Brian Baumel is a Toronto-based psychotherapist who works with clients to help them accept and develop a healthy relationship with food and their body image. He went through his own self-acceptance journey beginning in 2003, when he experienced weight cycling, low self-esteem, a poor relationship with food, and a disconnection from his body, which he learned over time was common and something he could help others deal with after he found himself back on a healthy path. This is his story.
This story has been edited for length and clarity.
Around 2003, in my early 30s, I lost about 100 pounds through diet and exercise. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I did it in a very unhealthy and unwise way. I was engaging in moderate exercise bulimia. I was working out intensely twice a day and keeping it secret from everyone around me because I feared that if anyone found out what I was doing, they would recommend against it. That was a signal of anxiety about my weight. Other unhealthy things I was doing included counting the compliments I would get during my weight loss. If I didn’t get enough, I would tell myself I’d have to lose more weight. It was a path that was doomed for failure — there’s only so much that your body can take before you give up.
I was feeling a disconnection from my body, meaning that I really didn’t understand what it was like to be in my body anymore. For example, I got down to a size 29 in jeans, which is perfect by any standard. But when I put on those jeans, I didn’t know what or how to feel. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I feel really good, but I think I should go lower.” All I could see was the little bit of flab that I had not managed to lose — I didn’t see any signs of success. I also experienced low self-esteem. I think a lot of people in their thirties have issues and doubts about career and family, and I thought, “If there’s one thing I can control, it’s my weight. I may not be successful in other areas of my life, but boy, can I be successful in my weight loss and show everyone how useful I can really be.”
What ended up happening is — and this is not as uncommon as people may think — I hit a wall. You cannot keep intensely exercising, twice a day, as someone who is not an athlete. I generally avoided sugar and bad food and stuck to a very regimented diet, but then I slipped up once. Then I slipped up for a whole evening. And then for a whole week. And at that point, guilt started coming into play. I lost control and I thought, ‘My clothes aren’t going to fit me anymore, no one’s going to compliment me anymore.’ I also realized that food made me happy — as happy as losing weight, if not more so. That’s what began a shift backwards.
By early 2005, the weight started coming back on and went all the way back up until 2012. I asked myself what I could do differently. By this time, I had trained as a therapist, so I knew how to listen to my inner voices, and my inner voice said, ‘Go easier on yourself.’ I was shocked. I wanted to trust that voice, but I wasn’t sure. I thought, ‘Well, I certainly shouldn’t go harder.’ It wasn’t a war, though — I think a lot of people have warring sides — this was more of an intellectual pause. My thoughts didn’t make sense — after all, if I didn’t lose all the weight before, shouldn’t I double up? Work harder?
Within a couple of hours, everything started to become very clear. To go easier was the answer, to work out only once a day, to not worry about the excess weight, to have a cheat meal. At this point I was in my early 40s, and at that age, you’re not going to lose everything. So I asked myself, ‘Why should I let five or 10 or even 15 pounds bother me anymore?’
Five or six months into this new, healthier relationship with food and my body, I was doing bicep curls in the gym — nothing spectacular. But I would get a fairly good endorphin rush from working out, and particularly with weights. So I started feeling the endorphin rush and, all of a sudden, it hit me again. I thought, ‘How is this endorphin rush, and this up-and-down motion that I’m doing with my arm dependent on my weight at all? I can set weight aside and still come into the gym and go up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down, and get the same endorphin effect.’ It was at that moment that I divorced the number on the scale from exercise and food. I realized I could get what I needed — the endorphin rush — no matter what weight I was.
By 2016, I had lost a lot of weight and kept it off in a much more psychologically healthy way. I knew that journey and the principles of it well, so I decided to go into weight management. Being a good therapist is being responsible and responsive to your clients, so when they come in with symptoms that you’re not quite sure how to handle or things that seem a little bit out of the ordinary, you read, you get supervision, and you network with people. And so, by 2018, I learned a fair bit about eating disorders and food addictions, and realized that’s where my practice should lie and where I needed to be. I was shocked at how much I loved this turning point in my career, I never liked learning about something so much.
Today, I also love my body. It has some aches and pains, sure, but I love the way I look. I exercise anywhere from three to five times a week, and I love the fact that I can take three-hour walks through the city. I love the fact that I can wake up when I want to and not feel completely miserable. But if I had stayed on my original path, that may not have been the case. It’s worth noting, too, when I was 14 years old, I had a steel rod put in my back because I had a very bad case of scoliosis. If I didn’t take care of my weight, I could have been in a lot more pain today. So I’m just so happy to be relatively pain-free.
What I would like to say to those on a similar path is to remember one hard truth: you will fail. You will hit plateaus and you will be challenged. Your goals have to be incredibly realistic — someone who is 60 years old is not going to get the body of a 20-year-old. Your weight is not going to help you land a job, make more friends, find a date, or earn you more respect. And start small. I made about 35 changes to my diet over about four or five years, and those small changes added up. If you don’t like kale or broccoli, you’re not going to love it when you go on a diet, so don’t start there. Also, don’t forget, diets do not work.
This story is part of Healthing’s series, The Shape of Us. Read about how Tony Vassallo took his experience with weight and turned it into a business focused on helping men love their bodies.