When you have exercise bulimia, everything you eat turns into an equation. You want a cappuccino and banana for breakfast? That'll be 150 calories for the cappuccino, plus 100 for the banana, for a total of 250 calories. And to burn it off, that'll be approximately 25 minutes on the treadmill. If someone brings cupcakes to the office, you'll cancel whatever plans you had after work in favor of the gym (you're looking at an extra 45 minutes of cardio), and the thought of missing a workout or eating a meal you couldn't work off is practically crippling. (That's the bulimia part; exercising, not vomiting, is the purge.)
When I was in the thick of my own eating disorder (which was technically classified as an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS), I'd spend hours upon hours thinking about food—more specifically, how to either avoid it or burn it off. The goal was to eat 500 calories per day, often divided between a couple granola bars, some yogurt, and a banana. If I wanted something more—or if I "messed up," as I called it—I'd need to do cardio until I hit my net max of 500 calories. (Another woman confesses, " I Didn't Know I Had An Eating Disorder.")
Often, I'd "cancel out" everything I ate, plugging away on the elliptical of my college dorm gym until I got scolded for sneaking in after-hours. I've panicked upon receiving a text from a friend that said, "Mexican food tonight?!" I've come close to passing out in the locker room after even a light workout. I once spent four hours thinking about whether or not I should eat a croissant. (Did I have time to work it off later? What if I ate the croissant, then still felt hungry and needed to eat something else afterward?) Let's linger on that for a second: four hours. Those are four hours I could have spent pitching better ideas at my internship. Four hours I could have spent looking at grad schools. Four hours I could have spent doing just about anything else. Anything, anything else.
Even at the time, I knew how messed up that was. As a feminist, I knew that striving to sculpt the body of a teenaged boy was seriously problematic. And as an aspiring health editor, I knew I was a walking contradiction. What I didn't know back then, though, was how little my eating disorder had to do with food or even my body image. I knew I wasn't overweight. I never looked in the mirror and saw anything different from an always-thin 19-year-old woman. (I've maintained a steady weight my whole life.)
So why did I over-exercise and starve myself? I couldn't have told you this at the time, but I now know that my eating disorder was 100 percent about other stressors in my life. I was petrified of graduating college without a journalism job, wondering how I'd (a) break into an incredibly competitive industry and (b) manage to make student loan payments higher than New York City rent. (Like a lot of people with eating disorders, I can be a very "type A" person, and that kind of uncertainty was too much for me to handle.) On top of that, my parents were getting divorced, and I was in a tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship with my college boyfriend. It was my simple solution to anything and everything that felt out of my control. (Do You Have an Eating Disorder?)
Zeroing in on calories has a way of making every problem—and solution—completely singular. I may not have been able to bring my parents back together, save my Bandaid-patched relationship, or predict my post-college career fate, but I could cut calories like nobody's business. Sure, I had some other problems, but if I didn't even need food—a basic part of survival—surely I didn't need a stable financial, romantic, or family life. I was strong. I was independent. I could literally survive on nothing. Or so my effed-up thinking went.
Of course, that's a terrible, terrible plan. But realizing that I'm susceptible to having this kind of reaction to stressors has been crucial in keeping me away from that place for good. I wish I could say I had some miraculous eating disorder recovery strategy, but the truth is, once those big-picture stressors started to fade—once I nailed my first job in publishing, realized my atrocious student loan payments were surprisingly manageable if I followed a strict budget (hey, I'm good at counting things), and so on—I began to stress about exercise and food less, and less, and less—until working out and eating eventually started to become, well, fun again.
Now, I test new workouts for my job several times a week. I run marathons. I'm studying for my personal trainer certification. Hell, I might even exercise just as much as I used to. (If being an exercise bulimic-turned-fitness editor seems mind-boggling, it's actually very common for people with eating disorders to enter the food or health industry. I've met chefs who used to be anorexic. Organic-farming activists who used to be bulimic. The interest in food and exercise never goes away.) But exercise feels different now. It's something I do because I want to, not because I need to. I couldn't care less how many calories I burn. (It's worth noting that I'm very aware of potential triggers: I don't log my exercises in any apps. I don't join the competitive leaderboard in indoor cycling classes. I refuse to stress about my running times.) If I need to bail on a workout because it's a friend's birthday, or because my knee hurts, or because whatever I just don't feel like it, then I bail. And I don't feel the slightest twinge of guilt.
The thing is, even though my situation may have been extreme, having such a hyper-awareness of the issue also means I notice it in smaller ways all the time. I mean, how often have you thought "I earned this cupcake!" Or, "Don't worry, I'll burn it off later!" Of course, cutting/burning calories is crucial to achieving even the healthiest of weight loss goals. But what if we stopped seeing food as something we need to work for, and started seeing it as something delicious our bodies need to survive and thrive? And what if we started seeing exercise not as a form of punishment, but as something fun that makes us feel energetic and alive? Clearly, I have some theories on the topic, but I'd rather you give it a shot yourself. I promise the results are worth working for.