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From Chronic Binge Eater to True Moderation, One Small Step at a Time

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

It's been nearly a month since I last blogged and that's not because I haven't had a lot of thoughts floating around in my head. I've had nearly non-stop house guests since June 1 and I now finally have some time to collect my thoughts and put some of them down on paper, er, the computer.

I was initially planning to write a blog about the many benefits I've seen from consistent strength training, but have decided to table that for another day in favor of another issue that's been jabbing me in the side. As some of my longer-term buddies here already know, I had long struggled with yo-yo dieting and a combination of compulsive overeating and bingeing before finally managing to get things under control. I was the girl who could blast off 30 pounds in three months then gain it all back in under two. I spent most of the first 33 years of my life following that miserable pattern and, quite honestly, didn't feel all that optimistic about breaking it when I got started again in March 2010 at 240 pounds.

Back in my mid-20s, I was at my all-time high weight of 260 pounds and desperately wanted to lose some weight. Looking back, I see the moment I got started then as the beginning of a more than 10-year odyssey where I slowly began to put together all the pieces of the puzzle of healthy and sustainable living. Over a period of about two years, I had lost 115 pounds and was beginning to internalize some of those lessons we hear about moderation and lifestyle change. My negative habits connected my past failed attempts at weight loss were starting to dwindle and I recognized that not only did I need to learn to modify my habits, but that I also needed to learn how to function in the real world with all of its food-related challenges: weight loss isn't quite as difficult when you're in a controlled environment (think "Biggest Loser"), but can present a HUGE challenge once you're cast out into the rest of the world filled with all its social pressure to overindulge and where you're not in control of how every bit of food that passes your lips is prepared.

I made a lot of progress in that round of weight loss, but clearly my work wasn't done. Over the course of a few years, I regained almost all of what I had lost and found myself at 240 pounds by the time I was 33. More than 25 years of huge weight fluctuations and lots of less-than-healthy habits had taken their toll and I felt old. Just getting around in the normal course of my day was beginning to become a struggle and I had the aches and pains of someone decades older than I was. The vibrant, joyful person who I really was deep-down inside was starting to fade and I was dangerously close to resigning myself to what I thought was my destiny--a lifetime of obesity.

I don't know exactly what it was that spurred me into action, but clearly my fighting spirit wasn't totally dead. Over the course of two years, I took off more than 90 pounds and, perhaps more importantly, really began to chip away at my unhealthy behaviors. One of the habits that I had developed in my mid-20s was of indulging in a weekly treat meal. I found it really motivating in helping me stay on track without feeling totally deprived. That strategy worked pretty well for me--to a point. I managed to lose all of my weight this time around using that very same strategy and even maintained my losses for over a year continuing to use it. However, about six months into my maintenance, I began to notice an unsettling pattern. My treat meals were no longer about reasonable portions of rich, satisfying food and a few drinks--they had become all-out binges of practically epic proportions. Once a week, I would eat until I was "Thanksgiving full", often ending up in bed because I felt so lousy. Then to compensate, I had to hugely restrict my calories the rest of week so I wouldn't end up with a net gain. I was maintaining, but instead of being a long-term yo-yo dieter, I was yo-yo'ing wildly over the course of any given week and wasn't really living the moderate life I had been striving for. I was caught up in a cycle of bingeing and purging that needed to stop.

In March of this year, when I hit my one-year anniversary of maintenance, I made it my goal for the upcoming year to tap the brakes on this cycle. I set out to accomplish this by slowly increasing my daily calories in the hopes that it would help put an end to my weekly binge sessions. Over the next two months, I did manage to increase my calories by about 200 a day, but still didn't feel in control of the meals that were outside of my controlled comfort zone. Then I hurt my knee and had to put most of my exercise on hold. The injury also happened on a Saturday, which was typically when I would "enjoy" my indulgent meal. A trip to the hospital meant that meal didn't happen so, for once, I started the new week on an even keel and didn't feel like I had to undo the damage I had done from my treat meal. I decided to seize that moment to see how I could eat over the course of a real maintenance week, so I added in some calories. By the end of the next week, I had dropped a few pounds, so I added more and, by the end of the next week, had still lost weight. I repeated this for a few more weeks until I leveled off. By the end of a month, I had increased my average daily calories by 600-700 altogether and, even better, finally felt more in control of my treat meals. Because I was eating more throughout the week, I didn't feel so compelled to eat everything in sight as if I would never eat certain foods ever again once Saturday rolled around. I still indulged, but moderately, often eating just a few hundred more calories once or twice a week above my normal levels. I'm beginning to find social occasions much easier to navigate and am seeing that I can go out and enjoy myself moderately without overeating to the point of illness. I'm beginning to trust myself more what had previously been situations that caused me great stress and feel like another burden has been lifted off my shoulders. This is what I had been striving for, but until recently, had not been able to truly achieve!

Everyone is different on this journey. Many of us have very different reasons for putting on weight and have different struggles in taking and keeping it off. But I think it is possible to overcome those difficulties if you're willing to experiment, be patient with yourself and open yourself up to different strategies and approaches. I think that's finally what allowed me to not only lose the weight I wanted to, but also begin to maintain my losses in a moderate and sustainable way. I don't think that means there will never be bumps in the road ahead, but I do feel as though I'm so much better-prepared to manage them when I encounter them.

And if I could give one piece of advice to someone who's just starting out, especially those with a history of losses and regains, I would say "don't restrict yourself too much," an issue you'll find yourself revisiting from a slightly different angle when you're ready to decide where you're comfortable maintaining. Yes, weight loss requires creating a calorie deficit, but I think it's so much better to create a smaller deficit, lose weight at a slower pace and focus on developing habits that you can sustain for a lifetime, then to blast through weight loss quickly only to regain just as quickly and set yourself up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and binge/purge cycles--not to mention the sometimes irreversible damage creating a huge deficit can do to your metabolism, but that's for another blog. I learned that lesson the hard way and it's taken me a long time to begin to break free from that negative cycle. It's quite possible that I could have put a stop to it much sooner if I hadn't always been so hung up on taking the weight off quickly. Messages about lifestyle change have become so pervasive that I think the phrase has lost its meaning for a lot of people. But true permanent weight management doesn't boil down to what you can accomplish in a short-term weight-loss or fitness challenge, as motivating as they and their immediate results can sometimes be. After all, most of us can find it within ourselves to stay motivated for a month or two at a time, and don't get me wrong, I do still enjoy short-term challenges, but those are not what will help us keep our eyes on the prize over the long haul. Finding ways to develop and continue to refine habits that you can keep up in the real world for the rest of a happy, healthy and fulfilled life are central in this process and are, in my opinion, what we should all be striving for, one small step at a time.
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