The eating disorder I didn't know I had
When I was 17, I competed in my first bodybuilding show. Coming from a relatively non-athletic past and only having gotten into serious lifting a year or so prior, I knew next to nothing about proper nutrition for contest prep. Though I got a good amount of diet and training advice from my uncle, who came from a history of competitive bodybuilding at the highest level, the lion's share of diet manipulations and exercise programming was done by me.
I worked my way down to a pretty low energy intake pretty early on in the process, and for the last 5-6 weeks of prep (which was an 18 week ordeal), my life had become completely consumed by restriction and overexercising. I was eating only "clean" foods at certain hours, a schedule I wouldn't let anything else get in the way of (including friends and family); I was doing up to an hour of fasted cardio a morning and 30 minutes after each of my 5 intense lifting sessions throughout the week; I was using absurd amounts of stimulants to muster up just enough energy to not pass out in class (this was an even bigger problem prepping for my second show); I began obsessing over my weigh-ins and letting numbers on a scale turn into emotional events; and I had successfully isolated myself completely (the only real "friends" I had left were my girlfriend at the time and a girl whose interactions with me were literally limited to the morning school bus route).
The effects of the restriction were severe as well. My sex drive, energy, and mood for the last 5 or so weeks were all in the tank. To put it one way, I was not a pleasant person to be around. But the worst part bar none was the hunger. It was unbelievable, like nothing I'd ever experienced, and yet the thought of "letting" myself eat was almost equally disgusting to me. In class, I would scroll through pictures of "food porn" and write lists of foods I'd binge on and in what order after the show. In fact, my grades dropped so drastically in the classes where I did this that the college I was going to attend the following semester required me to send them a letter explaining what happened.
I used to watch classmates eating and become sincerely angry. I would sometimes, after a long and emotional day, sneak into the pantry and "pig out" on literally one squeeze of honey, which would freak me out and cause me to compensate with an impromptu cardio session.
The show and the aftermath
I decided to cut water and sodium the last 3-4 days before the show, which I would later learn is an incredibly risky thing to do without any sort of guidance from a trained professional or, at the very least, some sort of plan. In fact, this water cut undoubtedly amplified the extent of the post-contest binge and weight gain I would soon experience.
Immediately after stepping off stage, I began eating. It started with some "fit pizzas" one of the booths at the venue was offering. We then hit a Hardee's, where I got one of the "monster" double quarter pounder burgers, cheesy fries, and a large full-sugar soda. On the way back to the hotel, I distinctly remember virtually inhaling these cheesy fries and beginning to feel the most unnerving of sensations: my stomach was physically full and was essentially saying, "Okay, this is more than enough food to satisfy my needs, so we can stop now," while my brain was firing back, "Oh hell no, stomach, we just went through months and months of starvation and exercise abuse, as well as dehydration, so we are going to be eating as much food as humanly possible." The mismatch between my biological satiety cues and brain-derived reward and taste demands was a damn scary feeling to have, as I was constantly unsure of which excruciating sensation to respond to.
Back at the hotel, I began binge eating all of the foods I had stocked up on for this purpose (I had even named it my "binge stash"). This included Oreos, Reese's pieces, a half-gallon of chocolate milk, marshmallow peeps, peanut butter, protein bars, Fiber One brownies, moon pies, Gatorade, and more. As I continued to shovel this food into my mouth, my fullness turned into unbearable physical pain. I was incredibly nauseous but couldn't get any puke out at all, so I tried to sleep it off. But about two hours of sleep later, I was up and immediately began craving these foods again, so what did I do? Eat. And eat. And keep eating.
The night carried on like this: eating until I was in too much pain to keep going, trying to sleep, waking up to keep eating, etc. By the time the morning rolled around, I was binge eating all of the free breakfast I could get. We then stopped at a pizza place before heading back home, where I proceeded to eat an entire medium pizza (not a personal one, mind you). The whole car ride home (just under 1.5 hours) I was dying to eat more. So once we got home, I kept things rolling by eating everything I could, despite really only having "clean" options to choose from.
This pattern kept itself going all week, and it's worth pointing out that it hardly died down. So by the end of what was essentially a week-long binge, I was 30 lbs. heavier and as depressed as I could be.
How looking at myself in a hotel mirror changed my entire life
The above wording seems corny and clickbait-y, but it isn't even an exaggeration. Exactly one week after the show, touring the college I ended up going to and graduating from, I was staying in a hotel with my mother and brother. Of course, this hotel stay was comprised of multiple room service orders, fast food, and the like.
I was getting out of the shower and saw myself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom. Though I had been taking "progress photos" of myself habitually since starting prep, and therefore had technically seen myself shirtless quite a few times after starting this binge, this was the first time I really saw myself and how "bad" I'd let things get. While this may sound petty to some, having devoted 18 weeks of my life to extreme obsession centered around getting as lean as humanly possible, which involved cutting off friends and alienating family, letting myself fall into deep pits of depression, abusing stimulants, hours and hours and hours of cardio, and constant restriction, seeing myself literally right back to where I was when I started was incredibly difficult to swallow.
I distinctly remember this moment, over 5 years ago now, as I started sobbing profusely and could think of nothing to do other than go to bed and hope the pain could go away.
I couldn't believe I had even let myself get to this point. I was never much of an athlete ever in my life, I had never "cut weight" before this, and so it felt weird and out of place that I should be experiencing something I had previously assumed was a "disease for teenage girls." I felt trapped and alone and like I'd never be able to express these worries to anyone.
My recovery was not a formal process, nor was it even a linear one at all. In fact, I competed one more time, 3 years later, and went through a similar ordeal. But over time I was able to get to the point where I'm at now: no longer valuing myself based on how much I weigh, how much food I ate today, or even how well my workout went.
Since I hadn't even understood that what I went through was an eating disorder, the approaches I used that got me to this point were hardly the typical "ED recovery" techniques. Nonetheless, I learned that some general principles and practices were essential for my growth towards true intuitive eating and unconditional love of my body. These included a period of fundamental self-discovery, mindfulness meditation, learning to mindfully eat, improving my ability to see the bigger picture, focusing more on compassion than self-improvement, and some other various elements (all of which you are guided through in great detail in 100 Days of Food Freedom).
And so that is why I'm here, writing this story. While the diet industry grows more and more and cons people who just want to love the bodies they're in out of their money and out of their sense of security, there is a void in the nutrition field that needs to be filled. Food freedom means not defining ourselves by how "good" we did today in terms of diet or exercise, and it means not letting the scale control our lives. More accurately, food freedom involves loving the eating experience, separating our thoughts and emotions from our actions and beliefs, and ultimately treating our bodies with the respect they deserve.
That is my mission. I'm so, so glad to have you along for the ride.