This 20-year-old HealthyGirl.org reader asked me something all overweight overeaters have wondered at one time or another: Can I lose weight and get better at the same time? I hope she’s not disappointed with my answer…
Q: I started reading your “Sunny’s Shape-Up Blog” on glamour.com from the beginning, and along with you I managed to lose 20 pounds that spring and summer before I started my freshman year of college. However, I don’t think that I really dealt with the emotional eating issues that have contributed to my weight gain, and while I didn’t gain the freshman fifteen specifically, by the end of my sophomore year, I had gained the weight back.
I now know that I need to deal with my disordered emotional eating before I can lose weight, and I really responded to your HG post about never resolving to lose weight for a New Year’s Resolution, but the problem is, I really need to lose weight. I’m probably about 80 lbs overweight, and at 20 years old, I should have way more energy than I have. How can I balance weight loss for health reasons with dealing with my tendency to binge eat for emotional reasons? Thanks, Lizzie
A: For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Shape-Up Blog Lizzie mentioned, I’m a health editor at Glamour, and back in 2007, I lost 20 pounds while doing the Body by Glamour online shape-up program and blogging about it at glamour.com. I was pretty open with the fact that I had struggled with emotional and stress eating—and eventually laid bare to those readers that I was a recovered binge eater as well.
So, Lizzie, how was I able to focus on losing weight, without becoming obsessed about it (like I had in the past) or gaining all the weight back after? I believe that the only reason I was able to do that was because I was no longer active in my eating disorder and had already experienced a lot of recovery from the emotional eating.
Only after I dealt with the inner reasons for why I used food could I even begin to think about numbers on a scale. The fact is, I was a yo-yo dieter from the age of 15 through my early college years. I tried everything, starving, Rx diet drugs, herbal pills, Atkins, a doctor-supervised diet, Jenny Craig—and, while I’d lose 5, 10, even 25 pounds, I’d always end up the same way: Heavier, more deep into the bingeing and more hopeless than I was when I started whatever diet it was.
So I completely quit dieting. I was in therapy, was reading books about emotional eating, and told myself over and over that the outside didn’t matter—all that mattered was the inside. Eventually, I started to believe it! While I didn’t always feel pretty or happy about my shape, I stopped obsessing about it. I started going to binge-eating support groups every week and even got a mentor from the group that I would call nearly every day.
I truly no longer cared much about my weight. I felt so much stronger and happier because I was no longer punishing myself and my body with piles of extra food. I literally worked to get to the point where I felt that if I never lost another pound again, I could live life and be happy. While I wasn’t focusing on weight loss, I had instituted some very healthy behaviors that I’d learned through therapy and from my support group, which just so happened to have the effect of at least stabilizing my weight:
1.) I planned my food each morning. I didn’t try to be “good” or diet-y—my only purpose in planning was to take the guesswork out of my day. Writing down exactly what I was planning to have made it so that I didn’t have to think about food, and it diffused the opportunity to obsess. My only guidelines were the make sure I ate some fruits and veggies (for my health) and to try to think about what portion a normal person would eat. As an example: I’d plan to have pizza for dinner. Instead of ordering a whole pie (which was just asking for a binge, no matter how far along in recovery I was!), I’d plan for two large New York-style slices and pick them up from my local pizza place on the way home. The fact that I had planned to have a food that I used to binge on and think of as “bad” took away any sense of lingering guilt attached to that food. And, we all know how damaging guilt is.
2.) I ate three meals and one or two snacks a day. People in my support group had taught me that, if you go too long without eating, you’re simply asking for a binge. So I built in one or two snacks into my day and made sure I brought those suckers with me wherever I went. Aside from keeping me satisfied so I wouldn’t get too hungry and fall into a binge, defining four or five times during the day that were designated “eating” times made it very clear to me whether I was reaching for something for emotional reasons—three meals and two snacks a day was plenty of food for my body. So if I wanted more than that, it was likely for emotional reasons.
By the time the Body by Glamour thing rolled around, I had already started very slowly losing a bit of weight. The absence of those extra calories from bingeing were enough to do that—and as I became more healthy on the inside, I really did start to crave healthier foods. I felt really solid in my recovery and bingeing every other night was in the past. I’d completely accepted the way my body looked.
But as I became more connected to my body and more loving toward it and myself as a whole, I realized that (like you mentioned, Lizzie) I did not have as much energy as a woman of my age should. I also had sleep apnea (which is exacerbated by extra weight) which caused me to wake up each morning exhausted and with headaches. I also knew that my waist size was just a hair shy of the cutoff for the point at which your risk of heart disease really starts to climb. So, when the Body by Glamour thing came up, I wanted to do it. I felt sure that I could talked openly about the numbers on the scale because they no longer meant that much to me. And I knew that I would have the chance to talk about what mattered most to me to share: The emotional part of eating and weight.
Only you (or you and a therapist or mentor?) can decide, Lizzie, whether you’re ready to think about weight loss or not. You’re already a step ahead since you say you want to lose weight for health reasons, and not looks. But, if you decide you’re not quite there yet, believe me when I say that doesn’t mean you’re going to be overweight your entire life. (Trust me!) I’ve seen it happen with friends in my support group again and again—as they get better and heal their insides, their outsides start to match!
In the meantime, I’d suggest you check out support groups in your area and, if you haven’t already, pick up a book or two to help you move forward in your recovery. (Speaking of which, we’re going to read Crave in the HealthyGirl.org Book Club! Let me know if you want to be a part of that.)
If you feel ready to, you might also see a dietitian who can help you with the nutrition and health part of your recovery—I’d be careful who you choose, though, and go with someone who specializes in treating people with emotional eating or binge disorders. (You can contact the folks at the National Eating Disorders Association or the American Dietetic Association to ask for a referral to someone like that.)
Please feel free to write me again, ask more Qs, whatever you need, Lizzie. I know where you’re at, girl, because I’ve been there. And I want you to know that there’s really, truly, actually hope and health out there in your future!