Anorexic to Binger to Food Connoisseur (ABC)- get healthy and stay healthy

Eating disorders are not a joke and they are not a choice. Mine nearly killed me multiple times between 2017–2021 and I have lost friends to the illness. First, it was anorexia at age 24 (I had been fine with food and weight till then and ate anything), which slowed my heart and sent me to A & E with severe Bradycardia (a slowed heart rate) and heart mitral valve regurgitation (blood flowing backwards). I read the scientific research and listened (following an uncle’s heart attack) to the 2014 public health (anti-heart-disease/ pro low cholesterol) version of a balanced diet which was promoted everywhere. This demonised saturated fats (with HDL “good” cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol) and along with the “high-carb, low-fat, male-body-focused runners’ diet” promoted for runners, reduced my dietary LDL cholesterol. This essential “bad” LDL Cholesterol makes Serotonin and Oestrogen which stabilise your mood and so, despite a good life my mood and sleep was adversely affected, and I became anxious, worsened by an extreme caffeine habit. I have always loved sports and reached my lifelong goal and ran the 2016 marathon and the and high muscle and low body fat “athletes’ body” led to Athletes’ Triad. My brain adapted to the “runners high” endorphin fix I got from running and so I got low when I went cold turkey on running in my long hours’ office job. The lack of Serotonin and Oestrogen brain mood stabilisers from the lack of cholesterol, loss of sunshine and Vit D from being outdoors and the loss of the coping mechanism of running in nature increased my anxiety. Anxiety (as it slows gastric motility via the flight or fight mechanism) decreased my appetite and the lack of food shrunk my heart, stole my flesh from my bones, lowered my blood pressure and left me physically and behaviourally cold as it isolated me in my fears. After A & E, I went to an eating disorder hospital and was lucky enough to receive the specialised care I needed to get slightly healthier. However, when I left, I quickly returned to the old habits as I did not change anything in my life, had no professional support and went back to the same place, living arrangement and job and so quickly relapsed.

Then in 2019–2021 came the pandemic. In lockdown, I was put pressure from doctors, my family and myself to recover fast out of fear of osteoporosis and infertility from low weight. Looking for a quick fix for this and with the lack of usual social support in lockdown, job uncertainty and a “supposed soulmate” relationship breakup, I binge ate. After restricting the food I wanted, I craved it and so began a restrict/binge eating cycle. My body was in “famine mode” and in “energy deficit” it craved what I had denied it. This maladaptive coping mechanism for the “Dopamine deficit” (Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter in the brain) caused my heart rate to soar, my blood pressure to go haywire and caused angina (heart pain) and anxiety (high sugar foods increase insulin so you get extreme sugar highs and lows and emotional rollercoasters).

I found peace and harmony through studying neuroscience as a mature learner at university and nutrition (looking at the links between mood and food, behaviour, life events, diet, emotions, and appetite), mindfulness and yoga. It is a long and continuing journey but now I do not under or overeat. I eat intuitively, listening to what I want and stopping when I am satisfied. I know food, I know nutrition and I love delish and gourmet food. I am a science academic and food CONNOISSEUR. In fact, I work as a food and nutrition marketer/writer, working only with FMCG brands with either delish products which enhance joy or scientific (academic research-based) evidence behind their health claims.

What I have learnt is that food is not a punishment or reward. I eat only what I need to for health, hunger, energy and enjoyment. I have gone from anorexic to binger to food connoisseur (ABC) and spontaneously experiment with food flavours from all over the world. I love eating out, dinner parties and cooking for and entertaining others. I eat for JOY and what I eat makes me happy. I know what to eat to make me feel happy, stay sustainably healthy and I am free, balanced and at peace with myself, my past and my body.

What have I learnt?

MEAL PLAN: Having a routine diet structure is everything. I ALWAYS have breakfast, no matter if I am hungry or not, as skipping meals makes you more likely to binge. Restrict and you binge. I wake up and eat within 30 mins to stabilise my blood sugar and feed my brain. I have 3 meals and 3 snacks at the same time every day. It works! Eat a serving of what you enjoy, do not always go for the lowest calorie, “healthiest,” lowest sugar, lowest fat or lowest price option. Allow yourself what you want and hunger for or else you crave it and overindulge. Life is a delish dish, you can try it all, just not all at once. If you know you’re having another meal later, the craving for more goes away. Don’t deny or else you face, the “scarcity complex” which makes food seem in short supply “in famine mode” and so you crave and overindulge when it is available and enter binge-restrict unsustainable and mentally and physically unhealthy cycles. It takes 30 minutes to feel full and so slow down and savour the flavours and enjoy the blessing of food.

WALKING: Every time I feel anxious, I walk it off. Every time I feel sad, I walk it off. At night if I feel bingey after a meal, I walk it off. If I feel bitter, resentful and angry, I walk it off. I walk the bitch out of me until I feel human again. Walking increases Dopamine, helping you stabilise your mood. Don’t over-exercise though. A simple 30 minutes (preferably in the sun so you get Dopamine boosting, bone and immune system supporting vitamin D) walk is epic.

DANCE: If you feel like bingeing, do the bingeing boogie. Dancing boosts Serotonin, making you happier. Even better, join a community zumba or dance class. Being with people makes you happier. Even better, dance to upbeat music. This boosts Dopamine even further and makes you happier. RUN: Exercise boosts endorphins and helps you destress and feel good about yourself. Or have a hot bath and go to sleep (BED is the same acronym for Binge Eating Disorder) as often you binge when tired or ill at night when you need to rest.

Stairs: I always make sure that I live on the top floor of wherever I live, with a lot of stairs. This helps to keep you fit without you even meaning to. Yoga also helps increase joint mobility, helping to keep fit and agile.

DON’T OVERWHELM: Do too much and you don’t leave brain space for listening to yourself and processing your emotions and what is going on in your life. You don’t give your caveman brain time to problem solve and find rational solutions to life’s inevitable modern challenges. In the absence of this vital rest or non-stimulating (meditation, hot bath, nap, prayer or yoga?), non-busy bee time, the Amygdala (emotional processing part) of our brains, finds solutions based on ritualised practiced behaviours. If you used to undereat when challenged or stressed or overeat, it will solve a completely unrelated problem with this coping eating strategy. Journal out your feelings, talk to friends, have a lie in on a Saturday and hear yourself think for a bit, speak to a counsellor, or go for a walk alone. Have some time away from your phone which blocks off this vital self-talk needed to process present emotions and situations and plan and strategize the future. Without this there is no strategizing time, and the brain goes “fear of unknown in future” apprehensive anxiety mode and uses food behaviours for processing this feeling.

KEEP YOUR DOPAMINE AND SEROTONIN LEVEL: Dopamine is a reward neurotransmitter. Serotonin the appetite and mood neurotransmitter. Both regulate mood and food stability. The more you have the more you need as the brain rewires and reduces the number of receptors for these neurotransmitters. Learn it is ok to not feel 100% every day and to tolerate distress and what to do to feel better if low to keep that internal constant internal environment balanced, despite the changes to your external environment. Too much Dopamine and Serotonin you get addictions and anxiety, too little and you get depression and lack of motivation. Too high fat and sugar and too low fat and sugar destabilise these. Food plays a massive role in mood.

Don’t restrict or eat to please: I found that a major cause of my binge eating was that I was restricting foods and denying myself what I really wanted. Sometimes I was eating food “because it was low/high (depending on if weight loss/gain) carbohydrate or fat or calories” or “healthy” or “natural” or “saving the planet from food waste” (so eating others discarded food) or “cheap” or “in my meal plan” (but not what i felt like) or “dairy-free” or “vegan.” It was just habit, and it felt safe and made me feel less stressed and anxious. However, the problem with restriction is it leads to deprivation and if you feel deprived your brain goes into famine mode and your caveman brain steps in and makes you massively crave the thing you deny. Your primal survival cues in energy deficit make you on high alert, searching for food and there is only so long your willpower can fight its own biology. Then once you have some of what you crave, your caveman brain (in fear of famine again), makes you “hoard” the food you have denied and so you binge eat it, feel ill and guilty and a cycle of restricting and binging creeps in.

To stop this, eat what you WANT. Knowing that there is no famine, that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want, gives you freedom that breaks the cycle. It stops your craving as it makes it less attractive and removes the guilt and shame from it all. If you want to have mince pies every meal you can, but you wouldn't want to. You wouldn't want salad every meal either. There is no good and bad foods, just food and you can have whatever you want, it's ok. Have it, savour it and enjoy it and your brain and body become satisfied, there is no energy deficit and you no longer feel such a crazy hunger for it. You crave it less. It is less of a big deal and you no longer restrict or binge.

On the flip side, this “have what you want” also means “don’t have what you don’t want.” Don’t do the whole “eating to please others” because social cues dictate it or you feel judged and pressurised into eating it. If you are not desiring the food or are hungry, don’t eat. Don’t eat “because it is christmas/I am on holiday” or “because I want to please granny by eating her cake, or “because Mum is eating I will too” or “its good manners to eat when someone else is.” Don’t eat “because it’s just there” or “because everyone else in the family/at the table is.” Stop comparing yourself to others! Stop people-pleasing! Eating what others eat for social acceptance, eating what others cook you even if you hate, eating junk food when recovered from anorexia to make “show people you eat chocolate cake”; eating or not eating because others are or not is not sustainable. This is not normal. The only cue in your head you should be listening to when you eat is your own internal voice. Eat what you desire when you are hungry and stop when you are full.

I know that this can be hard for a recovering eating disorder (especially if obese) sufferer as you rely on your Ghrelin (hunger) and Leptin (fullness) signals to eat and stop eating. When anorexic you lose these cues. When a binger or obese you habitually eat past these signals, and so become resistant to them but the signals do return once at a healthy weight. Some foods (highly processed) wire your brain to want more of them, but restricting them completely makes them even more desirable. When a healthy weight, eat what you want, free of food rules, and then when you are satisfied, your brain will tell you when to stop. Slow down and listen to your own intuition.

There is a saying, “give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the knowledge to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference”. You are the master of your own destiny, responsible for your own actions and the consequences. You are the narrator of your own story. Every day you write the script of life and watch it play out. Under and overeating are negative coping mechanisms for negative events. They make things worse. Instead of writing something negative, self-harming and time and energy-wasting, why not write something interesting, inspiring, positive and life-changing. Write a masterpiece! You do not have to over or under-eat. You can find harmony. You can find peace with yourself and food and your weight. It is about recognising that you hold the power and what you think you become. You do not have to be obese. You do not have to binge. You do not have to be anorexic. You do not have to restrict. You can find homeostatic balance and be sustainably healthy.

It is up to you. Get help if you need it. Humans are a herd species, best in groups and there is no shame in asking for help. Do what you must do to get healthy and stay healthy. Future you deserves it. It’s as simple as ABC.

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Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Neuroscience, mental health and nutrition academic and writer. Life-experimenter, trying to add value with an insatiable appetite for actioning positive change.