by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
Back in November, I received a call from the producer of Good Morning Britain, the UK equivalent of U.S. morning shows like Today. The show was launching a “sugar-free” campaign, a segment in which three women would be selected from a large pool of applicants and profiled as they reverse old self-destructive habits and adopt a healthier way of living. To prepare them, the women selected would be flown to Los Angeles to meet with fitness and nutrition experts. As part of the program, each woman got my book The Hunger Fix and met with me at Malibu Vista. There, I assessed the women’s addictive eating behaviors and help show them how to switch their typical refined and processed foods for delicious whole foods.
One of the women, 38-year-old Carla Andrews, made it clear that she was in a serious state of readiness to change her life. The heaviest of the three and already hypertensive, Carla noted during our interview her profound disconnect with her body, only acknowledging its presence when she forced herself to look into mirror. I sensed a deep sense of pain as well as an emerging strength and tenacity to turn things around in her life. Carla and I bonded quickly, and I decided to continue to work with her going forward.
Flash-forward seven months and 70 pounds removed: Carla was in the midst of one of the most pivotal mental, spiritual, and physical transformations of her life. For Carla, this journey was less about shedding pounds than about releasing the lifelong mental weight that had driven her to self-soothe with food. The years of numbing herself from anxiety, stress, and sadness had culminated in her carrying 254 pounds on a 5’4″ frame. As we worked together, Carla began to share her story, parts of which may resonate with many of you.
Growing up, life was very difficult. Emotionally abandoned and battered by her parents, Carla sought solace from her grandparents, who enjoyed feeding her an endless supply of all of her favorites, from potpie to chocolate and pastries. She shared that “Food was fun, colorful, and plentiful. When I got back home, my mum would say I had put weight on and call me fat.”
Of course, the shaming would only provide more reason to self-soothe. Further, she added, “So, why am I addicted to sugar? I think it’s safe to say I am an emotional eater, having grown up in a household where I was a victim of mental, physical, and sexual abuse.” Carla’s addictive eating behavior made sense. Using data from the Nurses’ Health Study, Harvard researcher Susan Mason, PhD, studied the relationship between early-life trauma in women and the prevalence of food addiction. Mason found that severe childhood and adolescent abuse were associated with a 90 percent increase in food addiction risk.
When her home life became unbearable, Carla went to live with her grandparents at the age of 15. The overeating continued until, four years later, her grandmother passed away. Grief-stricken, Carla shed a large amount of weight. But eventually, she regained it once she entered the workforce, burying her pain in work. “As life went on I struggled with my past and my emotions but buried them in the pleasures of food.”
As time passed, she became a single mother of two beautiful boys, both with functional levels of Asperger’s syndrome. Looking back as we spoke, she said, “My life consisted of my boys, work, and paying the bills. With no life, I ate. I would treat the boys to cinema or bowling and a meal out—everything we did consisted of food. Sweet treats and a full belly until it hurt was the life I used to lead. On the one hand, I was in a deep hole and I couldn’t get out. On the other, this is how I found a way to numb the pains of my life and find temporary happiness—although it was killing me.”
As we gradually made critical connections between her past trauma and overeating, Carla began to reframe what had happened to her. Feeling enlightened and empowered, it became easier to stop blaming herself and realize that at the time she’d done the best she could to survive. She just didn’t need to keep repeating her childhood rituals. It was finally time to change.
During the course of our working together, Carla learned how to reach out for help. One day, I received an email with a subject heading that would become Carla’s trademark call for help: “Mayday, Mayday.” In essence, after having removed 40 pounds, she began to experience some complacency, and her normally acid focus had begun to soften. After a long across-the-pond Skype session, Carla learned the lesson behind this close call with caving to the craving: Lifelong vigilance and daily mindful living are essential to her sustainable success.
As she continues her quest to optimize her health and wellness, Carla shared some of her simple secrets of success. Here are a few of her dietary tips:
- Don’t drink your calories.
- Swap white pasta/bread for true whole wheat.
- Watch portions of fruit size (for example, 10 grapes have almost 10 grams of sugar).
- Cook more and make your own (such as homemade mayonnaise/pasta sauces).
- Never skip a meal; always have a snack in between, too.
- Carry healthy snacks to limit junk food purchases.
- Eat the rainbow…of colorful vegetables and fruits.
Getting more active led to another learning experience. In her own words, “In the past, exercise had been a chore for me. You know, you get in from a hard day at work, the kids are arguing, the house needs cleaning, and everyone needs feeding. This is where I used to fall down. I never made me time. [This time,] I recruited strangers that were in the same position as me, lacking motivation to get physically active alone. I decided to set up my ‘Exercise Buddy’ network, which was relatively easy with social media. We meet and walk and talk, and some days we swim.” How creative!
Today, Carla has amazed herself by discovering she’s actually quite an athlete!
“Now it’s not food that makes me happy,” she declares. “I do create tasty meals, but I seek pleasure from finish lines. I have ditched my chocolate for new adventures. Each month I now enter new physical challenges, many of which are for charity. To date, I have swum a swimathon, completed a two-day boot camp, and run the London City mile, and next month I am climbing Mount Snowdon. This is what makes me truly happy and feel alive. I still have moments where I am sacred, but as I get fitter, I know I’ll feel stronger. My one-year goal is to start a martial art. I know that sounds silly, because it’s not like I am 15 anymore. But it will just put another nail in the coffin so I can bury my demons.”
Carla’s story is another reminder that so much of that excess weight you may find yourself carrying reflects a complex story that you need to acknowledge, honor, and then take control of. When she feels moments of fear or anxiety, Carla comes back to the inspiring quote below. Perhaps as you become truly aware of your own extraordinary story, you’ll find it of help, as well. Consider it a gift from a kindred spirit across the pond.
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” —Christopher Robin
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. As Senior Science Adviser to Elements Behavioral Health, she’s creating an integrative lifestyle plan to support the treatment of addiction and mood disorders. A Senior Olympic triathlete, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. She is the best-selling author of many books, including Fight Fat after Forty and Body-for-Life for Women. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.