The Disordered Eating Epidemic

Find out the new generation of abnormal eaters (hint: it’s not your daughter’s).

by Shelley Levitt
Photograph: Photo: Levi Brown

I didn’t binge again for a decade. Then, at 28, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy, and my weight went from 140 to 125. When the treatment ended, I started putting weight back on, and my mom said to me, “Don’t you wish you could stay on that chemo forever? You sure did look good.” That triggered it. I went back to eating a dozen doughnuts in half an hour. Only the first one or two taste good, but once I start, I have to finish them all. Afterward I feel as if my body is going to explode, as if I have been drugged. I am numb to any emotion.

By then I was married with two daughters, and my husband discovered what I was doing. The shame of being caught was enough to make me stop, and I didn’t binge again for 15 years, even through my divorce. But this past year has been difficult: I lost a brother to cancer, my mother has been bedridden for months with a broken hip, and my business has been hit hard by the recession. Three months ago, I was with friends who wanted to stop for breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts. I didn’t have the guts to say, “No, I can’t go in that place.” We went in, and I just ordered an egg sandwich, but the next morning at 7:30 I was back and bingeing again.

Now I’m bingeing two or three times a week. When I feel the urge, I find myself driving to the doughnut shop, even though I realize I will end up in physical pain and filled with self-disgust. I wish I could keep my car from going there, but I don’t have the ability to stop myself. It’s the definition of insanity.

My weight is up to 200 pounds, and I’m just waiting to hit rock bottom so I can stop bingeing again. That’s as much of a plan as I have right now.

The Dieting Champion

Rania Atalla, 44: Amman, Jordan and Washington, D.C.; writer

Five years ago, when I was working as the chief of staff to Queen Rania of Jordan, I found myself in Greece at a state luncheon for the queen and her husband, King Abdullah. I thought no one was noticing me as I moved my food around my plate, course after course. But when dessert was served, the chef came out, leaned over and whispered, “Madam, is everything all right with the food?” I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.

By this time, it had been well over a decade since I’d actually eaten lunch. When I was invited to a luncheon, my day would be ruined; the world would become a totally dark place. So I’d either take notes throughout the meal or play with my food to hide the fact that I wasn’t eating. Obviously, it didn’t always work.

I’d held a series of fast-paced jobs in Washington and then in Jordan, and I’d become accustomed to running on adrenaline rather than food. Stopping to eat would just slow me down, so I often wouldn’t eat anything all day until I got home at 10 or 11 at night. I also had a list of prohibited foods that got longer and longer; I eliminated all carbohydrates, dairy and sugar in coffee. There’s a physiological and psychological high created by restricting food intake—a constant underlying buzz and a feeling of power that I enjoyed.

I became so compulsive about exercise, meanwhile, that after a 14-hour flight from Jordan to Washington, I’d go straight to the gym because I had missed that day’s workout. On weekends, I’d turn down invitations if I thought they’d interfere with my spending up to three hours at the gym. Excessive exercise was my form of purging, but as I entered my forties, I was having to work out longer and harder to keep my weight low, and I was developing sports injuries such as tendinitis in the back of my knee and a strained hamstring. Then, at my annual checkup last year, a bone-­density test showed that I had osteopenia, bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. I learned later that this condition is often caused by eating disorders, because your body is not getting enough vitamins and minerals.

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