My Battle With An Eating Disorder

Wow.  I thought for a long time about how I was going to start this post.  I am sure you can tell from the title that this is a difficult topic for me to discuss.  It had a huge impact on who I am, but I am hoping that by sharing my story I can help others who have suffered or who are suffering from the same problem.

So, here it goes.

I was a very confident teenager throughout middle school and high school.  I would go as far as to say I was a little cocky.  I had a lot of friends, was athletic, and made solid grades.  When I entered my freshman year of college, I felt confident but did not know anyone besides my girlfriend, her brother, and one other kid from my high school.

My dad, me, and my brother at my high school graduation party
My dad, me, and my brother at my high school graduation party

Since I knew very few people, I became close with my roommate – we hung out a lot.  I was not into the fraternity thing.  Almost everyone at my college joined so I thought I would be different and not “rush” – I knew I could make friends without joining.

At the time, I was also satisfied with my body and never thought I was fat or out of shape.  I also never thought about nutrition and how it affected my health or body comp.  I am not sure I even considered that there was a connection.

I grew up on almost entirely processed foods – microwaveable meals, a ton of sugary cereal, fast food restaurants, etc.  My mom cooked occasionally, but it was definitely not what I would consider healthy.

When I first started dating my wife, I thought her family was healthy because they had Cheerios and Pop Tarts without icing.  No icing, what the hell?!

This is how little I knew about nutrition and its effects on my body.

During my first year of college, my roommate, girlfriend, and I usually ate at the campus center buffet.  I stuck to my normal foods of burgers, fries, cereal, and grilled cheese for the first semester.

However, as the year went on I began to take note of how my girlfriend and roommate ate.  They ate much more healthy than me so I began trying to make small changes to my food intake.  The first step I took was to cut out all fat.

I considered fat to be evil (not sure how I got this in my head) so I limited it as much as possible.  After experimenting with this, I began losing weight.  As I mentioned above, I never thought I was fat but I was starting to see some abs pop through and that excited me.

So I continued with my “clean eating” experiment.  I made it a game to see how little I could eat, or I would put off eating as long as possible.  I thought I was being healthy by doing this since I was losing fat and consuming nearly zero fat.

At the end of my first year, I had lost some weight but nothing significant.  I felt good, my grades were solid, and I was enjoying Hanover College.  I even competed on the tennis team and had a lot of fun with that.

In Florida with my wife's brother and our friend from Hanover
In Florida with my wife’s brother and our friend from Hanover

Therefore, I continued my “healthy” eating habits thinking it was beneficial for my body and health.   But my habits kept getting worse and worse – less food and more strict rules as to what foods I could and could not eat.  It became an unhealthy obsession.

I ended up transferring to a different university after the first semester of my sophomore year.  I enjoyed Hanover, but it was very expensive.  In addition, my wife (then still girlfriend) was planning to enroll in a second bachelor’s degree program in Indianapolis at the end of the school year (she is two years older than me) so I decided to move there ahead of her and go to school.

This is when things got really ugly.  I was living alone in an apartment in Indianapolis and now, for the first time, having to cook and buy food for myself.  I began to buy more and more of what I considered clean foods and stayed away from fat.

If I had a sandwich it was bread and meat.  If I ate cereal, it was Cheerios.  If I ate some yogurt, it was fat free.  I also restricted myself to very small portions.  And as I stated above, I delayed my meals as long as possible because I was very excited to eat (no wonder, my body was starving), but I knew it would not last long so I would wait and wait.

I began to think more and more about my next meal and what I was going to eat.  I wanted as few calories as possible, and I wanted them to be good calories.  One of my staple meals was a low-fat yogurt (100 calories) with a few cheerios added in.

If I had to estimate, I would say I was eating around 1,000 calories a day.  However, I never counted because I did not even know what was a reasonable amount.

My weight kept decreasing, but I still thought I was being healthy because I was eating no “junk food” and I had little bodyfat.

At this time, my social life was nonexistent.  I rarely went anywhere besides to class and to my apartment.  I knew no one in Indy and made very little effort to change that.  I also had my first knee surgery around this time and because of that was very inactive.

I basically sat in my apartment, studied, and thought about food.  On the weekends, Emme would come to see me or I would go to Hanover to be with her, but that was the extent of my activities.

Looking back, I now know that I was severely depressed and unhappy.  I have no idea why I could not see this at the time.  I think it was because I was so involved in the process of being healthy, and I focused all of my energy around that.  If I was not in control of my surroundings and environment, which going out with friends would have forced me to do, then I was afraid I would have to stray from my “healthy path”.

I even had a hard time going to see my parents, which I had always loved doing in the past.  I dreaded the trip because I did not have access to all my “clean foods” and always felt I was being judged for eating cleanly.  If I did go to their house, I refused what my mom cooked, and I would sneak away to my room and eat my “healthy food”.

Slowly, my parents and my girlfriend began noticing that I was becoming too extreme and my low bodyweight was unhealthy.

One Christmas (I think this was the lowest weight I got to ~125lbs at 6’1″) they sat down and had a long talk with me.  They invited Emme to the house to help as well.  Together, we decided that I needed help.

Me at my smallest.  This picture is still hard for me to look at.
Me at my smallest. This picture is very hard for me to look at.

It was a very emotional experience.  I now knew that I was unhealthy because I was so underweight, but I felt like I had it under control.  I had a lot of mind games – I knew that I needed to gain weight, but I wanted to do it slowly and healthily.  However, I was not having very good results with this.  I was timid that I would gain fat instead of muscle (this is the first time I began having body image issues).   So I agreed to go to seek out someone for help.

It was a hard decision, but I could see my mom, dad, and Emme were very upset, and I trusted their guidance, so I entered a clinic that specialized in eating disorders.

I went to the clinic once a week for an hour.  I had access to a dietician, doctor, and a psychologist.   Each week I reported my food log, checked my bodyweight, and talked with the psychologist about my struggles and successes.

Several months before entering the clinic I had been reading a lot into nutrition and lifting weights because I realized that I was not healthy or happy.  I began to realize that I needed to gain some weight to improve my health and to build up my confidence.

Because I was very skinny, I had zero confidence in myself.  I dreaded being around others because I was no longer the person I used to be.  I lost by sense of humor, my athleticism, and my identity.  I no longer knew what I enjoyed besides my very small meals.  Therefore, gaining muscle became my goal.

I learned a lot about nutrition during this time, but the problem was that a lot of what I reading was at odds with what the staff was telling me at the center.  They wanted me to go back to eating the foods that I used to enjoy (cereal, burgers, whatever).  They did not seem to care much about what I ate.  They just wanted me to put the weight on.

This did not sit well with me.  I knew I needed to gain weight, but I wanted to do it with what I considered healthy foods (and I now had an idea of what this was).  Because of this, they still considered me orthorexic – someone obsessed with “clean eating” – even if I was gaining weight.

It was frustrating because if I ate a piece of fruit or some almonds everyone thought I was going to remain skinny and that I would never put on the weight with these foods.

I ended up leaving the clinic because they threatened to make me an inpatient if I did not gain 5lbs in a week.  I was able to achieve this the first week, but not the second – I was 2 lbs shy.  Therefore, I stopped going.

I am still not happy with the treatment I received there.  The staff was very friendly, but I believe you have to understand the mindset of someone with an eating disorder to really help him or her.

For me, I wanted to eat cleanly, and I saw no reason as to why this was bad.  Telling me to eat cereal and ice cream was not the right message (In part 2 I will explain to you the message and information that helped me get back to a healthy lifestyle and mindset) to encourage me to gain weight.

This is part of the reason I wanted to write this post.  Because I feel like I now have a good understanding of this process and want to help as many people who suffer from this problem as possible.  I know how terrible it can be – and the consequences are very large.

For example, I had some major hormonal issues – very low testosterone and a sluggish thyroid were the biggies.  Thanks to an awesome doc and a lot of reading on my own I am almost in the norm for all my measures.

And although I am still somewhat on the scrawny side at 6’1″ and 170 lbs, I am healthy and happy.  And I like to tell people that if I had two arms I would be closer to 180-185lbs.  🙂

Here is me this past summer - about 5lbs lighter than I am now
Summer 2012 – about 5lbs lighter than I am now

So that is my reason for writing this series.  I want to let you know that you are not alone and there can be light at the end of the tunnel – I am living proof.

I also want to be of help to anyone that I can who is suffering from this terrible problem – male or female.

If you are dealing with this problem, or feel that you may be headed in that direction, do not be afraid to reach out for help.  I am happy to chat with anyone in the comments or via private message.

This is going to be a big aim of my blog – helping YOU develop a healthy body and mind.  It is not easy, but I believe my experience has truly made me a better coach and has helped me to have a better understanding of how to come to love yourself.

I am working on part 2 now in which I will detail how I escaped my eating disorder and developed a healthy relationship with food and my body.

Happy New Year’s!!

20 thoughts on “My Battle With An Eating Disorder”

  1. Zach, thank you very much for this post. I’m in awe of the courage and inner strength it must have taken to write it, not to mention to survive it. It is a very powerful story, and it gives me some insight into YOUR insight – specifically, what makes you such an awesome coach.

  2. Hi Zach,
    I just want you to know that Sandi would be very proud of you for all of the work you have done to overcome this and then to share your story. I know she had been very worried about you during this time. I’m also very proud of you for all of this.

  3. Zach, as a person who has also suffered from an eating disorder and has now recovered (anorexia) i know exactly what you went through and how tough it was! i still struggle with it but i know it will always be apart of who i am. I love how you are sharing your story to help others! inspired!

    • Thanks Danielle! It is definitely not easy to get over – I feel very lucky to have beaten it. And yes, I hope my story can help others.

  4. Zach what a heartfelt and beautifully written article!
    I’m so very proud of you!! Sharing our inner demons
    and frailties isn’t easy. Be sure what you went thru WILL HELP
    others!!! I’m eager to read the second part.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Zach. Appreciate the honesty. No doubt in my mind you can help a lot of people by putting this info out there. You da man!

  6. Wow!
    I remember someone saying to me once,” your strength’s become your weakness, but, your weakness will become your strength.”

    I think all who work with you, could’nt imagine having a better person and coach.

    You really are gifted.

    Thank you for sharing and thank your wife and family who gave you love and support to be the best version of yourself, that I know you are.

  7. Zach – brave of you to share your story, and I am sure others will view it as the same. You have a lot of wisdom and inspiration to offer those through fitness and health. Keep up the great work.

  8. You probably don’t remember me, but I am Ashley Padgett’s mom. You used to come over and jump on the trampoline when your grandparents lived next door. I later worked with Sandi in the ER. She was always very proud of you, and I know that she would be very proud of you for coming forward to help others. I know it can’t be easy for you, but I am sure you will touch many others. I somehow ran across this while strolling through facebook, and now I’ll get myself to the gym tomorrow. Ashley actually owns a gym now, doesn’t look good for her mom to be out of shape. Thanks for a little bump on the inspiration!

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Karen! I do remember you:) Yes, Sandi was a big help in me overcoming my problem.
      So glad I was able to inspire you to go to the gym! I hope it goes well. Tell Ashley I said hi.

  9. Hello Zach, thank you for posting this. Your story is exactly what I have been going through. I struggle on a daily basis with food and it takes a major toll on my life. This all first started for me when I became obsessed with eating “healthy” and losing weight. Much like your story, the weight started falling off and I became more skinny than I have ever seen myself. I looked great, and therefore felt great…for a while. After about six months of this new diet, things began spiraling downward. It has been about two years now and I am in this situation I do not know how to get out of. After all this time of depriving myself of certain foods, I find myself constantly thinking about food. I now have a serious problem with binge eating. It is very embarrassing and I feel so ashamed of myself afterwards. I am also terrified of gaining back weight. I never feel full and constantly want to eat. Have you posted part 2 to your article? I would really like to read it.


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