undereating became too much, and I gave in to throwing up… which lasted a little over ten years. Technically, though, because over-exercise is a form of purging, I was already in a state of bulimia before the vomiting started.
Here’s a definition of purging from the National Eating Disorders Association: “Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications, fasting, or excessive exercise.”
5. Labeling food as “good” or “bad”
This mindset very much contributed to my restriction and bingeing. By categorizing foods as “good” and “bad,” I set my self up for a binge every time I ate even a small portion of a “bad” food.
Sadly, this sort of talk with food is very much engrained into our society. “I ate so bad last night.” Or, “I can’t eat that. I have to be good today.” It seems so innocent to say these things, but I hope you can see how it leads to so much guilt.
There are certainly foods with more nutrients than others. Food groups that make our bodies feel better than others when eaten regularly. And foods that can make us feel sluggish or mess with our gut. But, the “good” and “bad” references seem to focus primarily on: “Will this make me fat or skinny?” And, “Will I feel guilty after eating this?”
I was once terrified of eating any “bad” foods. For me, this included foods like egg yolks, peanut butter, anything with butter or oil, pizza, fried foods, dessert that wasn’t low-fat or fat free, and the list goes on.
Anytime I ate even a small portion of what I labeled a “bad” food, it derailed me. Ruined my whole day. Made me feel like a failure. Guilt off the charts.
6. Eating “bad” foods in secret
Guilt and bingeing led to hiding and secret eating “bad” foods. And anything done in secret is usually a giant red flag that there’s a problem.
Personally, I knew I had a problem at that point. I just didn’t know how to stop it… or if I wanted to stop it, as strange as that sounds. It was one of those things that gave me a high for a while, but also dragged me to the worst depths I’ve ever experienced.
Hiding what and how much I was eating became a regular practice—something I, unfortunately, got really good at. And it absolutely continued the entire time I battled bulimia.
7. All-or-nothing thinking
This is also known as the “screw it” mentality.
Instead of allowing myself to eat even a little bit of “bad” food and move on with my day, I used to consider the entire day ruined and then turned it into a binge day. My all-or-nothing thinking hindered me from any sort of balanced eating and instead kept me in a binge and restrict cycle—that eventually led to bingeing (and purging) nearly every single day of my ten years with bulimia.
Thinking in absolutes when it comes to food is tough to stop. It took years of retraining my brain to help me see food differently—not as “good” or “bad,” to go back to those labels—but to just allow myself to eat ice cream or chocolate or *gasp* egg yolks on any given day if I want to. Same goes for any of the foods I previously deemed “bad.” I can eat them now without freaking out or bingeing.
It’s funny that once I stopped labeling foods as “bad” or off limits, they eventually lost their power over me. I’m also very aware now of any hint of an all-or-nothing thought, because I NEVER want to go down that path again.
8. Fear of not being in control over food
Throughout the years of my disordered eating and bulimia, I hated not being in control of my food. That included going out to lunch or dinner (when I didn’t pick the restaurant), eating at someone else’s house, or anytime when I had no choice over the food I was offered.
There were times I looked for ways to get out of those situations. Also times when I did not get out of those situations but spent the entire time worried about what I was eating instead of enjoying the people I was with. Those are memories I can’t ever alter.
This happened well before I was in full-blown eating disorder mode, too. It further fueled my anxiety around food and my stuck-ness in the binge-purge cycle.
9. Weight is not always a warning sign
Now here’s a warning that you might miss some warning signs because of what you *think* is the main warning sign.
Of course, for me, I did lose a lot of weight at the beginning of my disordered eating. However, weight loss may not occur for everyone—especially if binge eating is involved. I kept my weight down in high school, but in college, as my bingeing increased, so did my weight.
To someone on the outside who didn’t pay much attention to my eating habits, it might’ve looked like I was healthy. I can assure you I was NOT even close to healthy in college.
All that to say, don’t assume weight is the top or only warning sign for a potential eating disorder.
If any of these warning signs resonate with you personally, or you’ve observed them in someone close to you, I don’t mean to alarm you. However, I strongly encourage ANYONE who relates to be mindful about the choices they are making and seek resources that might help. Below are just a few I think are helpful on various related topics.
A few resources that might help
For those who want to stop the diet cycle and learn more about intuitive eating, check out this blog by registered dietician, Colleen Christensen—or follow her on Instagram for daily nuggets of advice.
This article from the National Eating Disorders Collaboration goes deeper into the link between dieting and eating disorders, if you’re interested in learning more about that.
This article from the Mayo Clinic is really helpful for starting preventative conversations with teenagers.
The National Eating Disorders Association has SO many resources. While I haven’t personally read most of these resources, I still believe the NEDA website offers a place to start and learn more.