How Eating Disorders Run in the Family

Updated: Jan 21

I thought I couldn't lose weight because I grew up overeating. What I didn't know was because of my heritage, I was able to persevere and lose weight after my eating disorder.

Years ago, at a family gathering, my nine-year-old cousin emerged from the basement every twenty to thirty minutes to grab a monster bar (oats, peanut butter, M&Ms, chocolate chips, etc.). We were there for about two or three hours, so she probably at a half a pan of bars in that time. Though everyone was perfectly aware of what the kid was doing, no one said anything. No-one stopped her.

I didn't realize until recently that my family has a history of bad eating habits.

My great-grandma showed her love through food. Great-grandma and great-grandpa immigrated to the United States in the 20s (to the best of my knowledge). They became farmers in Iowa. I know they went through the Great Depression but still built their farm into an empire, which now supports over ten families. When my mom and her cousins were little, great-grandma would cut food in half to try to get people to eat more. My great-grandparents have never been overweight, but they learned the value of food.

That became the stick with that side of the family - food was the celebration. The holidays were just an excuse to get together and eat. Vacations were all about the local restaurants and their indulgent food. There is nothing wrong with that! Food is excellent, and we should enjoy it, but now we have some health problems. More specifically, I developed an eating disorder.

I have tried a few diets throughout the years, and I could never stick to them because I was always hungry. I considered "diets" or even just eating the right amount of calories a controlled starve - eating just enough to get through the day. I always told myself, I can't diet. I can't eat a reasonable amount of food, because of the way I grew up.

Yes, I overate as a kid. My childhood consisted of terrible eating habits passed down from my family, but that's not why those diets failed. Bad habits can break. Binging and emotional eating can stop. But hunger can't be cured. There was no way to fix the fact that eating the "right" amount of calories a day left me hungry.

I am 100% Dutch. I'm still waiting for my Ancestry DNA results to come back, but I'm not holding my breath as to my country of origin. My great-grandparents, all four sets, immigrated from the Netherlands and settled in the same region of Iowa.

Being Dutch has its advantages. They are the tallest race of people with the average adult reaching 6'1". I love all the jokes about the Dutch - we are stingy, hate change, and speak our minds, but we are also hard-working and determined.

I first noticed I was different, not when I was taller than my classmates, but when I tried on my brother's sweatshirt. It fit me better than women's sweaters, my shoulders had room to breathe, and my belly button wasn't showing. I said I come from a family of farmers, but I also come from a family of physically (and mentally!) strong women. It's weird to talk about, but the women in my family are, let's say, gifted in that area.

When I calculate the calories I need in one day, 1) I get different numbers depending on the system used, and 2) I usually get less than feel I need. Through my eating disorder journey, I have, intentionally and unintentionally, played with the number of calories and food I eat in a day. I always come up with more food than any calorie counting system calculates.

Recently, I hopped on an InBody machine. A fancy scale, an InBody measures body water, dry lean mass, and body fat mass. It breaks down your body into water, fat, minerals, and protein. By doing this, the InBody can tell you if you have enough muscle, too much fat, or enough water. It can also tell you your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). BMR is what the body needs to accomplish life-sustaining activities like breathing and blood circulation. If you didn't move for twenty-four hours, you would still need this many calories to live.

My BMR is about 1,650 calories. Considering I live an active lifestyle and workout four times a week, I should eat 1.5 times my BMR. I get to eat over 2,500 calories! That is a lot, considering that it is 500 more than the average woman. Some of the following websites calculated similar allotted calories:

- Mayo Clinic: 2,350

- Active: 2,785

- 2,400

The more I have researched about diets and eating habits, the more I come to realize that it's not me, it's the diets! Most calorie counters consider your height and weight, but not BMR. The plans that I was following had me eating about 1,500 calories a day. That isn't even enough for my BMR. No wonder I was always hungry!

We have gotten smarter. Now experts suggest that you eat 300 to 500 calories less than your body needs a day to lose weight. They don't say to consume 1,300 to 1,600 calories a day. Experts don't calculate calories based on height and weight anymore. We have learned that our bodies are more complicated that our body mass index (BMI) reveals.

One part of the healing process was learning to see food differently. Some of the lies I learned from my family's habits:

  • Food is a reward.

  • Food is a celebration.

  • Food is a sign of love.

  • Food is comfort.

  • Food is the attraction of the vacation or outing.

  • Food is the focal point of life.

  • If you didn't eat, you were missing out.

It took a while, but now I don't believe any of these lies. I realized that good food is everywhere, and it will still be there if I want it later. Just because this restaurant has a bacon cheeseburger, doesn't mean another restaurant won't. I also realize that if my attitude is food as the attraction, I should eat everything on the menu. Since that is insanely unrealistic, I was able to see food as food, not a celebration.

Do you know what also runs in the family? Grit. The ability to not only overcome obstacles but surpass them. Because of this, I was able to get over my eating disorder and lose weight afterward. Shedding the pounds was with the help of new technology such as the InBody, which gave me a more accurate calorie count. The InBody made is possible for me to "diet" and be full!

I am now able to take steps, so I don't pass down lousy eating habits to my future children. I know the patterns I inherited, so I know which ones to get rid of before my kids were born. I'm stopping the family tree.

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