Content Warning: this article illustrates the unpleasant experiences of having an eating disorder.
I was sitting alone in my car in an empty parking lot having just consumed over 4,000 calories within a two-hour period. That number of calories came from one McChicken, one Double Cheeseburger, one Double Big Mac, two Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese, one 10 Piece Chicken McNuggets, one order of large fries, and two large Cokes to wash it all down.
The amount of food I ate is like those posts on Instagram that shows a pile of food with the caption, “you have one hour to finish all of this to win a million dollars and you can pick a friend to help…who do you choose?”
Only thing is, I wouldn’t need a friend or an hour to win the million.
As you can imagine, eating more than the equivalent of a pound in calories in such a short period of time makes you feel sick. An excruciating pain in the pit of your stomach kind of sick.
Despite this hellish pain, I still considered getting ice cream.
Across the parking lot was the McDonald’s I had just ordered from, but I found myself searching up the second closest McDonald’s location instead.
That’s when it hit me.
I didn’t want the same employees to see me order more food. I was hiding in my car, ashamed. This addiction had been going on for months, but I only realized it in that moment.
I was probably the last person you would think to have such a problem — a 20-year-old male at a healthy weight for his age and height. I was just as surprised.
I spent the next part of that early morning on all fours beside my car, unwillingly throwing up every last bit of food I had consumed.
This is binge eating disorder.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) explains binge eating disorder (BED) as a mental illness defined by consuming large amounts of food within a short period of time. Some other characteristics of BED include significant changes in body weight, hoarding food in secret, having the feeling of losing control when eating, eating when already full, eating alone due to embarrassment, and feeling guilty or depressed after consumption. I have experienced all of this.
Various studies displayed through Healthline Media show an estimated 2.8 million people in the United States have BED, which is three times more than the number of people who have anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined.
A national survey shows that 3.5 per cent of women and two per cent of men get the disorder. Another survey suggests that a lot of people with BED aren’t speaking up about their disorder: only three per cent of individuals from the United States that have symptoms of BED reported being diagnosed by their doctor.
A Secret Society
I hid my disorder for a long time. I first hid it subconsciously from myself, and then I consciously hid it from others. And even though I am openly sharing my experience, it’s very difficult to talk about.
Imagine the thousands of other people who are hiding. The National Initiative for Eating Disorders estimates that one million Canadians have an eating disorder and a lot of these individuals aren’t talking about it — especially men. We’re like a secret society who are also hiding from each other.
Before becoming aware of my disorder, I had taken an abnormal psychology class as part of my university degree. Eventually, we began the lectures on eating disorders. I remember the PowerPoint slides only showing pictures of women. Heck, even as I review the list of eating disorders on HealthPrep’s website, every supplementary photo displays young women. It’s like women in their teens and early twenties are the poster children for eating disorders.
I don’t think I knew it at the time, but looking back, men were missing from the photos displayed in class. Today, men make up 25 per cent of eating disorder cases and the prevalence is increasing.
I am now 27 years old and have yet to meet another male with an eating disorder. I am now 27 years old and have yet to meet another male who openly talks about their eating disorder.
There are a few men I know who show signs of eating disorders. They refuse to drink anything but diet drinks or spend countless hours at the gym every day. These behaviours alone don’t prove anything, but it still makes me wonder if they may be experiencing something similar to me.
During my time at university, I was dating a woman I had known for years. Her name was Haley.
Haley and I had a lot in common and shared a passion for film, music, and philosophy. The two of us had the same dark sense of humour and seemed to bond over our upbringings. My father took off when I was young, and her mother did the same. Nothing like a little childhood trauma to bring two people together — very romantic.
Haley and I also shared the ongoing struggle of having an eating disorder; I just didn’t know about mine at the time.
In retrospect, Haley’s behaviour would be a glimpse into my own future habits. I remember her weight significantly fluctuating throughout her high school years. She would put on 30 pounds within a few months and then lose it in the same amount of time.
Her disorder would eventually evolve into bulimia nervosa, which involved binging, purging, and self-induced vomiting. Sometimes, she wouldn’t eat at all.
Through that time of expressing my concern and supporting her through those struggles, I had been binge eating for at least a couple of years. Sometimes I would go out and have large meals in secret, hangout with Haley, and then have even more food while pretending I hadn’t eaten yet.
But there were also days I would binge in front of her or my friends. Haley took these binges as me having a large appetite, and my friends were seemingly amused by it.
“Holy shit dude, you are a bottomless pit!” a friend would say.
It’s like my binges were seen as a talent or wild accomplishment. I never got a million dollars for it though.
The binging started when I was around 18, a couple of years before my realization in the parking lot. It was after the parking lot fiasco that I confronted Haley about my disorder.
“I’ve definitely never thought your body needed changing, and prior to you opening up about it, it was hidden very well. I wouldn’t have imagined you struggling with it,” Haley said.
Even someone I was close with, with their own eating disorder, couldn’t detect mine. I could barely detect mine.
Research at Sheena’s Place, a support centre for those with eating disorders, indicates that men take longer than women to recognize they have an eating disorder. This is mainly due to the gender stereotype that eating disorders are solely a female issue. Men are also more likely to keep their disorder to themselves out of fear that they won’t be taken seriously.
I had that fear when speaking to my parents about my discovery.
It was one of those awkward gatherings in the living room where something serious had to be discussed. My mother usually organized these sort of family meetings when my siblings or I were in trouble.
The most memorable meeting was the time my mother suspected I had lost my virginity at 15 years old. Half an hour into the grueling interrogation, I confessed.
“Yes, I had sex. Happy?” my angsty-teen-self admitted.
My mother cried.
My stepfather in the kitchen laughed, “You? You had sex?”
“Tony!” my mother shouted at him.
I think he was shocked because I was so young — or perhaps it was a jab at my awkward appearance.
This experience wasn’t fun at the time, but it’s amusing when looking back. I can’t say the same thing about the meeting I called to discuss my eating disorder. This meeting took place about two years after I told Haley about my struggles.
My parents sat down in the living room, nervous to hear what I had to say.
I’ve never been good at communicating with my parents, so this was a big deal. My heart was racing, and my mother looked like she was going to have a panic attack.
“Just say it,” my mom said as I was hesitant to speak.
“I have a problem with food,” I professed.
“What do you mean?” my mom was sitting at the edge of the couch.
“I think I have an eating disorder.”
The room was silent, waiting for more of an explanation.
“I eat way too much food and it’s beginning to be a problem.”
My mother eased back into the couch, and my stepfather continued to observe.
“Thank God, I thought you got someone pregnant,” my mother said, relieved.
I was very confused by her unconcerned response, so I tried explaining further. I described that I eat so much I feel sick and that I can’t stop myself from doing so.
“Well, everyone overeats from time to time,” my stepfather replied.
I wasn’t getting through to them, so I decided to show them concrete evidence of my food escapades.
I grabbed my laptop, opened up my bank account, and showed them the amount of money I had been spending on food.
$30 at McDonald’s one day, $25 at A&W the next day, and another $30 at Five Guys on the next — so on and so forth.
My mother was back to being upset.
“How much money are you spending?!”
“See, it’s a problem,” I insisted.
“You’re spending way too much!”
She was totally missing the point.
My parents took this as a spending problem, not an eating disorder. They reacted as if I was spending all this money on junk food and tossing burgers out my car window.
Indeed, there was a spending problem — one of the many secondary problems that arise with having BED. But my parents weren’t acknowledging the disorder or taking it seriously.
I felt unheard and isolated after that conversation. Yet, I don’t blame them for their reactions.
If I’m going to blame anything, it would be the misrepresentation of mental illness in general. I blame the false idea that you can spot someone with depression because they don’t smile and look like they’re about to burst into tears. I blame the false idea that someone with schizophrenia always hears voices telling them to harm other people. I blame the false idea that eating disorders only look like an underweight 18-year-old woman who can barely walk up a flight of stairs.
These scenarios may exist, but they do not define every situation. These mental illnesses can happen to anyone, at nearly any age, in many different forms.
If Haley and I couldn’t detect my disorder for so long, how could I expect my parents, who have no experience with eating disorders, to understand my situation? I don’t fit the perceived demographic for an eating disorder, and that throws people off.
I wish I could say my experiences with an eating disorder started and stopped with binge eating, but it didn’t. There was a moment where I decided to do something about my eating habits, but more importantly, my weight.
And when I say, “do something about my eating habits,” I might as well say, “take up a different eating disorder.”
I decided to make this change when I stepped on my grandmother’s scale. I was going to the washroom during a family event and noticed it in the corner of the room. It was the first time I had used one, other than at a doctor’s office for a physical.
The scale screamed at me: 200 pounds. I was well overweight for being 23 years old at five feet and nine inches tall. I could not accept this. I told myself I would do anything to lose at least 40 pounds as soon as possible. And from that day forward, the scale has owned me.
I started with exercise. I went to the gym five days a week with the goal of burning at least 1,500 calories per session. I would not accept burning less than 3,500 calories in a day — which is the equivalent of a pound.
My handy-dandy Fitbit device would help me track all of these goals. I was a slave to that little thing. It’s been a year since I’ve worn it, and the pale marking along my wrist has only recently faded. I guess that’s what happens when you wear one for two years straight.
I plugged everything into my Fitbit. Every single miniscule calorie I consumed would be accounted for, whether it be one slice of cucumber or a piece of chewing gum. I was also killing myself at the gym.
I was using high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to maximize my weight loss. HIIT is essentially cardio exercises like running or biking that involve bursts of high intensity work mixed with low intensity work, until you’re too tired to keep going.
An example of HIIT would be jogging at a light pace for two minutes and then sprinting your guts out for a minute straight and then alternating between the two.
My ridiculous gym routine looked something like this:
- HIIT on the bike for 40 minutes but don’t stop until you burn 800 calories
- Use the weight machines for half an hour but don’t stop until you burn 300 calories
- HIIT on the treadmill for 20 minutes but don’t stop until you burn 400 calories
After an hour and a half of vigorous exercise, I would achieve my goal of burning 1,500 calories at the gym.
I did not enjoy this routine, and I have never enjoyed exercising or going to the gym. This was something I felt like I had to do, or else I would feel unattractive and unwanted.
I was able to lose 40 pounds in three months, going from 200 pounds to 160 pounds. This was a huge accomplishment and I felt great about it. But the reality was that I did this in an unhealthy way. The exercise and restrictions on my calorie intake were beyond excessive.
This is bulimia nervosa.
NEDIC defines bulimia nervosa as a mental illness with phases of restricting food intake mixed with moments of binging and may include forms of purging. Bulimia may look like someone who excessively exercises, uses laxatives, diets, fasts, or partakes in self-induced vomiting to counter weight gain. To be officially diagnosed with bulimia, this binging and purging cycle must happen once a week for three months.
This is what Haley had gone through, and I eventually experienced it myself. The only notable difference from Haley is that I haven’t experienced self-induced vomiting — a characteristic strongly associated with bulimia.
I have to admit, before I learned more about the disorder, I thought self-induced vomiting defined the whole of bulimia. It’s important to note that food restriction and excessive exercising mixed with binging is also a part of the disorder. In fact, studies show that men with bulimia are more likely to engage in over-exercising and are less likely to experience self-induced vomiting.
Bulimia, along with other eating disorders, is also about achieving a particular appearance. There’s always the fear of becoming obese, but it’s also about reaching an ideal body image. For Haley, it was to be slim. For me, it was to look like Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man.
I wanted to look skinny with my shirt on and “skinny-fit” with my shirt off. I drenched my clothes with sweat at the gym like I was the next A-list celebrity to transform my body for a role with the intent of winning an Oscar. Christian Bale had nothing on me.
A study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society found that men with eating disorders are typically more concerned about muscularity, whereas women with eating disorders aim to be generally thin.
Today, I try to remind myself that the “ideal” Calvin Klein body type I see on advertisements are heavily edited and achieving that physique would probably include unhealthy measures anyway.
It’s the sort of thinking the Narrator from Fight Club has, as he scoffs at a Gucci ad featuring a muscular male with a six-pack.
“Is that what a man looks like?” the Narrator speaks to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden.
Tyler Durden laughs in agreement. Except (spoiler alert for 1999’s Fight Club), Tyler Durden is a muscular, made-up persona of the Narrator himself. The Narrator recognizes advertisement’s manipulation to have the perfect masculine body, yet he yearns to look like Tyler anyway.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of us can relate to the Narrator, minus the whole accidentally making up an entire person and creating a terrorist organization (I really like Fight Club).
It’s likely most of us have that ideal version of what we’d like to be — our version of Tyler Durden. Perhaps some of us just take it too far.
The thing is, no matter how close I got to my version of Tyler Durden, I would look in the mirror and think that I looked obese. I felt obese.
To be perfectly honest, I’m currently 180 pounds — I check my weight every morning. Still, I feel like I’m well over 180 pounds. This is another subcategory of eating disorders known as body dysmorphia.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines body dysmorphia as having consistent intrusive thoughts about one’s appearance and obsessing over perceived flaws. People with body dysmorphia have a distorted view about their own appearance and genuinely do not believe anyone else’s perception of their appearance. They can be 60 pounds and think they look like they are 200 pounds. People with body dysmorphia are known to “camouflage” their appearance with makeup or particular articles of clothing, obsessively look at themselves in the mirror, or avoid using mirrors altogether. I’m a mirror-avoider.
I want to say that I have completely removed the shackles of this eating disorder — but I haven’t. I have a lot to work on and am aware that this will be an ongoing challenge for me and many others.
The truth is that I will most likely be dealing with an eating disorder for the rest of my life. I am currently sipping on a Diet Coke XTRA, figuring that I’m killing two birds with one stone by staying alert while consuming zero calories. I’ve also eaten less than 20 grams of carbs a day for the last month to try and lose weight.
This isn’t necessarily what healthy looks like, but I’m trying. Remember when I said I weigh myself every morning? Well, I’ve made the effort to not weigh myself for the last couple of weeks.
I can look at the empty corner of my room where my scale used to sit and see some progress, and that has to count for something.
Resources for those with eating disorders
NEDIC – Toll-Free 1-866-NEDIC-20 or https://nedic.ca/contact/