Macro Tracking, Veganism, Keto, Gluten-Free: An Eating Disorder’s Best Weapons

Recently, I’ve been running into quite a few social media posts from influencers in the weightloss community getting really pissed off by people implying that things like tracking macros, veganism, etc. are signs of an eating disorder or are disordered eating behaviors. The general response seems to be “plenty of people do these things and do not have eating disorders!” And, this is absolutely true. However, I feel the actual (and very important) message is getting lost:

Macro tracking, veganism, keto, etc. are not eating disorders; however, if you have an eating disorder, it could very well use these socially acceptable diet restrictions as weapons against you.

What a lot of people seem to forget is that an eating disorder is a mental disorder — it is not just a set of behaviors. It’s a bit like alcoholism: drinking socially is not alcoholism; but, if you are an alcoholic, your alcoholism will absolutely try to use social drinking as a weapon against you to get you back to or deeper into your addiction. “Everyone else is drinking; it would be awkward if you weren’t! It’s fine! You’re fine!”

Similarly, tracking macros or going vegan isn’t an eating disorder; but, if you have an eating disorder (or are prone to developing one), it can absolutely use socially acceptable restrictions to keep you in or get you further into your addiction (because, let’s face it, eating disorders are basically addictions). “You’re going vegan because you care about animal welfare! It has nothing to do with losing weight or avoiding fear foods! TONS of people are vegan or tracking macros or keto or…(the list goes on). It’s totally fine! You’re fine!”

And, many people may not even know that that addictive part of their brains is there: be that a part of their brains that has increased potential to be addicted to alcohol or to restricting calories, militant eating rules, tracking, purging, binging, etc. Or…to all of the above.

Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs, a rate five times higher than the general population. Up to 35% of individuals who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, a rate 11 times greater than the general population.

-National Eating Disorders Association

And, as I’ve shared before, if you’re prone to “food addiction,” chances are, you could be prone to other forms of food-related addiction. It just makes sense: if you’re used to turning to food to numb emotions, it makes sense that you could also become addicted to turning to restriction, food rules, purging, or even substance-consumption behaviors to numb, escape, and ignore emotions in the future.

Story time…

In 2014, I made the decision to become vegetarian. I was not in an active eating disorder at the time (I did not know I had an addiction-prone part of my brain back then). My choice had nothing to do with weight loss and everything to do with my moral beliefs. I knew I wanted to try veganism eventually, but I wanted to take it one step at a time and try vegetarianism first. At the time, I was also tracking my macros on MyFitnessPal as I had been doing for many years without it ever hindering my quality of life.

A couple of months later, triggered by an abusive relationship with my therapist, I fell into my eating disorder HARD. It had nothing to do with being vegetarian. Being vegetarian did not lead me to my eating disorder, but once that addictive part of my brain activated, it began looking for any and every excuse to get me to eat less and dive deeper into the addiction.

“I can’t eat meat” was a convenient excuse to skip out on the foods my family was eating or skip homemade meals when we visited relatives. Nobody could get mad at me for being vegetarian. Nobody could politely push me to break my moral code. “You should go vegan,” that little voice in my brain kept saying. “You wanted to go vegan for animal rights reasons! Look at you eating that food that hurts animals! Think of all of the animals you are hurting. Think of how much of a hypocrite you are being. You’ve SEEN the documentaries. How can you still eat that? You’re disgusting.”

So, I went vegan. The list of foods I could eat shrank exponentially. Thanksgiving came, and I conveniently couldn’t eat a single thing my husband’s family cooked because of one ingredient or another. Again, nobody could politely push me on this — it was my moral code to not eat animal products! Veganism is completely acceptable! We went on a family vacation with my inlaws, and I conveniently couldn’t eat anything on any restaurant menu except maybe a dressing-free vegetable-only salad. Moreover, I was tracking my macros, so I HAD to know the nutrition information for everything I ate. So, once again, I conveniently “couldn’t eat” food I didn’t cook or that didn’t come out of a package with nutrition information.

No holiday meals, no dinners at our parents houses, no eating out, no dates with my husband – “You can’t eat that!” was screamed in my head all. the. time. And “because it’s not vegan” or “because you don’t know the macros” was a convenient excuse and my eating disorder’s favorite weapon against me. My eating disorder used these socially acceptable dietary limitations to evoke FEAR and SHAME and keep me in the disorder.

And my story is not unique. Anyone who is a member of the eating disorder or recovery community can tell you — it is FULL of vegans, macro trackers, people who may or may not have to be gluten-free for clinical reasons… pretty much anything that can be used to control food, an eating disorder will use to keep you in the disorder.

Once again, that is not to say that veganism, tracking, being gluten-free, etc. are eating disorders; they are not. But, many people may not be aware of that addictive, eating disorder-prone part of their brain lying dormant…and, so it is so important to warn those entering these lifestyles that they are things that, should you have an addictive, obsessive part of your brain somewhere in there…veganism, tracking, etc. very well could turn into an eating disorder’s greatest weapon. And, what makes it so much more dangerous is that others may not see the red flags — they will take “I can’t eat that because I’m vegan” at face value without confronting you like they might if you were to admit to not eating, period….never realizing that it’s a weapon in an eating disorder’s arsenal.

Reflections on Losing 100 Pounds: What “After” Me Would Say to “Before” Me

If I could go back in time … go back to Before and talk to my young-20s self who was only a couple of years into her weight-loss journey, what would I tell her? What advice might I give this version of myself who was finally stepping into her life and learning to live out loud?

The first piece of advice I would give myself is to get into therapy.

You have been through trauma, and it is influencing you in ways you can’t see. You may not even be ready to call it trauma, but it is.

You need to learn to deal with these things instead of shoving them into a box in the back of your mind as if they will just disappear or stay out of sight, out of mind. Because, that box will never contain them. And, they won’t go away. Not with losing weight, not with binging or stopping binging, not with exercise, finding a new partner…not even with therapy. But, at least with therapy, you won’t be holding them alone.

cir. 2011

Next, I would tell myself to talk to a dietician. Not just any dietician, but one who specializes in eating disorders. Because, news flash young self, you have an eating disorder.

Not “you’ll develop one,” but you HAVE one. You’ve had one for a long time. And, while Weight Watchers has taught you how to control and track portions, you are doing absolutely nothing to get to the root of your already-decade-long eating disorder. And, if you don’t address anything but the manual steps to losing weight, you’re going to come out this on the other side just as unhealthy as you went in.

Then, I would tell her…find something, anything that is not weight- or diet-related, to be passionate about and then fully invest yourself in that thing. Nurture the ever-loving-sh*t out of that passion.

Knowing me, I’d say…ride horses. Ride ALL the horses. Learn to canter and jump and ride bareback – who cares that you’re still in a bigger body? Do it anyways! Find a way. Set aside money to make it something you do every single week. Make it a priority.

When you are sad, ride a horse; when you are angry, ride a horse; when you are happy, ride a horse; when you have overwhelming feelings in every direction and don’t know what to do, ride a horse… if you can’t afford to ride, find some way to be with horses… or walk dogs or paint or sing or maybe even learn to dance. ANYthing but starting a new diet.

One day, this journey will be over — the journey of weight loss. One day, you will be at After. And what will you do then? What will be your passion then?

Find it now. Nurture it now. Do it now so that when “after” gets here, you are not left without a life outside of weight loss to which to turn.

Which leads me to…this: don’t ever let your world shrink around any one thing.

Nothing is permanent.

I know it is your most desperate wish that something or someone will come into your life with a promise of forever that you can actually believe in, but start grieving now, because that doesn’t exist.

And if something or someone starts promising you otherwise, run as fast and far away as you can. Don’t cling to it in desperation for the false promise to be true.

The only constant is change.

Your body will change, the number on the scale will change, the people in your life will change, your life situation will change, everything will change. Forever and always. And no matter how hard you try to make that not happen — no matter how hard you try to control or avoid change, it will come just the same.

There is very little in life that you can actually control, and that is scary as fuck.

So, gather your resources. Build a team of support around you…a life full of support and passion.

That’s what I’d tell my young self. And I’d hope to god that I’d listen.

Weight Loss Addiction

I wake up in the morning, use the restroom, and then slip out of my pajamas while analyzing every inch of my body in the mirror.

Do I look bloated today? Is my stomach sticking out further than yesterday? When’s the last time I had a bowel movement? (You’re welcome for that TMI.)

I step on the scale while holding my breath. I analyze everything I’ve eaten in the last 24 hours. Did some choice I made yesterday mean the scale will be higher today? The what-ifs start: What if I’d just foregone ONE snack, eaten 100 calories less, if I’d JUST skipped the chocolate…

The number comes up. It’s a loss!

I feel an immediate rush of pleasure: yes, yes, yes! I did it! It feels so good!

Do you know that feeling?

How long does it last for you?

It used to last me a while — a week, days, at least that one whole day. A 0.2 or half-pound loss would still give me a little dopamine spike for a bit.

Now, it lasts mere seconds, and only if I drop down to at least the next pound lower. I can maybe drag it out by posting about it somewhere, writing it down, recording it. But never for more than a few extra seconds.

Then, I am craving the next hit. I am thinking about the day to come. I am making food plans, figuring out how best to avoid food situations, re-analyzing yesterday’s choices for what I could’ve done better to get a bigger loss… a bigger hit.

It’s an addiction. And, I don’t know when it became this.

The truth of the matter is, I’m pretty OK with the way my body looks right now. I’m 134 pounds, 5’6”, I lift weights, so I have some muscle definition — yes, I have loose skin, but I’m healthy. I’m average. (That’s frightening in and of itself, but that’s another post for another day.) So, if I’m OK with my body, why do I want to keep losing weight?

This is not something I was ever warned about when I began my weight loss journey. And, maybe it’s not an issue for everyone, but it makes sense that it is for me. I used to use food to get that dopamine rush. Nothing made me feel as (temporarily) “good” (or, at least numb) as a binge. And, over time, I had to eat more and more to get those feelings, which also lasted less time. I wish I had considered that the same might be true for weight loss.

I don’t know how to end this blog because, right now, I’m stuck in this addiction. I can only say, if I did it all again, I would focus more on nurturing the other things in my life so that my world didn’t shrink around any one thing: food, weight loss, exercise, a person… anything can be addictive. And, since I think I’m probably hardwired to be prone to obsession, I would and will focus more on being flexible in any area of my life where I begin to become rigid.

I know I needed to lose weight at one point in my life, but I wish I’d had a better picture of the long game.