Counting Calories Helped Me Lose Weight—But Then I Developed an Eating Disorder
I was obese for most of my life.
At 13 years old, I weighed 200 pounds. By the time I hit high school, that number was more like 230. By 21, I was fed up with being "the fat girl."
When I set out to lose weight, I used a few different tools: I meal-prepped healthy food, exercised, and used a calorie-counting app to keep track of what I was really putting in my body. Still, I wasn't militant about the process—I even recall eating half a jar of Nutella once and just shrugging it off.
Fast forward eight or nine months to college graduation, and I did it! I hit my goal weight of 145 pounds. I felt invincible, like I could do anything I set my mind to. I felt in control of my life—until I wasn't.
Something had switched in my brain. I feared food. I was consuming 1,200 calories a day but was afraid to eat even the slightest bit more, because I was terrified of putting on pounds. But I didn't know how to maintain the number on the scale. I only knew how to lose.
Eventually, I got down to 125 pounds, and while this was technically within a healthy BMI range for my height, trust me when I say that I looked sickly. (Plus, if you haven't heard by now, BMI is a super flawed measurement of health.) My chest, hip, and shoulder bones were very prominent, my hair was brittle and falling out in clumps, and my period was irregular.
Yet, I ignored these warning signs because I was desperate to stay thin. During the day, I'd chew entire packs of sugar-free gum (which, of course, I also tracked) in an effort to avoid snacking, and ultimately, calories. Sometimes that's all I ate. When I did eat, I'd have a bowl of broth for dinner, eat pickles or banana peppers, drink tons of diet soda—any near-zero calorie thing I could get my hands on to keep hunger at bay and stay within the calorie range dictated by my app. Ten calories for broth, five for a pickle, 20 for a few sticks of gum—all of this was tracked to fit neatly into my daily allotment. Some days, this added up to 200 calories...total.
This is also when I got a fitness tracker to be more "precise" about my calorie burn. I'd walk aimlessly for hours, sometimes reaching as many as 60,000 steps in a day. Then, I took up running because I realized it was a more efficient way of torching calories. Three miles turned into six, which turned into ten, then 14, then more. I'd run for hours at a time so I could track the exercise minutes on my app and watch the calculator "grant" me more calories so I could eat. When I fit into a size 0 dress, I felt like I was on top of the world, even if I was exhausted by all the upkeep.
I couldn't maintain this unhealthy lifestyle, though. Eventually, I snapped and ended up binge eating everything in sight. That one instance turned into a pattern. I wouldn't eat during the day to "make up for" my binging at night, because my according to my app, if I tracked 3,500 extra calories, then I'd gain a pound. Still, when I got home, I'd hoover down loaves of bread, polish off pints of ice cream, and demolish bags of granola in one sitting. I'd even eat spoonfuls of raw coconut sugar. My stomach felt like bursting, but I'd keep going.
When my now-husband and I moved in together, he was shocked by my ability to inhale more than 7,000 calories in less than two hours. (I tracked my extreme overconsumption too.) Once the initial shock wore off, though, he got to see just how deep my struggle with food went. The emotional toll this took on our relationship was profound. I'd cry endlessly to him about the "damage" I'd done to my body and how many calories I was "over" for the day. I was angry that I couldn't be naturally thin and that I seemingly had to work so much harder than others to stay that way. I was angry that making healthy choices came easily to people like my husband. I thought he could never possibly understand my struggles. While he lovingly consoled me at all hours of the night, he also, understandably so, grew frustrated when I consistently refused to seek help. The truth was that I really believed I could fix this by myself.
The starving and binging cycle continued for two more years, and in my darkest moments, I would've done anything to make it stop. On top of all this, I'd never felt so alone. I was isolating myself to avoid food to the extent that during that time, I went to less than a handful of family parties and events with friends. It's a pain to track foods without nutritional info and meals you don't make yourself. I was also afraid I'd gorge myself with treats.
Then, I got engaged and hit rock bottom. I rapidly gained weight, and it felt like I had no control over my body. I'd wander my neighborhood, eating whenever I could. I'd buy chocolate bars, scarf them down, then roam over in a sugar-induced stupor to the next store to pick up cookies. My husband, fatigued by my binging episodes, was at his breaking point. He even threatened to call off our engagement if I didn't get professional help, and I don't blame him. I couldn't plan a wedding in that state, and I refused to start our marriage this way, so I finally agreed.
I found a psychiatrist, and he officially diagnosed me with binge eating disorder and anxiety. He gave me a prescription for the latter but insisted I seek therapy, so I was referred to a practice that specialized in eating disorders. They required me to attend group and individual sessions weekly, which were incredibly time-consuming. (I'm fortunate that my job allowed me the space I needed to make my appointments.)
My therapist gave me homework too. There were worksheets and reading materials about intuitive eating and mindfulness, and every day I had to write what I ate and how I felt on paper—not through calorie counting apps. My therapist said to delete those because they forced me to stop listening to my body. I ignored intense hunger when I saw my daily caloric allotment dwindling. I over-exercised, even when I was exhausted. When I craved interaction, I still refused social engagements, especially the ones centered around food, if it didn't fit into my calorie intake. The apps took over my life, but therapy helped me reclaim it. Permanently deleting the apps meant I had to finally give my body what it needed, when it needed it.
It took about a year before things started to improve, but eventually, I stopped counting calories and put the scale somewhere out of sight. Now, long-distance running is no longer a punishment, but rather a new form of therapy. Now, I fuel my body instead of depriving it. You can't run marathons on an empty stomach.
While my doctor says I'm physically healthier now than I've ever been before, I still feel the emotional ramifications of all my broken relationships: My circle of friends is noticeably smaller, but I'm grateful for the ones who remain. They understood my absence was never about them. My relationship with my now husband is in a much better place too. There's more joy and laughter, and we can finally go to restaurants without me panicking. Plus, he sleeps through the night without one of my crying spells waking him up! There are still many days I struggle with food, and I continue to see a therapist.
I held off on sharing my experience for years because it always felt "too soon." I still have a hard time believing everything I went through was real. And when I reflect on the whole ordeal, it's hard for me to say I'm completely against calorie counting. After all, food journals are a tried-and-true method of losing weight, and I'm not sure I would've lost the weight initially without some kind of system to track what I was ~really~ eating.
Still, I've realized that this habit with tracking every bite, every step, and every calorie burned is easier for some people to manage than others. For me, it became a dangerous obsession that turned into binge eating disorder. If I can offer any advice for someone else struggling with disordered eating behavior, it's to be kind to yourself and ask for help. It's something I wish I'd done sooner.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, NEDA's toll-free, confidential helpline (800-931-2237) is here to help.