Depression and Weight Loss: Is it hopeless?

For anyone who is here for the first time, today I'm writing about my struggles with mental illness, so if reading about that topic will cause you distress, you may want to come back tomorrow when I'll go back to my normal content.

Welcome to Mental Health Monday!  This regular series of articles from writers across the blogosphere was born out of a session on Depression, Anxiety and Healthy Living from Fitbloggin’ 15.  Every 1st and 3rd Monday there will be a link up for writers to share their experiences with mental illness – either from their own experience or from the experience of helping and walking with others.  The goal is to reach out to the world and let people know that they are not alone in their struggles.  You are never alone.  Join us – link up, visit new blogs, support others.  Speak out:  “I am crazy…CRAZY AWESOME!”

Since I spend a lot of time talking about weight loss here and because I know that some people with mental health challenges also struggle to attain and maintain a healthy weight, I thought I'd talk about how my bi-polar and binge eating disorders affect my healthy living journey.

I was never thin-thin (I weighed 125 pounds at 5'3" without much effort or thought throughout junior and senior high school) but I didn't develop a real weight problem until I left for college. I felt so overwhelmed by how much was expected of me - I'd always coasted through classes in high school - and by the freedom to eat whatever my heart desired instead of what my mom bought for the house, that I spent much of my freshman year shoveling Pop Tarts and the like into my mouth. I ended that first year about 60 pounds heavier than when I'd left home the prior September, so I tootled off to Weight Watchers for the first time over that summer. I lost about 45 pounds before I once again turned to food for soothing when my grandpa died just before I went back to school; by Christmas that year, I'd regained all 45 pounds I'd worked so hard to lose plus a few more for good measure. That pattern has repeated itself with regularity over the intervening 29 years, leaving my metabolism and self esteem pretty much destroyed.

Starting in January 2013, I managed to lose 99 pounds and kept off all but 17 pounds of that - I'm working on it! - since then. My regular bouts with depression certainly posed a significant challenge as I worked first to lose that weight, then to maintain the loss. I didn't have any sort of "backup plan" to deal with my uncomfortable feelings other than food, since that had always been my default.

In case it might be helpful to someone else out there struggling with the same feelings, I'm going to share a few things I've learned - am still learning, really - in the last 30 months:

  • Get regular, moderate exercise. Even when I'm fighting off a horrible bout of depression that leaves me feeling worthless and alone, I still get up and go for a walk for 45-60 minutes. By making that routine non-negotiable, I not only burn some calories but also get outside and create endorphins (the feel good hormone). It's a lot harder to feel isolated and not worth caring for when you're out in nature.
  • Remember why losing weight is important. When the depression gets really, really bad and I question why I deserve to breath air, it's all that I can do to get up and go through the motions of daily life - everything gets so much harder and resisting the darkness seems really futile. Fortunately for me, I only experience that level of depression once or maybe twice a year. Most of the time when depression hits it's a lot milder and I can recognize it much quicker, too. For those times, I can frequently stave off a binge by looking at the piece of paper with my hand-written list of reasons that I want to be a healthy weight. A picture of the list is the screen saver for my phone, so I can look at it any time I like without carrying the paper itself. Finding something more powerful than the urge to eat away the discomfort helps me a lot, and my "losing list" is really effective in that regard.
  • Seek help in advance from a mental health professional. When things get very dark, the last thing I think about doing is reaching out to my therapist, so I made sure that I found an eating disorder specialist/psychologist and established a therapeutic relationship with her before one of those super-bad episodes hit. Now I check in with her once a month and have the option of dropping her an email for an appointment in between if needed. If for some reason I didn't show up for our monthly appointment, Dr. Jennifer would reach out to me and to my husband, via electronic and voice mail, to make sure I was safe. I cannot recommend this step strongly enough: find your mental health professional while you're feeling good so that you have one less hurdle to clear when the depression hits.
  • Continue to weigh in at least weekly. For me, checking my weight on a regular basis keeps me accountable. Yes, the stupid numbers sometimes make me crazy because they don't always track to my behaviors properly. (I'll gain when I've been letter perfect all week or, equally perplexing and frustrating, I'll lose after a week with a few slips.) Scales are not the greatest measurement of how I'm doing with my journey to a happy, healthy life but it's part of my routine to check in at least weekly and keeping that commitment to myself is a way to reinforce my portfolio of lifestyle changes.
Even with those things going for me, I still sometimes fall back on food for soothing my feelings. The week of Fitbloggin', ironically, was the last time it happened. I try to remember that I'm human, that I struggle with mental illness, and that there are far worse things to do as a human being on Earth than binge eating a whole bag of granola in a sitting. Probably the most effective way I know of dealing with these behaviors is to recognize them and turn things around as quickly as possible without punishing myself. Which thought leads me to the last thing I've learned since starting on my journey this time:
  • Do not rebound from a binge or unplanned indulgence with self-hatred or a desire to "make up for" that behavior with extra strict eating or exercise. It's not easy to move forward from overeating by countering with a simple return to my normal healthy living routines but that's exactly what I've found works best for me. If I go crazy with restricting my food then I'm reinforcing the idea that my eating - and, by extension, me myself - is "good" or "bad", and that's not true. Instead, I look at what might have led to the disordered eating to see if there are lessons to be learned for next time, then I go back to eating normally with the next meal.
All of these things sound simple and easy, don't they? They aren't and I certainly do not always follow my own advice, but when I do it's remarkable how quickly I start to feel better.

If you suffer from occasional bouts with disordered eating, are there tried-and-true strategies you have found helpful when dealing with them? Share in the comments, please!


Our journeys are similar in the way they started. I just haven't lost the weight yet. Thanks for sharing what you've learned along the way.
Elaine said…
This is a very helpful article- thanks so much for sharing. Although I don't suffer depression to the degree that you do, I think the steps you outlined are applicable to me or anyone who is anywhere on the depression spectrum and eats to soothe.
Kari said…
Your last point really hits home with me. I am so bad about beating myself up when I make a mistake. Great post!
That Girl said…
Your story is so familiar. We're really struggling to not use food as reward or punishment because I know I also fall into the trap of eating for emotions instead of hunger.
Soothing (or burying) my emotions with food is a real struggle for me and a lot of others. This was a great post. Thank you for sharing!
LutherLiz said…
This is so important for me to read. Food gets all mixed up with mental health for me.
This is an excellent rundown of things to think about and I think they apply very well to me! I appreciate you sharing your story and giving the well thought out list! I'm definitely going to reflect on all these things the next time I'm feeling anxious and want to help it with food. Thank you!

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